A Clerkenwell artist’s conceptual memorials have captured the public’s imagination
Emma Douglas’ life changed when her son Cato – one of three children she bought up in Clerkenwell – died in 2010 at the age of 21. A well-known artist, Emma had cared for Cato throughout his life and had to an extent retreated from a more public life.
“When Cato was poorly it was very difficult,” she says. “I had no interest in going to the studio.” She carried on her work in what she calls “a quieter, more personal way”.
But when a friend, the artist Ben Pulsford, proposed a joint exhibition, she forged the idea to mark Cato’s life in her own, conceptual way.
“I began painting rectangles of colour with each one representing a day in Cato’s life,” she says. “Dark grey denoted the hospital days and dark blue the consultant’s days. Bright colours represented happy days. As I painted, it became a comfort to see so many bright days.”
After developing this theme in her studio, Emma decided she wanted to paint each of the 8025 days of Cato’s life and show the work in public, in places of sig nificance to Cato. These evolved into the murals each representing a year in his life.
She painted the first one in 2015 at Treloar College in Hampshire which Cato attended, and has now painted eight more, including four in the Clerkenwell vicinity, from St John’s Gardens EC1 (where Emma runs the community gardening club), Coram Fields and Westminster Kingsway College in WC1, and last year, in Fortune Street Park – bright murals in public places that have a cheerful rather than sombre atmosphere. She has also completed paintings at a village hall in Dorset, at Freshford Station in Somerset, and in two places in the Isle of Barra, Outer Hebrides – all places with resonance to the family.
Each painting carries a plaque to explain its purpose. “It’s about recording the marks he made, the places that we all visited and the images that linger after someone has left,” she says. “People seem to want to know the story behind them.”
Indeed, Emma’s project is more widereaching than acting as a memorial to Cato, as she acknowledges the responses she receives when she paints or attends her artworks. “I have all these conversations and people come up with incredible messages,” she says. “Some really open up to me. It’s important to me that the artworks are in the public domain, as interaction with passers-by forms a part of the project, and will be the basis for a publication when the project is finished.”
Not all the sites she has approached have welcomed a mural, which she understands, but she intends to paint 22 in all, marking the number of years Cato lived. “I’m keen to find more wall space in the Clerkenwell area as this is where he spent most of his life,” she says.
As she continues, Emma’s project will likely last for a few more years, and in her undertaking she has redefined the idea of a memorial.
“I see it as a collective project in articulating grief,” she says. “It explores how we can express our own tragedies.”
To see more of Emma’s work:
If you have access to a wall with public space: