Greenwich Mural Workshop – Carol Kenna & Stephen Lobb

Carol was born in Tunbridge Wells in 1944, her father Thomas came from Eire, and her mother was from Plumstead; they were living in Gravesend. Tom died in an air raid when Carol was less then a month old, a feeling she later came to sense “as being without a limb.”

family holidays

 

She was taken every year to Dublin to visit her Irish relatives and loves being part of her Irish family. Carol was raised for several years by her grandparents in Plumstead, and enjoyed classes at primary school there. When Carol was 10 her mother fell in love with George (Dad) bringing two families together to live in Welling, eventually with seven children in all. A tight squeeze.

art projects

 

She went to the local grammar school run by a head teacher who ran it as a public school. In contrast the teachers were young, left wing and adventurous in their teaching. The Art room, sport and history lessons became her haven from a crowded home life. She took ‘O’ and ‘A’ levels and went from there to Ravensbourne College of Art where she studied for four years.

Steve was born in Ilford in Essex in 1936, the eldest of four brothers. His father worked as a clerk, and could draw and paint beautifully, his mother was a housewife and did part-time work until she blossomed as a potter later in life. When the war arrived the family moved to Surrey, and the boys all went to Fetcham School. He was always drawing, reading, exploring the countryside and playing football with mates.

Epsom art school

 

He went to Grammar School, passed two ‘O’ levels and three ‘A’s, got into Guildford Art School and discovered acting, and went on to the RA Schools (Royal Academy Schools). After that, studio painting and part-time teaching.

Carol and Steve started going out when they were at Ravensbourne, married in 1965, had two boys, and lived in Charlton. Steve went on to work at other art schools, ending by lecturing at The Polytechnic of Central London. Carol taught art at a Secondary Modern school in Wandsworth, in local Adult Education and painted, then studied Social and Environmental Planning at the Poly for two years.

political paintings

 

She was making political paintings, exhibited at the London Group and together they exhibited a structure of polypropylene curtains suspended on scaffolding for Art Spectrum at Alexandra Palace and a Soft Sculpture environment at the Serpentine gallery, both inviting people to participate – make the art theirs.

discovering murals in America

 

Greenwich Mural Workshop

Carol went to the States on a scholarship in 1974, to explore the link between graffiti and the way a city was set out. “On a personal level it was freedom – I’d gone from home to college to marriage – left Steve caring for our children – and here I was on my own, do what I wanted. I discovered mural workshops in New York and Chicago, saw many murals – decorative, social and political, all brightly coloured, full of patterns from indigenous cultures – they were having fun, issues close to their hearts, creating a history for people, protesting at a lack of education – every day issues. It was real. I came back and said to Steve this is what we should do!”

And he was keen. “Our enthusiasm was high – an opportunity to join the revolution begun in ‘68 with the freedom movements, and join in with law centres, claimants unions and community arts groups. I remember talking about bringing life back to the streets. I was always revolted by inequality and neglect and thought, ‘Well, we have the skills, we could help to change all this.’ Make walls with tongues, we’d work with a community, use their ideas and concerns. The designs would enhance the area, respect its shapes and forms and history, and be accessible, dramatic and colourful.”

“We drafted a strategy and budget to get started, and talked to council officers in Greenwich for advice and support – one of them suggested our name. We contacted tenants and residents associations in working-class areas in the Borough – we didn’t think Blackheath needed us! Of the ones we wrote to three responded, and we worked with them for years. Tenants of Meridian Estate in Greenwich were the first, we painted their mural on a nearby gable end on Creek Road. We had talked through ideas with the tenant’s association first, made a number of designs, which we discussed at meetings and then by going door-to-door chose the most popular. It was called ‘The Peoples River’, calling attention to the estate being on the edge of the Thames – which at that time was largely unused – not much transport, boating or ferries – a sort of dead space that had been so thriving, so ‘We’ll take back the river’ became the image”.

drawing on the wall

 

Erecting scaffolding and preparing the wall followed – priming it with a stabiliser and a Crown undercoat – then squaring up and drawing on the design – in pencil. The mural was painted using Bolloms emulsions, the paint company with the strongest and widest range of colours which we used for the early murals, later we used Spectrum acrylics. Finally an acrylic varnish went over the top.

“Because we wanted people to join in we devised a three tone system which enabled them to paint more confidently. Though few took part here, later murals attracted more people to paint with us.”

The artists continued working with the Meridian tenants over the next four years; painting the facades of flats around the courtyards and staircase decorations; running puppetry classes and painting playground games bases and murals with the children. Carol and Steve worked from home until the Greater London Council (GLC) rented a flat to them for art workshops and meetings, and Carol started a silk-screen workshop printing posters with local groups. Being on site the residents saw the workshop as their own private resource providing a telephone, meeting room and finally improvement plans for Rockfield courtyard from ideas suggested by the tenants, which the GLC then carried out (not before changing every curve to a right-angle), and a landscaping scheme for the disused truck park in front of the Creek Road mural, also installed by the GLC.

In 1976 we started projects in Charlton. We began by talking to the residents of Floyd Road, who wanted to celebrate their victory over council plans to redevelop half the street, and show that they, the residents were in charge.

