Yesterday, I received a copy of Geraint Franklin’s Murals and the Community Arts in England 1968–86: A Thematic Study. It’s a fine piece of work that deserves to be expanded into a full-length book. Geraint had spoken to me a couple of years ago, and he’d impressed me with his knowledge and insight. Among others he spoke to was Steve Lobb, who founded Greenwich Mural Workshop in 1975 with Carol Kenna, and several of whose murals are mentioned in the text, including, People of Greenwich Unite Against Racism (1984), now lost. The report was commissioned and published by Historic England (you can download a copy here) and I was glad to see the movement recognised in this way but also saddened to see it pass into history. A few hours later, that feeling became much more real and personal when I was told via Twitter that Steve Lobb had died.
For a year, in 1981, Steve was my guide and mentor in the art of painting murals, when I was taken on as an apprentice at Greenwich Mural Workshop. My time was divided between the community printshop run by Rob Finn and Lulu Ditzel out of a council flat on the Meridian Estate, beside the Cutty Sark in historic Greenwich, and Rathmore Youth Club in Woolwich, where GMW was working on Gaudi-inspired serpentine benches. On the surface, I was learning the basics of screen-printing (which I loved) and mosaic work (which I didn’t) but really, I was learning about art, work, people, life itself.
Steve took my education seriously, teaching me the basics of colour theory and mural design, as well as the theory and practice of community art. I still have the colour palette he got me to make from the autumn leaves I collected in Greenwich Park. He told me about the painters he loved, Edward Burra, Stanley Spencer and Marc Chagall who, he explained, had shown him that there was no reason why figures could not float in space if that suited the composition.
He guided me through my apprentice mural project, commissioned by the Cardwell Tenant’s Association for a launderette on the estate, and completed in the latter part of my time at GMW. I remember spending the day with him knocking on doors in lugubrious corridors to ask people which of the four possible designs they liked best. One elderly man opened the door only to tell us that there was nobody in. The next day, Steve had turned it into a poem. Performing his poetry, as Emile Sercombe, was another important side of his creativity.
I called at a door the other day,
an old man opened it, had a child behind him,
I said, I’ve come to see you about…
No good mate, he said, there ain’t nobody here
They’re all out
He shut the door. I said
Hang on, what about you?
There wasn’t an answer
The opening lines of Steve Lobb’s poem, ‘I called at a door the other day’ (1982)
Forty years on, I still wonder why Steve, Rob and Lulu took me on as their apprentice at Greenwich Mural Workshop. Middle-class, half-French and rural-born, innocent as a new lamb, there was nothing in me to suggest that I would make a success of life as a community artist in south east London. But with their guidance and support I took to community arts like a duck to water, thrilled to have found where I belonged.
What they had taught me about printing and murals served me well in my next job, on the Hawtonville Estate in Newark-on-Trent, but I also learned the challenges of involving communities in the time-consuming work of mural painting, as well as my own very real limitations as a visual artist. What I learned from them about community art has stayed with me, the foundation on which I have built my life. My debt to them is immense.
I stayed in touch with Steve over the years, inviting him to speak about murals to East Midlands Association for Community Arts in 1986. I last saw him, with Carol Kenna, in 2011, when they organised an exhibition of GMW’s work to mark the closure of their work space (that’s them in the photo at the top of this page). In later years, he’d send me invitations to exhibitions of his paintings. Steve’s quicksilver flash of creativity energised his commitment to people and social justice, transforming everything he did. He will be remembered by history as a pioneer of murals and community arts but by those he worked with as a kind, gentle, funny person, generous with his ideas and time, a painter at heart, without self-importance and always interested in other people.
Steve would have loved the young muralists I met in Tarija and La Paz last week and recognised the same spirit in their work that animated his. I am very thankful to have known him.
The work of Nereta Collective in Tarija, Bolivia, May 2023
(photos François Matarasso)
What a perfectly beautiful piece of writing. Acknowledging others, your work, people, communities and murals, how they transform a space. I feel I learn so much from you in these words, they are so valued by me. Thank you always for putting pen to paper and celebrating great people. I love the poem. Just love it.
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Thank you Griselda, your words mean a lot. I’m very happy that what I write speaks to you. Communication is the primary reason to make art, with oneself and then with others.
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