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Fresco by Shaun Hill

Updated: Feb 14, 2020

Arguably, the Overhear poet who chose Medicine Bakery as their venue had twice the material to work from as any of the other writers on the project. Not only did Shaun Hill have the bakery to inspire his work, but its built-in gallery too. It turns out that the relationship between the two – business and art – is what proved to be the spark for his final poem. We sat down with Shaun at a table in Medicine Bakery to talk with him about commissions, capitalism and complicity.

‘I heard about Overhear last year when they worked with Verve, because I saw that Jack Crowe, Nafeesa Hamid, Beth Slinn and a whole bunch of amazing Birmingham poets were doing it,’ he lists off the names of some of our Season One writers (whose work is still available to collect!). ‘It sounded like a cool project then, and I got involved now through the Room 204 programme with Writing West Midlands. I like the idea of hyper-locality, I like the idea of bringing poetry to the public.’

Shaun immediately draws parallels to a project he worked on while studying in Exeter that played with the same ideas of place and accessibility: ‘I ran the Creative Writing Society, and one of the projects I did was called “Human Easel”,’ he tells us. ‘I’d get a big canvas from Wilko and go out into the street and get people engaging with politics and metaphorical thinking.’

‘Exeter had – and still has – a massive homelessness problem, and there was the Jo Cox stabbing and all of this fascism getting shown on the news… and we were like how do we raise these conversations with everyday people in a way that’s not scary or elitist?

‘We decided we’d ask them two questions,’ he explains, ‘one on either side of the canvas. The first one was “what does home mean to you?”. You get such amazing responses from having conversations with people in those spaces where there’s no power dynamic – it’s just a street – and you convince them to take a moment out of their Saturday shop to sit on the floor with you and engage with words.'

Shaun talks about the great material that can come out of moving these discussions into new spaces and helping people connect to the conversation: ‘Once we had them engaged and comfortable like that, we would flip the canvas and ask “what would it mean to you to lose home?”. The responses to that were really powerful. One of the words that really sticks out to me was sore, which is such a tender, beautiful, awful little word.’ He pauses. ‘So, yeah – I was already open to those ideas of working with different kinds of spaces, and Tom putting together this project with his own flavour, adding an app to the concept… it’s great. Having someone sitting in a space with poetry in their pocket is wonderful.’

We asked him why he chose Medicine Bakery as his venue for Overhear.

‘The first thing that drew to me to this venue was the name, honestly,’ he tells us, ‘I’m doing a project at the moment exploring care and the idea of intimacy – how it exists on a personal but also a societal level with our healthcare system. I thought Medicine, I can do something here!’ He laughs, ‘It didn’t quite turn out like that. I think I came here already with an idea and tried to project it onto the space rather than coming to it with an open mind. That fell apart pretty quickly.’

In rethinking his approach to the project, Shaun met with other barriers, as he explains: ‘I struggled a little bit because I was just trying to literally describe the place and getting quite conflicted with keeping the integrity of my voice and balancing that with being able to give something to Medicine Bakery – without sounding like I was just writing an advert.’

‘I respond to things in a really abstract way a lot of the time, which can be a problem for commissions – but finding out more about Medicine Bakery gave me a bit of freedom,’ he says, ‘they’re a venue on the High Street, yes. They’re also into creating community spaces for people and bringing people together; they’ve got a history of social enterprise and they already host art… it gave me permission to deviate. They’re not a conventional business so this doesn’t have to be a conventional commission,’ Shaun continues, ‘I had leeway to respond in a more abstract way, rather than just writing an advert for them or doing a poem about a loaf of bread.’

He talks to us about the unlikely path he took to get to his final piece: ‘I’ve got Mark Rothko’s book The Artist’s Reality, and there’s an amazing chapter in there all about the balancing act of being an artist doing a commission, so I was reading that to get some ideas, as well as coming here and absorbing the space. I was looking at all the glass and the art and it reminded me of this story about Mark Rothko, how he got pissed off at people eating packets of crisps sitting on gallery benches in front of his art; to him it was something sacred. I started wondering how he would react to art being hung up here, where people are crunching their toast.’

‘The art that’s hung in Medicine Bakery – and me making this art – expresses a desire to transform those spaces and get beyond capitalism,’ Shaun says, ‘but we have this tension of using the places within capitalism to try and express a desire to get beyond it. We’re stuck in that paradox of: we wouldn’t have anywhere to put the art if we weren’t doing it as part of capitalist society,’ he pauses and shakes his head, ‘It’s messy!’

‘I felt like, to explore that messiness properly, I had to set the poem outside rather than in the space itself, to be able to look at the whole thing together. It’s a poem about where we put our totems, what that says about what we want from those places.’ He tells us, ‘I wanted to let that messiness, the ugliness sit alongside this artistic beauty, and that tension between ugly brutalist architecture, soggy cardboard, the skinny hands of gargoyles and the idea of beauty, plinths, marble, trees and the dreams we’re expressing, the dream for this city to be better.’

‘I’ve talked about some of these themes before,’ says Shaun, citing his “Human Easel” project and various earlier works, ‘homelessness, poverty, the shame of those things and the shame of being someone who lives within this society and chooses to look away from them. As you become more mature, though, you start to see how the way you’ve framed certain subjects has been flawed,’ he admits, ‘I don’t want to write a poem that’s making me into The Good Guy or shaming the reader into action… this time the focus is on me, observing and dealing with my own messy complicity in capitalism rather than passing the buck to some reader who – let’s face it – just wants to read a poem.’ He laughs. ‘I wanted to do a poem that felt it had integrity because it was being honest in how it was showing itself. I’ve already said this: it’s when we disrupt the normal power dynamics, drop the idea of poetic authority that we get the most interesting, the most effective work.’

To enjoy some artistic expression and self-reflection along with your toast and engage with Shaun’s words you can collect his poem Fresco from Medicine Bakery using the Overhear app from October 1st.

Shaun can be found on his blog

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