Mining, arthritis and X-rays combine in Salford exhibition

By Chris Long
BBC News

Image source, ARCE/Friends of Agecroft Colliery/Nicola Dale
Image caption,
Nicola Dale looked at X-rays and spoke with miners and arthritis sufferers to create her works

Mining, arthritis and X-rays may not be an obvious combination to inspire art, but they have come together for a new show in Salford.

Bedrock is a collection of sculptures, prints and photographs that stem from artist Nicola Dale's discovery of an archive of X-rays in the University of Manchester's medical school.

She says the find, made while working as artist-in-residence at the Arthritis Research UK Centre of Epidemiology (ARCE), instantly piqued her interest "partly because they'd been forgotten and also because they were from local people".

"They were X-rays of miners from the early 1950s, mostly from the Walkden Miners Clinic [in Salford].

"They were old and kind of crumbly - the same thing has happened to the mining industry. So the two things collided in my mind. It was like a little gem, it struck a chord."

Image source, ARCE
Image caption,
The 1950s X-ray archive was seriously deteriorated

She admits the connection is "complicated, but the way I think about it is through the idea of illumination".

"You need light to read the X-rays, the miners needed light to work and there's that flashbulb moment when you get an idea."

The X-rays were the starting point for more than her artwork. They were originally collected by Dr John Lawrence to research the relationship between occupation and arthritis.

That research underpinned the Kellgren and Lawrence classification system for osteoarthritis, which is still used globally today.

Image source, ARCE
Image caption,
The artist also used the notes Dr Lawrence made as part of her research

Caroline Wallis was one of the people with arthritis who helped Dale understand the condition.

She says she was "intrigued" when she heard about the artist's ideas.

"At first thought, it is an unusual combination, but when you actually think about it, it really isn't after all.

"The miners suffered pain in their joints, albeit from a different cause, and people such as myself with rheumatoid arthritis also suffer with painful joints.

"Both can suffer deformity and disability."

Image source, Friends of Agecroft Colliery
Image caption,
Nicola Dale spoke to miners who worked at several collieries across the region

Dale says while she needed to find out more about arthritis, she "didn't know anything at all about mining".

Speaking to miners, they told her "about the gruelling days underground and how they would wait for that moment where they could go out into the light".

"Every miner I spoke to initially said 'why are you interested in this?' But then they thought it was amazing someone was interested in mining and they were desperate to tell their stories.

"I spent five hours in the pub with one of them and he told me everything - about the politics, about his career, about what the other guys were like."

Image source, Nicola Dale
Image caption,
The finished works are a mixture of prints, photographs and sculptures

David Mort spent 12 years as a coal miner, mostly at Golborne Colliery near Wigan, and got in touch with the artist after hearing her appeal for help on BBC Radio Manchester.

He says he "just tried to give her as much information about the structure of a mine and, more importantly, the people and camaraderie that was fostered during my time there".

"I didn't give her my opinions on what her work should look like."

Image source, Nicola Dale
Image caption,
The artist spoke to former miner Alex Channon, who shared his mining memorabilia with her

Alex Channon, who worked for 25 years at Salford's Agecroft Colliery, also helped Dale.

He says he was "surprised" when she got in touch, but also "delighted that someone from outside the mining industry and community had such an interest".

"The combination of mining and arthritis is interesting and very relevant for many ex-miners who suffer from the condition."

He says he was also pleased about the subject matter because any exhibition about coal mining will "help to keep alive the heritage generally and particularly in the Lancashire area".

Image source, Nicola Dale
Image caption,
One miner's description of the mine as 'lungs' directly inspired one sculpture

Dale says she asked some of the miners to try to imagine what her artworks might look like, which they did with varying degrees of success.

"One said, 'if I made mining into an artwork, it'd be Satan's den'.

"Another guy said he thought of the mine as a pair of lungs and you had to think about how the ventilation worked down there.

"One of the bigger sculptures is based on his idea."

Image source, Nicola Dale
Image caption,
Dale says one of the reasons she started the project was because she enjoys a challenge

There was one final inspiration that fed into Dale's work - epidemiology.

ARCE director Will Dixon says her "inspirational artwork encapsulates epidemiology" and a "truly wonderful celebration of this important archive".

"Drawing on the strong heritage of arthritis research in Manchester and Salford, it captures the insight derived from populations, as well as highlighting the importance of individuals," he said.

Image source, Nicola Dale
Image caption,
Dale also hopes the works portray the "number-crunching" of epidemiology

Dale says that description is "very kind" as capturing epidemiology and its "number-crunching" was difficult, but "I do like a challenge".

She wanted her audience to "actually understand what they are, what they look like and the weight of them".

"Basically, with epidemiology, they do all these studies and then turn it into numbers.

"I tried to take these dry, cold numbers and statistics and make them something lovely to look at.

"People might not necessarily know that the works have come from statistics but they have."

Bedrock is at Artwork Atelier on Greengate, Salford, from 21 to 24 January

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