A Cardiff artist will open her first show at the city’s Milkwood Gallery this weekend, with an exhibition charting the development of a 20-year friendship through letters.
“Norman and Judith” is artist Rachel-Helena Walsh’s her first contemporary art exhibition, inspired by the letters she found in a Welsh charity shop.
In August 2011, Rachel-Helena was looking around the PDSA charity shop in Penarth when she found a handful of letters dropped down the back of a cabinet. She purchased three of the letters, which she took home and opened.
It became clear the letters were a correspondence between family friends Norman, who was based in Newport, and Judith, who moved around the UK and even to Germany before settling in Barry. Rachel-Helena was eager to know more of their story, so she returned to the charity shop where she purchased the remaining letters – 96 in total – with the first letter dated March 1 1967 and the last July 19 1988.
To find out more about the letter writers, Rachel-Helena started to research military records online after she discovered Judith was a military nurse. But this proved unsuccessful, and instead, she started to visit locations mentioned in the letters.
In doing this, she met neighbours and friends of the pen pals and began to build a picture of who they both were.
She only has letters from Judith to Norman, though the friends share details of their day-to-day activities, reminisce about the times when they meet and discuss how they are unable to get in touch on the telephone.
In the pages of letters are some emotional moments and Norman and Judith support each other. Some years, Rachel-Helena said, Judith sent as many as 12 letters, though in others there are as few as two, and in the 1980s the letters are longer and more detailed.
Rachel-Helena is keeping the full identity of Norman and Judith and more details of the friendship a secret to allow you to discover the story yourselves at the exhibition.
Feeling that she was onto something special, Rachel-Helena contacted National Theatre Wales, who supported her in her mission to document the friendship she found in the letters.
She was awarded funding from the National Lottery Wales and the Arts Council of Wales, and the art project got underway in April this year.
She moved the exhibition into Roath’s Milkwood Gallery in mid-August. The top floor of the exhibition is split into three, with each section marking each of the decades that the story spans: 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. Visitors also have the choice to open the letters with Rachel-Helena, as she documented this process with video and photographs.
Downstairs is the investigation basement, which Rachel-Helena described as “inside my mind of the project”. Here you can find videos, photos, maps and more as you follow her investigation of the piece.
The exhibition is open September 1-8 from 11am-5pm or by appointment at Milkwood Gallery, Lochaber Street.