My Inspiration: Claire Baker | NARC. | Reliably Informed | Music and Creative Arts News for Newcastle and the North East

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Everyone loves a film where the protagonist leaves the every day to become something extraordinary and if there are Hollywood scriptwriters looking for real-world stories to base their movie around, then there’s no more inspiring tale than that of Stockton born artist, Claire Baker. The Northern School of Art Textiles lecturer, left a successful career managing a snooker club and a nightclub to follow her passion for embroidery and textiles and is now showing work at two major exhibitions.

Her work with the Babushkas of Chernobyl has led to invitations for her to speak at events in both the Ukraine and Russia and is the focus of her solo show, Place, Home, Loss and Legacy at Hartlepool Art Gallery (until Saturday 2 November). The second show is part of a wider exhibition called, #Untitled10 2019, which takes place at Bowes Museum (until 28 February 2020) and looks at the creative process of artists and the concepts of craft. Here, Claire shares with us the inspiration behind her work.

I started investigating Dark Tourism (the practice of visiting places associated with death or tragedy) as an influence and inspiration for my artwork five years ago when I began my MFA at MMU. This stemmed from my love of Urbex and lectures on Contested Territories. During my research I learned that it was possible to visit Chernobyl, the site of the world’s worst nuclear disaster in 1986. I booked immediately.

My first visit to the Chernobyl exclusion zone in 2015 resulted in artworks informed by related issues such as the dispersal of mass populations, evacuation, the disintegrative effect of time, place and overwhelmingly – loss. Since then the human stories have always been a catalyst. There is so much to do, not least raising awareness of issues still relevant worldwide today. 

I feel this subject has become my life’s work.

Through travelling to the exclusion zone many times I came to meet some of the self-settlers: those who returned to their homeland (legally & illegally) after being evacuated and dispersed after the accident. 

Post-accident 91,200 people were evacuated from areas around Chernobyl and the area is now deemed to be uninhabitable. At the start of my research there were 148 people still remaining, their legacy the declining remains of a forgotten community. These people became, and continue to be my major inspiration. In June of this year, there were only 85 obsolescent and individually isolated people left. This is why my work has become so urgent, this community is dying out along with their culture and strong textile heritage. It is estimated that within 10 years there will be no-one and nothing left.

The strength and resilience of the self-settlers is wholly inspirational. They are self-sufficient through necessity and seemingly oblivious to any dangers of the presence of radioactive particles, believing that their happiness from living in their Motherland, at ‘home’ on ‘their’ land negates any illness that may be caused by an invisible enemy. Incredibly research shows that they do in fact have a 10 year longer life expectancy than their counterparts in Kiev who were evacuated to the city and never returned home. The average age of this scattered community is 80 years old and notably, 80% of those still living in the exclusion zone are women. They have an incredible history, living through famine, World Wars and Soviet Russian rule as well as the life-changing tragedy of the nuclear disaster, by which they should not [only] be defined.

Through my project Embroidery as Language, I found new ways of communicating through the use and the performance of hand embroidery, that being a universal language. I observed and interacted with the Babushkas (grandmothers in Russian) in their home surroundings where they felt comfortable and in control of the proceedings, allowed them a freedom in which to relate their personal experiences; pre, during and post-disaster. As the first artist to work together with the self-settlers on such a project; as a regular visitor, guest, instructor, facilitator and collaborator my initial intentions in terms of embroidery and textiles included the discovery of how embroidery has played a part in their lives by way of tradition and culture. And, how embroidery and the sharing of skills can be used as a connective device, bringing a community of isolated individuals together through the process of stitch. This common shared interest crossed the barriers of language, tradition, cultural background and geography and in an anthropological sense engaged the ‘subjects’ as colleagues, collaborators and companions.

Alongside this, the visual documentation of the Babushkas at home gave an unexpected insight into their daily lives and culture, so much so that my focus became their present lifestyle, their every day and the unique culture which will die with them. My intention is to preserve some of the evidence of this for future generations, alongside archiving their rich narratives.

I have entered the Chernobyl exclusion zone on at least sixteen separate occasions – for thirty-plus days; researching, photographing, documenting, archiving, exploring and investigating. Through the recording of artefacts and practices for future generations, importance and value is given to a forgotten textile and wider culture.

My interaction, knowledge and understanding has come from recurring visits and an intense and passionate interest in their lives. By making them ‘real’ to the outside world by means of my photographs and artistic practice, through their surroundings, homes, belongings, I illustrate the very special relationships that have been built up. I feel truly privileged to have had the opportunity to spend this time with the Babushkas. The self-settlers can teach us much, not least: strength, humility, fortitude, generosity, courage, determination, endurance, perseverance, tenacity, steadfastness, character, resolve and spirit.

The exclusion zone as an entity becomes addictive and demands my immersion in it. To describe what it is like to interested parties is difficult. My personal feelings upon being there are disparate and contradictory; melancholy, pure excitement, deep sadness, peace, solitude and community, wonder at its sheer beauty and the now embedded, aesthetics of decay, destruction and disintegration.

Visually describing a unique moment in time, my photographs and artworks are evocative of the emotional attachment I feel towards these people and are a response to my understanding of the cultural relativism of their personal and intimate lives It is always an emotional experience, informs my artistic practice and inspires emotive work that communicates the plight of the self-settlers or in a wider context, those who have ever had to leave.

Additional inspiration comes from people who have supported me throughout this work, particularly Dominik Orfanus, the director of tour company who is the most passionate and knowledgeable about the area and its people and who has been incredible, believing in my work from the start, sponsoring my visits, providing permits, accommodation and essential personnel and without whom I could not have successfully undertaken this research to such an extent.

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