I was delighted and honoured to welcome the extremely talented and passionate Colin Bentley to our office, so he could talk to us about his involvement with Lourdes and his wonderful new art project with HCPT here in our Diocese. Colin’s enthusiasm and dedication is palpable. Read on as he shares about his background, faith journey and why he feels going to Lourdes is a unique and transformative experience, where people see ‘life at its best’. Prepare to learn something and be uplifted and motivated by Colin’s remarkable story!

On his journey into the art world and his own struggles with Dyslexia

I lived in Birmingham, and I was severely dyslexic. I couldn’t actually read until I was 19. Part of the week I was in a special educational unit. I wanted to go to university, but this was incredibly difficult for me. However, I persevered. I stayed in the sixth form, and I took all the art and design subjects and got the highest points in the school, so I got an interview. Dyslexia takes away some things but gives you others! Unfortunately, when I went for the interview they said, ‘sorry but you’re not allowed in.’ Then they asked me back for the clearing interview and said no again. At the time, I had these leather-bound sketch books that I used to carry around with me in the lake district. One of the interviewers asked me to show him what was in the books. I can remember it as though it was yesterday, he opened up the sketch books and said ‘you’re in, you start Monday!’

So I struggled through university and got a degree and then ended up working in schools, often with special needs children, but I always felt guilty that I wasn’t using my art based degree. So eventually I thought, I’ll finally put it to bed by doing a major exhibition. It was enormous with great big seascape paintings and loads of people turned up because they thought I was having a breakdown; it was such a risky thing to do! Then loads of the paintings sold and suddenly I was thrust into the art world. Since then, I’ve been involved in several projects and developed my skills to the point where I feel I can paint the people in the HCPT group with real dignity and care. I understand what it’s like to struggle. I still struggle today with dyslexia even now, but this means I can really understand what some of the kids are going through. They’re told all the time they can’t do things, but this is all about helping to give them confidence. I’m deeply embedded in the diocese and everything I do is informed by this and by my faith.

A dare on his first trip to Lourdes

Strangely the first time I went to Lourdes I went with a friend; I wasn’t a Catholic at the time and we just went on a bit of a holiday down to the south of France. We ended up going to Lourdes. I can distinctly remember him saying to me ‘if you go in the baths, I’ll give you 10 quid.’ And I can remember going in the baths and it was quite a strange experience in that its quite clinical, but it’s the first time since I was a child that someone helped me take my shoes off. It totally, totally affected my life, just the fact that there was a stranger taking my shoes off. I came back and started playing guitar at the church and started helping out and then it sort of happened that I would sit having debates with the priest about Spanish art. And then, after not very long, I became Catholic, I sort of slipped in the back door, and now it’s absolutely everything to me and all because of 10 quid!

On how Lourdes is ‘a thin place, where heaven and earth are close’

I’d been with the Diocese pilgrimage to Lourdes, and I met a man called Michael. I remember that he kept coming up to me and saying ‘you should help the kids’ and a couple of years down the line a new group had started. I have to admit I wasn’t that interested at first, but I got sucked into it, and we have now been going for 16 years! I’m deputy group leader, my wife is group leader of the East Devon group, and our lives now revolve around Lourdes. It has been the best thing in my life. I’ve had the best times of my life in Lourdes and the hardest times of my life in Lourdes all within half an hour. I’ve seen the most painfully hard sides of life and I’ve laughed that hard that my back has hurt, and my face has hurt. It’s a place of incredible extremes, it’s life with the volume turned up to 11. A friend of mine, a priest, described it well when he said it’s a thin place. Meaning it’s a place where heaven and earth are very close, the things you see and hear there, things like someone helping someone in a café somewhere, they move you, it’s an incredibly special place and it’s our life now.

On combining his art and faith and wheelchairs in fancy dress

Early on I separated my work and my faith. When I was younger, and I was a Catholic teacher it was just something I did on a Sunday. When I worked in management, they knew I went to church, but I never discussed it, but with my artwork I wanted to mix both of them together, do it well. It is very easy to do it in a way that won’t do both sides justice. With the HCPT art project I really wanted to show people how Lourdes (and how faith) affects the children and helpers in an incredibly basic but profound way. I see what church is about in Lourdes, in the cafes where people are feeding people, when people are helping people get up, just in the dedication and the endurance and the hard work. I love the great big masses and I love all the music; I really do, but it is in the feeding and wiping somebody’s mouth with a tissue, that’s where I find it in Lourdes, and its really affected my life. I’ve just started a youth choir in my church and in a similar way, it’s about working with people who are sometimes overlooked. It’s about showing the overlooked that life can be normal and about having a laugh. Having a fancy dress party and decorating a wheelchair so that it looks like a tractor or something ridiculous. It’s about making the people feel welcomed, which gives them dignity. This can be hard for them to find in day-to-day life. That’s what drives me: making the overlooked feel welcome.

