Garry Kennard, 69, is as passionate about art and science as climbing mountains – and all this is planned from his Holloway home.
It’s possible that one of Garry Kennard’s proudest moments was when the Islington Gazette ran a story in 2014 about a brave “climbing pensioner” who scaled a mountain just a few months after receiving two new hips. To train, Garry went “up Highgate Hill (129m / 423ft) fast.”
In 2017, Garry had another hip operation. But within eight weeks, and more ascents of Highgate Hill, he was cliff climbing on Lundy Island. Clearly climbing is a passion, but there’s a lot Garry could wave his walking sticks about triumphantly, including his paintings, essays and instigating the Art & Mind Festivals.
Garry was born at home, into what he calls “a pretty rough working class Islington” at the back of the Town Hall. “Wakelin House, Sebbon Street is a 1930s block and it’s still there. When I was born, there was no hot water, we used a copper thing to heat water.”
“I went to Queen’s Head School – a terrible secondary modern. You’ll know it as Islington Green (or even COLA, City of London Academy),” but it did at least give him a passion for art. Even so Garry wasn’t an Islington fan. For years he moved around London before moving to France, and it was here, while drawing trees that Garry had his moment of epiphany.
“I’ve always been a painter and in France I became very interested in the way works of art have their effect on the human nervous system. I looked on the web and found that really serious neuroscientists were also looking into this. So I started writing about it from an artist’s point of view. I’ve always written a lot of letters and so I wrote to Rita Carter, author of Mapping the Mind asking what the public knew about this. She said ‘not a lot’.”
The pair met, became friends and dreamed up the idea of regular festivals that combined art and science in a unique way. After securing funding Garry moved to Winchester where he ran Art & Mind Festivals from March 2004 until October 2009. The first festivals were sell-outs and attracted luminaries from both the art and science worlds, in part because of patronage from two celebrity scientists – Richard Dawkins and world renowned neuroscientist V S Ramachandran – but also because of the mix of lectures, discussions and performances, or as Garry called it “the theatre of discourse”
Garry’s tenaciousness is most obvious when it comes to his passion for mountains. With Islington’s highest hill at 129m it’s no surprise that it was elsewhere – on a trip to Switzerland with his second wife to see the Eiger – that he first wondered what it would be like to climb a mountain. It wasn’t long before the mountain bug was so strong that Garry could describe himself as “a mountaineer and occasional extreme rock climber”. He climbed in the Alps and then led expeditions in 1984 and 1989 to the Himalayas. Here with Sherpa guides and his friend Mark Adams, Garry tried to try to climb the 6,620m (21,719ft) Kande Hiunchuli mountain in Nepal. Both times his team had to turn around 600m (1,968ft) from the top. When Garry was 62 his team tried again, and were still thwarted.
“I gave my stuff away,” he says, but it’s clear he hasn’t stopped thinking about the unclimbed Kande Hiunchuli, or properly retired. “On Google Earth I’ve seen a new flatter route which no one knew about,” he says in his cosy sitting room surrounded by photos of his climbing victories around the world including the Old Man of Hoy in Orkney.
In quieter moments Garry is working on his growing collection of watercolours and drawings done in Islington of Islington residents, such as his Holloway Icons series, which includes kebab shop owners to Jeremy Corbyn and Arsene Wenger. Whatever he’s tackling, Garry makes full use of every minute: thinking, talking, painting and planning his next trip to the mountains.
To view more of Garry’s artwork and to read his intriguing letters and thoughts on what makes our minds tick, visit his fascinating website at www.garrykennard.com