There is a certain type of magic to experiencing disparate points in life unexpectedly connect together. A passing conversation over the reception desk with a Summerhall resident, in this case, linking me to an arts conference in Wroclaw and a free dinner.
There are not many buses to choose from out of the village here but I made it, half asleep, onto my 06.30 bus to Wroclaw and thanks to a selection of google maps pages I’d printed off beforehand (papa Kettle would be proud!), managed to navigate myself through the unfamiliar city to ‘bar bara’ in my quest to engage with some art in my new country. I wasn’t expecting much from the conference, perhaps some old men talking about themselves in convoluted hyperbole for a couple of hours, then hopefully the possibility to meet some Polish artists, I was surprised, however, to find the whole experience greatly inspiring, thought provoking and at times even moving.
From the start, I was welcomed like an old friend by the lady from Summerhall who’d invited me and she promptly introduced me to everyone in the immediate vicinity. Although I was a good 20-30 years younger than most of the other people there, and technically much less accomplished, I was made to feel that I mattered as much as everyone else, an incredibly empowering and uplifting sensation and one I secretly pledged to try and replicate one day if I became old and successful. It later became clear that this conscious effort to bring people together to form connections that overcome any sort of boundaries was a key feature of the Richard Dermarco’s work, the man the conference was centred around.
My experience of Richard Demarco from Summerhall was of a small, doddery old man with a camera permanently around his neck, yet as I watched Demarco speak at the confernce he was immediately transformed into a man energized by enthusiasm and purpose. He jabbed at the air with his finger passionately when he made a statement he felt was important, as if poking someone aggressively in the chest, and his words seemed to fall effortlessly into perfectly formed aphorisms. I had packed a sketchbook in case I got bored, but I found myself retrieving it from my bag to take down notes instead.
I sometimes feel uncomfortable around large groups of ‘real artists’, feeling caught up amongst a web of fragile egos, each subconsciously ranking their merits against one another to determine their own worth. As an emerging artist you are often told to try and stand out, to emphasise the uniqueness of your personal identity, to be original, shock and be remembered. Career prospects seem to appear in binary categories of ‘making it’ or failure and it is very easy to feel that creative output is synonymous to your personal worth. Hearing Demarco speak and experiencing the atmosphere he inspired in those around him, helped me to realise there was another way, another art world, where art is more than just a way of advancing the ego or making money. That to be an artist does not mean you have to be a singular entity, wrapped tight in your own ego in the pursuit of success. Art can be something more than ourselves and in that sense, we all have the potential and perhaps duty, to bring it into the world in whatever way we can. Almost like a form of prayer, when our thoughts are full of a search for beauty and truth, we can help use art as a vehicle for releasing these ‘life enhancing truths’ into the world. Whereas science or knowledge could be said to be languages that only express success, art is powerful as it is also the language of failure.
I am paraphrasing the talks greatly here and I’m sorry if this sounds a bit like pretentious waffle, but at the time I felt inspired and left with the sensation of being plugged into a mains socked and charged with a kind of collective energy, as if all the fantastic people I’d just met were somehow also within me simply by association. The talks had also focused a lot on the importance of Poland, links between Scotland and Poland and how ‘in Poland there is a future for Europe’, so I’m sure part of my enthusiasm came from an inflated sense of self importance, as if I was going to be a vital cog in this exciting new movement. Feeling one’s own potential is amazingly energising, but reality has since moderated my inflated self belief and I have realized that I am probably not going to be a saviour of the modern European art world! Nevertheless I still wrote a letter to Demarco to thank him for the conference and ask him a few questions. As a woman who appreciates a good envelope, I was delighted by his reply (see picture below)and who knows, maybe something will come of the connection one day.
As for dinner, once we got kicked out of the conference venue, I followed the other guests in the direction they were headed, taking the lead of the woman I’d been chatting to. I wasn’t quite sure where they were headed, someone said they were going for drinks, another said they were grabbing some food. I was keen to carry on the conversations I’d started and I was hungry so I stayed with the river of conference guest until it reached it’s destination, except its destination turned out to be a formal and expensive looking restaurant with a large pre-booked table. I was pretty sure I was not part of the number that had been factored into this booking but I decided it would be more awkward to leave at this stage, so concluded it was best just to commit, seeing as no one seemed to be objecting to me being there. A three course menu was set in front of us, which made me panic slightly at the lack of prices. I had made the mistake of not bringing my bank card with me and I’d managed to spend the majority of the cash I’d brought with me in H&M earlier that day,buying emergency summer clothes to save me from the heat exhaustion my outfit choice for the day was causing me. I decided to go for the soup for starter and take it from there. Soup is usually a safe choice financially. When the waitress came round, my plan quickly crumbled as asked what I was going to have for main. Everyone had ordered and not wanting to cause a fuss by trying to explain I’d only have a starter, I just pointed to the first option on the menu, a kind of chicken salad, and hoped it wouldn’t be too dear.
I had been kindly offered a bed for the night with a friend of my grandmother’s called Ola, and as the post conference meal went on, I started to get increasingly worried about turning up on a stranger’s doorstep at an antisocial hour and also, how I was going to find her flat in the dark. My google maps printouts were very vague (I think they mentioned about one road name) and my original plan of wandering around until I found it, no longer felt appealing at 11.30pm. In the end, one of the kind waitresses booked a taxi for me and I was told, as I tried to subtly ask how much I owed, that the meal was ‘taken care of’ (with a pointing gesture toward the more important people at the head of the table) and one of the artists lent me 100zlty (£20) to make sure I got home safely. People are great!
I arrived on the doorstep to Ola’s flat at just before midnight and despite looking like she had been sleeping a little bit before I arrived, she made me feel so warmly welcomed from the moment she opened the door, my anxieties quickly dissolved. She was an oldish woman, perhaps a decade or so younger than my grandmother, with an infectious warmth about her that made me immediately relax. She offered me a beer from the fridge, which we shared whilst eating biscuits and chatting away about everything from religion to mental health. She leant me a pair of ‘house shoes’ (a cross between slippers and leather sandals that seem to be very common in Poland) and let me sleep on the sofa, where she’d prepared a bed for me with a tiny teddy bear on the pillow. Despite all the important, interesting, intelligent and charismatic people I’d met that day, Ola was still by far my favorite, for her pure and seemingly unconditional friendliness. She had had a complicated life and overcome a lot of very difficult experiences but she did not display these things as personality trophies, instead she just seemed to embody the strength and goodness she held within her, radiating them so that you felt they were yours too.