Floyd Road

 

This one was painted involving many people from the locality; their portraits appeared in the action of the picture, driving away bulldozers and doing up their homes. It was the first year kids rode ‘choppers’ and the hottest summer on record. ‘The Who’ played one day not 50 yards away in the football ground, while the crowds came swirling around the scaffolding, with the painters perched above. After three months the mural was complete, the road was closed for the opening party, there were games, competitions, and entertainers. The street turned out in force, muralist friends and family came and joined in. Liberation Films filmed it all. Brian Barnes won the children’s mask-making competition.

Two murals followed nearby at Pound Park Nursery School. The images were of children with animals, rocks and plants. Carol designed the water mural and Steve the land animals. The parents turned out in numbers to help with the painting.

About the same time in 1977 we began running workshops with young people at Rathmore Youth and Community Centre. It was run by a Church committee and lies in the middle of  a then working-class terraces in North Charlton. “It was very rough,” said Steve, “the whole thing was very rough. Quite ungovernable children really. We ran arts activities, drama workshops and indoor sports to tire them out, for some months until it became impossible. Then we had an idea – we could paint murals on the outside of the community centre – thinking that would make the whole neighbourhood come alive and we could get more people involved.” We consulted as before, drew up a number of designs from their suggestions and produced large-scale drawings and a model for the favoured one. Then a mural fund run by the Royal Academy gave a grant towards the work.

 

“It was an old Methodist Hall on Rathmore Road, had a gable front and side wall with windows and buttresses, and the pictures were to be ‘Charlton, Past, Present and Future’. The project was nearly scuppered by some residents who feared a mural spelt declining house values, but they were voted down. The gable front of the hall had pictures from the past at the top of the design, whilst underneath the present included images of a supermarket, prams, children, local people, public transport and motorbikes. The side walls showed people talking with politicians, images of resurrected local industry, sustainable wind and solar power, allotments and the Thames.

Rathmore benches

 

At the foot of the walls were broken flowerbeds, an eyesore that led to discussions with residents and the church about making the outside space more attractive and usable. It was agreed to build Gaudi-style curvilinear benches around the hall, encompassing flower beds and covered with images in mosaics – the themes echoing the pictures on the walls above. The whole project took three years to complete.

‘Towards the Good Planet’

 

Canvasing opinions on potential designs.

By 1981 ‘Towards the Good Planet’ was under way in Greenwich working with tenants at the other end of the Meridian Estate. It was fifty feet high, the largest of the Workshop’s murals, with up to eight painters at work many days, singing along to 10cc from different levels of the scaffolding. The theme was of international co-operation and goodwill. At the mural’s centre was the planet, a mandala with a Mexican symbol of life at its centre, around it a circle of people showing ‘a day in the life’, and another where different races exchanged cultural gifts. The spaceship ‘Meridian’ was headed towards this planet and a better life.

‘Wind Of Peace’, one of the ‘London Muralists For Peace’ murals in 1983 for the GLC’s Peace Year was painted in Keim silicate paint. Coincidentally Greenwich was declared an Anti nuclear zone by the local authority’s Labour leader; using this as a reference point together with other references to The Greenham Common Women’s protest several designs were produced and presented to the tenants of Meridian Estate. ‘The People’s River’ mural was in bad repair, although from a distance the image still ‘read’ well, close up it was badly cracked as a result of the pollution from commuting traffic and the effects of salt in the air from the nearby Thames. We suggested to Meridian tenants that we replace this mural with the Peace Wall design and they agreed. The wall was painted over the space of several months and was opened by Tony Banks of the GLC the same day as he also opened Brian Barnes’ ‘Riders of the Apocalypse’.

In 1984 ‘People Of Greenwich Unite Against Racism’ was created, also in Keim Silicate paints on Woolwich High Road for the GLC Anti-Racism Year. A commission by Greenwich’s Anti Racism team.

Over time GMW diversified to meet demand. From 1977 with improved printing resources, two silkscreen artists joined the workshop to teach and work, producing posters with and for action groups, communities and unions. Apprentices and artists joined the mural projects, and architects assisted. Scores of banners were made. We published leaflets and handbooks on murals and printshops. We were enthusiastic about what everyone else was up to, got to meet other London muralists and see their work and become friends. We organised two national conferences in London, and went to community arts conferences in Edinburgh, Leeds and Chicago – they were inspiring – we’d share ideas and strategies and photograph other artist’s work. We also acquired many new skills, which helped greatly when we wrote the ‘Mural Manual’ and ‘Murals in Schools’. In 1983 with our print workers Rick Walker and Lyn Medcalf we published ‘Printng Is Easy?’ (sic) to celebrate the work of UK Community Printshops, before as we believed, the photocopier took over, but not for another 4 years.

In the beginning projects were funded largely by the artists themselves. For ‘People’s River’ a £200 grant was given by Greenwich Council who also provided the scaffolding. In following years support came from the Arts Council, Regional Arts, and the Gulbenkian Foundation and after that from Greenwich Council and the GLC. It was a case of research possible funding sources – fine art, environmental improvement, employment funds, and training, make a case and succumb to the numbing strictures of endless re-budgets and final reports. A time of plenty, but never enough. In 1985, when Thatcherism took hold, funding criteria changed, hit communities and the arts in particular.

Funding the work after that was never secure, the printshop had to close. New projects, new sources were needed every year. Commercial commissions subsidised GMW’s community work and revenue was sourced from running Job Creation training projects. After 1985 there was a transition from paint to mosaics and painted tiles which as well as producing permanent images, enabled people to get really involved, hands-on creating.