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Letter to A Young Artist: John Fox

LETTER TO A YOUNG ARTIST           10th March 2012

Music: Dan Fox Trombone. John Fox Accordean


I wanted to start with that because it is the first tune WSI used and because I love playing with Dan. Its is a kind of symbol because part of my theme tonight is about the importance of our legacy and how much generations learn from each other. I learn a lot from Dan. He just taught me the middle part of the tune.

Anyway Hello. Thank you for inviting me and for the excellent dinner. Pete Gunson kindly suggested that I might to write a Letter to a Young Artist.

But how old is young?

I reckon there are a few folk here within knife throwing distance of a bus pass.

And how young is old?

At a recent theatre party a woman I hadn’t seen for 20 years who was standing next to Sue and me suddenly leapt backwards and shrieked out “ My God is THAT John Fox?!”  Well I do have grey even white hair I know. Yet somehow mysteriously hers is still black. So I guess I must look truly ancient. (Resounding No from audience!).

And what exactly is an artist anyway?

Do any of you know the work of Kenneth Patchen (1911-1972) the fearsome lyrical American beat poet who also painted wild nursery rime Blakean picture poems. I have here his oration: The Artist’s Duty and should your attention flag I will rant some of it.

The Artist&;s Duty

So it is the duty of the artist to discourage all traces of shame

To extend all boundaries

To fog them in right over the plate

To kill only what is ridiculous

To establish problems

To ignore solutions

To listen to no one

To omit nothing

To contradict everything

To generate the free brain

To bear no cross

To take part in no crucifixion

To tinkle a warning when mankind strays

To explode upon all parties

I am not sure if it my role tonight to explode on this party

But armed with ample quantities of red and white wine that were promised I might just try

So what is an artist?

I use an iPad and have a website but I also make seriously retro woodcuts with little chisels that I have had for twenty years ( each chisel is the same price as the refill of ink for a printer ) and I paint in oils with expensive but equally long lasting sable brushes.

I am a fan of accessible art, I call it Vernacular Art. Art  that people can participate in and have done for centuries.

More of this later  But I also love films. Not at all sure though about public art. All that very expensive anodyne CAD designed technician fullfilled stuff. Indeed I wonder if it’s art at all ?

I guess I am a wayward artist. I have forever been on a journey of discovery, taking risks and burning my boats. Take this Lanternhouse which we and a group of wild yet more or less rational artists designed with £2.2m Lottery funding. The topping out day was 1st May (Labour Day) 1998. HOLD UP SOUVENIR MUG.  It is not yet full of whiskey but I live in hope. Lanternhouse is the perfect space for originating participatory and celebratory art for the community and I am really sad it is closing.

Yet despite the unique, wonderful and unexpected gift of Lanternhouse, on April Fools’s Day 2006 (after creating some great things here) we walked away from it. We then started Dead Good Guides to explore another edge. An edge of ecology and climate change seeking a way of living creatively and sustainably from a wooden ark on stilts on the west shore of `Morecambe Bay. We have always been driven by vision, seeking to make ideas concrete and loving the process of spontaneous invention and collaborative exchange, inventing original prototypes like site specific theatre, lantern parades, installations and new ceremonies for rites of passage. The last one is a big one which we are doing a lot more of. I’ll come back to it later

I am not even sure about letters. In the age of twittering blogs will anybody really read an old fashioned letter?

Well dear reader or listener I am a Pathological Optimist. When we toured with our circus tent and caravans we wrote those words in shiny letters on our biggest truck, just in case we forgot.

So here goes. You are in what used to be Ulverston’s Old National School. If you have been in the top room you might have seen the coloured chalks lodged in the beams.

They were left there by the ghosts of children past.

So I am imagining you are 12 years old. ( I know some excellent 12 year old creative spirits.)  Before you get trapped on that educational career ladder of fear most of you young people, as you well know, create wonderful playful work from imaginative dreaming with open eyes. We need more of it. Kenneth.Patchen wrote his first poem when he was 12.


“It is the Artist’s Duty to raise a fortuitous stink on the boulevards of truth and beauty”

Well my young artist you may be 12 now but in 18 years time when you are 30 and well out of art college (if you need to go there and if such colleges still exist ) when you are “on the boulevards of truth and beauty” my young visionary you will unfortunately encounter “The Perfect Storm”.

We thought we had problems in the 60’s: apartheid, Vietnam, homophobia and so on. But we had some surplus. I could get a job supply teaching and we weren’t caught in the University fees mortgage trap. Clever controlling device that. And there weren’t a million young people out of work waiting not yet complaining or campaigning or yet contemplating rioting. Docile Thatcher’s children I suppose.

