When lockdown began just over a year ago, so many of us struggled with a sense of loneliness, disorientation and grief caused by the pandemic. Running over the past year, the Lost Connections Project set out to explore these emotions, inviting people from across Wales to submit art that reflects their own experience of the missing human connections which have arisen as a result of the pandemic. In the first of a new series exploring mental health in arts and culture, Emma Schofield sat down for a virtual interview with the project’s organiser and co-ordinator, Newport based artist Naz Syed, to talk lockdown art, wellbeing and the challenges of creating an exhibition in a global pandemic.
Like most people, there are so many things I’ve missed over the past year and sitting down with a coffee to interview someone in person, is definitely one of those. Luckily for me, if socially distanced interviews, especially over a video call, can be a little oppressive, talking to Naz Syed is like throwing open all the doors and windows to let the light stream in. You’d be forgiven for expecting Naz to seem tired, she’s been working relentlessly on the Lost Connections Project throughout the pandemic, dashing about delivering art packs and carrying out socially distanced interviews with contributors, but when I speak to her, she’s still full of enthusiasm for the project. Naz tells me that she’s been out doing doorstep interviews over the past few days, as part of a short film series which will tell the stories behind some of the pieces included in the project. ‘The last interview we did was in a hailstorm.’ Naz explains, ‘it was a really emotional interview, but we carried on. The lady I was talking to ended up crying, I was crying and it all seemed really poetic with the hail. She was reading some poetry and talking about how what we’ve got now, the sense of community that’s developed through the project, has helped us to support each other and bring our experiences forward through the art. It was a lovely moment, in spite of the weather.’
There seems to have been no shortage of these kind of moments over the past year as Naz has compiled the project. The aim was to explore the human connections which have been lost as a result of the pandemic, with the artwork reflecting on a range of topics from missing loved ones and the company of normal daily life, to dealing with grief for someone lost during the pandemic. ‘The work has been so diverse,’ Naz tells me, ‘and so have the conversations. I almost looked at the project like a visual time capsule, documenting this time. Art for me is like breathing, it’s an important part of my own wellbeing and a way for me to escape. I think as people engaged with the project that really came through for them as well, how art has actually been a way of helping people to survive in this situation.’ In 2020 Naz secured funding from the Arts Council of Wales to organise the project, which has so far seen over 100 pieces of art drawn together to reflect on the impact of the pandemic on their lives and to capture art which reflects what they feel has been missing from their lives. A digital film of the project will be launched this Spring, accompanied by a window display of selected artwork from the project in the Riverfront theatre in Newport, followed by a physical exhibition this July in Llantarnam Grange Arts Centre.
Looking through the artwork featured on the website, one of the things which strikes me about the project is just how broad the parameters are. The pieces in the exhibition span different mediums and forms; there are so many different interpretations of the idea of loss, loneliness and human connection, it’s easy to become lost in the stories which accompany each piece. In many ways the blog posts which tell the artist’s story are as important as the artwork itself, reminding you that for every piece there is a real person, with their own individual experience of the pandemic. Chatting to Naz it’s clear that every experience has mattered to her, regardless of circumstance, experience or age. I ask Naz about how she has viewed her own role in the project and she admits that while it started out with her, Lost Connections has always been about other people’s stories. ‘It wasn’t really about me creating, it was about me curating and collecting, but also about gathering those stories, hearing what people have been experiencing, what they have missed, or struggled with, during lockdown. It’s also been about the good moments, those brief moments where there’s been light, even if that’s through simple things like going for a walk or getting to know your neighbour more.’
I point out that the role of facilitator can be a challenging one, especially when it’s being carried out primarily online and Naz nods in agreement. ‘Absolutely, it has been challenging, because so much of it has been online and through apps such as WhatsApp and that did worry me a little. I was concerned about the digital poverty aspect of it, especially where there might be people without online access who weren’t able to contribute because of that.’ Perhaps this concern is why a key feature of the project has been its accessibility, with the doors thrown open to anyone who wanted to contribute, from experienced artists to first-time creatives. Naz explains that this is what lead her to put together around 150 project packs, each containing art supplies for those who wanted to contribute to the Community Gallery but didn’t have the basic materials needed to do so. ‘That was where the packs came in. At first, they were just about the project, but in the end, it turned out that so many families in the community didn’t have basic art supplies and having the packs means that they have tools to carry on and continue to make art beyond the project. The response to the packs has been quite moving, I’ve been really inspired by how much people have shared and how personal their stories have been.’ Listening to Naz, it’s clear that this shared kindness lies at the heart of a project which has highlighted the way in which art has been able to offer a voice to those who feel they have been silenced by the pandemic.
