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DAO is proud to publish its first commission ‘The Explorer’ - a cycle of transcription poems reflecting the creative journey of visual artist Nancy Willis

Flying with Micky

DAO is proud to publish its first commission ‘The Explorer’ - a cycle of transcription poems reflecting the creative journey of visual artist Nancy Willis

Flying with Micky, Monoprint 1995 Nancy Willis

Flying with Micky, Monoprint 1995

Image: Nancy Willis

We stayed in Florence in a campsite on top of a hill
and the greatest joy was
for him to jump on the wheelchair
at the top of the hill on the back
and we sailed down there.
I completely trusted him.

And this painting is my memory of that feeling,
like I was flying and he was flying

Micky, do you remember,
do you remember going down that hill
and you jumping on the back?
And I reminded him about that
and about going up Snowdon
and everything…
and he said,
I’m so proud of that.

My Brothers

My Brothers (photomontage 2008) Nancy Willis

My Brothers (photomontage 2008)

Image: Nancy Willis

I always felt,
with all my brothers I always felt,
it was always alright.

I don’t know quite how to explain it but
when I was out and about with them
anything seemed possible.


Drips, Lines and Spatters (watercolour 1980) Nancy Willis

Drips, Lines and Spatters (watercolour 1980)

Image: Nancy Willis

I stayed in like a hostel place,
just a regular hostel for single people
and I remember there,
and at the college,
I just blithely said yes to everything.
certainly I can do that.
Of course
I can push myself up that slope.
No problem.
I can
get through those, you know
ten hundredweight double doors.
And I know the lift breaks down
every other day.

I thought if I sound
absolutely confident
a bout everything,
nothing will be difficult,
then they might say yes.

And they did.

North East London Polytechnic

Untitled abstract (monoprint 1985) Nancy WIllis

Untitled abstract (monoprint 1985)

Image: Nancy WIllis

I began to make friends.
Whether it’s because I was a little bit further away
from my special school
and outside a kind of institutional setting,
I began to make,
join the world,
I slowly was joining the world.
I started to actually join this world
that I had been on the outside of.

And along with that I plunged into
a period of absolute kind of chaos of
not going to bed and
not getting up and
not eating and
just absolutely deranged living. And,
yeah, fantastic years.

Something else that caused a feeling of separateness

Small creature in an unruly landscape (gouache 1995) Nancy Willis

Small creature in an unruly landscape (gouache 1995)

Image: Nancy Willis

I was brought up with the understanding that
I wouldn’t live long into adult life.

And I’ve spoken with other people
who were in the same school as me,
special school,
who also were brought up with that idea.

And of course you can probably imagine
it puts you in such a different relation
to the rest of the world
because they’re thinking about
having partners and maybe starting families,
you know there’s a whole huge lot of things that
other people are preoccupied with that
I was sort of on the outside of.

And, so in way going back,
when I left that first college
with my skills that I’d learnt,
I had no idea what to do next really.
I did some drawing
and some projects that I had thought
I’d like to try and do
but had not a sense of direction at all.

And I and I and

And I and I and (video still 1994) Nancy Willis

And I and I and (video still 1994 – in collaboration with Jenny Polak)

Image: Nancy Willis

And I and I and
that was quite a struggle
that period of trying to make
some sort of sense
of what I was doing.

And of course
like I guess a lot of people
of that kind of age
I was wrestling with all kinds of
chaotic relationships and things.

But I know that something
was that the things that made life difficult
made me feel separate from other people.

Self Portrait

Self portrait (etching and watercolour 1989) Nancy Willis

Self portrait (etching and watercolour 1989)

Image: Nancy Willis

I think this might be the first time
that I’d done anything about
this little image here
of a tiny baby and
er one of the things I’d been..
probably had led to
the most difficult period of my life

was having become pregnant
and deciding and
not knowing what to do
and then,
of course it happened by mistake,
so I hadn’t sort of thought what to do,
I knew so little
and I thought that I was going to die
and I wouldn’t be able to look after a little baby
and what would happen if it was disabled
and there’d be nobody to love it and look after it

and after I went round and round and round
in my mind
and eventually decided to have a termination
and because it had been
such a difficult decision to make and ..

The doctor who did it said to me
in that cheery doctorish way
‘Oh, we could prevent,
why don’t we just do a sterilisation
while we’re here?’

