Monthly Archives: June 2016

Inside the home of Sue Dunkley

My house was built in 1834,” Sue Dunkley told the Islington Express in 2003, “It speaks to me and inspires me all the time. You can be anonymous here. Eight exhibitions have come out of this house since I’ve been here. And all the time only four people have knocked to ask what I’m doing.”

The day I knock at 437 Liverpool Road, Islington, the artist’s daughter, Jane, answers the door and leads me into the front room where her mother worked for 40 years. There are paintings and pastels covering every wall, others stacked under plastic sheets, notebooks, art reference books and magazines piled on tables and a paint-encrusted high stool, which she used as a makeshift mixing palette. It is every inch a working artist’s room, cluttered with materials and alive with works-in-progress.

Except they are no longer works-in-progess – all of them will remain unfinished, a testament to Dunkley’s relentless creativity but also evidence of the onset of dementia. She is currently in a care home, having been diagnosed with the condition seven years ago.

Sue Dunkley at home in 1974. Photograph: Courtesy Sue Dunkley and Jane Bodie

“As far as I can ascertain, my mother stopped working 10 years ago and that was the moment her memory started to disintegrate,” says Jane, a playwright who now lives in Australia, but has returned to clear out and impose some order on the vast Georgian house in preparation for a retrospective of her mother’s work.

“When the work stopped, the house started to become chaotic. I’ve found notes and letters to doctors, so I think she was aware of what was happening to her. It’s been painful. I’ve collapsed crying on the floor a few times. I have had to clear the house, because I cannot let it go. But to pay for her care, we need to raise money.”

Even in the throes of a frantic clear out, the sprawling house evokes a bohemian life lived to the full. “My mother was a voracious talker and lover of language, as the writing in her sketchbooks attest,” says Jane. “She was obsessed with Seamus Heaney, who bought one of her paintings, and there is a book by him inscribed to her upstairs. The house was a gathering place for like-minded souls as well as a place of intense solitary creativity. She somehow balanced the two extremes.”

 
Woman in Mirror (1968). Photograph: Courtesy of the artist

Born in 1942, Sue Dunkley came of age as an artist in the 1960s and, for a time, looked set to become as feted as the stylishly beautiful Pauline Boty, the lone female of Britain’s pop art scene. In 1966, Nova magazine, the arbiter of all things cool, profiled her in an article titled Woman in a Hurry: “She talks a great deal, very fast … She is clearly very gifted: the not-quite-abstract bodies swirling up though the bright talkative colours were very like their creator, wholly in character.”

Later, she had a successful one-woman show at the Thumb gallery on D’Arblay Street in Soho, which the Guardian described as “images of women and interiors” created from a sense of “disquiet”. She told the reviewer: “I knew as a young artist the roles I would have to enact would cause conflict. Women, artist. Mother, artist. I need to wrestle with the devil sometimes, and am aware that often the charge needed to realise an image is in conflict with other aspects of my life.”

Her daughter recalls that conflict first-hand. “Sometimes we were a bit overlooked as children because her work came first,” says Jane. “It’s what artists do. I remember I came home early from school one day because I wasn’t very well and I stuck a note under her door. I knew not to bother her. I thought that was the norm.”

The periods of intense creativity were broken by spells of entertaining in the basement kitchen. “She used to call herself a garrulous hermit,” says Jane, laughing. “She had big gatherings, lots of smoking and drinking and talking into the night. My brother and I would often find young men in the kitchen drinking wine and Nina Simone blaring out. She was wild and free.”

Regular visitors to the house included the artist Howard Hodgkin, who once painted Sue, and Roger Waters and his wife, Jude, who lived just around the corner in the early 70s. “My dad was a musician – he once toured with Dire Straits – and a builder. He did up Roger’s house and they became friends just before Dark Side of the Moon came out.”

North Korean refugee drawings

Manbok Kim remembers the house she fled 66 years ago as if it were yesterday. “We had a large orchard,” she recalled. “There were so many apples on the trees.”

