Vawdrey Archive Project: Sessions eight and nine – the indescribable descriptions

Artist Jennifer Milarski-Stermsek discusses the challenges of cataloging and her hopes for the Vawdrey Archive Project’s legacy.

To describe the indescribable description (sung to the tune of the The Impossible Dream)

For our last two sessions (sessions eight and nine) we have been getting down to the nitty gritty of transcribing the descriptions for the artworks in The Vawdrey Archive. This has been a bit of a mammoth task, not only because the artworks are so varied and complex, but also because this project has grown so many branches (well they were always there, we have just been uncovering them). It can sometimes seem to be an arduous task, cataloguing and categorising these works, when all you want to do is stare at them and get lost in them.

Vawdrey blog pictureI have to keep reminding myself that the first step of this project is to catalogue and create descriptions of these artworks, and that the coherent archiving of these artworks will eventually result in broadening the scope for researchers and improving accessibility to the artworks.

Judging by the strong reactions us artists, (and our visitors, such as Colin Hambrook, whose blog you can read here) have had, I can’t wait to see how else they can be used, especially in terms of furthering the conversation around mental health and lessening stigma.

There are five main fields of information that we have collectively decided upon a system for; Naming, Titles, Description, Keywords & Related Material.

Naming; for this particular section, which we have called Artist Name in order to give the creators of these artworks their rightful agency over their works, we will be naming the artist using their initials (if we have them) or calling them Unknown Artist. In the instance of Case 1 & Case 2 we will be naming them by their initials and then ‘referred to by Dr Vawdrey as Case 1 or 2’ in order to make sure anyone looking for these artworks, via the dissertation for example, will be able to access them.

Alan Vawdrey, OI artist Jennifer Milarski-Stermsek and OI team member Hannah Whitlock discuss captions (3)

At the Vawdrey mid-point sharing event, Alan Vawdrey, OI artist Jennifer Milarski-Stermsek and OI team member Hannah Whitlock discuss captions

Titles; Unless explicitly obvious that an artwork has been titled by the artists themselves, for example by a large underlined title at the top of the page or referred to by one of the artists in the thesis, we will be titling them, Untitled: with a straightforward visual based description. e.g Untitled: woman in a green dress with abstract shapes. We did have a long debate about wether or not even writing ‘woman’ was us putting too much of our own interpretation onto the work but decided that certain universal visual triggers and icons were safe and even necessary to include. For example, a lot of artworks have crosses in them, which we could describe as two intersecting lines, but given the time period and nature of the artworks it would be more misleading to not state iconography which is pretty much undeniable.

Description; This has been one of the most difficult aspects of the project as some artworks are genuinely indescribable or even if I can describe it one way, you would never be able to find that image in a haystack if you were looking for it yourself! We have had many discussions about whether this marking is a record player or a wheel, or wether this person is naked in a field or a farmer wearing a hat in a field. Basically it all boils down to our own perceptions, life experiences, cultural cues, favourite films, associations etc. Which again is very interesting to thing about in terms of art therapy, as no one is immune to outside influence in their reading of an artwork.

For this reason we have tried not to be leading in any way in our descriptions and keep it as simple as possible, for example three yellow triangles with black line to right of page. Instead of three yellow teeth, however this then leads into keywords.

Keywords; here we will give ourselves a lot more free reign, as with the keywords we can brainstorm not only what is immediately apparent, but also what is unanimously thought. For example if we have some knowledge of symbols in the artwork, whether from the dissertation or some of our own research into the artwork’s background we can reference it here. This will also be beneficial to those searching for specific terms or imagery in the future.

Additional Related Material; This will consist of links to the thesis, links to other artworks by the same artist (or considered to be by the same artists), important references e.g. The Red Shoes, which is referred to a lot by Case 2. This will also be where we will provide links to our own outputs made around the project, for example artworks made by us in response to the project or extra pieces of research we have undertaken along the way.

Due the difficult nature of this task we came up with a nifty system of doing it backwards. We first fill out the keywords as this gives us the opportunity to brainstorm and get all the personal interpretations out of the way. Secondly we write the description as it is a more concise and simplified version of the keywords and then lastly write the title, so we can see which are the key aspects of the description make up this particular piece.

Another trying element of this cataloguing process is that a number of artworks are very similar so when titling these works we have to find sublet differences that we can use in the title in order to differentiate and define each artwork.

I am very proud of how far we have come in only nine sessions in terms of creating a unified system in order to not only make this artwork accessible but also to do justice to the artists and the incredible hardships they have been through. It may not seem like such a big feat but behind this system are hours of research, hours of conversations, emotions (all of them), hellish train journeys, numerous biscuit calories, and most importantly the hope that this project will have a positive effect on the future of mental health.

More about the Vawdrey Archieve Project, including artist profiles and diaries from previous sessions, can be found HERE

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