And I thought
well, why not?
If it’s true for me now,
it’s not going to change.
I’m not going to suddenly
I didn’t
I thought this situation
was going to be for ever
I would never be able to live long enough
to bring up a child.

So I thought right
we’ll have to put an end to this pain
right now.
And so I did
had the abortion
and the sterilisation.

And then I carried on being alive
And years went by...


Self portrait (pastel 1980) Nancy Willis

Self Portrait (pastel 1980)

Image: Nancy Willis

When you think about that
isn’t it it’s a marvel isn’t it,
these things which for me have been so
like somebody hanging
great heavy lead weights over you
so you can’t get up off the floor and move
that those very things
those lead weights
were the things that helped me make something
that suddenly stood as an art work.

And that’s like an amazing transformation
of stuff that is so damaging
kind of threatens to be completely crushing
that that can become transformed
into something that is
that has its own kind of beauty
and place in the world.

The Baby in the nutshell

Baby in nutshell (photograph of  modelling process 1990) Nancy Willis

Baby in nutshell (photograph of modelling process 1990)

Image: Nancy Willis

I’d had a dream and in this dream
what had happened was
I was having some kind of operation
or something
and they discovered that the baby
was still there
and it was absolutely perfect
a tiny baby was still there.

And in the dream, I thought
wow it’s still in there,
someone’s been looking after it
and it’s been in there all that time
and I’m going to get another chance.

And of course, then I woke up
and so that feeling of euphoria
kind of ebbed away.

But this image of a tiny perfect baby,
so tiny that you could hold it in your hand.
It’s not like a premature baby
it’s a full-term one but it’s tiny and
and then you know
when you’re kind of thinking
about these sorts of things
the only solution seems to be
to put them into your work.

What else could I do?
Go out and think
oh I’ll do a landscape now
when what is in my heart
is thinking about those things?

Everybody hasn’t had
the same experiences as me,
but everybody’s felt loss
everybody responds to that feeling
of a tiny thing
that needs to be protected

The Explorer

The Explorer (silk-screen print 1986) Nancy Willis

The Explorer (silk-screen print 1986)

Image: Nancy Willis

I remember at the Whitechapel Art Gallery
they had an exhibition on called ‘Woven Air’.
I think it was like tapestry or
embroidery from Bangladesh or Bengal
that part on the top right of India.
And these things
embroidered cloths with images on
were absolutely gorgeous
I could have just lived in there.

Anyway, and I loved the decorativeness of them
and the joy of them and ..also they were kind of hanging loose,
so that if you breathed heavily or walked by in a rush
they sort of waved in the air in a beautiful way.
And I saw, I saw this elephant with a howdah on the back
And I thought
the perfect spot to put a wheelchair
and maybe I’ll just get rid of the howdah altogether
and just put the figure in the wheelchair there.

And I liked this idea also
of kind of bringing together these odd things like a wheelchair
which is so often a symbol for
kind of immobility and general gloom to put the
stick that on, call it The Explorer
and make it the kind of the vehicle
for travel and springing off round the world.

We need things in this world to cheer us up

Crystal fountain (digital print 1988) Nancy Willis

Crystal fountain (digital print 1988)

Image: Nancy Willis

We do.
We do need
(it seems to be more acceptable
in some other art forms
like some kinds of music and so on)
sheer joy
but it’s not quite so readily found in visual art work
certainly not in the disabled
images of disability department
not a huge number of joyful images
so there’s certainly room for putting some more material in there .
So I’m pleased to have done that

I smile myself sometimes.

Seeking Comfort 1

Seeking comfort 1 (charcoal 1989) Nancy Willis

Seeking comfort 1 (charcoal 1989)

Image: Nancy Willis

Seeking Comfort 1

I found myself got sort of devastated
right in the middle of nowhere,
not feeling comfortable about this relationship
and not knowing what to do and

and I looked out over the landscape
we were in this lovely rural part of France
and I saw cows on the hillside and I thought
if only I could go up to that cow
if only I could go up and talk to that cow it looks so nice
I’m sure it would make me feel better, that’s all,
it just seemed to be the only solution to my problems
to go and make friends with this cow.
And there’s something about their sort of their roundness and I suppose the fact that they give milk and they seem
they have this sort of slow steady presence
that seemed at the time exactly what was needed
something so comforting. And the kind of..

