“I don’t want you to come to my show!” Harsh words from my daughter, Charlotte, referring to her school’s A Level Art Show in 1999. She went on to predict that I would be nothing but an embarrassment to her and her friends. At issue was my “humour” which she found childish and misplaced. Her entire Art Class had achieved As and A*s without a single example of representational art. Charlotte had been scouring abandoned buildings, one friend had collected old sacks and another had learned to mix concrete. The show was going to be a smorgasbord of conceptual art absolutely ripe for crass dad-jokes about builders not clearing up their mess and questions about the age of the artist.
With fervent promises on my part and threats of unmentionable consequences from Charlotte it was agreed that I might attend but the relief I felt was soon overtaken by a deep sense of ‘not knowing’ – not knowing how on earth I was going to ‘be’ at this event.
The next day I was driving to Bristol to run one of BRIEF’s courses in Solution Focused Brief Therapy. It had been raining heavily all night and there was still no let-up. Every lorry was throwing up a Niagara of spray, visibility was negligible and the car kept gliding from side to side. It was tense driving, slower than I had planned and made worse by the lack of signage telling me how far I still had to go. As I was muttering to myself about the problem visitors to the country must have just finding their way around, a road sign loomed out of the watery grey: Birmingham 10 miles. I was on the M40; I should have been on the M4.
Satnavs had not yet come on the market so it was a perilous few minutes in the slow lane, nudged along by an irate lorry driver before I worked out my new route. A glide in and out of the middle lane brought me back to the task of staying alive but when I finally reached my exit for the cross-country race to the M4 I was in such a state of panic about being late I began to fear for my life. Luckily, Solution Focused Brief Therapy can, in an emergency, be self-administered so I asked myself this question.
“Let’s imagine that this course, whatever time you arrive, is one of the best courses you have ever run, what will you notice about yourself as you take that last breath before saying your first words?” Even the question had an immediate calming effect and within a few minutes I was back in control, looking forward to the course and asking my last question: “What might tell you that this has been one of the best courses you have run?” I said to myself that I would have a new idea.
Calmer and with a little less rain I thought about the coming Art Show and how I might behave. I had known many of the students since playgroup or even earlier and began to picture them: Josephine with her piles of sackcloth, Lucy mixing concrete, each of them a young and interesting adult. I began to feel a deep sense of appreciation for the passion these young people were bringing to their work and the fact that it was incomprehensible to me did not give me the right to judge it and even less to ‘diagnose’ it with cheap jokes. I then began to find myself becoming curious and looking forward to seeing these works differently, to ask questions of myself in their light and to ask questions of the artists. I still felt nervous but it was the nervousness of doing something new and in some way dangerous. Charlotte would be watching.
Meanwhile, I arrived at my course relaxed and with five minutes to spare and it got off to a flying start. On the afternoon of the final day when summarising the approach I found myself drawing a ‘floor plan’ of an Art Gallery and realised that my thoughts about Charlotte’s show had mirrored the Solution Focused process. The ‘Gallery’ had steps leading up to the entrance which represented positive anticipation or what back then we called “Problem-free Talk”. Then came the ticket office representing the client’s “best hopes” and once these are established visitors are free to roam around the two ‘exhibitions’: Pictures of Tomorrow (descriptions of a preferred future) and Pictures of the Past and Present (Scales, lists, past successes, coping, etc.) The only way to leave was through the ‘shop’ representing ‘one point up the scale’. And finally, descending the steps, giving appreciative feedback, in those days, compliments.
It was a useful metaphor if somewhat roughly drawn and it served me well for a few years. But things move on and though I left it behind the metaphor also moved on appearing in many countries and in more colourful and artistic guises. The most recent and by far the most imaginative version appears on the cover of Mark McKergow’s latest book The Next Generation of Solution Focused Practice which I am eagerly looking forward to reading.
And now, back to that much anticipated evening, the A Level Art Exhibition at Fortismere School in North London. I did my daughter proud; had there been such a thing I would have won the ‘Best Parent at an Art Show’ award.
25th April 2021