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Back stage in the main hall at King Richard School in Portsmouth. Photo by Debra Welch.

Back to school with Debra Welch

Written by Gaia Giacomelli
Published date 29 April 2019

When Debra Welch found out that her old school was closing and the building was due to be demolished, she set out to document it. King Richard School in Portsmouth was a fundamental pillar of the local community for over 60 years.

Her solo exhibition entitled All Things Are Yours at Chelsea Space brings together new video work as well as sculptural and photographic works made over a 2 year period. She spoke with Chelsea Arts Club Trust Research Fellow and curator of the exhibition Gaia Giacomelli to give us an insight into her working practice.

Interior of classroom at King Richard School in Portsmouth. Photograph by Debra Welch
Classroom at King Richard School in Portsmouth. - Credit: Debra Welch.

History

Gaia: You grew up in Paulsgrove, a large post-war housing estate in Portsmouth. What led you to make work about the place you’re from?

Debra: My parents moved to Paulsgrove when I was just 6 weeks old, although my dad had spent most of his childhood there. Building work on the estate first started in 1945, in response to bomb damage during the Second World War. It was an ambitious programme, housing thousands of people. Land was acquired next to a place called Wymering, where a smaller council estate had previously been built in the 1920’s and 30’s. Both backed neatly onto Portsdown Hill, a large hill that shadowed the breadth of the city and later would become the playground to many children growing up there.

Over time it occurred to me that much of the historical aspects of the estate had yet to be written, and the generation that first moved there, including my own grandparents, were no longer here to share their experiences of its building and development. There were stories about houses being allocated with no door numbers and roads barely being laid when people first moved into their homes.

Some of the first pre-fabricated council housing was temporary. Shops were initially mobile and some then set up in Nissen huts [corrugated steel structures used by the military] until the permanent shops were built in the early 50’s. It was all new. Sat very centrally within all of this, Paulsgrove Secondary Modern School for Boys and Girls, later known as King Richard School, was built in 1952 and was the only secondary school on the estate.

Science lab at King Richard School in Portsmouth. Photograph by Debra Welch.
Science lab at King Richard School in Portsmouth. - Credit: Debra Welch.

The beginnings of an archive

Gaia: In 2016 you found out that the school was going to close. How did you start the project, and what was your aim?

Debra: Growing up in the community and attending the school I knew that people would be very sad to see it go and I thought it was important to document it before its closure. I contacted the head of the school at the time, who kindly agreed to give me access for filming. Many ex-students had contacted him providing photos, stories, letters and requesting visits to say their final goodbyes, which made it very easy for me.

I was thinking a lot about how peoples’ experiences of school are rooted in the relationships they make, their memories, and the stories they come away with. I wondered if I had ever really taken much time to notice the walls that had surrounded me and had provided the space for my own education.

Back then it was all about the activity. In some way I saw my own effort to film every inch of the school (well, near enough) as an acknowledgement of its loyalty. The school wasn’t a celebrated architectural wonder, it was an ordinary school built to fulfil a very simple and important role. I felt grateful to have been given the opportunity to document it before it was gone.

Gaia: What was the community’s reaction to losing such an important symbol?

Debra: Whilst a new building was clearly needed I knew there would be much sadness around the closure of a school. In the months following the announcement, the school invited ex-students back for final tours of the building, run by current students, which over 400 people attended.

At the same time as starting my own project, I was happy to find out that Portsmouth City Council had been awarded heritage lottery funding for a new project, Capturing The Spirit. With this funding a new archive of the estate’s history was created, with hundreds of photos and personal stories collected from people who had lived and grown up in Paulsgrove and Wymering, now held by the Portsmouth City Museum and Library Services.

Classroom at King Richard School in Portsmouth. Photo by Debra Welch.
Classroom at King Richard School in Portsmouth. - Credit: Debra Welch.

Filming

Gaia: How did it feel to be back at school? Was it how you remembered it, or had it changed a lot over the years?

Debra: Returning to the school felt a little odd, I was quite nervous going back. It had been 25 years since I had been there, but I still get the same type of feelings as when I was a student. Not a lot had changed in terms of the building itself, it looked pretty much the same apart from a lick of paint here and there. All of the filming was done when the school was empty.

