A textile work with text reading 'I'M TENDING TO MY GRIEF'

Grief Must Be Love with Nowhere to Go: In Conversation with Emily Simpson and Chris Alton

Emily Simpson and Chris Alton, detail from 'Grief Must Be Love with Nowhere to Go (Shelter)', 2024. Image courtesy of the artists.

It’s April 2023, I’m on Eyre Lane in Sheffield when an unexpected phrase catches my eye: ‘grief must be love with nowhere to go’. The words are rendered on a billboard in a sturdy blackletter font and appear hastily creased-paper pasted. Their ambiguity intrigues me. As does the disjunct between the considered design and provisional presentation. But I don’t dwell on them for too long.

Nine months later I encounter the billboard again, in documentation online, and its significance has changed. In the interim someone I love has died. The words hit me anew and I weigh their meaning against my experience. I learn that the billboard was one of four designs created by artists Chris Alton and Emily Simpson, commissioned by arts organisation Bloc Projects. Over several months words were sequentially replaced or blanked over to create variations on a sentiment, echoing the shifts and evolutions of grief.

A billboard on a brick wall. The text reads 'grief takes the place of a person loved fully'.
Emily Simpson and Chris Alton, Version #2 of ‘Grief Must Be Love with Nowhere to Go (Billboard)’, 2023, commissioned by Bloc Projects. Image courtesy of the artists.

Alton and Simpson have been working collaboratively for three years, with the support of Bloc Projects for the last two. Having both experienced a significant loss in their mid-20s they began a body of work creatively probing the inadequacies of the English language when it comes to speaking about bereavement. They have held conversations and hosted gatherings to hold space to speak better about loss. Now they are preparing for an exhibition at Bloc Projects – Grief Must Be Love with Nowhere to Go – which will translate these encounters into a tactile, sculptural installation. I spoke to them about their plans.

Amelia Crouch: I’d like to start by talking about your 2021 poster series ‘Words to Grieve’. It precedes your engagement with Bloc but feels quite foundational to the current project. The work exists as a series of six posters, each showing an imagined and part-redacted word.

Emily Simpson: It came about from feeling this lack of discussion about grief and loss within circles of people we knew and in wider British culture. Even if those conversations did take place, there was an inadequacy of language. For example, there is a word for ‘widow’ and there is a word for ‘orphan’, but every other grieving identity doesn’t have a word. We’ve both lost one parent. There’s no word for that. What if you’ve lost a partner, ex-partner, child, unborn child etcetera? There’s no word for that.

Chris Alton: We were having these conversations ourselves, and a little bit with friends and family. We decided to make something to share our thinking ‘out loud’. Formally the texts are supposed to resemble dictionary definitions, with a definition statement and handwritten annotations.

AC: Is the idea that you’re imaging a vocabulary to make conversations easier? I love the pragmatic attitude: ‘If the tools aren’t good enough, let’s invent new ones!’

ES: We really ambitiously wanted to create new words and put them into popular use. But through a process of working with other people and having these gatherings, we realised there will always be an element of failure in language. We’ve moved away from creating singular words toward feeling out a space to allow a multiplicity of voices and nuance of meaning.

Images of three posters side by side, each formatted like a dictionary definition of a single word, each overwritten and annotated to demonstrate the provisional nature of language
Emily Simpson and Chris Alton, ‘Words to Grieve: Definitions’, Digital posters, 2021, commissioned by Manchester Collective. Image courtesy of the artists.

CA: People don’t typically go: ‘Oh yes, we have invented this word!’ Words emerge gradually in culture from need and use. I guess that’s what we’re doing now with the gatherings and public outputs. We’re demonstrating the need and use. We’re making spaces to talk about grief.

AC: You’re working toward an exhibition and print publication, synthesising conversations from gatherings held over the last six months. What form have the gatherings taken?

ES: We had a dinner where we invited people to bring a dish that reminded them of somebody that had died. We spoke about what the dish represented, shared the food and held guided conversations about language. We’ve had one which was focussed around textiles, loosely based upon the idea of Victorian mourning patches as a way to signify that you’re grieving. We invited people to embroider patches with something that represented the lost person or their grief. People made heather, strawberries, mountains, polos. A whole range of things.

CA: The final one was a music sharing session. People brought a song or a piece of music that reminded them of their person. We did an active listening exercise to think about the music or lyrics and what we associated with them.

AC: You’ve described the activities as a ‘softener’ with the real purpose being to make space to talk.

ES: Yeah, it was way less about the activity and way more about the conversations. We were giving people something to do, to form a communal feeling because they were strangers. Also to distract them; to give them a focus other than the words.

CA: It takes the pressure off if you’re not expected to be participating 100% in a conversation about your experience of grief. You can direct some of your attention to passing a plate, eating, sewing or doing a bit of cutting out.

AC: At the same time you’re picking very resonant, symbolic activities. Giving people a space to share memories of loss, but also an opportunity to create new memories or new associations with the food or music that they bring.

Open double page of a publication with a recipe for 'Phil's Nasi Goreng'.
Emily Simpson and Chris Alton, ‘Words to Grieve: A Recipe Collection’, Risograph printed publication, 2022, commissioned by A Modest Show. Image courtesy of the artists.

ES: We hadn’t anticipated how all the preparation time – where people were making the food, chopping ingredients – gave an hour in the day where they were thinking about their lost person. People really appreciated being given permission to spend that time.

CA: We were careful in call outs to make clear that people needed to be ready to speak with others. Our focus hasn’t been on the trauma surrounding deaths; we’re more focussed on what it is to live with loss. We’ve found – and the people in the workshops have found – it’s been quite uplifting.

