This week on the Secret Library we hear from Dr Charlotte Cullen. Charlotte, who is an artist, researcher, serf member and lecturer in Fine Art at York St John University, has been working with the Leeds Central Library Collections during lockdown with a focus on Armley to create newly inspired artwork. This project has been made possible by the generous support of Leeds Inspired. This will be the first of a new series of articles by Charlotte which will show this new artwork and the items that informed it, mapped through a new text produced for the project.
I live in a back to back terrace in Armley, it has a large dormer conversion and, rarely for a terraced street, it faces trees. It is not woodland, nor dense. Behind its few trees and brambles is a road that serves the delivery area of a small shopping centre. I was engrossed by this beautiful patch of greenery when viewing the property and chose this home instead of one down the street which had its own little patch of land. I am often woken due to early morning lorry deliveries for the tesco and wilko next door, which back onto this little patch of trees, but have remained happy with my choice. Whenever I look out of my window I am in my own secluded forest, surrounded by nature, and mystery, a wilderness that is all my own. Until I leave my home.
I sit on my step in the mornings, this became a routine in quarantine. I would brew my coffee, applying the skills and techniques developed through watching my colleagues on a morning in our retail job. Coffee making was an important ritual there as well. A time to come together in the hazy stillness of the morning, before the doors were open to visitors. Here, now at home, I would make my coffee in a small cafetier (I learnt early to not trust myself with the large version – habitually making enough coffee as I would for five of us at work), put on some music (Cesaria Evora – another introduction from colleagues at work) and sit on my step. At first, I would read, or on less successful mornings I would scroll through instagram. I would take the time before work, when I would have usually been commuting (1 hour for one job, 2 hours for the other), to be more still. This made the days draw out, the morning had a purpose and I was in my wilderness, only broken when people walked by. Which was now rare at least at this time in the morning with so few people leaving for work.
At night, on the phone to family, I would (and still), sit in the spare room on the first floor which had collectively become office space for two, a space to work out while remaining a space to dry clothes and store everything that didn’t have a home anywhere else. I would (and still) sit in front of the window, watching the trees dance in the wind highlighted by the shock of light from the street lamp usually engulfed by the trees. The contrast and play of shadow and light, the dancing form of the branches as they became limbs animated in the breeze comforted me, distracted me or drew me to them like a magpie after a shiny token. I was surrounded by my wilderness again. This patch of land that belonged to those of us living near it, or actually belonging most likely to the council. I didn’t really know and had not thought much more about it. Sometimes people use the space for fly tipping and sometimes council vans would come and clear the waste away. But not always.
As lockdown continued I found myself more and more pining for my own patch of land, a small stretch would be fine. Somewhere I could sit that wasn’t a step. I was envious of those who had space to stretch out like cats in the sunshine through the warm weather. When I moved into the back to back my mum asked about the garden. I explained our house was on the street. She pushed forward still; but what about the back? She had grown up in a terrace herself, one garden backed on to another with their concrete floors and high fencing for some privacy. It took a drawing to explain that where my house stopped another began. It was alien to her that a home did not include some land to call your own. The wall ending my living room was the same wall that ended our neighbours behind. There was no garden, no open space. One house became another seamlessly, back to back, side to side, melting together.
I would stand leaning against my partners car in the sun with my coffee when the sun could not reach the step, more exposed to the street but able to see the sun through my tiny forest. One night, sat in front of the window on the first floor I pulled together the drawing tools I had. Mostly broken graphite sticks from work that we couldn’t sell, a few felt pens, biros and highlighters, I had a damaged sketchbook that had sat on my desk for the best part of a year and I began to draw the dancing limbs of the wilderness, the shock of light from the street light. The gestures were fast, intuitive, dancing with the movement of the trees. There was no need to look at the paper when enthralled by the forest. I aimed to capture part of it, be closer to it. And I continued. In the mornings on the step before work, on days when I was not working, in the evenings as I spoke to family while my mum was in hospital. One day I drew pictures around the house, but mostly I returned to the step or the window. I bought more paper and a few markers and began to take my sketchbook with me on walks, stopping to take in the open spaces I escaped to: an unused golf course, a canal, the land outside a closed country home, a small nature trial.
These spaces are homely in their smallness, their simplicity. I have never felt welcome to traverse the moors, peak district or larger outdoor spaces. It is not that they are unwelcoming exactly. Last year during a residency in Skegness we were driven to Gibraltar Point. A serene, protected expanse of coastline. I knew Skeggy well, its waterfront and arcades, its shopping centre and caravan parks, fortune tellers and bingo halls from holidays in my youth, but not this isolated haven. This wasn’t for me. Though why, I had never thought to ask. We were set workshops and questions and one of these was ‘What was my relationship to nature?’. At first, I couldn’t answer. Nature is connected to the landscape, an expanse of land, a horizon in which we place ourselves. Nature felt like something separate from the parks of my youth, from gardens or cycle paths, from ‘swan lake’ which was part of our path in cross country at secondary school and in which someone’s clothing would inevitably end up after each run. Lauren Velvick (Velvick, 2019) hypothesised that each small-town goth club was a gateway to another. A space in which you entered all other small town, run down, goth clubs that played the local school bands. A failed boundary through which we share a common, uniting experience. I want to come back to this, but for now I believe swan lake is another failed boundary, that there sits a small lake within an estate likely named by local school children for the birds which frequent it, in which lies one hundred years of school uniforms; ties, trainers, backpacks with unfinished homework, float as an eternal link across towns and decades. It never occurred to me that I lived so close to the lake district, a huge expanse of countryside. That the council estate my grandparents lived on backed on to endless fields. Because this was not our landscape. Our nature was in the scrappy mounds of earth and vegetation that we could call our own in some way, like the row of trees outside my house.
This project has been possible with the generous support of Leeds Inspired. If you would like to see more of Charlotte’s work you can visit playground Armley, Charlotte’s website and check back here for part 2 coming in January 2021
Velvick, L., 2019. Sociological Seance. Wakefield: The Arthouse.