The Hearth Gallery is thrilled to welcome Welsh artist and maker, Lee John Phillips, as he invites you into his late grandfathers shed in this incredibly moving exhibition which explores themes of family, love, loss, and remembrance.
For a number of years, Lee has been doggedly cataloguing and drawing each individual item left by his grandfather, Handel Jones, in his tool shed.
Lee was fourteen when Handel passed away. It was a loss in the family that affected him deeply: Lee is now in his thirties but he can still remember vivid details of the day he learnt of his grandfather’s death.
“I can remember the clothes I was wearing that day. I remember how it felt afterwards. It’s all very clear.”
Although he now lives and works in west Wales, Lee grew up in the small mining town of Aberbargoed in the south Welsh Valleys. Like many Valleys towns, there exists a strong sense of community in Aberbargoed and, as a child, Lee lived on the same street as his grandparents.
They were extremely close; Lee and Handel would see each other every day and could often spend several hours in the tool shed, furiously working on their projects to “make do and mend,” salvaging and repairing everything that they could.
This was a mantra by which Handel lived and it has certainly left a remarkable impression on Lee and his artistic process. “These days, because everything is so instant, so disposable, people aren’t prepared to spend prolonged periods of time on any one task,” he says.
Any visitor to The Shed Project exhibition would be hard-pressed to accuse Lee of this, as the minute detail coupled with the sheer volume of drawings which make up this show are a clear indication that he is more than willing to commit a serious amount of time and effort to the project.
The Shed Project is an odyssey in illustration, a celebration of Handel’s life and memory through the objects that meant the most to both him and Lee.
Since his passing over twenty years ago, Handel’s shed has not been touched. Myrtle, Lee’s grandmother who still lives in their house in Aberbargoed has turned the old tool shed to what Lee calls “a makeshift mausoleum.”
He says, “To say that she is protective of the shed is putting it lightly! She doesn’t like anyone going in there, not even family members.”
This connection to Handel’s memory through the shed is one that Lee understands as he feels it too. Working his way through the shed is an emotional journey, as each item he finds holds its own story; it’s those with his grandfather’s handwriting on that “really kick [Lee] in the guts.”
Each item contained within the shed’s walls is equally important to Lee and he is giving them equal attention in his drawing: every nut, every bolt, every screw, every rivet.
At the outset of the project, he devised four rule for himself:
If the item can be picked up and doesn’t crumble if rubbed – draw it.
If the packet/container is/has been opened, empty it, draw items, replace them, draw container full.
If the packet/container has not been opened, it will not be, and drawn as found.
If there are multiples of the same items – draw them all.
Sticking almost religiously to these rules, Lee faces an incredible amount of work ahead. He is approaching the 7,500-item mark but estimates that there is probably around 100,000 more individual items to go.
Therefore, there is both an emotional and physical toll to this project. Lee calls it “psychological hard work.”
In 2016, he spent four days drawing the contents of a box of rivets: “There was a point midway through where I just got up, left the house and started walking laps around the village. I felt like I was in a trance. The strain on my hands causes intense pain when I try and sleep, I wake up looking like I’ve been fighting the pillows. I’ve had to start physiotherapy to solve the problem.”
Despite this, Lee says that he is never more artistically fulfilled than when working on the shed and the hours which he has devoted so far have resulted in a beautiful, moving exhibition, international recognition and media coverage of the project, and a Shed Project journal and adult colouring book for mindfulness activities.
But, make no mistake, the project has already taken hundreds of hours with many more to come and Lee’s devotion to his craft is something to behold. Regardless, Lee is perfectly content to continue.
He says, ““I’ve always kind of been happy with my own company, quietly sitting in the corner to work. Sometimes my granny says: ‘My God! You’re just like your grandfather!’”