The Window of Thanks

So I have this thing for gratitude, as I may have mentioned before. I have been working to encourage my mind, through a daily gratitude diary, to make a habit out of finding things to be grateful for.

It has been very good for me, and as with everything beneficial, I wanted to share it.

For a long time I have been passing empty shop windows in Melksham and wishing I could fill them with happy images. So much space, passed by so many people, just crying out to be filled with love. And while I could fill any number of windows with my own snippets of love and happiness, wouldn’t it be great if loads of us got together and shared all our bits of happiness too?

As 2020 was coming to an end, and people couldn’t wait to say goodbye to such an awful year, I found my gratitude programming had worked, because all I could think about were the many things that were good about 2020, despite – or even as a silver lining of – the pandemic. And with my head full of a hundred happy thoughts, I figured other people might have some too.

At about this time, Melksham Town Council opened up a discussion on public art, and it became my job, as Community Development Officer, to look into ideas for developing art projects in Melksham.

I know, right! How flipping gorgeous is my job!?

So I rather excitedly suggested to my boss that we could collect hundreds of messages of gratitude from people in Melksham which could be made into an art project. She loved the idea, keen for a way to gather the positivity into something uplifting and beautiful for Melksham.

I had done huge collaborative artworks before. As a quiet solitary art student 20 years ago, I found art could connect me to fellow students, neighbours and complete strangers, through invitations to create small squares of artwork that I compiled into pixelated portraits. Without even having to speak to people (not one of my skills at the time) I managed to connect with them.

So I knew what to do here.

The meeting to discuss ideas was on December 2nd. I rustled up a few examples of my previous pixellations, and Councillors were keen. They were also keen on lots of other ideas though, and my priority was to promote and progress the other projects first.

Lovely Henry King from Kavanaghs helped us secure use of an empty shop in the Town Centre, and while I was excited to get started on my idea, there were local artworks ready to display. I put aside my own idea and led by the enthusiastic creativity and connections of Councillor Sue Brown, we set up easels full of beautiful paintings in vacant premises, and I got my lovely partner Iorwerth to help me painstakingly peel previous promotional stickers off the windows.

With the little Nettl shop on Lowbourne full, we secured the Petstown shop by the bridge, and suddenly art was popping up all over town.

With thanks and goodbyes as the owner Barry locked up his shop, I headed back home grinning about this thank you project that was brimming to be born. I wrote a small story for the Melksham News to see if people would like to send in some squares of thanks that would end up in a huge art project. I didn’t have anywhere to display it yet but I was sure something would turn up.

Phoning the numbers on huge corex boards in vacant premises yielded no success, but a chat with my colleague Jeff, who used to work at The Hiding Place Micropub, was all I needed. As the squares began to arrive at the Town Hall, I got a quick text from Jeff saying ‘Green Light on HP window.’

I giggled quietly to myself and ran down to the shop straight after work to measure the window.

With my lovely aperture of 167 x 245cm confirmed, I set to work on a design. Rainbows were the obvious theme, so I cobbled together a simple image of a rainbow over Melksham. It looked incredibly childish and didn’t pixellate well. With 5cm squares as my pixels I only had about 1500 to play with.

The next day as I was typing up meeting notes, I glanced up at the rainy window.

‘Oh my God!’ I yelled, in disbelief, grabbing my phone and sprinting downstairs. The most glorious perfect double rainbow was emblazoned across the sky, right over the Town Hall. It was exactly what I’d been trying to draw the night before.

Turns out real life rainbows, no matter how stunning, do not pixellate.

A brief survey on the newly formed Window of Thanks Facebook group showed that while rainbows were popular, an abstract heart shaped rainbow was preferred over a complex pixelated scene of a rainbow over the Town Hall, and the decision was made.

My sophisticated graphic design skills in Microsoft Paint produced a rainbow heart, and with lots of measurements and the gloriously free online software of Lunapic, the image was pixelated to exactly 1580 squares, to fit the window.

And then the Melksham News went all Front Page with my story! For their final edition of 2020, the local paper invited 24000 people to share what they are grateful for by getting involved. I squeeled in delight and took a photo to send to my family.

By now, December 20th, I had around 300 squares. A few more to go then. I wanted to make my own squares of thanks, but I was saving them until I knew what colour gaps would need filling at the end.

But at least I could get the template printed. This is a cheat that I worked out a few years ago. Once you have your master image, don’t try to replicate it by sticking squares on a blank canvas. Print the image out at the exact size you want so that you have your perfectly measured grid, and perfectly matched colours.

Kev at Wiltshire Framing was very happy to help, and after loads of measuring and layering, I emailed him eight huge A1 images that he could get printed before Christmas.

He called me, concerned. ‘Your image is really bad quality, do you have a higher resolution version?’

‘No it’s – I mean, they’re pixels. It’s supposed to be pixelated. It should look like a load of 5cm squares.’

‘Ah right. I’ll have them done today then.’

How very lovely that there is an A1 printer in Melksham, so I could run over and collect my huge colourful paper panels that day, on the way to buy five tubes of glue, and collect another bundle of squares from the Town Hall.

Meanwhile, an email arrived from BBC Wiltshire. ‘We’ve seen the story in the Melksham News, would you like to come on the radio tomorrow to talk about it?’

Oh my God! Yes! But not me. I knew it would knock out a whole day with nerves, so I delegated that one to my very clever, chatty and quick-thinking colleague Jeff, who did an amazing job, full of knowledge, laughter, confidence and ease.

The next message I received from Jeff was that he was on a roll, churning out squares, which shortly arrived, complete with photos, doodles, and cuttings from magazines, newspapers and teabags.

