David Anthony Kennedy
Local writer and storyteller, George Murphy interviews local characters and personalities
'Me, myself and why', David Anthony Kennedy's current town hall exhibition, portrays in words, images and objects his reflections on why he creates. Before we met at his studio, David sent me a note about his life:
I remember golden summers in Blackpool that went on forever. I was a very happy child.
My Dad, who had had a terrible childhood was very damaged. I think that because of this and because his own family meant so much to him he tried hard to get his own family life right but it was in a wonky way! It was a strange mixture of love and discipline but I know he did his best.
If we were naughty, my dad would sometimes stand us on the landing in a corner, until about three o'clock in the morning. If our legs buckled he would slap them. On other occasions, we would all have to go to bed early for a week. My dad would click his fingers at six o'clock and we would have to go to bed immediately.
Aged about seven or eight, I would always stamp up the stairs in defiance to make a point! My dad would click his fingers and say "Down lad". I would then stamp down the stairs. He would slap my face and I would just turn it slowly back towards him and stare at him. He would then say "bed", and I would stamp up the stairs again. This would be repeated several times and it would end with a stand off with my dad slapping my face but I never cried and I never gave in! In the end he would just say "bed"
Stubborn then and stubborn now.
My Dad did apologise to me in later years and I accepted this. He was a damaged man who loved his family and son and I loved him very much. I miss him.
At school …
… I was a 13/14 year old, awkward and spotty, my sexuality burgeoning and my need for contact with men growing stronger. I think it was at this point in my life that a constant ache of loneliness began to set in.
I sat at the train station, Wigan Wallgate and stared at the high stone wall facing me, thinking this is going to be the day that my life changes. I was 17. I was on my way to the gay youth group in Manchester, run from the gay centre on Bloom Street.
I remember finding the building and walking past it again and again, trying to summon up the courage to knock on the door. Eventually I did so, someone opened the door and I went in. The relief and excitement that I felt inside in those first few moments and the consequent hours was physically tangible for me. I can feel it now as I recall, not having thought about this for forty years.
Aged forty three, I found myself with no money, sleeping on my mum and dad's couch in their one bedroom elderly person's flat and with little hope.
Aged forty six, I moved to Hebden Bridge and I came back alive again …
David Kennedy Q&A
David, how has lockdown been for you?
At first, it felt surreal. I remember standing outside my house, first thing in the morning listening to the birdsong and it seemed they were talking like never before, really loud! There were no cars on the road, no sound pollution and the sky, I swear it seemed bluer than it had ever been. It was as if the earth was as it should be!
I'd walk down to my studio each day, spending my time there and I'd bump into the odd person, so my life in that respect didn't change much. I'm used to solitude so it was ok for me. You should use how you feel to create, so It inspired me to write some poetry.
What were your intentions when planning Me myself and why?
Well, I very rarely do exhibitions as they are tiring to put together, so I thought if I do one, it has to be different, it can't just be a collection of paintings on the wall. I like to think of myself as an open book with very few filters and I always try to be as honest as I can, so I thought the best thing to do would be to reflect this in my exhibition. It includes my costumes, magical objects I think, my paintings, photographs and writing. I don't hold back on the writing because it is so important, it pulls the threads together because it explains me, it explains myself, it explains why!
Can you remember your earliest artworks?
My earliest memory regarding art was probably me sitting in a corner and making or drawing something at a table, I think I was about four years old. My mum used to say I was mucking up! Fifty five years later, I realised that I was doing the same thing in my studio and still getting the same joy out of it!.
I suppose the biggest project I did was with my twin brother when in 1969 we built a model of Caernarfon castle for Prince Charles's investiture and ended up in the Blackout Gazette!
Did you have a happy childhood?
Yes, I did. Maybe because I lived in my own world which was ok!
My Dad was very strict, used physical discipline, but his generation did and he was damaged as result of his own terrible childhood but, he was full of love and cherished his family. We were brought up in Blackpool in the sixties and seventies and there was always something to do. I remember long golden summers which seemed to last forever.
You mentioned that you got into a lots of scrapes. Were you accident prone?
Err, yes! I don't think I had any concept of danger! I fell off a high window sill and splatted my face on the concrete, hence my very broken nose! Stood on the bunk bed and shoved my fingers in the light socket, got a bad electric shock!
I got run over three times, once by a milk float … don't ask! Fell down the stairs and snapped my lower right arm in two so it just dangled!
I sat on top of a wall at the back of the house and my brother tied me up to the top of the washing line post then ran off to play. My granny found me dangling and my face was blue!
I would stand naked and lean against the bedroom window watching my mum looking horrified when told by a neighbour what I was doing! This was all at the age of five!
How were your adolescent years?
I was always insular, never really a part of any crowd because I never fitted in but I never felt lonely. I was happy to be by myself. When I became adolescent and my needs as a young gay man became more so I suppose then I felt a degree of loneliness.
Being a gay young man in 1970s Wigan was very isolating. My main escape at school was the art rooms where I'd go at break times and lunchtimes to talk to my art teacher, Mr Berryman, who I loved. He was heterosexual, no question, but he was kind, the first person I ever told that I was gay.
One lunchtime, while his wife was there, he came behind me, wrapped his arms around me and gave me the warmest hug that I had every had in my life, my first contact with a man. There was nothing inappropriate about it, just warmth. I walked around for days smiling and feeling loved. That one act alone helped me beyond words.
You didn't complete your education?
Well, I left halfway through the sixth form because, aged seventeen, I discovered men. I was like a child in a sweet shop and couldn't get enough!
How did your art help you through this period?
To be honest, it was a lean period as I was distracted!
Any long term relationships at that time?
