Giving greater voice and visibility to older women


Kate ClaytonIn 2015, The Scotsman’s art critic Moira Jeffrey wrote: ‘Kate Clayton is a livewire of an artist who is currently gaining deserved attention.’ Kate emerged from the MFA: Art, Society and Publics course at DJCAD, Dundee in 2014.  She has since been collaborating with other artists to reflect on ageing, friendship and shared experience, the twin aims being to use our collective past to enliven the present and to give voice and visibility to older women. She is part of an as yet unnamed collective which emerged from an artists’ workshop residency set up by LADA (Live Art Development Agency) in November 2015. To find out more visit her website.


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Explore the silvery Tay-haired project in pictures using the arrows above.


Am I a dangerous woman?

Bringing up a child on my own in the 1970s while studying sociology at York University, how could I not feel dangerously opposed to the status quo?

Now, having studied for an MFA: Art, Society and Publics at DJCAD, Dundee from 2012-2014, I look around and I still feel that there is a fight to be fought on behalf of women. Perhaps I now have the tools to inflict a little damage on society’s unwritten rules and not-so-hidden agendas.

The Silvery Tay-haired project emerged from attending a fortnightly group looking into ‘If the City were a Commons’, which was instigated by artist Jonathan Baxter. After meeting at Roseangle Arts Café for an evening every fortnight over the course of several months, we decided to focus our energies on a week-long ‘Dundee Commons Festival’ in August 2015, with my contribution being to try and give greater voice and visibility to older women. It’s our city too, after all. Whose city? Women over 50, even though men, in general, as a gender, don’t like looking at us, because our appearances no longer push the buttons of a sexuality that seems to stay with them from adolescence to senility.

Having come up with an idea, I put out a call. A flyer was designed, printed and circulated in and around Dundee. I also created a Silvery Tay-Haired Women community page on Facebook. This encouraged people to begin to address certain issues. Should women dye their hair as soon as grey begins to appear? The vast majority of of them do. But a few women had a lot to say on the matter, drawing on their own experiences, pressures and choices. A common story was for a man – often grey-haired or bald – to have said to a woman: “If you were to dye your hair you’d look ten years younger.”

The Facebook page also directed people to an Eventbrite page where women were given the following encouragement to sign up for a workshop:

Calling all SILVERY TAY-HAIRED WOMEN

Do you have white, grey or silver hair?

Have you successfully resisted pressure to dye your hair?

What other pressures do you feel you’re under as a woman today?

On the afternoon of Saturday, August 29th, as part of the Commons Festival that runs in Dundee from August 24 to 30, a group of women will be stepping out along a silver carpet leading from Caird Hall to City Square. What will we be displaying on our placards? That will be determined by the workshops that will take place earlier in the week, an opportunity for white/silver/grey haired women to meet each other, establish common interests and find both voice and visibility.

In preparation for this great fun event you are invited to sign up for a workshop. Either Monday 24th August 12pm – 2.30pm or Tuesday 25th August.

The workshop will provide an opportunity to meet each other and to plan the event.

Placards might read:

“’NO AGE LIMIT ON THE COMMONS”

“YOUR DREAMING STREETS ARE OUR DREAMING STREETS.”

“DOMESTIC VIOLENCE IS THE TRAGEDY OF THE COMMONS.”

“GET YOUR BOTOX OUT OF MY FACE.”

“SILVER HAIR, DIAMOND WRINKLES”

Or even:

“NOW YOU’VE PISSED OFF GRANDMA.”

But I shouldn’t try and second-guess the participatory process. Together, let us work out what we’ve got to say.

It is hoped that the event will lead to a series of stimulating discussions in City Square involving people of all age groups and both genders.

Please share this opportunity with as many women as you can.

Looking forward to meeting all of you at one of the workshops.

 Perhaps because I posted details on the Creative Scotland website listing of forthcoming events, there was a lot of press interest, two months before the Dundee Commons Festival. I travelled to Edinburgh to have a chat with Phil Miller, Arts Correspondent for The Herald. He seemed to get it. The headline of the piece he wrote read: ‘Exercise the grey matter: Artist wants silver-haired women for public march of celebration.’

