Happy Chinese New Year, Croydon! Love from Hale Man, artist-in-residence

By - Friday 27th February, 2015

Liz Sheppard-Jones has a go at visualising Croydon’s Five Elements of Transformation – water, earth, wood, metal and fire

Croydon metal.
Photo by Hale Man, used with permission.

The Whitgift Centre‘s artist-in-residence, Hale Man, hosted her artistic celebration of Chinese New Year on Saturday 21st and Sunday 22nd February, with workshops and guided tours in her ground floor studio, close to the centre’s information point. On Sunday afternoon, I took a tour as part of a group of fifteen or so who’d broken off from shopping to visit this amazing place-within-a-place.

A delightful welcome awaited, with fortune cookies and chocolate coins to symbolise success in all the coming year’s endeavours. First we were shown Hale’s paintings of the five elements of  life according to Chinese philosophy, and what she believes they can offer to Croydon in its process of change. The paintings were all beautiful in their different ways and can be viewed below. Then we looked at her stunning metal sculpture, Croydon’s phoenix, emblem of Hale’s period of artistic residency, symbolising regeneration and renewal.

Not just developers and politicians – this is a chance for everyone to re-imagine Croydon

Croydon responds to Hale Man.
Photo by Hale Man, used with permission.

Finally we descended to the basement where two walls are covered with the artistic responses of Croydonians to her work and where visitors, including Mayor Manju Shahul-Hameed, have left New Year greetings and wishes on a giant blackboard. Ranging in age from five to ninety-eight years, it was moving to see the imaginations of so many lighting up a shopping centre basement: commerce meets creativity indeed.

Throughout her residency, Hale Man has sought to connect the artistic endeavours in her studio with the world outside, and while the developers do their work and politicians and managers strive to shape the town centre in their own image, to give everyone a chance to share in the task of re-imagining our home. That’s wonderful – except that next she wanted us to do it, and visualisation (guided or otherwise) isn’t my thing.

Let’s get into visual – so I closed my eyes and gave it a go

Croydon fire.
Photo by Hale Man, used with permission.

Led by Hale, we were asked what images came into our minds for each of the five Chinese elements: let’s get into visual indeed. Some needed no encouragement, but I can’t draw a box. The process was made easier because as a public speaker Hale is gentle, even tentative: there was no sense of being instructed but instead space to let personal thoughts arise. So I closed my eyes and gave it a go.

This is what came to me:

Water: the re-surfacing of the Wandle river, and the way that moving water has brought to life a previously rather featureless park beside the tramlines just west of the town centre. Since the water’s return, the park has hosted drama productions, open air cinema and a revival festival with live music and dancing, has opened a riverside café, and still more is planned.

Earth: Croydon is filled with Green activists and campaigners, promoting cycling, recycling, the use of real nappies, the beauty of our many parks and open spaces and numerous other environmental causes. Our borough contains many who feel powerfully connected and committed to the Earth.

Wood, according to Hale, is about roots, and where we come from. Croydon is reaching down to its roots and learning more about its heritage in our tremendously successful Heritage Festival, brought to us by the Whitgift Foundation and growing each year from its inauguration in 2013.

Metal: this one is easy as the cranes tower above us, with more coming soon, and the new buildings rise. Croydon – associated for decades now with concrete – will be a world of metal for many years to come.

Fire: I remembered instantly the events of Sunday 15th February and the artistic invasion of Femme Fierce, female street artists whose stunning creations have transformed the long-negelected St George’s Walk and the area around it, where RISE gallery now stands and our future arts quarter is taking shape. They came, they painted – and (whatever has befallen some of the works since) the burst of energy, colour and life they brought to the area shows us what is possible.

So – there we have it: the Five Elements of Croydon! A very happy Chinese New Year to everyone, and so many thanks to Hale Man both for the beauty of her art and her generosity in sharing it.

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Liz Sheppard-Jones

Liz Sheppard-Jones

Writer and editor. Views personal, not representative of editorial policy.

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