In this insightful interview, we delve into the remarkable journey of Double Olympian Neil Eckersley, a martial artist whose passion for both sports and art has transcended artistic boundaries. Raised in a working-class environment near Manchester, Neil discovered his love for judo at a young age, leading him to become a Double Olympian and secure a Bronze Medal at the 1984 Los Angeles Games. However, it was a profound personal tragedy, the loss of his older brother, that ignited his passion for visual art.
Neil’s artistic expression not only became a form of therapy but also a powerful means to advocate for dementia awareness, a cause close to his heart after witnessing his father’s struggle with the disease. Through his captivating artwork, Neil channels his resilience and Olympian spirit, creating a dialogue around dementia and inspiring change. Join us as we explore the intersection of athleticism, artistry, and advocacy in Neil Eckersley’s extraordinary journey, profoundly shaped by his father’s courage in facing dementia.
Can you tell our readers about your childhood, family, and the environment you grew up in? Were you an artistic child?
I grew up near Manchester in a working-class environment in a city called Bolton. Both my parents were hard-working and provided everything we needed for a happy childhood for both me and my older brother, Paul. For some reason, I was always drawn to art and sport because I have dyslexia, which was only diagnosed in my adult life. I remember sitting at the back of the classroom doodling New York cityscapes well before I ever visited New York. This type of drawing was a form of escapism from a state education system that, at the time, did not meet my needs.
How did you become a Double Olympian? Could you please share your thoughts and memories about your Olympic career?
I started Judo purely by accident. It was during the long summer holidays when friends explained we needed to do something to fill our time, and that’s when we joined the local Judo club that was providing taster sessions free of charge. I attended one of the taster sessions, and my first coach, Phil Massey, was amazing. His kind and supportive attitude towards me were different from what I had experienced before. Due to my dyslexia, I was a difficult and challenging kid, but Phil gave me a degree of respect and saw my potential. From that first day, I became totally dedicated to the sport of Judo. When I left school, I decided to train full time, competing in major events with great success. I was selected for my first games in 1984 in Los Angeles. I wasn’t really expected to win a medal; I was just there for experience. The LA games were amazing right from the start; it was almost like a party atmosphere from day one. In my opinion, it was probably the best ever Olympics from the competitors’ point of view. We were embraced by the American public and their hospitality. I went on to win an Olympic BRONZE MEDAL, which, at the young age of 19, was an outstanding achievement and a memorable event that has stayed with me forever.
What inspired you to become an artist?
I became an artist because of a dramatic event, the sudden death of my older brother, who was my hero and protector. I wasn’t coping well with the loss, and it was suggested that I find something other than sport to occupy my mind. Luckily, someone bought me my first easel and acrylic paints, and that’s when I started to paint. I was and still am a massive fan of Jackson Pollock, so my first-ever piece was a drip painting that I still have today. At first, the act of painting was therapeutic and helped me express my emotions. My brother would be very proud that I have managed to turn a difficult situation into a positive art career. My artwork has been exhibited all over the world, including major commissions by the International Olympic Committee and the International JUDO federation.
How did your background as an Olympian influence your approach to expressing your emotions and experiences through art, particularly in dealing with your father’s dementia?
I still follow the core values of the Olympic movement, which are friendship, respect, and excellence, and transfer these qualities into my art practice. I’m very disciplined and hard-working, with a degree of resilience, which comes in handy when you are an artist. I also seem to be able to capture the essence of movement in an artistic abstract style, and my work is very colorful, vibrant, and engaging.
Could you elaborate on the specific elements of your exhibition, such as “It’s Not A Laughing Matter” and “Memories Are Golden”? How do these pieces capture the essence of your father’s journey with dementia?
My latest body of work entitled ‘I know you’re in there’ is a reflection upon my experience of my father having Dementia for 5 years and who has just passed away. Dementia is a terrible condition that not only affects the patient but also the family and the wider community. To see someone who was your rock and hero slowly disappear right in front of your eyes is truly devastating. My aim for the body of work is to spark a conversation about Dementia. The body of work consists of a piece called ‘It’s Not A Laughing Matter,’ which is a triptych piece. It is a spin on the title because even though my father had his difficulties, we laughed every day when I visited the residential home. He had an infectious laugh that would light up a room.
‘Memories Are Golden’ is a golden sculpture of a head placed in a glass box with written words on paper labels to represent our memories, such as running in the rain, watching the sunrise, walking the dog. These memories become precious and should be protected because when my father’s memories were lost towards the end of his life, what remained was simply a shell of his former self.
Your exhibition title, “I Know You’re In There,” conveys a deep emotional connection. Can you share the story behind this title and its significance in the context of your father’s illness?
