Project Beginning

For the next however-long-it-takes, i'll be working on a project, with the aim to get my grandfather's life's work into a museum. He is a lifelong artist who is suffering with terminal cancer, and i have recently moved to London to spend time with him.

I'm hoping to put together a short documentary about his life, because i think he has a really interesting (and ultimately sad) story to tell, which i think would be helpful in getting him the recognition he deserves after he dies. Maybe it'll just be a few minutes long. Maybe it will be longer. But the aim is to coordinate the minifilm with publication of an article about him (the Observer have previously expressed an interest), and to make contact with reputable galleries or museums where he could perhaps exhibit his work. My grandfather is a reclusive hermit, and never shows his work to anyone. Naturally, this means the most prestigious institutions will need some coercion in order to agree to put on an exhibit for an unknown artist. This is the main purpose of the coordinated article and minifilm; to give the gallery/museum incentive to give an unknown artist space on their walls, and i'm hoping what will effectively be free advertising or publicity for his prospective exhibit would do just that.

I hope it's not too boring if at this point i go into bit of backstory, but it's perhaps helpful in understanding why this is important to me, and what i hope to achieve (but in all likelihood will fail spectacularly and regret drawing attention to any of this).

As i've said, my grandfather is a passionate, reclusive artist who has dedicated his life to painting. He is extremely intelligent and articulate, but above all else eccentric (last week i wasn't allowed to have a bath in case i disturbed the resident spider. He also collects sick pigeons and nurses them back to health, and leaves food out to feed the mice which live in his apartment). Born in Cairo, he grew up in Heliopolis, and then migrated to Paris where he was mostly sleeping rough. To pay rent would deprive him of the means to afford paint, and he was always content with an ascetic existence. Eventually he moved to London where- still in his youth- he was known as the 'angry young artist', and began to build up quite a reputation. He received many glowing write-ups, the Bond Street galleries all wanted to show his work, and he was offered teaching posts at renowned art colleges. But he was never comfortable in the company of other people, and for him the chance to exhibit alongside the big names and build a name for himself simply wasn't worth it for the level of interaction required with people he didn't like. My grandfather didn't want money, attention or fame, and he certainly didn't want to meet or mingle with other people. He firmly believed most established or aspiring artists were charlatans who were doing it for fame or fortune, and he wanted nothing to do with them of their phony environment. All he wanted to do was paint as a cathartic exercise in self-expression, and not to have to sell his work or show it to anyone.

He was finally able to do this when he met my grandmother, who insisted on supporting him through her job as a teacher. She had a lot of faith in his ability, and hoped he would one day get some recognition. But her dreams were always at odds with my grandfather's, and despite numerous home-visits from renowned promoters keen to assist him, he always shunned the opportunity. He was confident enough in his own work and ability, and couldn't care less for the approval of others.

Sadly my grandmother was bipolar, and about 20 years ago she took her own life. My grandfather has always been reclusive and eccentric, but he became even moreso when she died. He speaks of her all the time. On her birthday and Valentines Day he buys her a bunch of flowers, which he leaves on the table. He never removes them, so over the years they have accumulated into a forest of dried (flower name). My attempts to talk about his own life are quickly diverted to talking about her. One of his studio rooms is decorated solely with her portraits, which are noticeably more colourful than his other works. There are pictures of her on every desk, and while many are gathering dust, he keeps an immaculate leather-bound record of their lives together on its own table in the living room, which he is keen to get out and flick through whenever family visit. It's clear he has always been more concerned that her memory might fade than in leaving his own imprint on the world.

After years of painting alone in his large, rented flat in Hammersmith, he has accumulated quite a lot of work, but nowhere near as much as he might have done. Much of it he slashes and destroys when it falls out of favour. His life's work amounts to maybe 60 or 70 paintings, and most of it is very abstract. I can't really pretend to understand it (when i ask he says it is not for me to understand), and it is clearly finished to a high professional standard. He is a very peculiar kind of perfectionist. The work which he does keep decorates the walls of the flat. Those walls which are not decorated by paintings are covered in newspaper clippings and stories of interest or inspiration. His living space is like a museum of him and everything he stands for.

I'm fascinated by everything about him, and i can't help admiring his dedication to a cause with no tangible reward, at least not in the conventional sense. We live in a materialistic, self-obsessed world; where people aspire not just to have wealth, but to be seen to have wealth. Indeed, the utility of a sportscar, for example, is more than its capacity to transport us from one place to another. It is a status symbol; a visual and material representation of achievement. My grandfather has absolutely zero interest in any of this, or any of the other invisible pressures, such as to become rich, powerful, successful or to conform.

Despite all this i do feel a sense of sadness for him since he was diagnosed with terminal cancer, and not just because of the decline he's experiencing. His routine remains unchanged. Every day he gets up at 4am and begins to paint, and with the exception of small breaks to eat and watch the news, that's pretty much all he does. Yet i can sense a sort of sadness. Sometimes it's like i can feel his thoughts, as he looks around at all he has achieved in secret. What was the point of it all? He sometimes speaks of his regrets in life, and central to these is a wish that his work was on display somewhere. Not for himself- because he's clearly sincere in his aversion to fame, money or attention- but for my grandmother, because it's what she always wanted, and he feels he let her down.  He finds some solace in the thought that eventually the quality of his work would guide it into public view, but it's clearly a source of some anxiety.

