Since the beginnings of this blog I’ve always been keen to find ways to bring the art and sustainable sides of my life together. Especially as this space has grown many newer readers don’t know that I’m a trained dancer, or that alongside writing I spent most of last year on an artist residency and a Europe tour (we headlined a festival and everything!). In fact, back when this blog hadn’t come into existence yet, I was writing dance reviews and essays on culture in other corners of the internet. Today I’m incredibly excited to have the unique opportunity to both bring both these writing worlds together for once, and also to talk about the work of one of my very good friends, whose work embodies so much of what I’m interested in.
I first met Kirsty Kerr at the end of 2016, when I started speaking to Husk Coffee and Creative Space (based in Limehouse) about joining their Continuum programme for the following year. Many people know Husk for its great coffee, gallery area, and the regular events it runs, but many don’t know that it also houses artist studios in the floor below. For a long time these rooms were used for storage and were worse for wear, and it was Kirsty who aided in their transformation to studios, and helped set up the artist residency programme for their use. Husk had had artists in residence before, most notably Alastair Gordon, Daniel Curtis and Michael Dryden co-directed the gallery space, but it didn’t have a specific programme in place. Kirsty played a pivotal part in helping to set up the programme that I then joined. Each artist gets free studio space to use as they wish, the chance to participate in regular crits and collaborative work, and a four week solo show at the end of their stay. I was at Husk from January – August 2017, and artists who leave Husk stay friends with the place for life (I literally went to their Easter party last week).
When I first met Kirsty she was working in an operational capacity; organising crits, exhibitions and outreach work in the form of Husk’s creative nights. In 2017 she officially left this role for pastures new, and in the process of this was given the chance to be an artist in residence herself. We got to be studio neighbours for a little while and, having been a fan of her work since I met her, I was really excited that she was going to have her own solo show in 2018. It was only when I actually saw the show, titled Shards & Seams, in February that I saw how much it connected to the sustainability work I was doing too. Just like the zero waste principles that avoid throwing things away and creating unnecessary waste, Kirsty’s work is focused on repurposing, rehoming and reintroducing life into the things that many would see as beyond broken. As zero wasters get creative in their reusing of old objects, so Kirsty has often found ways to give old things new identities and uses.
Seeing as I count Kirsty as a very close friend, I don’t know how I didn’t realise this sooner. Her main interests have always been around brokenness and restoration; taking what others would see as accidents and putting them centre stage as the art instead. Through her time at Husk she gained a reputation for broken things like a magnet. If a plate smashed, you gave it to Kirsty. Spilled some paint? Probably call Kirsty. Find something random and you don’t know what to do with it? Kirsty might take it. She ran regular public Kintsugi workshops, teaching the Japanese art of repairing broken ceramics with gold, and truly honed the art of making broken things beautiful.
Shards & Seams was the ultimate culmination of this fascination. Husk itself is a repurposed object, it used to be a Danish Seaman’s Church. When walking in now you wouldn’t be wrong in simply seeing it as a spacious cafe-come-gallery, especially as the one reminder of this rich architectural history sits just above the eye line, in the form of a disused pipe organ from the 1950s. It’s stunning, but forgotten. Having not been publicly played in over a decade, it quietly looms over the gallery space, a silent relic that speaks of the larger story of the building it sits within.
Inspired by the organ as a representation of things left behind, Kirsty created a site specific installation in response to the bygone instrument’s presence. The opening night officially launched ‘The Organ Project’, which has seen Kirsty working on restoring the organ back to its original state of grandeur. It has been slowly but surely revived thanks to Kirsty, and the opening saw its first public performance in over ten years, as composers Rosie Clements and Reuben Penny wrote two pieces specifically for the night. Although on its way to full life, the organ is still in a slightly broken state, and the music was written with this in mind. There are still three keys missing: to symbolise this Kirsty ran gold threads across the top of the gallery space, each one connected to and representing a specific organ pipe. For the three ‘ghost pipes’ that are still missing, white threads sit in their place, subtly standing apart from the rest as a symbol of continued restoration and renewal being breathed into old objects, instead of simply abandoning them as rubbish.
The exhibition also housed a huge centrepiece in the form of two wall hangings, one fabric and one paper. The first featured large tears which had been repaired with golden thread, the second was adorned with golden paper that had been scrunched up before being unfolded, cut apart at the seams and put back together. It trickled down the huge hanging like a kind of reverse kintsugi, echoing the repaired crockery that was used in the cafe during the exhibition, connecting the two sides of the building and hinting at the history the space is steeped in.
When I think of this exhibition there’s only one word that comes to mind: reverence. I remember on opening night when the organ started to play; the feeling of seeing something so forgotten, a dusty antique, take centre stage again was a special moment. Something everyone had essentially given up on demanded renewed respect and attention. Beyond the aesthetic (and aural) beauty, what really stood out in Kirsty’s show was the respect and consideration that we so often forget, whether that be in how we treat other people, the planet, or the objects we often throw away without a second thought. Shards & Seams was an invitation, a space to quietly reflect and an opportunity to really see and appreciate the small details that we miss when we’re rushing through life. Instead of throwing something out the moment it breaks, it was a quiet reminder to see potential, not just the broken places. To see what something or someone could become.
In many ways this exhibition reminded me of the Rothko Chapel in Houston. An interfaith sanctuary featuring huge Rothko paintings and limited light, the only thing that place spurs you to do is to sit, and to think. Kirsty didn’t create a chapel, instead she used an old one and created an altar to leave our racing thoughts at the feet of. Like Rothko’s creation it was a space of balance, meditation and reflection. A space to see the beauty that can come from brokenness, and the potential to find something new and exciting that comes when we decide to repurpose instead of mindlessly throwing things away. It was an idea delivered through art that can permeate every area of our lives, and one that we often see actively lived out in communities like zero waste, slow living and upcycled design. Through the ability to get thrifty and be a little innovative, we also open ourselves up to the kind of perspective shift that Kirsty achieved through Shards & Seams. We’re able to foster respect, and a type of consideration that creates simple and satisfying wonder in the everyday.
And of course, in a true symbol of the transcience of our times, the exhibition is already gone. But its message lingers on like the traces of gold in a repaired teapot.