Designer and friend of Shape Jessica Ryan-Ndegwa gives us the low-down on what Shape's two artists-in-residence got up to at London's 2017 Liberty Festival...

Tightropes, races and films were just some of the exciting events and activities that were happening as part of this year’s Liberty Festival. Based at the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in Stratford, London, Liberty Festival is a free, one-day, disability-led festival featuring all types of creativity, including art, theatre, dance and music performances, as well as a range of sports which attendees can take part in.

Shape Arts had a strong presence at Liberty Festival and supporting their two artists in residence at Shape’s pop-up stall, photographer Mark Tamer and sculptor Oliver Macdonald, was the focus of my day. I’d never met them before but I’d heard so much about them so I was excited to see and get stuck in as to the activities they were producing.

“For me the click of the camera marks the beginning of the process,” Mark told me, “Often that initial image is just an inkling of an idea, a feeling that it may be interesting. This then needs further work to tease out, to chip away at, until I can get to the essence of what it is.”

Two rows of small portrait photographs of people pegged to a line against a white background

Mark Tamer uses boiling water and film emulsion to work with Polaroid photographs, transferring them from their sticky acetate so they become just films, then transferring the images onto thick card, producing new objects which hold their own characteristics. Since being diagnosed with a neurological balance disorder, Mark works with his process of developing film to attempt to bring order, calmness and more balance to his work. He told me, “I’m interested in trying to reduce what is before me down to its simplest form whilst maintaining a sense of mystery that engages the viewer.” Observing him in his natural habitat I could see how fiddly his creative process is - once he removes the film from the sticky acetate the image becomes as fragile as tissue paper. He mentioned to me that, more recently, he has begun exploring how “breaking” images can relate to illness and vulnerability.

A group of people standing in a marquee stall looking at photographs on a table

A volunteer who was helping Mark out all day chatted to me: “It was interesting observing what he does and his process; good to see there's still someone working with a very old technique of photography, instead of just instant digital pictures like most people do nowadays. It was interesting seeing the photos floating in the water, like sea creatures before opening. As Mark worked on them more you could see them develop into photographs; it also made them seem 3D and interactive, not just like still photographs as it revealed another dimension. What was even better was that I was able to have my own go at developing the images myself!”

Meanwhile, over in another section of the park, sculptor Oliver Macdonald was leading a demonstration of basket weaving, one of his main mediums. Engaging directly with the public, Oliver was teaching passers-by how to hand-make their own willow-woven baskets. He showed me that it takes a special skill and weaving technique, explaining that his work revolves around reviving old weaving methods and that his aim of the day was to develop his newest work - three “Goldilocks Chairs”. He explained: “’Three Seater Syndrome’ explores the concept and story of what a chair is. It refers to the story of Goldilocks but with a psychological approach, with something being considered as too much or too little.”

Three people in a park weaving willow in front of a stadium

One young boy in attendance, who had a go at making a basket, told me how enjoyable his day had been and that his dad had made baskets before but he hadn’t: “It’s nice to understand and be taught the process of how to basket weave as I thought it would be as easy as weaving two bits of willow together, but you actually have to use about 4 or 5 strands depending on how thick and strong you want the weave.”

Basket weaving is a process in itself; I can remember weaving a basket when I was a young child and just using two strands. Oliver told me that weaving is its own skill, depending on how hard you make it: “It’s great to be here at the Olympic Park, and interestingly enough it’s the kids that have been more interested than the adults in having a go!”

A collection of medium-sized sculptures woven from willow are standing in a park; there is a stadium in the background

After a very successful event and before packing up I got a chance to reflect on the day overall. Having the one-on-one closeness of working with the artists, I could reflect on the meanings and purpose of their works. Just observing their practices and speaking to other volunteers, you understand more how a person’s life has such a big influence on the type of creative work they produce. What hit me most about the work the artists in residence were undertaking is that so much of the focus of their work is centred around their personal experiences of life. For me, working in the field of Product Design and currently working on major projects, it emphasises that when you start developing work from your personal insights and experiences an incredible story can be told through the application of a variety of different, varying, interesting and weird mediums.

Image of a long, wide tarmac section of park with a stadium in the background. There are lots of white stalls lining one side looking down the picture, and there are many people milling around

Liberty Festival being held at the Olympic Park in such an accessible venue allowed for floods of people to attend, and that’s what excited me about it - its inclusiveness and accessibility to all. Talking to a friend, who was also helping on the day, she told me, “It’s nice to have an open day where disabled people can just enjoy what’s around them and engage fully with every single activity at an all-inclusive event.”


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Banner image: Mark Tamer holds up one of his photographs
Body images, top to bottom: Images produced by Mark Tamer; Mark Tamer leading a demonstration to visitors; Oliver MacDonald teaching willow-weaving; 'Three Seater Syndrome' by Oliver MacDonald (in progress); Shape's stall at Liberty Festival