Manbok Kim’s drawing of her home in North Korea.

Now 87, Kim is one of 500 North Korean refugees who have contributed a drawing of the home they were forced to flee during the Korean War, as part of a public artwork by the South Korean artist Ik-Joong Kang.

The floating installation, part of the Totally Thames festival that opens on Thursday, is a seven-metre-high illuminated cube constructed from hundreds of 70 x 70cm drawings, which were transferred from palm-sized sketches on Korean rice paper.

All the participants fled the North during the Korean war, which ended in 1953 in an armistice, not a peace agreement. The two countries have technically remained at war ever since, and many of the North Koreans who fled have been permanently separated from their loved ones since, forced to build a new life after the border was effectively sealed.

In the decades since, North Korea has become increasingly secretive and isolated. In a report released last year, the UN accused the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, of crimes against humanity. The report concluded that the country’s leadership was committing systematic and appalling rights abuses against its own citizens on a scale unparalleled in the modern world.

The sculpture will float beside the Millennium Bridge for a month. Photograph: Peter Macdiarmid

To find participants for the project, Kang visited South Korea’s numerous naengmyeon restaurants, which serve a popular northern speciality of buckwheat noodles with ice.

With a team of volunteers, the artist collected stories and drawings from the refugees he met. “It was an amazing emotional experience,” Kang said. “At first, they were very shy. They told me: ‘No I cannot, I cannot even draw.’ Then they paused and thought about their hometowns, and their families and friends … and they were overwhelmed with emotion.”

Among the 300 volunteers gathering drawings was the South Korean unification minister, Hong Yong-pyo, who was also deeply moved by the process. “When I saw him [Hong] crying, I thought, ‘He really cares’. Maybe he will make it happen … There is hope for unification,” Kang said.

There are an estimated 200,000 North Korean refugees living in South Korea. Many of them have spent most of their lives in the South and have never been able to revisit their hometowns, an important part of Korean cultu

“Paying a visit to an ancestor’s grave is [a] very important ritual, especially on the day of Chuseok [the Korean version of thanksgiving], or other festive days,” Kang said. “This year’s Chuseok is 15 September and tens of millions of Koreans will be jammed on the highways to go back to their hometowns. It’s a real mass migration. Chuseok is one of the happiest days to some people and the saddest day to others from the North.”

Art for reunification

Kang was born in 1960 in South Korea. “During the 1970s, signs and slogans of ‘bangong’ [anti-communism] were everywhere: on every street, government buildings and schools,” he said. “We were taught [that] communism was evil.”

In 1984, the artist moved to New York. On his daily commute into the city, he painted on three-inch canvases that he carried in his pocket. By the time he was invited to represent South Korea at the 47th Venice Biennale in 1997, he had created more than 200,000 works.

Kang represented South Korea at the 47th Venice Biennale in 1997. Photograph: Peter Macdiarmid

In the years that followed, Kang decided to create public works envisioning the reunification of Korea. “My idea was very simple: let’s make a bridge over the Imjin river,” he said, referring to a waterway that flows from north to south, crossing the demilitarised zone, and the site of a major battle during the Korean war.

Unusually for a South Korean artist, Kang has visited the North twice, in 2000 and 2002, to work on a project called 100,000 Dreams. The artist said he was deeply affected by his visits. “I went to North Korea and the entire population is taught to hate us. Who’s going to break this chain of hatred?”

His next project will be installed at the Odusan Unification Observatory in Paju, in the demilitarised zone, a five-floor observation platform from which North Korea can be seen with the naked eye. Opening in November, the work is a permanent display of 15,000 drawings by refugees. In 2017, Kang will be the subject of a retrospective exhibition in Seoul.

Kang believes the unification of Korea is possible, but many of the ageing refugees fear that their dreams of seeing home again may only be realised in rice paper drawings.

But Hyunsik Kim, 82, remains hopeful. “If I go back to my hometown, I want to build a new home where my old house was and live there. Even if it’s just for a day or a month.”

