Letters from Cardiff in lockdown: Jen and Geraint

Today’s instalment for the Letters from Cardiff in lockdown series comes from Jen and Geraint. We’re looking for your stories, so please contribute to Letters from Cardiff in lockdown

For all of the freelance artists, newly self employed and otherwise out there, I feel it’s important to highlight those of us who are falling through the cracks.

Lockdown front room studio

As I type, Geraint is downstairs drawing in the front room of our tiny Grangetown terrace. He’s in a makeshift lockdown studio that we thought would have a much faster expiry than the ten weeks it’s been in use.

In February, I gave up a truly rewarding full time (and the rest) job to ‘follow the dream’ as part time charity fundraiser and part time self employed photographer. I was fortunate enough to have booked several shoots for March, with a shoot for a ballet dancer planned for April that I was incredibly excited about. Then Coronavirus hit.

In February my partner Geraint, who is a freelance artist, lugged tubes of rolled drawings, frames and portfolios of his work on the bus from Cardiff to London (and even trickier across London) for an interview for his dream residency.

After a nerve wracking weekend awaiting news, Geraint was chosen for the SSE Power ‘Renewable Power for a Sustainable Future’ residency, giving him the opportunity to spend four weeks drawing and painting hydro and renewable energy production and the people making it happen in Scotland. His most recent body of work has celebrated volunteer groups in Wales that work hard to instil hope during times of political and climate disaster. His recent subjects include the Cardiff River Group, an amazingly hardy bunch that use scaffolds, nets and steely determination to scoop out all manner of disgustingness that ends up in the Taff and elsewhere (thanks you lot). He took great joy in drawing volunteers of the Woodland Trust planting trees in Brynau Wood in early March. Celebrating the efforts by large industries working towards a better future for us all was the perfect next step. He was over the moon about it. He would have been leaving to start his residency next week.

In April, Geraint should have launched an exhibition in Manchester University with Sue Williams and Terry Setch, and exhibited with painter Tim Patrick in London. All of his teaching sessions at the Royal Drawing School, Llanover Hall and other institutions have been cancelled. To say that we’ve had the rug pulled from under us in what would have been our most productive year yet is an understatement.

For all of the freelance artists, newly self employed and otherwise out there, I feel it’s important to highlight those of us who are falling through the cracks. Geraint has been freelance for two years now, with this set to be his first year pushing past the break even point and into profit. Because of this, Rishi’s offers of financial support, although great for some, won’t help us at all. We’re continually cut off when calling to talk to someone about Universal Credit, and when trying to contact Cardiff Council to get business rate relief on Geraint’s Canton studio that we’re still paying for in full, we’re given dead numbers. I have so much respect for all of our Council workers learning new skills, working in new roles and giving generous support during Coronavirus but we have got to get better at providing actual humans for people to raise queries with. Webpages are great, but they aren’t a substitute.

In juxtaposition, a truly amazing movement to come from the pandemic is the Artist Support Pledge started by Matthew Burrows. The pledge aims to be a self sustaining lifeline to artists across the world who have lost their livelihoods as a result of Coronavirus. The concept is simple; artists post works for sale for £200 and under using the hashtag #artistsupportpledge. When they reach £1000 in sales, they buy another artist’s work for £200. It means that well known artists can use their success to support hidden gems. As of 05/05/2020, over £20 million has been generated for artists across the globe via the pledge. This has been Geraint’s lifeline, and we’ve been overjoyed to see happy customers sending us photos of pieces they’ve bought arriving safely to their new homes. If you’re still being paid and have been waiting for the right time to start an art collection, let me tell you, this is it. The work that people are offering via the pledge is amazing value and collectors are right to snap them up.

We’re not having the Spring/Summer of work that we intended, but being restricted has forced us to experiment. Geraint’s lofty studio in Canton allows him to make large scale drawings and installation, so watching domestic space restrictions coerce him into making smaller scale work in different mediums has been fascinating. Unable to continue with his work documenting volunteer groups, the content of his work has changed. He’s using his domestic experiences and public health advice as inspiration. His 8 Durer inspired drawings of the NHS hand washing guidelines that he’s made this month are a particularly striking document of this period in our lives.

