Garry Kennard: artist, writer and mountaineer

16 Sep

Everyone has a story. Holloway-based artist Garry Kennard – the man who mixed up art and neuroscience for anyone to enjoy at the Winchester Festivals – was born in 1948 at home in a council flat off Upper Street. He’s spent years away from Islington but now he’s back painting, writing and planning his next trip to the mountains. Interview by Nicola Baird

Garry Kennard at the summit of Moel Siabod, a mountain in Snowdonia. (c) Garry Kennard

Garry Kennard at the summit of Moel Siabod, a mountain in Snowdonia. (c) Garry Kennard

It’s possible that one of Garry Kennard’s proudest moments was when the Islington Gazette ran a story about a brave “climbing pensioner” who had scaled a mountain just a few months after having two new hips. Garry, 67, is amused by the word pensioner, and explains he wanted to make sure the Whittington Hospital got the credit for his fitness. Besides there’s a lot Garry could wave his walking sticks about triumphantly including his paintings, essays and the Art & Mind Festivals.

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Holloway icons include neighbours as well as “the guy from the kebab shop, and a guy from the bike shop who never even saw his painting, Alex who runs the Euro Café round the corner, my doctor. They can be seen on Garry Kennard’s website and have been exhibited at Robert Devcic’s GV Art Gallery and at the Holloway Arts Exhibition run by Rowan Arts at Hornsey Street. “I tried to get autobiographies but only managed with half the people.” See the whole collection at www.garrykennard.com

Holloway Icons include neighbours as well as “the guy from the kebab shop, and a guy from the bike shop who never even saw his painting, Alex who runs the Euro Café round the corner, my doctor and Jeremy Corbyn (bottom right).” They can be seen on Garry Kennard’s website and have been exhibited at Robert Devcic’s GV Art Gallery and at the Holloway Arts Exhibition run by Rowan Arts at Hornsey Street. “I tried to get autobiographies but only managed with half the people.” See the whole collection at http://www.garrykennard.com

The Holloway Icons – 39 portraits of people who lived or worked close to Garry Kennard – are an impressive collection of shopkeepers, residents and local superstars Jeremy Corbyn, MP and Arsene Wenger.

Jeremy Corbyn, MP by Garry Kennard - part of the Holloway Icon series. (c) Garry Kennard

Jeremy Corbyn, MP by Garry Kennard – part of the Holloway Icon series. (c) Garry Kennard

With the exception of Jeremy Corbyn “who just looked too grim”, most portraits, even the children, stare unsmiling out, wreathed in gold as if they are uncomfortable deities. The icons were painted by Garry who was born into what he calls “a pretty rough working class Islington at the back of the Town Hall. Wakelin House, Sebbon Street is a ‘30s block and it’s still there. When I was born there was no hot water, we used a copper thing to heat water.”

Although home life was fun, he didn’t like the area much and admits: “I left home as soon as I could by moving to Belsize Park.”

For years Garry moved around London avoiding Islington. He then spent 10 years rebuilding two houses in the Corbieres Hills near Perpignan, France. “They were used as a gite and for exhibitions and concerts. But the area was exactly like the sort of society portrayed in the film Jean de Florette (1986), which meant when we made friends with a few people, we also made enemies with others, it wore us out.”

Zenobia* the cat stays cosily asleep throughout Islington Faces interview with artist, essayist and mountaineer Garry Kennard.

Zenobia* the cat stays cosily asleep throughout Islington Faces interview with artist, essayist and mountaineer Garry Kennard.

It was while drawing trees in France that Garry had his moment of epiphany. “I’ve always been a painter and in France I became very interested in the way works of art have their effect on the human nervous system. I looked on the web and found that really serious neuroscientists were also looking into this. So I started writing about it from an artist’s point of view. I’ve always written a lot of letters and so I wrote to Rita Carter, author of Mapping the Mind asking what the public knew about this. She said ‘not a lot’.”

The pair met, became friends and dreamed up the idea of regular festivals which combined art and science in a unique way, see more about these here. After securing £60,000 of funding Garry based himself in Winchester where he ran Art & Mind Festivals from March 2004 until October 2009. The first festivals were sell-outs and attracted luminaries from both the art and science worlds, in part because of patronage from two celebrity scientists – Richard Dawkins and world renowned neuroscientist V S Ramachandran – but also because of the mix of lectures, discussions and performances, or as Garry called it “the theatre of discourse”.

Garry might have stayed in Winchester if funding hadn’t become too difficult and that he hadn’t met his current partner, Erif, who he describes as a “city girl” who wanted to go back to London to a flat she owned in Islington. “It almost felt like a defeat,” he says with a smile, “but I got over it immediately.”

