Material Reflections – A Loving Goodbye, A Wordless Letter – John Wigley

By BCMCR Alumni on November 27th, 2019

Material Reflections is a collection of short reflective pieces exploring the complex personal relationships that people form with material things. Bringing together perspectives from a range of academics, students, and cultural practitioners, the project seeks to highlight the breadth and plurality of ways in which material things impact upon our ideas, identities, research, and practice. This Material Reflection comes from John Wigley, who is an Associate Professor in Fine Art based in Birmingham School of Art. As an artist, his work consists of sculptures and videos that, through balance, juxtaposition and comic pathos, explore time and the suspended moment. They are essentially poetic ‘still lives’. In this Material Reflection, he looks back at a drawing by his late mother created at a formative time in his life. It strangely links to all of his subsequent artistic practice.


This drawing was created on a wet Sunday in the early 80’s. It is a profile portrait of myself as a 19-year-old seated in front of wooden French windows and florid wallpaper, drawn by my dying mother. Using a scrap of paper and a found pencil, as a young art student I had an idea to reverse Whistler’s painting of his mother, ‘Arrangement in Grey and Black’, by being seated for a drawing by the artist’s mother. 

It was a thin idea, in retrospect. However, it was to produce something much more valuable and surprising: a drawing that captures the trace of her hand, her looking eye and response to a son who left far from home for a university life in the south. 

It is both a terrible and a wonderful drawing, technically poor but decisively accurate, simple and concise. Ignoring the background entirely, she clearly struggles with the chair, fitting the lines and form together as an approximation, laid out as if on the floor or left hanging in the air. No matter. Her attention is on the face, the thing she knows best. It is large, the profile tracing the nose and generous chin covered in diagrammatic and hastily marked stubble. The glasses sit confidently on the nose. There is a watchful eye and an unlikely smile, and the hair, auburn, something she always liked and commented on, heavily shaded. The collarless shirt, sprouting thin symmetrical arms, is carefully buttoned with interspersed dots, whilst the legs, less important, tentatively hang from a faint set of braces, sweeping down to pointed feet that were in fact naval deck shoes. My body floats, framed, suspended in time and space, as was the case. 

 Looking at it again, as I regularly do, 38 years later, it is clear that this was not just a drawing, or even a role reversing act, but a paper certificate confirming existence, a life about to be lived and a life about to be lost, both at a greying threshold, waiting for something to happen. It has become a loving goodbye, a wordless letter.