Growing up with a stammer produced artefacts such as doodles and notes which artist and author Mikey Cuddihy has gone on to use in her art and in her stories.
I’ve had a stammer for as long as I can remember. It was much more severe when I was younger. Then in my late 20’s I had speech therapy, which helped a lot; the stammer was barely noticeable (although it was always there, lurking).
My face used to contort with spasms as I tried to get a difficult syllable out (neck clenched, fists in a ball). I could never say what I really wanted to; the right words always eluded me; they held a power that I couldn’t articulate, so I resorted to writing. I wrote letters to friends, full of sardonic humour; love letters, full of sweet nothings or recriminations; formal letters, asking for money or favours, and vitriolic ones to people who had made me angry.
Phone calls were traumatic, and I would put off making them, for days or not make them at all. My phone bill was almost nil, with just about the line rental to pay for. Finally getting up the courage to make a call, there would often be a long silence before I could introduce myself; sometimes my recipient would hang up before I could get the words out, thinking I was a hoax caller. My sister Deedee was used to it. ‘Is that YOU Mikey?’ she would say, even though there was only silence, or hesitation, on the other end of the line.
Oh those dreaded phone calls. I still hate them. Doodles and note-taking got me through the conversations. In those days, phones were attached to a cord – they were anchored so you couldn’t do something diverting like sweep the floor, or leave the house and walk along the street or catch the bus, chatting as you went along. You had to stay put. I kept a note pad by the telephone (didn’t everyone do that?). To get me through a call I would doodle and make notes – more than was necessary. Blue biro was my favourite implement. Doodling helped me focus. Faces, patterns, words, numbers, information.
Later, I would enlarge these doodles and use them in my work, blowing up something very small to gigantic proportions on the walls of an old luggage factory
Later – a decade after graduating from Art College - I would enlarge these doodles and use them in my work, which was site-based for a while, blowing up something very small with a slide projector and enlarging lens to gigantic proportions on the walls of an old luggage factory in South London using gigantic sticks of charcoal to trace over the forms and images. The scrolls and patterns and faces took on a decorative aspect like wallpaper or crazy cornicing. Any words or letters were indecipherable mostly as I often reversed the images, so words took on a calligraphic, decorative presence – part of the whole thing, rather than something that could be read. Sometimes the doodles themselves – stray ones on the backs of envelopes, would be window mounted and framed.
When I came back to painting on canvas, doodles were enlarged to biomorphic shapes and colours in large scale abstract paintings, and later on in paintings where the interlocutor or person I’d been speaking to would be acknowledged: 'Katherine Veiled', 'Sonia wanted someone for 3 months', or 'Aimee in Galashiels'. In later works the words from doodles themselves began to appear in my paintings and installations – scraps of notes and drafts of letters or letters I hadn’t sent … sometimes the A4 pages from notepads themselves, cut out into nameplate shapes, or enlarged and magnified, bleeding into absorbent paper. Once, I painted a discarded love-letter to a man – the husband of one of my oldest friends; painting the letters onto polythene which I then pressed onto a pink stained canvas so the words were reversed and unreadable. But I knew they were there.
Once, I painted a discarded love-letter to a man – the husband of one of my oldest friends
Writing stood in for speaking; writing was my voice. I was fluent: angry, loving, accusatory, flowing, unhesitant, unfaltering. Text (fragments – enlarged, cut out, Xeroxed…) drafts of my own letters or letters I never sent; lists, ephemera…found their way into the paintings, and could sometimes be ‘read’ or deciphered, but there was no narrative there, no ‘story’ as such. The texts were part of the painted whole – a grid or background of scribble, something partially revealed: 'Don’t I Know Myself?' or 'Pig Head Girl' for example.
Sometimes though, the texts within the paintings could be read and then they got me into trouble: The 'hidden' love-letter that I’d written to the husband of a friend, and then painted - unreadable and calligraphically across the canvas, exposed by a curator in her catalogue essay for a solo show. Some letter fragments about a lost baby, collaged onto a painting…all got me into trouble and eclipsed the paintings almost: I had to phone my friend and confess about my love for her husband; a reviewer complained about the reference to a lost baby being a contrivance, when I’d hardly noticed it myself.
Another exhibition where Xeroxed doodled pages from a notebook covered the canvases, repeating phrases - one about my divorce: 'Don’t give Tony anything'. And another about a Lonely Hearts candidate: 'Colin: slim, fit & tall.' At the private view, my estranged husband examined the canvases critically, and a potential lover cleared his throat and turned his back to the work.
It appeared that there were stories there that needed their own telling or writing down when eventually, the paper, which had covered some of the paintings’ surfaces, consumed the canvases altogether. It became obvious that something else was taking over, and that’s when I began to write my stories, and to publish my memoir.
Mikey Cuddihy is the author of ‘A conversation about happiness’ about her time at experimental Summerhill School in Suffolk, where she was sent when orphaned at the age of 9. Her website is www.mikeycuddihy.co.uk .