Love Art Global had their first photographic exhibition in an Arts café called Nexus in Manchester. (2nd- 16th Nov 2017) I spent the day with them as they prepared for this event and got to know more about Jay Wheeler and Karen O’Donnell and their art. You may have seen ‘LOVE” graffiti tags around Liverpool and Manchester on walls and pavements. I have personally found sightings of these tags really heartwarming. The story behind them is a story of fragility, survival and passion. Love Art Global use art as a social intervention and to understand more about the impact of this intervention I also had conversations with people who had come to view the work at the exhibition.
I was fascinated when Karen O’Donnell told me that she had a love of capturing derelict buildings. She loves the idea of decay and trying to find life in something that people have given up on. This exhibition is in an indirect way a testament to this passion. Karen O’Donnell is the photographer for Love Art Global and has also become the colleague, friend and support of the artist Jay Wheeler who has in his own way experienced self dereliction. Karen’s photographs in the exhibition document, Jay, the artist at work. In every image we see the word ‘LOVE’ being left in public spaces as a gift and a reminder of how to approach life.
The exhibition captures the dynamic nature of the work and it’s role as an intervention that can support all of us to see life in a positive light. One of the viewers said “When I saw LOVE I thought to myself, it is the most powerful word in the universe. It’s a universal language, as soon as you see it, it does something to the senses instantly. It’s the hearts own language. What I love about Jay’s story is that even in the most painful traumas the seed of love has the potential to emerge. The spirit of the man is in his work” GA
Jay Wheeler is a war veteran. He left the army after 15 years of service. He was at this point broken down from the trauma of the things he had seen and experienced in Afghanistan. Jay’s motivation to join the army came from watching a news report of soldiers in Bosnia giving out aid. He wanted to give aid and restore peace in war torn countries, he knew that it was possible that he would be called on to fight, but was unprepared for the reality of this.
How does someone prepare themselves to be shot at on a daily basis? How does someone prepare themselves to watch an innocent civilian turn death grey in the process of trying to save him from a situation that you had a hand in creating. Or to see four colleagues turn into a plume of dust that is throwing out its debris of limbs. Or to hear a good friend take his last breath. Or to see someones intestines sliding out of their body that had been ripped apart and is turning itself inside out. How do you live your life when all you can now see is hate, death and fear surrounding you? How do you process the realization that you’ve been a puppet on a string for someone else’s argument?
Following his return from the army, Jay was in the twilight zone between life and death. He wanted to die so much that he tried to commit suicide 5 times. “I had given up on myself and the human race and didn’t want to be part of it.” There was also a part of him that wanted to live but didn’t know how to anymore. His life degenerated into a surreal existence. In town a bus backfired, everyone on the bus watched as Jay ducked for cover as he re-lived hearing gun shots. For Jay the world had become so oppressive that he didn’t want to go out anymore.
Jay spent his days on a sofa in his flat in a cocoon of bin bags full of rubbish, bottles of his own urine and flies. He would turn away every image that had faces on it. His CD’s, books, magazines were turned so that there were no eyes looking at him. If Jay did go out he wore hats and glasses to cover his face. On the walls of his flat Jay wrote messages to himself. Messages that said ‘You don’t deserve to live’ and ‘You’re guilty for a reason’. As part of his attempt to disappear Jay even tried to starve himself. In Jays words he lived in a ‘bubble inside a bubble’. It seems as though this inner bubble was an installation that represented how he felt inside himself. It was revealing the shame and fears that made Jay want to be invisible. The outer bubble was the hostile world that he could not see beyond. He was mentally and physically trapped in a world of darkness.
One day Jay walked into an empty church, cried his heart out to God and asked to be saved. Jay says that on that day the part of him that wanted to die died and the part of him that wanted to live was given a rebirth. Soon after, Jay had a break in and burglary at his property — because of this the police were called and he was finally ‘rescued’. The police recognized his need for psychological and practical support. They contacted SSAFA who restored his flat to somewhere that was habitable and supported him to get back on track.
On his journey through a mixed bag of psychological support, Jay was introduced to art as therapy and in his words he “fell in love with it. After all the shit I’d seen and how I had seen how the human race behave towards each other I wanted to base my work on Love.” Jay made himself a large canvas with the word love on it and would walk with it from the Liverpool city centre to Broadoak psychiatric unit. He would walk against the traffic so that people driving past could see what it said. Whilst the mental care staff thought that this was an act of madness, Jay knew that these were his first steps on the road to recovery. “I wanted people to look at the word and to think about what Love means to them in their lives and how we can make things better” Jay explained.
Gone are the bags of rubbish and bottles of urine, the hiding and the will of death. Jay now throws himself into society on busy streets in busy cities. He is on a mission to put Love in the world and make visible what it is that we need to generate more of. He now loves life and feels blessed. The people that have known Jay through his trials and recovery are proud of him. Jay’s primary motivation for joining the army had been to provide aid and restoration. He is now achieving this through his art. Love Art Global raises funds for SSAFA, which is an armed forces charity, and raises awareness of mental illness and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Jay’s work for charity and his art and his generosity of spirit and openness have a significant impact on many people. Some of the comments from exhibition guests were:
“When I see one of Jays tags it really makes my day.”
“Because Jay is so open about mental illness it encourages other people to talk about their own mental health.”
“For him to open up and tell me about his life was an honour.”
“Love is the medicine that we all need.”
The work that Love Art Global do is firmly tied to Jay’s life experiences. For this reason it is easy for Karen to hide herself in the shadows and she humbly refers to the exhibition as Jays work. Jay is keen to point out that Karen’s support, her administrative skills and her wonderful photography have taken Love Art Global to another level.
Congratulations and thank you to both of you on behalf of the many people that have been supported and touched by your work.
For the Love Art Global Facebook page CLICK HERE
Images courtesy of Love Art Global and Jay Wheeler