Remarkable and Curious Conversations

Curated by Cally Trench

Alison Carter Tai

R&CC: The ArtistsR&CC: The Interactions

Alison Carter Tai

Alison Carter Tai
Japanese acers at Westonbirt (2011)
Colour photograph

Alison Carter Tai: AliCaT: Who does she think she is?

AliCaT is an amalgam of two different elements of the personality of Alison Carter Tai: the driven professional art and dress historian, and the head-in-a-froth-of-tulle creative writer and dreamer, with a wealth of visual imagery and material frivolities at her fingertips.

Her precise, honed skills' base is in dating historical portraits and artefacts, and contextualising material culture: making connections between disparate things from the past, reconnecting them with present generations, and making them accessible for future audiences, through exhibitions, lectures, and publications. The starting point is always the artefact, be it painting, sculpture, textile, jewel, or photograph. This evidence is first studied empirically, then set in a time frame, and cross referenced. This occupies her working hours, and plenty more.

She is now exploring how this dating and identification process can be applied through and beyond material possessions, to the people who owned them, to make sense of their owners' geographical and social roots. Most recently in her own personal family history research, she has found that putting scattered family members in touch through their mutual family artefacts and shared histories can be immensely rewarding. She produces family photographs, a sampler, a christening robe, farmhouses, a medieval manor house, a Priory, the stuff of memories and forgetting, potential rekindling and reminiscence. She has indulged in late-into-the-evening internet explorations, with compulsive, introspective detective work. Emotions are to the fore.

So who is she? She is on the surface one of society's conformists, who worked hard, trod a safe path, enveloped herself in the wraps of soft focus establishment and with firm friends bedded in around her, who would protect her. Village childhood; scholarship Abbey girl , red brick university. Bachelor, Master and Fellow: smouldering blue stocking in a man's world. Seen and not heard. Just occasionally screaming 'no' (silently: the scream of dreams) and going off in a different direction, undermining all sorts of preconceived (not least parental) notions about what a dutiful girl like her might do. Live in the East End, marry on a beach in St Petersburg, embrace a different culture through her marriage, succumb to a period of physical and mental exhaustion, and emerge to write some rather risqué text on tight-lacing?!

Turns out, in psychometric tests, that calculated risk is her driver. A left hander, her profile is that of one distinctly tactile and somewhat lacking in physical self-control, full of allergies, her body turning against itself. Unconventionality is her norm: not her desire so much as the happenstance of her varied fortunes. Bohemianism becomes her, behind closed doors. She is happy to be discontent. She lives in a state of organised chaos that works well in a crisis. Her biggest fear in life, apart from getting ill, is to be bored: another dress, another book, another project, will stave it off, she convinces herself, time and again.

She sees herself as a wordsmith. She is absolutely compelled to write. Her mother says she was born with a pencil in her left hand. The language of dress is her metaphorical dictionary of choice. Her unwritten book is titled Judging by Appearances, ostensibly about dress, but of course about age and size and colour and why fashion's a masquerade. Like life.

Then there's the mentor and advisor role. Here she is the observer, the listener, the catalyst and enabler. Her approach to mentoring is holistic, rather than specifically task-oriented. She coaxes, but never pushes. She also lurks informally in the shadows of artistic activity, fostering artists' endeavours, a self-styled muse for the few she rates. She will travel hundreds of miles to support an exhibition, see a new work, and hear a new piece of music or prose. She will swiftly, if moved, persuade others that they need to heed this new and amazing talent.

Underneath, she feels retrospectively cheated as a child of the creative and artistic nurturing (at her rather academic school) that would have allowed her to develop her poetic and painterly yearnings, and is now resolved to recapture that youthful enthusiasm for such passions. She's been in the wings too long. The dress rehearsal is over. She's stockpiled glamorous gowns and high heels; soon is the time to party.

But before she launches into the new career, she needs to enter an intermediate phase of listening and responding. To her body, to her friends and family, to new contacts. To what is unsaid. To what is hidden. Out of the dusty curtains, the nature of her reworked creative identity will gradually unwrap. Yin yan. Let the conversations begin.

Alison Carter Tai, 2009

Cally Trench's invitation to spread the word about her Remarkable and Curious Conversations project in summer 2009 was a life-changing moment for me. Instead of passing the invitation on to artists of my acquaintance, I took a leap of faith in myself and quietly thought myself into the persona of an artist in the sense of being a creative writer with artistic leanings. I took a calculated risk and launched into the fray with some questions to ease myself into conversations with my new Remarkable friends: 'what is an artist?, 'what does an artist wear?', 'did you have a childhood nickname?', 'what's in your handbag/pocket'? These were probing and personal questions, yet I was amazed at the warmth and enthusiasm of response. These were my kind of people!

I engaged with other artists' projects where possible and found this challenging and fun. As I entered each conversation I vowed to be entirely honest in my responses and to be true to myself rather than to my past work persona as a museum curator. I found the new way of thinking timely, liberating, and stretching. I have embraced my photography and oil painting, stitched textile work and upcycling again with relish, since leaving paid employ. I am now knee-deep in more projects than ever and loving it!

Meeting up with a childhood friend, Alan Prosser, in July 2011 after a 35-year gap was a watershed. It has led to a wealth of book- and music-sharing, story-telling and memory-jogging, which I have sought to share in part with the Remarkables through my open conversations with Alan at Remarkable events. We have examined our shared village upbringing, lifelong memories of each others' families and friends, and of the junior school teachers who influenced us most. As musician and writer respectively we may yet, perhaps, find a way of combining talents to good effect!

Alison Carter Tai, 2012

Writing on the work of Carole Waller by Alison Carter Tai

Alison Carter Tai's conversations and interactions

Self-Critical Badges
Postcard Exchange
Open Work
The Shredded Money Project
What does an artist wear?
Remarkable Nature
Remarkable Bookshelf
Interface in Reading
Papel Picado
Remarkable Nicknames
Unintentional Traces
Remarkable Place
Remarkable and Curious Record Label
Remarkable Bookshelf 2
Earliest Memories Quilt
Getting to know you in a matchbox
Remarkable Shed Party

Cally Trench's homepage