Not really, though it wasn't for want of looking. I just don't think I was very lucky. I got the feeling that I was always third best, OK to have sex with but not much else, Hey Ho!
Having said that, I was no sad victim, I had my own world!
I did meet someone who I saw on and off for twenty three years and who I lived with for twelve but it wasn't a happy ending. I found myself sleeping on my parents' couch having been dumped aged forty three, vastly overweight having been ripped off and feeling full of despair.
I took control then because I had to. No victimI!
Was your move to Hebden important in changing your life?
Absolutely. I found my true home and I found my friends. I'd always dreamed of living in an alternative and arty community, hopefully with other gay people around, and here I am - here twelve years later! I met the friends that I'd been searching for all my life. People who are worthy of me and I of them. Slightly wonky people but in a good and non toxic way. People who I can play with and have an inner child. People who know how to laugh and love and who understand me. People who are not afraid to cry, be vulnerable and honest. They are my other family, my chosen family.
Before we move on, a snappy question sent in by readers: what's your favourite book?
The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, followed by The Secret Garden.
You've studied drama. What's been your most loved theatre experience so far?
This is a hard one because I had a lot of great experiences. Playing Luke Marks, a gardener in Lady Audley's Secret at a festival in France. The audience didn't understand English but because it was melodrama and was very visual with one of the crew encouraging booing and hissing in the audience it became a different entity and was a lot of fun. We got a massive standing ovation!
If you had to choose one special piece of music, what would it be?
The theme tune from a 1960s TV series called Belle and Sebastian. The theme takes me back to my childhood and haunted me for years until I found it once again on YouTube. Haunting and beautiful
Favourite holiday memory?
Being thrown over a couch, rice pudding being squished in my face and a dog licking it off! There was a lot of laughter involved!
You cut a dash. Have you always dressed in a 'smart 40s' fashion?
No, I was a hippie up until the age of forty four, with tie-die T-shirts and long hair, resplendent with feathers and beads!
I remember walking past a shop window one day and my very fine hair was just floating in the wind and it was then I thought, time to change. I did not want to look like a sad old rocker!
I'd always loved the twenties up until the 50s period for men's clothes. Classic tweeds, linen suits and shirts, brogues, nice luggage. They are timeless and classic, they never date as does most fashion. I hate labels unless they are inside!
This is not to say I don't rock it up on occasion and slap a bit of eyeliner on!
I've noticed you wear some vintage style jumpers. Where do you buy them?
Well I'm very fortunate in that my mummy knits them!
I've got about ten tank tops which I love and they're perfect for a Brideshead Revisited day. Mum's 86 now and though she's still knitting me things they are a little wonkier, which makes me love them all the more.
You also enjoy dressing up, goth festivals, the Whitby get togethers?
I love them and have missed them. The next one is going ahead at the end of this month and I've got a glut of costumes that I haven't worn. My aim each year is to try and create a costume that's slightly larger than the last one with more detail and they can take tens of hours to make. If I'm dressed as king, I act like a king, and if I'm dressed as a warrior, I'll act like a warrior. It's a little like street theatre and you have to own your image! The photographers and the people who come to watch don't see a 59 year old from the north, they see illusion, magic and imagination.
On a more sombre topic. You've suffered a tragic loss in your life. Please tell us about Aram. Where and when did you meet?
Well I met Aram in 2009, in Hebden Bridge, he was in a neighbour's apartment and within the first five minutes, I'd asked him back to my apartment to look at my etchings! It was all quite innocent to be honest!
We got together, but after a year and a half, he was diagnosed with prostate cancer which had metastasised, spread throughout his body. He was given just six months but lived for another three and a half years!. The end of his life was pretty terrible and traumatic, I can't pretend otherwise. I looked after him at his home for the last two months of his life and it wasn't easy in so many ways.
To see someone who you love, an innocent, intelligent and beautiful man suffer so much is traumatising beyond words and it marks and changes you. It is like something has taken a chunk out of you and it changes your DNA. The only positive is that nothing in your life from then on can ever be as painful.
How did you cope after Aram's untimely loss?
I cried every day for months until I couldn't cry any longer. Eventually, I saw light at the end of the tunnel and I came alive again. I realised how short, precarious and important life is and of how important it is to cram as much life, love and happiness as is possible. It puts all the important things into context.
Was your art important to you throughout that period?
You find different ways to get through. For me, it was collating a book of stories and photographs of Aram's life, preserving his memory which I feel I have done. He went to Oxford and Cambridge University and they both have copies of the book in their archives. I also commissioned a bronze bust of him by the artist Luke Shepherd so his image is preserved for all eternity!
How is life treating you these days?
Learning to live with getting creakier but still creating in whatever way feeds my soul. I love my life, friends and family. I am lucky now in that I have my partner Duncan who is my rock and means a great deal to me.
Can you explain the aims and activities of Out in the Valley?
To encourage this great LGBTQIA and allies community of ours to engage and create groups and events. To empower people and to help people who suffer from loneliness.
At the moment, people involved in OITV have initiated a singing group, drama/play reading group, initiated walks and we run a regular social group.
We are also initiating a community quilt project which is based on the famous Aid Quilts. There's more info regarding the organisation in a news item on the HebWeb.
I believe you are involved in a make-over of the Fox and Goose?
Haha, well not quite a make-over! I entered a competition to produce a piece of artwork that says a huge thank you to the 183 people who have contributed to the fantastic beer garden.
The lovely manager rang me to say I'd won it, which was great. So I asked how many people had entered and was told it was just me - but she liked mine the best! I am chuffed anyway and I've decided to refer to this as a commission!
Thank you David, it was lovely to look round your studio and I'm sure the public will enjoy your exhibition.
George Murphy, Hebden Bridge October 2021
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