The Sunday Post were also keen to cover the story. But the journalist who contacted me kept trying to oversimplify things, and my unforthcoming answers to his questions (How old are you? Are you married? How many grandchildren have you got?) seemed to put him off. If he could only think in clichés and platitudes then he was no good to me or for the project. I don’t believe that all publicity is good publicity.

The Grey Model Agency based in London also phoned up, volunteering one of their models to ‘lead the parade’. An offer I declined. I didn’t think it was appropriate to have some highly-paid, Dundee-today-Paris-tomorrow model do the honours. Besides, in the fashion industry looks come before everything else and that’s the kind of facile philosophy that needs replacing. Grey hair, yes; ‘Year of the Grey’, no thanks.

White Hot also got in touch, offering to provide sample bags of their upmarket cosmetic products to up to 100 participants in the project. Again I had to turn down the offer. Sure, capitalism wanted to exploit my project, but why should I let it? Half the battle was being fought against capitalism. Women as a gender spend far too much on hairdressing, and beauty products. We need to be investing in health and wisdom, not hair dye and face jobs.

BBC Radio Scotland then contacted me, giving me no time to prepare anything before going on air. But I suspect my conversation with sparky Kaye Adams reached a wide audience, encouraging more women to sign up for my project or to at least think about the issues.

To complement this media coverage I did an afternoon’s outreach work in Perth (and another in Dundee). It felt empowering to be standing standing behind my stall in a main street, close to a shopping centre. Articles on ageing cut out of newspapers, together with a section of silver carpet attracted the odd passer-by to stop, and to talk – whether ostensibly or not – feminist politics. In an hour I talked to perhaps a dozen silver sisters.

Most of the women I talked to got the point. That dyeing one’s hair to give the illusion of remaining young distracts from the important job of coming to terms with the ageing process. We are young, then we get older. Our twenties are not the same as our thirties. Our forties are precious. Our fifties are irreplaceable. Our sixties are to be embraced. Our seventies are ours too and not to be hijacked by our own fear or other people’s commercial and/or ideological interests. I am 66.

Thanks to Clare Brennan at Abertay University, I was able to host my Silvery Tay-Haired women workshops at the Hannah Maclure Centre in Dundee. I began the Monday workshop by thanking the women for going to the trouble of attending. Women came from as far afield as Edinburgh, Glasgow, Arbroath and Forfar. Then I introduced my ideas and encouraged them to introduce themselves and their ideas to each other.

Theresa Lynn was my right-hand woman during the workshops. Together we took the participants through what was expected of them on the Saturday and helped them focus in on what they really wanted to say on their placards.

On the day of the actual event, the Dundee Commons Camper Van was parked at the front edge of City Square. An awning attached to the camper van provided an ideal meeting point. Silvery Tay-haired women gathered here as the afternoon got underway.

Although 50-odd had signed up for workshops, on the day of the event itself numbers were down to about half that. One has to expect this kind of fall-off when dealing with members of the public, all of whom have busy lives. Some women couldn’t make it on the afternoon of Saturday, August 29, 2015, because they had to look after grandchildren. And so the debate about social pressures – and the resisting of these – had another reason to be aired.

There were quite a few people looking on as the silvery-Tay-haired women assembled on the steps of the Caird Hall. And with the silvery Tay firmly taped into place over paving stones, I set off, having asked the other participants to space themselves out behind me and to keep a slow, even pace. I was forced to say to a photographer at one point: “Get that camera out of my face.” Come to think of it, that would have made a suitable placard slogan, but we had enough of them as it was.

We walked the length of the silvery Tay in support of each other. Oh, miracle of miracles: visibility and voice! We walked on water.

When we dispersed, it was to engage onlookers in conversation about matters that concerned us: identity, family, resources, rights, freedom, grief and joy. Women who were no longer young but are still vibrant chatted together. For an afternoon, City Square shone with silver-haired sisters talking sense!

Are we more dangerous for what happened on that Saturday afternoon in August, 2015?

Speaking personally, and thinking of the women’s group I’ve been involved with since, the answer would have to be “yes”.