In 2030 when the perfect storm, ie lack of water, population growth, food shortages and some climate change hits, how will you cope ? There is not much political street theatre around just now (probably because it has become institutionalised into university jargon degrees in applied or immersive drama) On the Standing Conference of University Drama Departments website there is currently a big question. Do you spell the word theatre-making with a hyphen or not?  Not since Grotowski said “the actor is himself” has there been such a furore in the sheltered corridors of academia.  Seriously though, street artists claiming public space will be an increasingly important political act.

I digress. Back to my monumental letter. I hope you will have some political nouse. You will need the skills of awareness, lateral thinking, organisational ability and hands on techniques (using old fashioned tools) to build shelters, to keep fit and grow and cook food.   When you are a bit older you could do worse than work with Climate camps or UK uncut. Check out Platform too. Their work on oil companies, some of whom inevitably fund what we still call the arts is revelatory. Study or join the Transition Town or Tipping point or Dark Mountain movements. Lots of artists have. But do be wary of talking too much. The future needs actions from creative people with brains in their fingers. You may find you will need to trade your skills with people who hate art or have no idea what it is.

In another decade, say when you are 21 I hope that some things will have improved.

I reckon that just now we are on the cusp of really big changes. (It  is possible that self appointed intellectuals like me have always said this ). But I think we are. Over the last couple of decades, despite myths to the contrary. funding for the arts has increased thanks in fact to a number of unsung bureaucrats like the maligned Peter Hewitt and, thank goodness, street arts is no longer quite the forgotten Cinderella .Yet despite good intentions, the  natural inevitable processes of habit and entropy have invaded the arts world which is now bureaucratised and institutionalised. Have you filled in one of those socially engineered electronic rat trap online grants for the arts forms recently?

There are so many office people on good permanent PAYE salaries and pensions with a vested interest in running the top down china shop through generating tick box forms and assessment criteria that they are naturally reluctant to invite in the bulls. But we bulls, we artists, young AND old, need to rattle those china cake stands a great deal more.  Let’s have Patchen again.

The Artists Duty is:

…to desire an electrifiable intercourse with an alligator...

(Actually John Wassell who is normally the prime fixer has let me down a bit here. Despite my requests there are so far no alligators available.)

“It is the artist’s duty to be alive to commit his company to all enchantments”.

In committing to enchantment (and this is my letter again):

Artists shift perception and demonstrate imaginative possibilities. Unfortunately like so much else in our market driven culture, ART has been hi-jacked by money, celebrity, novelty, history and spectacle. It has been turned from a process into a product. The spectator has come about over the last 200 years as a result of urbanization, imperialism, electronic technology, the Media and the all pervading market economy which generates false needs for passive consumers constipated with too much choice and alienated into political apathy.

We may well be “…on the brink of a financial and ecological collapse and starting to realize that the past 200 years of industrial development has been a doubtful blessing.” *

But however much “the market may fail” (as it probably will) we must not tolerate a failure of the imagination. We must not lose poetry, stories, play, music and the envelope of art as a way of giving, being and perceiving.

Unfortunately the Big Society is part of the con. In Ulverston the annual lantern parade which WSI started in 1983 is threatened because in our enterprise economy the police will now have to be paid to service it. As this event is not recognized as proper public art it receives virtually no funding and for the volunteer lantern supporters club who run it the costs will be prohibitive.

Or look at the Olympics. “Sport will be brought to all.” was the rationalization but here in South Cumbria, schools cannot now afford to take kids swimming . The local Lloyds TSB refused a request for £250 funding for athletics for my grandchildren’s primary school. Their excuse was they had given money to the Olympiad.  I know there is work on offer for street art but its underlying armature is more centralization, more real estate and more propaganda

There is another way.

Let’s call it Vernacular Art. All those creative activities that people engage in daily and which give meaning to their lives. We need to reclaim these for communities in the 21st century.**

In reclaiming Art and Community, people will create and celebrate in partnership together with ceremonies for Rites of Passage, carnivals, cooking, gardening, building houses, telling stories, playing music and making life enhancing participatory festivals?

Such work is context dependent. You have to participate. It’s playful and improvised.  Economically it depends on a gift relationship which can’t be bought or sold. Think of our remarkable Blood Transfusion Service relying on the altruism of donors. In Britain we give it freely. In America it is at a price.

Such art is a useful counterpoint, an alternative creative life to our doleful system of capitalist conscription where it is time we replaced the banality of economic re -generation with the rejuvenation of the soul.