You know sometimes when you see animals with their young
sometimes you see the acceptance
like the mother so often just sort of

There’s something very moving
about the way they just make themselves available to the infant
and I suppose with animal relationships
I know they can be troubled but they’re less fraught with complexities
that happen in human relationships.
There seems something so beautifully straightforward
about the comfort that might be offered by an animal.
So anyway, that’s what I thought,
I just want to go and live with that cow up there on the hill
that seemed the best thing to do.

And when I came home from this painful experience I
again as so often when I’m thinking what kind of art
what bit of art should I make
I’ve learnt to say to myself what’s happening, what
I remembered those cows on the hill. I have to do that
I have to make a cow and then I could put this little figure
I could make it come true I could make this
this comforting vision come true.

Yes that’s real grass.

Seeking Comfort 2

Seeking comfort (bronze relief  1990) Nancy WIllis

Seeking comfort (bronze relief 1990)

Image: Nancy WIllis

What an amazing thing,
to start with something that’s made of gooey plasticine
and melts if you leave it too near a fire
to something cast in bronze
that is hopefully going to exist
after all the houses have fallen down
and all the flood and the furies have all been
The cow and this little person
is still going to be sitting there under the sun giving comfort.
But I thought, it’s got to have a home
I’ll have to try to make a box for it.

I think I was inspired by shrines as well,
I like shrines, and I’d seen pictures of sort of portable shrines as well.
I liked that idea that you could take it with you
and set it up whenever you might need
so maybe when I might be in need of comfort
I could unpack the cow box and set it up and have it there.
But then again, I thought well,
I didn’t want it to be completely away from any kind of reality
so that’s what made me bring the grass into it .

I thought well, and I liked, I sort of hope that
it kind of breaks down the gap
between reality and the world of the imagination
because it uses some of the actual substance of our daily life.
And anyway, the cow might get peckish, mightn’t it?
Have some grass on hand!

When I think about that awful feeling
when all you want to do is be held
and for somebody to make things right
this is probably the image
that most sums up that feeling for me
just some kind of warm loving presence
that you just feel alright if that’s where you were,

The cow doesn’t seem to mind, does she?
It’s only a minor inconvenience
maybe not even an inconvenience
I think the cow’s thinking
the cow’s thinking well alright then.
Since I’m here anyway
you’re welcome to stay for a bit.

Cows and angels

Cows and angels (etching  1995) Nancy Willis

Cows and angels (etching 1995)

Image: Nancy Willis

I like angels well enough
but they’re flying around up there
and might not notice our immediate needs.
The cow’s got its feet on the ground. And I feel
understands something about the need for physical,
direct physical warmth
in the way that an angel
might not quite get the hang of that.


Neo-natal (pencil drawing  1990) Nancy WIllis

Neo-natal (pencil drawing 1990)

Image: Nancy WIllis

Cold, snowy February.
In that unit, quiet and warm,
a murmuring presence.

Can you see her little face?

Can you see her little face? (pencil drawing 1990) Nancy WIllis

Can you see her little face? (pencil drawing 1990)

Image: Nancy WIllis

Sometimes they had to have
dolls’ clothes, because of course
any regular clothes are miles,
miles too big. But I was able to give
the mother of that baby some drawings
and she was really so
one can do so little
for somebody who’s grief-stricken

and being able to give anything,
anything at all
is such a kind of wonderful thing and
I knew she really liked the drawings.

She was called Samantha
that little baby.

Those tiny tiny babies

Those tiny tiny babies (etching 1974) Nancy WIllis

Old man by window (etching 1974)

Image: Nancy WIllis

Those tiny tiny babies,
they’re amazing, just amazing, they’re like,
they’re so fragile
and they’re kind of hanging on,
right at the
right at the edge of life really
in the same way that
the people in the care of the elderly
were at the other,
the other edge,
the other end.

And I started drawing in there.

I've just realised something

Detail from Early Days, Holding Promise (mixed-media installation 1990) Nancy Willis

Detail from Early Days, Holding Promise (mixed-media installation 1990)

Image: Nancy Willis

I’ve just realised something
how much I liked being in that unit
quietly in the steaming warmth
doing these drawings.

Then of course I had to come out of there
and start to make the work.

I had to come out of the incubator
and go and deal with the world outside
and start to create a piece of work.