For some, the loss of a voice has clearly come as a result of lengthy spells of enforced isolation, or separation from family and friends. Naz speaks openly about the way in which the project has offered a lifeline to people struggling with this side of lockdown. ‘People really enjoyed that element of being able to connect with others through the art, whether that was with family members, friends or even strangers. To be able to see their work online, to feel proud of that, and to talk about with other people was such a significant point of connection at a time like this.’ Those connections have also led to further collaborations, a meta-layer of interconnectivity that sits within the project. I ask Naz about the community quilt which has been put together by Coffee’n’Laughs, a group Naz has worked with before. ‘They’re a lovely friendship group of mixed faiths and mixed cultures and I put together a textiles pack for the group and they created their own hand using those materials. The plan was for all of us to stitch them together to form a quilt, but a lovely lady called Marilynn, who established the group, volunteered to do that herself. In the end, we discussed all of the hands over video calls and then delivered each of the finished sections to Marilynn for her to sew into the quilt. The end product is incredibly beautiful and will be unveiled at the exhibition this summer.’ It’s a further output from a project which has clearly yielded a significant, but for Naz, the concept of producing a finished piece of art is not necessarily as significant as the process itself. ‘Sometimes there is no end product and it’s more about the experience of working on and developing the art and telling their story. Where you do get an end product as significant as the quilt, that’s a real bonus.’
Yet Naz is keen to reflect on how, sometimes, that end product is not just about the art, but about the healing that creative process brings. I hear the story of a young girl called Thea and her grandmother, a woman Naz affectionately calls ‘Nanny Sue’. Thea lost her mother when she was just sixteen months old and has been cared for, in part, since then by retired teacher Sue Mizon; their contribution to the project has been a way for them both to process their sense of isolation during lockdown. Reflecting on the experience, Sue writes in her accompanying blog that ‘at times of crisis artists do us great service when they show us how creativity can help us to express our feelings, and give an outlet to our frustrated emotions’. In her blog, Sue recalls how Thea went from ‘a happy, confident, thriving child’ to ‘extremely anxious’ during the first lockdown. Creating art inspired by handprints was a way for Thea to channel her energy into something productive and calming, an opportunity Sue is clearly thankful for.
For others, a sense of loss has been caused by a more recent bereavement and the pain of grieving for someone under the most difficult of circumstances. Naz draws my attention to a piece by Alice Bethune, a young artist from Cwmbran whose tribute to her grandparents, both of whom passed away early on in the pandemic, is in the form of an intricate embroidered quilt. ‘We started out by just chatting and then moved on to looking at how we could put those memories and emotions together in a visual sense. Alice was telling me about how her Grandad was a beekeeper, she had such beautiful memories and as she was talking it almost seemed like she was weaving a tapestry, similar to a beehive, so we came up with the idea for creating a miniature tapestry, working in trinkets and photos which were personal to them and their memories. It was such a difficult time for the family and I was just so grateful that they shared that with me and with the project, I think in the end it was almost like therapy for them.’
Dealing with the often complex emotions of those struggling with loneliness or grief caused by the pandemic has clearly been one of the more challenging aspects of the project. When I raise the subject of mental health during the pandemic Naz tells that there have been times when she’s had to take a step back for a moment to compose herself, partly because the stories she’s heard have often been so poignant and partly because the emotions which have inspired the pieces have been so raw. ‘Some pieces do really resonate with you,’ Naz admits, ‘but that’s what makes the project feel so worthwhile, it’s so important for people to have a way to express those emotions and to really explore that sense of loss or isolation that they’re feeling.’
That’s not to say that it’s all been smooth sailing. The project was originally due to end in December, and Naz admits that actually drawing a line under the exhibition is proving harder than she expected. I ask about what’s next for the project and Naz tells me that she has plans for a ‘Connections’ project, to pick up where the Lost Connections project ends and to trace people’s experiences as society starts to reopen, rebuild and attempt to heal from the pandemic. As we draw our conversation to a close, I ask Naz about what she hopes will happen with the existing project and she laughs, pointing out the piles of art packs that fill her home. ‘Working out where to stop has been really difficult,’ she explains, ‘the way things have developed over the past few months has led to us creating more films and looking into maybe expanding the podcast. I’m not sure exactly where we’ll go from here, but there’s definitely more to come.’
Images and blogs included in the Lost Connections are available to view on the project’s website and are currently on display in the windows of the Riverfront Theatre in Newport. A live exhibition is planned at Llantarnam Grange Arts Centre, later this summer.
Dr Emma Schofield is a Wales Arts Review Senior Editor.
Header image: Naz Syed, organiser and co-ordinator of Lost Connections.