All this is what i want to capture and tell. I want to make it happen for him. I'm finding it quite difficult because he doesn't want progress during his lifetime due to the associated baggage of promotion, which repulses him. I've always felt closer to my grandfather than he likely feels to me, and i'm the only one of his grandchildren to have spent time living with him (a year in total), so i'm probably the only person in a position to do this.

If all goes to plan in a perfect world (which it surely wont), the minifilm/documentary, articles and exhibits i'm hoping to put together will close with the message that my grandfather's work is available for free on long term loan to any museum or gallery that can guarantee to put it on display to the public. I do feel the best chance of making this successful is to tell his story alongside his work, because it's not just about the art itself, but also the person behind it and what went into it.

That is the goal, but the process of getting there is a bit of a nightmare.   

The article is no problem. I can expand upon and re-write all i've documented above (please don't quote those bits). I'm confident in my ability to do this well, and that his story is interesting enough to succeed on its own merit.

The documentary/minifilm is very tricky. I have no experience of this, and so am not sure if i'm setting myself too much of a task. My grandfather has made it clear he doesn't want to be filmed in anything, but he doesn't mind if i use his voice. So my plan was to first record our conversations, and then edit the relevant bits over top of a short film showing his apartment. In my mind this would have quite a bit of impact. When he talks of his wife, the film shows shots of her pictures all over the wall, when he talks of his art, the film cuts to pictures of his workspace, etc etc. Ideally i could coax him into talking about everything that makes him the person he is, and why he only hopes for recognition in death. Perhaps then i could only show his paintings in detail once it is revealed that he sadly passed away. It's all just ideas at this stage.

I've made a start on this by recording our conversations. The problem is that he's not comfortable speaking when he knows i'm doing this, so i have to do it discretely. This has resulted in the mic being hidden in a different place each time and picking up an array of different background noises which makes it hard for me to string relevant bits of conversation together, which i'm trying to do in Ableton. Further, some of the recordings are very quiet, while others are very loud, which complicates things further. I'm also finding it tough to coax him into talking about relevant things without seamlessly transitioning into irrelevant info which i wouldn't want to include, but perhaps this can be overcome given enough conversations.

The other problem this raises is how i would go about filming. I have saved £3000 to spend on the entire project, which is all the money i have in the world, and my siblings between them can chip in a further £2000 if i need it. So far i have spent £500 on weekly shopping and a voice recorder over the past month of living with him. Ought i to buy my own filming device or rent one? Will it be easy enough to operate for someone with no experience, or will i need outside help? What sort of programmes could i get hold of which would allow me to edit the audio and visuals together? Is the short film likely to be so shit that i ought to focus my attention elsewhere?

I have two friends who make documentaries for a living, and one of them has even won a BAFTA. They were both very enthusiastic about getting involved, but sadly my grandfather insists he's only happy to cooperate with family.

The exhibit also poses some problems. My grandfather doesn't want his work falling into private ownership, but i've no doubt it would be extremely hard to persuade anyone to display his work without the the prospect of them taking a cut of the sales, and ideally we don't want sales unless it's to a gallery or museum, but i can't see a way to raise his profile without doing this. Perhaps it would be possible to pay for his work to be put on display, and i guess i'd have to look into a way of financing this.

Coaxing a prestigious gallery to display his work will also be difficult, but i'm hoping the film and article will incentivise their cooperation. I have been drafting emails to send to them outlining my plans in the hope of getting some sort of statement of intent, but i'm a little unsure of how to word this and i'm not familiar with the standard procedure for arranging such things. I don't want to seem unprofessional, although this is an obvious truth which is hard to avoid. I did think it would be important to attach a detailed photograph of one his paintings as evidence of his ability, and presumably i would have to hire a professional photographer for this. Again, i'm not really sure where to start, or how much money needs to be set aside for this.

I want to stress that this is not a project i'm undertaking for the money, and any money that does get made will go straight to my mother in the hope that it will help her to buy her council house. That said, if his work is to go up in value, it is much more preferable that some of that value is enjoyed by the family, rather than art collectors. Furthermore, as he only has around 60 paintings for 60 years of work, it'll be a fine balance between selling enough to raise his profile while retaining some of his best works in the hope of getting them on display.

All these outlined difficulties are compounded by the progression of his illness and the fact he wants to take his own life when he can no longer stand and paint. It's a bit of a race against time, and i don't even know how much time we have (he was given 2 years to live last Christmas, but i guess that can change). If he dies without me having made progress, the family will be left with little choice but to sell off a lot of his work on the cheap to anyone who wants it. Nobody in the family has the space to store his paintings while i make further attempts to promote it. That said, even if/when all my hopes and plans turn to shit, i wouldn't regret trying. I'm really enjoying spending this time with him, and i know i would regret it had i not taken this opportunity. But i'm also hoping some good will come out of it, and that when he does die, he does so without the anxiety of worrying what will happen to his work when he's gone.

Anyway, i started writing all that with a lot clearer purpose for sharing it than i have now, and it's a lot longer than i'd planned (sorry, but it can't really summarise with a tl'dr). But i guess if anyone has any ideas or suggestions with regards how i might make this happen, then i would be very pleased to hear them. I have a lot of enthusiasm but i'm not sure it's matched by ability.