When in use it was a busy place full of action, not only during term-time, but also over weekends and holidays when it hosted local clubs, sports etc. It was important for me to film the school in its quiet state, in its final days. It did look really tired; I was conscious of how the signs of wear and tear showed through the camera, and knew it might not be how people remembered it. The camera really sobered everything. The school felt like it was winding down, and the footage is very representational of this moment in time.

Gaia: How did you approach the filming?

Debra: I approached the filming in a very methodical way in the end, documenting each room one after the other, and returning later for the bits I thought I might have missed. I felt a considerable amount of pressure to collect as much as I could. The new school building was being built on the same grounds at the time of filming and I knew very soon the old school would be gone.

I was filming in the stillness of the old, while outside the new was anything but quiet, and it was moving fast. I’ve driven past the site since and the school has now gone, the land on which it once lived is totally overgrown, as if it was never there to start with.

Coat rack at King Richard School in Portsmouth. Photo by Debra Welch.
Coat rack at King Richard School in Portsmouth. - Credit: Debra Welch.

Areas of interest

Gaia: Were there particular areas of the school that you were most interested in showing?

Debra: Before the project started I had certain ideas about the different areas that would be important. The stage in the main hall had always been very central to the school, a background for many performances year after year. Whenever I spoke to anyone that had been to the school, they referred to the brilliant plays and music concerts that were put on, and how they had been involved, whether performing, making props, costumes or providing the music.

When I finally made it backstage, which was actually the first time for me, I felt that those years of activity could clearly be seen. The stage area had been the only place where graffiti was allowed and the walls were covered with students’ initials, year of leaving and good luck messages. Some areas had been painted over to give room for new names and dates and there were remnants of past productions, props stacked with boxes for moving, ladders, scaffolding and costumes.

I also found myself drawn to capturing the outside world from within the classroom. The piece of land it was situated on was quite vast and backed onto a train track. I’m sure hours were spent peering out of those windows. There were huge trees that would sway alongside the track and the sound of trains passing soon became the norm. The window also carries through to other works in the exhibition, including one that was shot in my parents’ house whilst I was staying there.

Gaia: I really like the image of the layers of signatures and good luck messages. To me the title of the exhibition, All Things Are Yours, sounds a bit like a good luck message too, to all the students that have come and gone through the years.

Debra: Throughout the project I spoke to many people about their own experiences of the school. I was shown a certificate with the school emblem which included the words All Things Are Yours. I felt this encapsulated everything that needs to be said about education really, both then and now. I thought it would make a good title.

Backstage in the main hall at King Richard School in Portsmouth. Photo by Debra Welch.
Backstage in the main hall at King Richard School in Portsmouth. - Credit: Debra Welch.

Study and practice

Gaia: What did you study? Can you talk a bit about your practice?

Debra: I attended Winchester School of Art for my BA and graduated from the Royal College of Art with a Masters in Fine Art Printmaking in 2011. I work with video, print and sculpture and I would say that all of this sits loosely within the language of collage. In most of my work there is always a process of collecting material first, which could be footage, objects or photos.

In this case there were hours of footage that needed revisiting, and while it can be a pretty tiresome job, as you review it you find gems: the small snippet of audio that you hadn’t noticed, the stranger that accidently walks into shot. I quite like the accidental elements that feed in.

Obviously, there is also a lot that’s not useable, or at times I wish I had been a bit more patient and held a shot for longer. I tend to work on intuition at the beginning of the editing process, placing footage together, moving it about a bit.

Through continuous editing and revisiting, these individual clips start to build up a language that often leads me in a different direction, which can be quite exciting. At the beginning the editing tends to get over-complicated, but it gives me an understanding of the material that then allows me to strip things back to something more subtle. I rarely go into a project understanding exactly what the end result will be, although I obviously start from a strong interest in an idea.

There is something about the distance between collecting and working with material that allows new things to happen, especially in a project that has spread over a long amount of time such as this.

Gaia: How was working on this project different to working in your studio in London?

Debra: The school project added a different dimension in that I was splitting my time between both London and Portsmouth. I was going home and staying with my parents, and then spending time here in London working and in the studio. At times this straddling of 2 places both physically and psychologically felt really confusing, and it has questioned further my emotional attachment both to home and the place I now live.

All Things Are Yours is at Chelsea Space from 1 - 31 May 2019.