ES: Although we always mention aftercare too. In the moment it might feel quite communal and affirming, but we’d notice the day after we’d feel quite drained. So we asked people to think of something they could do afterwards – like go for a walk, watch their favourite telly show, eat their favourite food – to let the feelings settle.

AC: Has it been a challenge to distil all the material generated from these sessions into content for an exhibition? How are you approaching this task?

CA: It hasn’t been as difficult as you’d assume. We started with transcribing audio recordings from the gatherings. Then going through selecting different passages. Gradually common themes emerged.

ES: What you’ll see when it comes to the exhibition is there’s this huge structure – a textile installation – which is full of language. Words and phrases pulled from the gatherings. Usually the phrases are amalgamations of several things that people have said, condensed into one phrase. This is partially a protective thing; for someone coming to the exhibition, seeing their words directly could be upsetting. But also conceptually we’re thinking of language as a commons, a communal pot we can all draw form.

AC: Are you willing to share some examples?

CA: There’s one that says: ‘I’m in this language trap.’ This resonates with me in terms of what we’ve been talking about; how the English language is littered with all these holes. Holes that in the grieving experience you can fall down.

ES: Some are quite poetic, some are quite heartfelt. Some are quite direct and abrupt, and some are quite humorous as well.

CA: Another reads: ‘Time is a healer, is a slap in the face.’ We’re pushing back on things people say when you’re bereaved that are maybe false ‘truisms’. If people think ‘time will heal all wounds’, having that expectation can actually make it harder to come to terms with grief. One quote in the publication is something like: ‘I think I would have been kinder to myself if I’d known I wasn’t going to get better, that there was no better to get.’

Open double page of a publication containing a quote about experiencing grief.
Emily Simpson and Chris Alton, ‘Words to Grieve: A Recipe Collection’, Risograph printed publication, 2022, commissioned by A Modest Show. Image courtesy of the artists.

AC: When looking at your billboards I was struck by how they offered potential points of recognition or comfort to the reader. But there was also a sense of uncertainty or equivocation in the visual presentation. The work didn’t have a didactic voice. One might disagree with it, or agree only partially. It sounds like this approach ­continues in the exhibition too?

ES: Yes, and in the publication. Here we’ve re-worked the posters into a kind of nonlinear visual essay. So now they’re less about creating new words and more about bringing together all these different voices from the different people we spoke to during the gatherings and beyond. The publication has become a space where longer phrases can exist too. We’re exploring points of overlap and contradiction, because a lot of the grieving experience is really contradictory. Not just from person to person but within one person’s experience.

AC: Can you say a bit more about how the exhibition will be materialised? I think you’ve talked about it as creating a kind of quilted canopy that will lower the ceiling and change the lighting and mood of the space?

CA: It’s not actually a quilt. My aunt – who was a quilter and taught me to sew – was very specific about what a quilt is! Quilting is the act of sewing the layers together. We haven’t done that. It’s using quilting techniques but it’s a patchwork with block work lettering.

ES: It will be almost like a den. A cushioned, softened space. The gallery can be quite austere, which doesn’t feel right for this conversation. We’ve talked already about where we feel language is lacking, but the reason for creating this huge canopy is to create a shelter. A literal shelter and a metaphorical shelter with language because we believe that language can also create a lot of comfort.

CA: There’s research that shows that being able to locate your experience though language is important. It’s important for the individual and important for their communication to others; for forming a sense of solidarity and recognition.

A textile work with text reading 'I'M TENDING TO MY GRIEF'
Emily Simpson and Chris Alton, detail from ‘Grief Must Be Love with Nowhere to Go (Shelter)’, 2024. Image courtesy of the artists.

AC: What about the fabric and colours you’re using, are they significant?

CA: The colours are slightly nonspecific colours – teal-ish, burgundy or off yellow. They’re hard to name. We wanted to echo that sense of things being multiple at once.

AC: Can I ask you, finally, about how you conceptualise the audience? The billboards were quite public facing. The gatherings much smaller. Are you intentionally offering different levels of access?

ES: The gatherings were really thought through in terms of creating a safe environment. We worked with an access consultant and we’ve had a psychotherapist present. We’ve also done counselling skills and mental health first aid training. There were no more than eight people to keep it as healthy as possible. I guess the billboard is the most distant environment. The phrases can create some deeper thinking but it’s less likely to go wrong in people’s reactions.

AC: What about the exhibition?

ES: On one level it will be a beautiful textile object. Then you can spend time reading the publication, which goes a bit deeper. There will also be a public programme with an ‘in conversation’ about how we facilitated the gatherings and on the closing night we’re having a karaoke event. This will be open to anybody.

CA: Where we’ve been very focussed on loss in terms of death and bereavement, the karaoke event is going to be broader to give people entry points to interpret ‘loss’ in a way that’s meaningful to them.

ES: The exhibition and publication are not just for people who have experienced grief. We’re hoping not just to make the language around death better for those experiencing it, but to pay it forwards. Our hope is that somebody coming to the exhibition will learn about an experience that will ultimately happen to them one day. Or it may help them when it’s happening to a friend of theirs in the future.

The exhibition Grief Must Be Love with Nowhere to Go launches on 21 March, 6-8pm, and then runs from 22 March – 4 May 2024 at Bloc Projects, Sheffield.

Amelia Crouch is an artist based in Yorkshire.

This interview is supported by Bloc Projects.

Published 11.03.2024 by Benjamin Barra in Interviews

2,148 words