So that’s my plea to you young woman or young man. Go  for Art, but New Art. A playful art that demonstrates what it is to be human. Where consciousness is shifted to a realm of poetic resonance, a realm of visceral, sensual, aesthetic co-operation. A truly ecological poetry where Art is a mode of knowledge and a way of being. This is the art we need to reclaim. At all costs avoid being hypnotised by the established gate keepers of culture. Beware their demand for novelty and spectacle and media hype where State licensed buffoons are obliged to tread the tight rope between creativity and dilettantism.

If you have time to reply to my letter young artist you might well ask what am I making now. Well I rant a bit and sometimes it works and I am offered a crocodile.  In 1990 I wrote a paper for the Arts Councils “National Arts and Media Strategy.” I called it Plea for Poetry and I asked where in the Art Agenda was street art, circus, fairgrounds, sign writing, mixed media art ( as it was then called )  and  funerary furniture. I am pleased to say all these categories bar one are now in the mainstream. Except for funerary furniture.

I am still campaigning for an Arts Council department of applied anthropology to fund ceremonies for rites of passage and to train celebrants. We need good art at the key cross roads of our lives at child namings, weddings, divorces  redundancies and funerals and more. Death is the fiercest gate keeper of all and considering your own death is the most radical thing you can do.  So I am currently designing Bio-degradeable fiuneral urns to place cremated remains, with due ceremony, into Morecambe Bay.

I am also making films, writing stories and poetry.

Working with scientists I just made an 8 min film about the micro marine critters in Morecambe Bay. No crocodiles but totally wondrous. What would Blake or Patchen have created if they too had had microscopes and iPads?

In a new saner place of ecological awareness we will need a new iconography to underpin our new belief structure with fresh stories, myths and poetry.

But where do we find the material?

Sometimes in old places. I have been looking at Agent Orange the toxin that Admiral Zumbolt released on Vietnam in order to defoliate river banks, killing thousands of Vietnamese and eventually his own son. This chemical is still contaminating generations of Vietnamese children (some still unborn) and indeed it poisoned the Admiral’s son and grandson who survives with learning difficulties.

Where is the story to do justice, if that is the word (!) to such hubris ?

As I coming to the end of my letter here is some advice

  1. Work practically and physically.
  2. Practice a musical instrument and sing and dance a as much as you can
  3. Take holidays. Remember in a sick society arts (and social)workers are scapegoated and used up as safety valves for the benefit of the status quo.
  4. Read, write and shout poetry every day.

I will end with a poem.

Fittingly this is about Lanternhouse.

I must admit I wasn’t sure about coming here tonight;

this being possibly the last gig here. It is an emotional trigger. There is a lot of my family’s and friends life in these walls.  I suppose I am secretly hoping that some creative organisation (possibly even you guys) might take it over.

Whatever, this last poem is a kind of homage to the place and the forum of artists that made the dream concrete.

The poem and my woodcut ( of the Tower of Dreams) were included in the many files of our Lottery bid. It gives me hope because amongst all the necessary business plans and statistics the poetry was listened to by “bureaucracts” on committees. It proves that with sufficient belief and vision, imagination can still inspire and lead.


As a diviner senses water underground

So the builder constructs a staircase of stone.

Each marking their own pathway

between hand and work

body and spirit

time and place.


So we will construct stepping stones

across diverse currents

to focus for an instant

on luxuriant lichen

where lime-green dragonflies

flit over the fading doubts

of Chernobyl in Cumbria.


On the edge of this poison sea

we are determined to devise

a haven for dreams made concrete.

A clearing in the uncertain storm,

where windmills of the imagination

will gain a filigree hold

on the industrial debris of death.


So the ancient beck below

may flow

to every room.

stirring and shining

inside domestic hollows of

hand-crafted discovery.


Ripple on ripple.

Stone on stone.

Forming a new pool

Of creation.


So that’s it dear young artist. A new pool of creation  Certainly one that kids can swim in for free. Or a lake. Or a vast ocean to swim into with courage and abandon. Some times you will have to swim against the current of course. But keep swimming. Traditional strokes are useful but make up you own strokes and be wary of old blokes telling you what to do.

Whatever. Good luck. Look after yourself and your mates The planet needs you to leave a creative legacy for future generations. I will do my best to be there in spirit. I have certainly enjoyed being round so far.

Yours humbly and very sincerely,

John Fox.

Vernacular Artist

Outsider Poet

And honoured guest of NASA


* Review on Dark Mountain website by Akshay Ahuja of Edward Goldsmith’s The Way; an Ecological World View. Themis Books. 1996.

**Much of my thinking here owes a debt to Clarke Mackey whose book  “Random Acts of Culture” was published by Between the Lines Press in Toronto in October 2011.


speach given at &;For the Love Of It&; 2012, Lanternhouse, Ulverston

Who was involved? (Companies / Organisations / Artists / Performers):