In the summer of 2018 I had an exhibition of my work in the beautiful Park Gallery at Callendar House, Falkirk, Scotland. Callendar House is owned and run by Falkirk Community Trust (FCT) http://www.falkirkcommunitytrust.org, an organisation I was soon to learn a lot both from and about.
The gallery curator, Gillian Smith, had got in touch with me in September 2017, having seen my photos on the BBC website, and we’d started a very enjoyable discussion about the possibility of her hosting an exhibition of my work the following year. What a joy it was for me to be working with a professional curator who oversaw such a lovely gallery in a stunningly gorgeous stately house.
The pleasures kept on unfolding. It was tough (someone had to do it, as they say) but I had to visit over the winter for preliminary talks: everything was under snow when I went in February and looking out from the windows of the building onto the surrounding parkland was like looking onto every cliché in the book that comes under the heading of ‘winter wonderland.’
The exhibition was in part sponsored by Eastern Printers https://eastern-info.co.ukand here was another eye-opener for me. I’d never seen printers this big (they had one with a printable width of 10 metres!) and also found that they could print on pretty much any material. For the exhibition, they printed one of my images on a doorway in the gallery – a first for me!
We’d already decided with Gillian that we were going to ‘print big’: we were determined to visually contradict the ‘little old woman’ trope on every level. The prints weren’t 10metres wide, but the long side was well over a metre and the quality of the printing was superb;; you could see every line and wrinkle (much to some of the athletes’ chagrin!). We’d settled on twenty final images and their impact as you came into the gallery of these large prints was impressive.
Gillian had chosen images that resonated with her but she was adamant that we needed to make this also a ‘local’ exhibition and therefore to showcase some Scottish masters athletes. We both wanted it to be more than beautiful images on a wall (although of course we also hoped it would be that too). What we wanted was for the exhibition to inspire viewers to feel that they could have a go too, that they could start a physical activity, whatever their age. For that reason we didn’t want the exhibition to showcase what could seem to be an ‘exotic species’ of extraordinary people living in a distant ‘somewhere else’. We wanted to underline the fact that there are masters athletes everywhere– and they will be in a place near you, wherever you live.
We made another date in the spring when I was to come back to Falkirk and photograph some Scottish masters athletes who live reasonably close to Falkirk and meanwhile set about finding out who they were and inviting them to come. We gathered together an outstanding groups of amazing athletes in the 55+ age groups who all rallied round to support the exhibition. That in itself was very moving for me.
On a freezing day in April (no magical wonderland this time, just biting wind under a grey sky) we met at Grangemouth Stadium, also owned by the Trust, for a photoshoot. We had top-class Scottish athletes gathered together with Hugh McGinlay, 91, being our oldest stalwart. We had an amazing day, with tea and cakes put on by FCT and all of us being interviewed by Gillian Russell of BBC Radio Scotland for her health and well-being show Personal Best. So lots of camaraderie and some good publicity for masters athletics in general as well as the exhibition, to boot.
What I then learned about FCT so impressed me. As a Community Trust, they have a wide-ranging remit: they are responsible for arts and culture (hence Gillian’s appointment as gallery curator), but they also have a sports arm (hence their ownership of the stadium) and they employ staff dedicated to promoting not only sports, but fitness and wellbeing in the area too. Other teams are responsible for maintaining parks, heritage and libraries.
This network allowed for what I can only describe as ‘joined up thinking’. Yes we could have an exhibition that was aesthetically pleasurable. But the fact it showcased older sportsmen and women in the 60 plus age groups was an opportunity they could take hold of and use to promote sport and wellbeing in the area.
For me it was a match made in heaven! I’m passionate about taking good photos but I’m also passionate about challenging the negative stereotypes of ageing that circulate in our society and also about promoting the benefits of physical activity throughout the life cycle, and particularly as we age. For the three months that the exhibition ran, from the wonderful opening day in June (sunny, hot, beautiful) through to its closure, I like to think that together we made a dream-team. And Gillian’s insistence on there being a local element to the show paid off: local and national (Scotland) press covered the exhibition, focusing on the Scottish contingent, rightly proud to document their athletic achievements.
The exhibition is now, temporarily we hope, in storage, but it’s ready-to-go as a touring show. We all put so much work into it, we’re rooting for those big, gorgeously printed images to gain more viewers. We’re hoping other areas might like to put on the exhibition and to encourage local people in their area to get active, whatever their age. I’d love to come and photograph theirlocal masters athletes, so there will always be a local element and a local story.
My thanks remain to Gillian (now not only a colleague but also a friend) and to Falkirk Community Trust for their generous hospitality both to me and to my images. If 2018 has a highlight for me, this exhibition would be it.
For information about the Exhibition and how you could bring it to your area, contact me via this website or Gillian.Smith@falkirkcommunitytrust.org