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Loving the material world: Brum Sputnik Hub meets in-person again

After more than two years, Birmingham Sputnik Hub was finally back with a live, in-person meetup. The return of the mac. Except Oasis Church haven’t met there for years now, so we were hanging out at their building on South Street in Harborne instead.

First of all, there was a lot of catching up to do. There are some folk I primarily know through Sputnik, who I hadn’t seen in a really long time. There were some familiar faces, who are never very far away from me in Birmingham anyway; there were people I had met on the Sputnik Slack or over Instagram during the Plague, who I had the first opportunity to talk to in person. And there were even folk turning up to Sputnik for the very first time. Ideal.

We kicked things off with a Sputnik staple – sharing our thoughts and work in small groups. In my group we heard from the Godfather of Sputnik himself, Don Jonny Mellor, who’d spent his lockdown recording an album with his next door neighbour, which includes a track about how Queen Boudicea is (probably) buried under the Kings Norton McDonald’s. Rod Masih, aka Thinktank, blessed us with insight into his new single and why he’s so popular with kids (as well as being a great guy, it’s also proved an incredibly effective marketing strategy – Thinktank now has a long-term captive audience). Esther Lee tried to convince us all that she isn’t a photographer, all whilst sharing her stunning darkroom experiments using images of post-industrial areas of Birmingham.

Andy Gordon let us in on some beautiful instrumentals he’s been mastering for local folk artist Philippa Zawe. Writer Andrew, who’d travelled all the way from Sheffield for the meetup posed the question of whether Christian art is required to offer visions of hope, whilst newcomers Libby and Helen talked about using art to uplift and encourage, and prompted an interesting discussion about what makes art prophetic.

After that there was a delicious lunch entirely provided by Wumi Donald, before Jonny spoke to us about the importance of the material, not only to us as artists, but for everyone. Channelling his inner Irenaeus, Jonny warned against the latent Gnosticism often evident in folk Christianity that views the physical realm as something temporary, corrupt and ultimately distracting, arguing that such a distinction between the spiritual and physical doesn’t really exist, that the natural world is for our spiritual edification, and that the works of goodness, beauty and truth we contribute to here on earth have an eternal legacy.

Following Jonny, as part of an unstoppable husband-and-wife ministry, Jemma Mellor spoke about her own art practice, which not only used concrete and cotton as materials, but as co-producers, through which Jemma explored the history and agency of the materials in the creation of different pieces. These included painted self-portraits which used the materials to transfer paint to paper, creating images in their own likeness; shoes made from concrete and cotton that Jemma walked a mile through Birmingham in, and pillow cast in concrete that Jemma slept a night on. Just as fascinating were the thought and processes behind this work; the questions Jemma asked the materials before working with them, and the regular emails she sent to concrete and cotton communicating how she felt about her relationship to them.

After all that I needed a lie-down on Jemma’s concrete pillow. It was surprisingly comfortable, concrete of course solving that age-old problem of not being able to find the cool side of the pillow. The post-pandemic in-person meet-up was ace. Can’t wait for the next one.