Dear Dave & Nick: Letters that paint a thousand words

Since 2010, artist Bern O’Donoghue has been illustrating letters to the Coalition leaders, as well as several other politicians. Her imaginative mixed media work, documented at Dear Dave And Nick, is aimed at the public as well as the politicians who receive it in the post. She told MAKE THE MARCH about what she has learned…


Bern’s studio, with a number of the letters (click image for larger)

MTM: Why did you start making the Dear Dave and Nick Letters?

Bern: My youngest daughter told me she was seriously considering NOT going to uni because of the rise in tuition fees. She’s a straight A student but felt that she didn’t want such a big debt hanging round her neck. I felt really angry that ability to pay, not ability to succeed should affect her decision. My education work with museums and galleries is all about widening participation, increasing confidence and harnessing potential. Since austerity measures have been introduced, much of the valuable work I do has been cut. The work I enjoy most is with hard to reach young people (I have a background in youth offending and social work). It struck me that if someone like my daughter feels so anxious, those young people would feel even more discouraged. I decided to do something to educate the people making the cuts and DD&N was born.

Cuts letter

Bern’s letter before last year’s March For The Alternative. Click for larger

MTM: Can you tell us a bit about how your project works?

Bern: I post an A3 illustrated letter every 7 to 10 days to David Cameron and Nick Clegg on Coalition policies. The letter is photographed and loaded on the DearDaveandNick website, linked to articles underpinning arguments within the letters.

The project has several aims. Firstly I want to remind Dave and Nick regularly of the social impact of policies which seem to have finance and ideology at their centre rather than people. Secondly, I want to share information and encourage others to see how much power they have to hold politicians and others to account.

And thirdly I’m thinking forward to 2015. By the end of this parliament, I’ll have written at least 160 letters to Dave and Nick. Each one is copied so that they can be part of an exhibition in the run up to the General Election. Because it’s so easy for voters to forget what has happened when they are offered incentives such as tax cuts, a timeline of letters may help jog their memories should politicians offer sweeteners or make unrealistic promises.

MTM: How do you think crafts and art can help with political debate?

Bern: It’s corny but true that a picture paints a thousand words and long articles can switch people off. I’m trying to get both politicians and ordinary people’s attention. Art can be very effective at doing this, especially with a dry subject like politics.

Sometimes, I feel very angry about the injustice that I see (e.g., how disabled people are being treated). A drawing like letter 52 can say so much more than a rant and the message is remembered, even if it’s not liked by the person it’s intended for.

MTM: What kind of response have you had from politicians?

Listening device

Andrew Lansley’s NHS Listening Exercise

Bern:Most of the responses have been stock answers from the civil servants in the Communications Teams, so party line.  Of all the MPs letters, Charles Kennedy’s was probably the most genuine. Whether Dave and Nick respond isn’t really the point though. I think my main aim is to speak truth to power. Keep politicians mindful that we are holding them to account is a good way of being part of the change I want to see.

MTM: What kind of response have you had from the public?

Bern: The letters generally seem to be very well received, particularly when I’ve worn them on marches! There is a small but loyal following on Twitter and who regularly share them with their followers. An online presence has been very useful for sharing information quickly. Face to face, so many people I talk to tell me they identify with the sentiments in the letters, but they don’t know what to do next. Dear Dave and Nick gives some ideas. Word is getting out about the project locally and I was recently asked to give a talk to local A level politics students about the project, art and activism. They are keen to invite me back round election time which I am happy to do.

MTM: Dear Dave and Nick has been a long term project for you.  How do you continue to find inspiration and energy for it?

Bern: There have been times when I’ve felt like giving up, but I’m motivated more to challenge things I think are wrong and unfair. I strongly believe that we can all make a difference to something we disagree with if we keep chipping away. My job in all this is to find an effective way to share knowledge and encouraging people to think about how they might get involved. Initially, I found I was fuelled by anger at the injustice of the policies and that was enough, but about  six months into the project I realised just what I’d taken on and felt quite daunted, so I started making connections with people over the internet to support the project. I’ve found that whenever I’m feeling low, positive feedback from people reading the letters really helps, or reading this fantastic letter by John C Dyer which is pinned up in my studio.  I imagine that 2015 exhibition of 160 letters and I’m spurred on to give it another week!