So with loads of publicity, and squares coming in, and the last day of proper Town Council work over, I was eager to get started. Iorwerth and I happened to be house sitting for our lovely friends Charlotte and Moray over Christmas so I would have a gorgeous big living room floor to spread the project out on.

Plus the help of two cats.

As soon as the small business of Christmas Day was complete, I filled that precious week off between Christmas and New Year immersed in this multicoloured mosaic of a myriad meaningful messages.

You know that feeling of flow, when you are completely in your zone and you don’t notice the passing of time? I was so happy, lost in my world of colourful squares, glue and scissors for those few days after Christmas.

As I organised them into piles by colour, I was amazed at the thought that had gone into some of these squares.

‘I’m grateful for sunshine.’

‘Thank you for my neighbours who have been doing my shopping for me.’

‘Challenges that make us grow.’

‘Thank you for my sewing machine so I can make people happy with what I make.’

‘My best teddy’

‘Thank you for my health’

‘Tears, and feeling safe to cry.’

The Facebook group buzzed with questions – what colours do you need? Can I have more squares? Is it too late to join in?

My goal was get it done before the end of the year, so that 2021 would start with a beautiful message of love in the centre of Melksham, so we were all on a deadline.

I took breaks from my colourful flow to pop in to town to deliver blank squares to people, or collect envelopes stuffed with squares from others. This project was proving to be a beautiful way to connect people together during the pandemic, without actually meeting up. I was still very diligent to avoid contact with anyone, and was meticulous with hand washing and sanitising between drop offs. I started off not touching any squares for three days when they arrived, but time was running out so I just made sure not to touch my face or eat any snacks while I worked with newly created squares.

Lovely Kathy, who works at Blenheim House, asked for 65 squares so that each resident could complete one. Their messages were humbling.

‘Thank you for another year of life.’

‘Thank you for each new day, and a chance to start anew.’

‘Thank you for my health.’

‘I’m thankful to still be here.’

Lovely Liz Norris had been one of the first to get her bundle of 50 squares in, and once I let her know that we needed more blue ones, she stayed up till 11pm on the 29th making a whole nother batch, taking her total over 100.

Michelle Brightwell and her four children created a combined 40 colourful squares, full of joy, wisdom and love.

I tried to place them all low down in the heart so the children would be able to see them in the window.

The heart was beginning to fill up. My knees and back were hurting but I didn’t care. Iorwerth had to keep reminding me to stop in order to eat something.

As well as these beautiful messages, I had collected a few hundred photographs of people and scenes in Melksham, and cropped them into 5cm squares, which lined up neatly in a helpful template in Microsoft Publisher.

The two cats made their contribution.

I was also inspired by the amount of gratitude swirling about on Facebook as the year came to a close, and went through the last twelve months of The Sham Shout Outs and Spotted Melksham, taking screenshots and making squares from around fifty beautiful messages that expressed thanks to businesses, doctors, volunteers and kind strangers. The Melksham News letters page, always a source of local outrage, also contains a couple of thank yous in every edition, and if I could fit the cutting into 5cm, it was included.

Realising time was getting tighter, I trimmed the edges so that the target was now 1408 squares – 44 across and 32 up. I just hoped my measurements and maths were right.

On the 31st, deadline day, I spent all day filling in gaps with my own squares, writing out all my own thank yous to friends, family and members of the community.

I got Iorwerth involved too of course, handing him the right colour squares for the gaps, supervised by the other cat.

My New Year’s Eve deadline approached, as I worked away on the floor, covered in glue, paper trimmings and some sparkly sticky gems I’d found. I counted up the empty squares, realised I wasn’t going to produce 100 more before midnight, and accepted it was not going to be complete this year. Iorwerth brought out some prosecco and I gratefully piled the panels together (to protect them from more muddy paw prints) and curled up on the sofa with him and Jools Holland to say goodbye to 2020.

On New Year’s Day, by virtue of his role as the only person I’m allowed to hang out with, Iorwerth was my very willing helper to affix the immense collage to the window. By the time I was ready, it was dark, which added a clandestine sense of excitement as we put the key in the door to the Hiding Place.

Something had gone wrong with my meticulous measurements because once the bottom row of panels was in place, perfectly, the top row overlapped by exactly 5cm. A whole row of 44 squares disappeared at the join. Baffled as to how a 167 cm high window was unable to cope with 32 squares of 5cm, I taped it into place temporarily, resolving to come back tomorrow to fix it.

We stood on the dark pavement, grinning at our work. ‘It’s still pretty flipping amazing!’ I giggled. ‘Thank you so much!’

It looked fine, even with it’s whole middle row covered up, but people had put so much time and thought into their squares, I couldn’t leave them hidden by my careless miscalculation.

The next day we went back, armed with scissors, tape, and a handful of more squares. Having peeled the top panels carefully away from the glass, we trimmed the top line of squares off, which, fortunately grey, were all redistributable down the sides. Total squares: 1488

I also created a sign for the side window to explain the project, thank the contributors who had provided their names, and hang a beautiful Thank you garland that Liz Norris had made.

I stood there for ages grinning at the squares. So wonderful to see so many beautiful people and images together in one space, collated in such satisfyingly colour-coordinated rows.

It was an absolute privilege to be at the centre of this glorious project. Being immersed in 1488 bits of gratitude for ten days straight was pretty much the best way to spend an otherwise weirdly isolated Christmas.

It has been in place for a month now, a month of national Lockdown, in which the window has been photographed often, re-affixed twice, and professionally window-cleaned for free by Tim Carpenter of Mr Sparkles.

I hope it has provided something cheerful to brighten up those precious walks we’re allowed, and I hope we can do another one soon. 🙂

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