Modernist marvel of art

In the late 1930s, a family called the Vaclaviks left the Czech town of Zlín, travelled to Africa, then moved to a house in Essex. At the time, they had no idea how distinctive their new place was, or would become. They were just happy to live there. Golf-mad Alois Vaclavik was particularly taken with the garden, where he would practise his putting, while his wife Jarmila made Czech cakes in the kitchen.

Alois Vaclavik was an employee of the Czech shoe giant Bata and the house was part of the estate – actually more of a town – that the company built in East Tilbury in the 1930s. His cuboid-shaped home and the other houses around it still feel both self-contained and spacious, cosy and civilising – a bridge between the toil of the worker and the intellectual idealism of the age in which they were built.

‘I had a group of 20 architects visit’ … May Rippingale in front of her house on the Bata estate in East Tilbury. Photograph: Martin Godwin/For the Guardian

May Rippingale, one of the Vaclaviks’ children, is sitting in the shaded part of the garden where she used to play as a young girl. She bought the family home in the 1980s when the estate was put up for sale. “A couple of years ago,” she says, “I had a group of 20 architects visit. They went round the house and told me what was wrong with it! That the bannister was dangerous for children and the balcony wouldn’t be allowed.”

Shoe production via conveyor belt at the Bata factory.

As an entrepreneur, Tomáš Baťa mimicked Henry Ford’s conveyor-belt system in his shoe factories, but his footwear Fordism was allied with a utopian vision of community living. Though Baťa died in a plane crash in Switzerland just months after buying the land in Essex, he had left explicit instructions as to how the project should unfold.

Construction began in 1932. As well as the chequerboard of workers’ houses, there was a Bata supermarket, a Bata shoe shop and a Bata farm that supplied bacon, eggs and milk for guests’ breakfasts at the Bata hotel. There were tennis and netball courts, a swimming pool and full-size football pitches provided for workers’ leisure (West Ham trained here and played an annual charity match against Bata’s team, which Bata once won, according to local lore). Scooters and motorbikes lined up outside the espresso bar, which opened in 1963 complete with a coffee machine and jukebox.

These days, the purpose-built cinema is used as a village hall, while the hotel ballroom, where Tom Jones once played, has been transformed into the post office, its original parquet floor now wearing down to the bitumen. East Tilbury library, tucked away round the back of the old hotel on the edge of the largely intact estate, doubles as the Bata Heritage Centre.

Bata’s very happening mid-60s espresso bar.

A team of volunteers – former Bata workers or retirees whose parents once worked there – will be giving tours of East Tilbury during the forthcoming Essex architecture weekend. Part of Focal Point Gallery in Southend’s ongoing Radical Essex project, this series of architectural tours and talks aims to shine a light on the little-celebrated story of Essex modernism, from Romford in Greater London, to Frinton on its northeastern coast, to Crittall Windows’ model village in Silver End. Rippingale is opening up her house during the weekend.

East Tilbury, like all Bata towns, followed the blueprint of the industrial garden city of Zlín, a fully realised 45,000-strong worker town complete with a 16-storey-high HQ by the time the second world war started. It was designed by a pupil of Le Corbusier, František Lydie Gahura, and by Vladimír Karfík, who had worked for Frank Lloyd Wright. “Under this rational mechanism,” said Le Corbusier on a visit to Zlín, “I perceived a much more valued and effective factor – the human heart.” The same sentiment echoes around accounts of East Tilbury in its heyday.

Mick Pinion grew up on the Bata estate. His father already worked at the factory when he became an apprentice engineer straight out of school in 1966. “You were dropped in at the deep end – you had to learn on the job,” says Pinion. “If you had a Bata apprenticeship, you could get a job anywhere.” The Essex factory employed 3,000 people at its peak in the 1960s and 70s. Czech management moved there, as well as immigrants from all over the world. Some elements of the Bata way might seem intrusive by today’s standards. “People knew if their garden was overgrown they would be pulled into the office and asked politely to sort it out,” says former employee Graham Sutcliffe. “It made them respect the town a bit more.”