Early Days, Holding Promise (construction of fruit boxes, cheese box, paper, tissue paper, plastic leaves, wire, fabric, gouache, gold paint and modelling clay. 1992) Nancy Willis

Early Days, Holding Promise (construction of fruit boxes, cheese box, paper, tissue paper, plastic leaves, wire, fabric, gouache, gold paint and modelling clay. 1992)

Image: Nancy Willis

I was asked to go in front of the committee
and present what I was doing.

I took this sort of collection of rubbish along really
kind of some old fruit boxes
few bits of plastic and my leaves
I had the drawing of the baby and everything
I’d begun to assemble it all
but I didn’t realise
(because I was so engrossed in the work)
that they were obviously horrified by what I was up to.

I was there with the art committee talking about it
and they were just sitting there in a state of shock.

I got absolutely no response
I was talking into air I just kept going
just was explaining my thoughts and feelings about it
what I was trying to do and so on.
(You know sometimes when there’s a group of people
you feel that there’s at least one person there
who might conceivably understand what you’re trying to say
but I didn’t get that feeling so I just kept
kept desperately on like speaking into a vacuum.)

I suppose they were all medical people
so they understood it completely differently.
It was partly these things like the colour.
I hadn’t realised that because I’d used a lot of blue
to them it looked like a blue baby.

Whilst I thought there was something
kind of to be captured about that
the point at the edge of
something I wanted to capture
that was about a kind of nurturing
and trying to hold on to life all those sorts of things
to them I suppose they thought
well who wants to look at this stuff when you’re in hospital
what we want is a landscape or an abstract.

I wasn’t told that then
I was greeted by complete silence anyway.
And then I was asked a few days later
when somebody got up the courage to speak to me
to sort of
to start again
and to make drawings at each stage of the process
letting them know what I was up to.

So there was just like a complete gulf of understanding
between me and how my mind was working
and what they hoped.

But maybe as I came out from the room
I didn’t really realise that they just didn’t like the work
I thought that maybe they weren’t quite sure
of what to make of it or what to say about it
actually they just didn’t like it
and didn’t want it in the hospital
I shouldn’t have been talking about life and death
that made them really uncomfortable.
And I think that was not
what they wanted the work to be about.

And maybe they hadn’t realised
in fairness they perhaps didn’t know what they wanted
until they saw this and then that wasn’t it.
I don’t know if they were right or wrong.

I suppose that there that there is a place

Letting him go / not letting him go (gouache 1998) Nancy Willis

Letting him go / not letting him go (gouache 1998)

Image: Nancy Willis

I suppose that there that there is a place
for something that is about life and death
and especially in the disability world
people, we have to, we have to find a way
of facing the loss
and our struggle to survive,
it is a part of our lives.

The Trap

Outpatients (lithograph 1985) Nancy Willis

Outpatients (lithograph 1985)

Image: Nancy Willis

It’s a trap isn’t it it’s like a horrible trap
to admit that there are things that are difficult
about being disabled
things that are really hard to deal with.
But you don’t want somebody to think
oh well it would be better if they hadn’t been born wouldn’t it.

It’s a really difficult thing to get
to be able to deal with
I think to be able to be truthful is hard

To make life precious

In Sunshine (monoprint 2002) Nancy WIllis

In Sunshine (monoprint 2002)

Image: Nancy WIllis

To make, to value, to make life precious
you have to be aware of death,
you have to. And so that has to be in there
and in a sense the nearer the possibility of death
the more acute is the perception of and the joy of life.
Those two things it’s almost

I’m talking also partly of my own experience
that has sprung me straight on to remembering
when I was last in hospital. I was very very ill
I had pneumonia and a pulmonary embolism,
because it sort of connects with

so a couple of years ago I was lying on the bed
and all I could see was a corner of window,
a tiny corner of window. And in that corner of window
I could see a tiny bit of a tree. So I kept looking at that tree.
I was very scared and very
Thought that I might not survive.
But I gradually started to get better
and the first day that I actually left the ward
and was allowed out into the grounds briefly
everything looked amazing.

Every colour every texture everything I put my eyes on
practically reduced me to tears. It was a most
I can remember it so vividly and in fact
I think I’ve had that in me ever since then.
And I suddenly remembered that
because it relates to the thing I was trying to talk about
here was somehow the awareness of a death
and the possibility of loss as making the presence of life so vivid.
And that just reminded me of that feeling of coming out of that ward
I was never sure I was ever going to get out of.