What I am trying to do is spark a conversation about dementia. I feel it’s important to have an early diagnosis if you think something is wrong. Don’t ignore it; go and seek help and chat with people. I know it’s difficult, but having an early diagnosis will help everybody because there is support and medication to assist. My father was fantastic; he gave my mum and me the power of attorney, made his will, and paid for his and my mum’s funeral. My dad had a degree of emotional intelligence. During our visits, I shared my life through the iPad, videos of holidays, my artwork, and photos of his life too. He told my mum and me that he loved us and was very proud of our achievements. For me, I was giving him the respect he deserved as a human, a husband, and more importantly, my dad, a dad that took me all over the country to compete in Judo competitions and supported me even when I lost. This is such a powerful legacy.
In “Three Faces of Dementia,” you depict the rapid changes in your father’s emotions. How did you translate such complex and fleeting emotions into visual art, and what message do you hope viewers take away from this portrayal?
This piece represents the first time I visited my dad in the residential home. We were living and working in Norway, and because of COVID, we could not leave the country. So, my first visit was when my father was in isolation, and we could only have a conversation behind a glass screen wearing a face mask. Because my dad was struggling to identify me because I was wearing a mask, his emotions were constantly changing from happy and sad to confused.
I had to make the decision to remove my mask to stop this situation. This memory was so vivid that I had to find a creative way to express this situation, and thus I took up the paintbrush. I have had a positive reaction to this piece, especially from those who have experienced dementia. They have acknowledged that they have witnessed this situation of their loved one’s sudden change in moods and have found a way to reconnect through memories to address a positive outcome.
You mentioned that your father saw your work before he passed away. How did he react to the exhibition, and in what ways do you believe it impacted his own experience with dementia?
I used to take my iPad into the residential home to share my life with my dad, and I remember the first time I showed my father this work. At first, he was silent for quite a long period.
Then he finally said, “Have you really done that work?” to which I replied, ‘’Yes.’’
He said, ‘’It’s amazing’’ and it’s just like ME.
Which, at the time, was so moving and powerful it brought tears to my mum and me.
Choosing the Defying Dementia charity shop as the exhibition venue is significant. How did the volunteers’ support and experiences influence your decision, and what role do you think community spaces like this play in raising awareness about dementia?
The ‘Defining Dementia’ shop is amazing. It has been open for 5 years and has raised over £50,000. It is owned by a person whose mum had dementia and decided to use her inheritance to open up a community shop that not only sells clothes but also provides support and is linked to a senior Dementia health professional and community hubs. It was important for me to know that the money raised goes directly to research at Lancaster University.
Your artwork seems to emphasize the importance of preserving memories. Could you discuss the symbolism behind “Memories Are Golden” and how you believe society can better protect and cherish the memories of individuals affected by dementia?
That’s a hard question to answer. What we did with my father was to collect old photos of his past. I scanned these and put a video together which we looked through together every visit with the aim to ‘spark his memories.’ I think it was easy to forget that my father was “still in there,” so it was important to respect that he still had a voice. He was still able to hear us and still able to show emotion; it was just finding the right tools to help him express James the man, the husband, and who was, ‘still my dad.’ So, to answer your question, I think the wider community needs to respect and acknowledge dementia as a whole.
You mentioned the exhibition is not for sale, emphasizing its personal importance. Why was it essential for you to share these pieces publicly, and what impact do you hope it will have on the audience and discussions surrounding dementia?
Two things that have driven this exhibition are awareness and starting to have a conversation about dementia. I would like this exhibition to be hung in the foyer of the House of Commons, so that our MPs can see the work, talk about dementia, and recognize the impact it has on everyone. In the UK, dementia is one of the biggest killers. Without the support of our MPs and additional awareness, it may go unrecognized.
Your statement about encouraging conversations on dementia and early diagnosis is powerful. How do you envision your exhibition contributing to changing perceptions and fostering dialogue about dementia within the broader community?
Hopefully, if we have the right audience and wider community interaction, the body of work will encourage a conversation. At first, conversations will be like a snowball: the more we talk, the bigger the ball will be, and eventually, the ball will be impossible to avoid.
Lastly, you expressed a desire for the exhibition to benefit a dementia charity. Are there specific organizations or initiatives you have in mind, and how do you hope the proceeds from your exhibition will make a difference in the lives of individuals and families affected by dementia?
I have tried to engage the large charities that deal with dementia and Alzheimer’s, but this is a slow process. So, any support to reach them will be more than welcome. To answer your second question, by creatively exhibiting the work, such as in the shop window of Defying Dementia charity clothes shop, will help break down the barriers for the general public that don’t go to galleries or exhibition spaces. The refuse collectors that were collecting the early morning waste stopped the wagon to view my work, which made my day. So, I rest my case.
To connect with Neil Eckersley, visit his official website:
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