Public health advice given a fine art makeover

I’m having a prolific time documenting Grangetown, Cardiff Bay and our domestic experiences using digital, 35mm and medium format cameras. Being stationery in Cardiff long enough to watch wildflowers grow, pick wild garlic, watch local systems develop to deal with the virus and eat regularly with my partner who is usually at the studio, or commuting to London or elsewhere for work, has been a replenishing luxury. The smell of Cardiff without cars and pollution has transported me to my childhood.

Lockdown birthday party

We’ve celebrated our 15 year anniversary in our living room and had both our birthdays during lockdown, sharing cake and songs with family via screens.

For my birthday, much to Geraint’s dismay, I wafted a tea under his nose at 4am and we used our hour of daily exercise to shoot a Pre-Raphaelite meets Midsummer’s Night Dream inspired dreamscape. Sneaking into Insole Court at 5am half asleep in our formal wear with bluebells, foxgloves and rhododendrons for company as dawn broke was truly magical. On a good day, being held down by the ankles by restriction will make you jump higher. I will treasure those images forever.

Jen’s birthday photo shoot

Having my feet firmly planted in my own locality has given a beautiful opportunity to foster community.

I’ve met two locals via a plant swap organised by the capitalism defying Liz and Michelle of Growing Street Talk – join their Facebook page to meet neighbours and green fingered skills. I’m about to put a load of vegetable plants outside my front door for people to take or swap. For the first time ever we have flowers planted in our garden. This is due to the generosity of Be More Squirrel and Cardiff Council who have given their stock to communities whilst they’ve been unable to sell it. Watching the bees enjoy the Senetti has been an incredible mental boost on difficult days. I despair for those without gardens during lockdown every day.

It has been an absolute joy to watch the surge in volunteering in Cardiff, Wales and beyond. As someone who has been working for charities that rely on people’s better natures for eight years, I see this as one of the single most hopeful outcomes for the future.

Watching friends and strangers who aren’t shielding grow and participate in ‘Feed the NHS’, PPE sewing and other local initiatives has been awe inspiring.

With a parent over 70, Grandparents in a residential home and friends and family who are immunocompromised, we have the same worries as everyone else. Bumping into my brother who also lives in Grangetown without being able to give him a hug is confusing at best, heartbreaking at worst. I’m grateful for Geraint, and by luck, we haven’t had any morale dips at the same time, one always managing to restore the other. We try to find things to celebrate everyday, even if it’s only a new specie of bird visiting the feeder. Spending time in, and observing nature has been the most beneficial activity during lockdown and an RSPB bird spotting book and binoculars has proven to be essential kit. We’re lucky to have Cardiff Bay Barrage, Leckwith Woods, Cathays, Victoria and Bute Park within walking distance.

Daily exercise – Cardiff Bay barrage

Cardiff’s ecosystems have given resplendent displays without pollutants and micromanagement: perfectly manicured parks have turned to wildflower meadows and colourful floral displays have burst into show, to the complete surprise of long term homeowners taking a break from mowing front lawns. When the world is half asleep is when nature’s magic happens. I cross my fingers that we as individuals and Cardiff as a Council will use nature’s blue print to radically re-green our city. I hope people remember to be as fiercely protective of their independents as they’ve proven to be during lockdown, even with the temptation of re-opened big business conveniences. I hope that we’ll see kindness, generosity and community spirit continue to flourish once we’re as we move into different stages of the pandemic. On a personal note I hope myself and Geraint can continue to stay afloat, stay safe and find inspiration within restriction.

Written 19/05/2020. Follow Jen Abell on Twitter / Jen Abell Instagram. Follow Geraint Ross Evans at his website / Geraint Ross Evans on InstagramGeraint Ross Evans on Facebook.

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