Artists John Martin Fulton and Russell McGovern created the pop-up library and workshop in a portacabin at Potterrow Plaza, Edinburgh on November 1-7 2023 to give visitors a space to make stories and remember people from their lives who have died.
Below, John Martin Fulton writes up his and Russell's thoughts and experiences of the installation.
For a week in November we welcomed people into our portcabin that was decorated in murals of falling leaves - golden and rusty like those fluttering past our pitch at Potterrow Plaza in the centre of Edinburgh. Our open door beckoned people in to see art, have a cup of tea, or even sit down and draw and paint. The only thing, though, was that all the art and all the stories were about death, grief and loss.
Far from being depressing or gloomy or tragic like you might expect, though, the experience for us and for the visitors was on the whole uplifting. Clearly people had unique experiences in the space but pretty much they agreed on one thing. It made them feel better.
Thoughts of death and grief, we found, are not something to be scared of because they are actually always there. Giving people a chance to not be alone with this was why the library worked.
Before embarking on this project neither my work-partner Russell nor I had any particular predilection for the subject of death in our art. As freelancers we became involved as we answered an open call with what seemed like the most logical of answers. The organisers at SPPC wanted people to share stories about death and loss so surely the most sensible thing, we thought, was to create a library. People could be welcomed to come in to write their stories and remembrances so that others could see they were not alone in their grief.
Plus, to make it accessible to many, we could place this library within a portacabin, in central Edinburgh, put there by a hoist.
Perhaps the reason this all seemed so undaunting was the background we have in community art. Over a decade we have worked with literally hundreds of people and groups using art as a tool to tackle issues ranging from mental illness to the pandemic and their local brick manufacturer. Death would just be another frontier for an art workshop for us, was our thinking.
However, the engagement we felt on this project was the deepest and most connecting we have ever experienced. Whether in groups or as individual visitors, the stream of people opening up and sharing deep moments of creativity was profound.
And far from predictable too.
Enlivening, reassuring, invigorating, comforting and terribly sad in varying measures. It was everything really.
The trade secret of community art is that it is much less about art and much more about community. Getting people to connect to others and the artwork flows, that could be the unofficial adage of the work.
Well, it seemed like opening up this space for sharing grief and expressing feelings about people who have died was the greatest leveller of them all.
Some examples might show the warm dignity we encountered from people who happened upon us.
There was the woman, who came in with family, determined to make a painting all about her friend who had died in the past three months, quite suddenly. Through teary eyes she described a woman who had lived bold as brass but was gone in a second like she had always said she wanted. The woman laughed as she drew champagne bottles, lipstick and other glamourous artefacts from her friend’s life.
“I feel so much better thinking about her. It has been like having a weight lifted remembering her as she was” she said.
Another day, a younger woman wondered in as a refugee from the stormy weather, at first saying nothing but grabbing pencils and paint and working feverishly.
Later she explained she was in the middle of a turbulent time as it was the anniversary of the death of her young friend.
She created art which, to me, touched death as bravely as anything in a national collection.
She began chatting with others as she calmed down and opened up, explaining that if she hadn’t seen the library and come in she would be at home crying in solitude.
“You are all such lovely people. Thank you” she said to the group who sat around the table.
Another visitor, from Thailand, came in telling us how she had already bade farewell to her grandma on her last visit home, as they both expected the elderly woman would die from her illness before they met again. She was in a strange, middle place waiting on death but already grieving. Art helped her reflect.
The delicate flowers she painted surrounded by black are indelible in the library.
In contrast to these more open experiences were the many visitors who inhabited the space in more the traditional way we are brought up to respect a library space.
Theses visitors expected and exuded quiet, dabbing eyes and sniffing and they pondered the books or painted watercolours with watery eyes themselves. A respectful nod or brief kind word let us know the library had been meaningful for them too.
And there were groups too. Adults with learning disabilities, children from a local school, a neighbourhood group, a group affected by blood borne virus. All of these people opened up and bravely shared parts of themselves with one another that had previously gone unseen. Giving support. Sharing wisdom.
“I wish I had seen more of my granny before she died,” said one 11-year-old girl.
“It’s not your fault. You were only a child” said a classmate to her.
It would be possible to go on describing these people who came to the library for pages so moving were the sights, but perhaps it would not be appropriate.
Their stories, in any case, will live on in the Library of Legends, which has already been seen by many and is in the careful stewardship of the SPPC for future use.
The experience too will also remain with all of those who visited and with us, the artists, who got to help people use their grief in creativity.
Photo credits (top to bottom): John Martin Fulton and Russell McGovern, Willowbrae Community, John Martin Fulton, Rebecca Patterson, David Mollison, and David Mollison (below).