Seeing - and it was just absolutely ordinary things
like I went down a bit of the road inside the hospital
and I noticed they’d painted a yellow line down the edge of the road
and then someone had painted a red line over the top
and the way the red line and the yellow line looked together on the road I thought that is so beautiful.

My special dream

Portrait of myself standing remembered from a dream (charcoal 1980) Nancy Willis

Portrait of myself standing remembered from a dream (charcoal 1980)

Image: Nancy Willis

I’m going to tell you the best dream that I’ve ever had in my life.

So, in this dream I’m walking,
although at the time when I had the dream I couldn’t
I was unable to walk. (I remember clearly
the sensation of walking from when I used to be able to.)

Anyway I was walking in the dream
and I was walking along through a field with long grass
and I was naked, walking through this field.
And in the distance the other side of the field
I can see an old old lady
and she’s wearing black clothes
and she’s very dirty and I know as I get nearer her
that she’s going to be really smelly as well
and kind of dripping scabs and all.

(I think I must have had that dream during a time when
when I was feeling very bad towards myself
and it was in a very difficult time)

I’m walking towards her
and she’s walking towards me
and I’m sort of compelled to keep going towards her.

And I’m getting closer and closer
and I’m sort of repulsed
whilst being drawn towards her.
And then we get to the middle of the field
and I find that I open my arms
and I put them around the woman.
And at that exact moment we fly up into the air.


photo of writer Allan Sutherland Allan Sutherland

Photo of writer Allan Sutherland

Image: Allan Sutherland

Colin Hambrook asked Allan Sutherland about the process of creating The Explorer.

The idea for the transcription poems started with my doing an oral history interview with Paddy Masefield. I had been thinking about setting up a disability arts oral history project. Then Paddy was given a prognosis of only having six months to live. So, forgetting about funding, I went and stayed with him and we did a life history interview. Shortly after the interview, I read an article in the ‘Oral History Journal’ about how you could use the techniques of poetry, line breaks and stanzas and moving stuff across the page, to get a more accurate record of how somebody had spoken.

So I revisited the interview I’d done with Paddy and tried making poems. It actually worked quite well. When we came to doing the project with Nancy Willis, it was the first time I’d done an interview with the express intention of making poems. So we worked in a quite different way.

Nancy wasn’t happy just sitting down and doing a life history interview. She was comfortable with the idea of talking about her paintings, so we went through a selection one by one. Given that her work is quite personal, it wasn’t far off a life history interview by the time we’d finished. But in a sort of directed way. That was interesting for me. It became a process of negotiation. In many ways, it was all very much an experiment, learning how to do things as we went along.

The other big exploration was in the actual writing of the poems. I’m very used to dealing with text: sub-editing, putting in punctuation and carving out unnecessary stuff to create a good, readable piece of text that flows. I didn’t do that so much with this. I left in a lot of the stuff that you’d cut out if you’re just doing a straight, journalistic edit.

Hence one of your favourite lines – ‘And I, and I, and …’

‘And I, and I, and …’, which I think is an excellent line, yes. So that kind of derails things a little bit. Sometimes, it just adds emphasis by showing when Nancy is feeling hesitant about something, but sometimes it just goes off in another direction. I think it’s quite good to do that. That again is a sort of exploratory thing for me.

Where would you like to go next with the process?

There are various things. I was really pleased that one of the poems that we got out of it this time was a Haiku (Neo natal). I’d be very happy indeed if I could do an oral history interview and produce a sonnet from it but that may be a little unrealistic!

Biography: Allan Sutherland

For thirty years, Allan Sutherland has been one of the most passionate voices on the disability scene, as writer, journalist, standup comic and performance poet. He was once described as 'the first political stand-up on the disability arts circuit'.

Allan has a long-standing interest in telling disabled people’s stories. His book ‘Disabled We Stand’ (1981) won awards in the UK and the US, and is required reading on many university courses. His Radio Four play ‘Inmates’, set in a long-stay institution for disabled people, won a Raspberry Ripple award.

Allan edited ‘Hidden Dragons’, an anthology of writing by disabled people in Wales. He is an adviser to the National Disability Arts Collection and Archive.

Allan is currently investigating the possibilities of making trancription poems based on oral history interviews. As part of this work, DAO have commissioned Paddy, A Life and The Explorer.