Garry Kennard in his studio, just off Holloway Road.

Garry Kennard in his studio, just off Holloway Road.

Places Garry Kennard loves in Islington

Chapel Market (c) Isabel Vandergert-Wilson.

Chapel Market (c) Isabel Vandergert-Wilson.

“My middle brother still lives in Islington off Essex Road.”

“I first remember going to Chapel Market with my mother when I was very young. She did a lot of shopping there. It’s not changed much, they’ve still got the pie shop, though they used to chop eels up outside.”

Manze’s Eel, Pie & Mash Shop, 74 Chapel Market, N1 – reviews on Yelp here http://www.yelp.com/biz/manzes-eel-pie-and-mash-shop-london

“I like to go to Cass Art off Essex Road. It’s enormous and you get good bargains.”
66-67 Colebrook Road, N1 https://www.cassart.co.uk/

“One of my favourite places is Whittington Hospital. I like to give them publicity as over the past 18 months as they’ve been marvellous – I’ve had two hip replacements, a kidney stone out, a perforated colon and I’ve been circumcised. Within three months of my 2nd hip operation I was climbing in north Wales and then skied in France.”

Whittington Hospital is on Magdala Avenue, N19

“I went to Queen’s Head School – a terrible secondary modern. You’ll know it as Islington Green (or even COLA, City of London Academy). But I met an art teacher there who saved my life!”

 

Moel Siabod 1

Climbing in Snowdonia. (c) Garry Kennard

Garry’s tenaciousness is most obvious when it comes to his passion for mountains. With Islington’s highest hill at 129ft (443m)*. It’s no surprise that it was elsewhere – on a trip to Switzerland with his second wife to see the Eiger – that he first wondered what it would be like to climb a mountain. It wasn’t long before the mountain bug was so strong that Garry could describe himself as “a mountaineer and occasional extreme rock climber”. He climbed in the Alps and then led expeditions in 1984 and 1989 to the Himalays. Here with Sherpa guides and his friend Mark Adams, Garry tried to try to climb the 6,620m (21,719ft) Kande Hiunchuli mountain in Nepal. Both times his team had to turn around 600m (1,968ft) from the top.

Impressive mountain library.

Impressive mountain library.

When Garry was 62 his team tried again, and were still thwarted. You can see pictures from the last expedition here.

I gave my stuff away,” he says, but it’s clear he hasn’t stopped thinking about the unclimbed Kande Hiunchuli, or properly retired. “On Google Earth I’ve seen a new flatter route which no one knew about,” he says. Any new expedition may be stymied by a lack of the £6,000 it would cost to make the attempt, but in case this problem can be solved some fitness training has already begun – within three months of Garry’s most recent hip replacement he was climbing in north Wales, and this August (2015) he was rock climbing on Lundy Island. “I also train by getting up Highgate Hill as fast as I can. Since my first hip operation I’ve made 58 ascents.”

Inspiration for the lemon tree suite.

Inspiration for the lemon tree suite.

In quieter moments Garry is working on the growing collection of works he calls Lemon Tree Suite – watercolours and drawings done on A3 white paper linked by the little lemon tree in the corner of his studio. See some of the pictures here .

20150902_155117

In Garry Kennard’s studio.

As Garry points out “most of my new work is based in this house or sometimes the view from the garden – so it’s very local.” Even if the photographs are of huge climbing victories around the world from the Old Man of Hoy in Orkney to that unconquered peak in Nepal, it’s Garry’s own large paintings done in Islington of Islington – a triptych of trees reflecting into water or sky along the New River – that dominates his cosy sitting room and in the studio it’s the Holloway Icons.

Garry is a man who has a huge capacity to think, talk, debate and then tell the story another way using colour, while anticipating the work the viewers’ minds will have to do too.

Words*

Zenobia – a famously beautiful 3rd century warrior queen who lived in what is now Syria.

Highgate (north) hill starts in Islington and ends in Haringey. It is 129m (423ft). The tallest hill in Greater London is Westerham Heights, Bromley is 245m (804ft). The hills around Crystal Palace are 110m (361ft) and 112m (367ft)

Over to you

If you’d like to nominate someone to be interviewed who grew up, lives or works in Islington, or suggest yourself, please let me know, via nicolabaird.green at gmail.com. Thank you.

If you liked this interview please SHARE on twitter or Facebook or join the Facebook group. Even better follow islingtonfacesblog.com (see menu top right) or follow me on twitter @nicolabairduk

This blog is inspired by Spitalfields Life written by the Gentle Author.

If you enjoyed this post you might like to look at the A-Z  index, or search by interviewee’s roles or Meet Islingtonians to find friends, neighbours and inspiration. Thanks for stopping by. Nicola

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