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#205 Elizabeth Stanford-Sharpe Bertha's Story

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It took a few visits before anybody felt brave enough to leave the benches and copy the examples I’d made, or to take a clean sheet of paper and experiment, but gradually they grew more confident, came, and talked.

Elizabeth Stanford-Sharpe

The time had come to choose our placements. Did I want to work in a nursery, a family group home, or maybe a home for unmarried mothers? I didn’t relish any of the suggestions. I’d read about a place for those who didn’t fit societal norms, just as I didn’t fit societal norms. I was only doing the course because one education welfare officer had courageously fought for my place against a sea of professionals who all said I wasn’t worth educating. And now I’d learned that there was a whole building full of pushed-away, we-don’t-want-you, you-might-scare-the-neighbours’ people, and instinctively knew that that was where I wanted to work. On their own literature, they described it as a ‘colony’ for people with ‘mental deficiency’.

“Oh, you can’t go there”, my teachers said. “Don’t be stupid”, they said. “What on earth would you find to base your study on in a place like that?”, they said. “It’s impossible, they wouldn’t give permission”, they said. So, I wrote to one of the board members myself – a very fancy person who probably hadn’t an inkling of what happened in the place, saying that I wanted to be allowed to gain some voluntary experience as an ‘artist in residence’ (I’d only read the term once, but it seemed to somehow fit what I wanted to achieve and sounded authoritative) There was strong opposition, I was given strict rules about where I could and couldn’t go, but she somehow persuaded them to allow me access to the ‘industrial therapy villa’.

About a dozen ‘patients’ sat hunched on lab-style stools around two benches. The manager of operations there was as institutionalised as the residents, and wary of my presence. Their ‘therapy’ was counting screws into tiny plastic bags and then stapling on cardboard toppers. The completed packets were loaded into a large basket to be delivered to hardware shops they would never visit.

I introduced myself, laid out an array of art materials on the deep windowsills and told them that they could just go and use them whenever they wanted. It took a few visits before anybody felt brave enough to leave the benches and copy the examples I’d made, or to take a clean sheet of paper and experiment, but gradually they grew more confident, came, and talked. They were all seventy-plus and the majority had been there for most of their lives. For most, their ‘mental deficiency’ was that they had struggled with reading or writing, one gentleman had on his file that at the age of twelve he had ‘backchatted’ his teacher, one had epilepsy, but it was a lady I shall call Bertha here (not her real name) that caught my heart the most.

“You’ll not get ‘er ti talk ti yer”, the manager said, and for several weeks it appeared he was right. Bertha sat packing screws into plastic bags, averting my gaze and ignoring the art supplies, totally silent. Then one day, a little switch just clicked in her brain, and Bertha made her way over to the windowsills, picked up a piece of paper, and spent time purposefully sifting the crayons until she found the colours she needed. She carried them over to an empty corner of the room, and kneeling on stiff joints, she began to draw. Bertha was eighty-two years old. Only when she returned her crayons to the tin did I see what was on the paper she had left on the floor in the corner.

It was a flower, but not just any flower. It was a branch of Wisteria, exquisitely executed in just the right colours. Whilst she was at lunch, I had a wander around the outside of the villa to see if there was any Wisteria she might have drawn inspiration from, but there was none.

Slowly, slowly, over months, Bertha’s story emerged. She drew, cried, and eventually spoke of how she came to be in that place, and the release in her was palpable. She became less tense; her beautiful voice was heard, and her body walked taller as she realised that she was believed and validated. At twelve years of age, Bertha was about to start working at a ‘big house’ as a servant. Her bags packed, she knew there was something she must tell her mother before she left home, because she wanted to protect the sister she was leaving behind.

Nervously, stutteringly, she told her mother about her father’s regular visits to her bed and the abuse she was subjected to. Her mother didn’t believe her, and Bertha’s father loaded her on to the cart for the last journey she took. They drove right past the big house with cascades of Wisteria covering its walls, and she was delivered to the ‘colony’, where her father left her in the care of the registrar and turned his back without a word. Bertha’s records were marked, ‘habitual liar and sexual provocateur’.

This dear lady was a joyous bundle of delight, deeply gifted in creativity, but that potential had been locked away for seventy years, and the privilege I feel at having seen Bertha’s story painstakingly unfold, inspires me still.