On capturing people with disabilities on canvas with joy, dignity and care

I spent quite a while thinking about how I can mix HCPT and the art world. It’s quite a difficult thing to do as there is a tradition in western art of depicting disability to create shock value or as people to be pitied. You see this in art, and in film and tv. I didn’t want to do that. I wanted to make people aware that even if someone has Down Syndrome or is in a wheelchair or something else, they’re a human being, even if they can’t communicate. I’ve had such a laugh with someone who is non-verbal, telling jokes on a chalk board! It takes a while because I’m dyslexic, so you can imagine what a mess that was.  I wanted to get that normalcy across, and I wanted to paint them with dignity and joy. So, I decided to do a portraiture series because with HCPT, and with Lourdes as well, it’s about people. It’s trying to capture that humanity and that joy.

On how a picture of socks helped him when recovering from a severe injury and the culture of encounter

I broke my leg in two places recently while climbing. I have always been super fit and an ultra-marathon runner so I took my fitness for granted. I slipped on a rock and bang, gone, I was thrown into a world of pain. I couldn’t even carry a cup of tea for two months. I live in a house with four sets of stairs so I couldn’t move around, and mobility was taken away from me. At times it was incredibly hard, everybody goes through these things, but it was really hard even moving round being in incredible pain just doing the most basic things.

So while going through this, I was reminded of something when it popped up on Facebook. It was a photograph of a pair of socks. It reminded me of an experience I had in Lourdes. In the mornings we help the kids get ready. I was working with this boy who had severe mobility issues and he had never put his socks on, he just couldn’t do it. And one morning he really wanted to put one sock on. I sat with him for 15 minutes and he was sweating trying to put this sock on and he kept going and going and he eventually got it halfway onto his foot. It was the biggest achievement for him, and he was so proud of himself. I remember printing off a picture of socks so when I was walking around moaning, like we all do very well, ‘me me me’. I looked at the socks and I stopped. I’m fine now and why should I be moaning? It’s amazing, we take them to Lourdes and we look after them but it’s amazing how much they give to us and look after us.

On the future exhibition being about joy, colour and happiness

I’m going to continue with the portraits. I think I’m incredibly lucky to be in a position where I can paint well and I can put on an exhibition that will showcase the joy that HCPT brings, not just HCPT but any disability charity that goes to Lourdes. You go at any time, and you will see a procession of 15,000 people, and there will be disabled people, nonverbal people, but they are full of joy, they just communicate in a different way. They’ve got problems, but we’ve all got problems. I want to get this exhibition together to highlight the humanity and normalcy of these people, they are not ‘the disabled’ they’re not ‘the weak’. It is all about showing people who find it difficult to communicate with people who are disabled or non-verbal people that it is possible, it’s not always about prejudice sometimes it’s fear. The exhibition will be about breaking down those boundaries, it will be all about joy, colour and happiness.

On how one woman’s gift of £2.50 helped to give a dying boy ‘the best day of his life’ visiting the mountains near Lourdes

We are a HCPT group based in Devon but there are lots of groups that go to Lourdes. There are many many ways that people can get involved. At our group we’ve got a wide range of people, we’ve got doctors and nurses who have made their life decisions at Lourdes. Young people, older people such as the group that hold a coffee morning every year and knit our scarves, which always brings such love, joy and a smile. There are so many ways people can get involved, from being a helper to donating what you can to our group.

I was at a fundraising event once and when I finished there was a lovely little old lady who came up to me and grabbed my hand. She said ‘I’m so sorry, but this is all I’ve got and she gave me £2.50 and I said ‘thank you so much, every little helps.’ I used that £2.50 to buy a hot chocolate for a boy in the mountains that we took to Lourdes that year. Unfortunately, the boy passed away 6 months later. Now we knew this was going to happen and just before he died, he wrote an essay about the best days of his life and his best day was the hot chocolate in the mountains. Its amazing how much £2.50 can do. It is mind blowing, undiluted religion at its best. Quite phenomenal!

On the importance of beauty and laughter at Lourdes

Be prepared to have deeply moving religious, spiritual experiences and then, half an hour after that in a café, also be prepared to be sat with the bishop and priests having a great time telling jokes. Its living life at the edge. A lot of people have a preconceived idea about going on a pilgrimage but it can be fast moving, noisy, exciting. It is very rare that the children we take to Lourdes are Catholic, it is only about 2 per cent. Some of them have never been to a church, but they never fail to be wowed by it.

We took some children to Buckfast the other day and they were just awed by the beauty and the music and everything else, so be prepared to be absolutely overwhelmed by the beauty of it. It is life at its best. People sometimes question why I go as I have to pay and it’s a lot of work. I was saying to my wife the other day, we have one weekend off between now and Lourdes, but it’s the best week of the year and it recharges us. Pilgrimage isn’t easy, it’s a journey and you discover a lot about yourself, but you will see life at its best, and this is seeing people who are going through such hard things having the most amazing time!

Warmest thanks to Colin for taking the time to talk to us and for his faith-filled commitment to such inspirational and life changing work here in our Diocese!

by Caitlin Miller, Communications Assistant.

You can find out more about Colin’s work and his project with the HCPT here https://www.colinbentley.com/