Key medals – concept

My initial aim for this project was to create a piece of work, through the medium of the medal, that represents personal growth and development of the self, over the changing stages of life; the repeated fracturing and reforming process as we deal with trauma, loss, triumph, happiness, bonds being formed and others being broken, as we slowly define and refine our sense of identity, and how we define ourselves to others. We select significant events and experiences in our lives, and absorb it into part of our personal narrative, and disregard others, through an ever continuing process of refinement.

This is an important topic to me personally, as now that I come to the end of my university experience, I feel that I have reached the end of an era in my life and come out the end a distinctly different and more developed person than at the beginning. Yet I am both paradoxically, entirely different and completely the same. I have become more, myself, then I have ever been; taking the best parts of myself and exemplifying them, and allowing others to fall by the wayside. However, this is not a finished process, and while I feel I am in a strong and secure place currently I am still in (hopefully) a very early stage of my life which I am sure will feature many more points of turmoil and success in the many years to come. Not only have I changed, and will continue to change, but the events and my perception of these events and relationships do not remain fixed, as we continually revisit the past with the lens of our current self.

It was this realisation, that drove me to use this as a theme for this project, as it is one that is both important to me personally, and that is common to all people and the changing development throughout their lives. The term for this, is known as “Sonder” – defined by The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows as “the realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own—populated with their own ambitions, friends, routines, worries and inherited craziness—an epic story that continues invisibly around you like an anthill sprawling deep underground, with elaborate passageways to thousands of other lives that you’ll never know existed, in which you might appear only once, as an extra sipping coffee in the background, as a blur of traffic passing on the highway, as a lighted window at dusk.”

While I originally intended for the work to be representative of this notion as a whole, the different stages and features of people’s lives which change, repeat, fault and interchange; I came to realise through the project that just as the adage often used by writers of books, I can only draw from my own experience. In the end, while having this notion of sonder, and understanding that the lives of all people unfold in just as complex and fundamentally important manners as my own, this is perhaps far too infinite for me to be able to capture and express. I cannot truly know the lives of others, and tasking myself with creating a piece of work which is personally identifiable to all people is something that while I still feel strongly about – is possibly a task taken over a life time, rather than approximately half a year in a final year degree show.

It is because of this, that I decided to make the focus of the medals my own personal life’s narrative, but in a manner that given care, consideration and understanding, is still able to be read and understood by others investigating it’s underlying theme.


The medals are a set of five, using the imagery of keys, which each represent a distinct stage or relationship in my life.

I feel very strongly about the use of keys as a motif, in that they are objects which are inherently understandable, and yet also able to carry and convey a weight of meaning. Keys are objects that every person carries with them, every day of their lives. They are fundamentally linked to place, keeping you tied to that place – and by extension the relationships and experiences tied there – even if you may be thousands of miles away. Keys represent options, and opportunities; a person with only one key only has access to one thing, whereas a person with many keys has access to many more places, people, objects, facilities. Keys can be freeing, and the absence of them can be constricting. Not only do they carry these meanings in their function, but they are also able to be read visually. The key can range from the simplistic and mundane, to the ornate, complex and beautiful, with each carrying it own identifiable value and associations. As both my subject, field, and dissertation work explores,  objects act as containers and vehicles for personal meaning, value, and experience, and some of these values can be expressed and understood wordlessly by others through entirely the form, and context of the object. We unconsciously read the meanings and values given to them by their making in in their use.

It is because of this that I believe the keys to be a strong choice in design for the medals. Each key is able to some extent to be read, simply in it’s form and design, and the viewer is therefore able to speculate what that may represent to me personally.

The medals themselves are sequential, moving through different stages of my life, and only when fitted together in the correct sequence is the poem on the edges revealed.

The first key in the set, is a small set of two keys, which comes from a child’s lock box. The keys are small, thin, and flimsy, and functional in the most basic of senses. While they do lock and unlock, they provide no real security, and act as merely a prop to make the child feel more secure.

child's key

This is a style of key that is not only understandable as a child’s key in it’s design, but may in fact be familiar to many as it is widely used in children’s products with locks and keys such as money boxes, and I was in fact able to find an identical set on google when looking for children’s money boxes This medal represents the period of childhood, of innocence, a fresh life with no prior experience. Because of this, the reverse side is smooth, polished and clean.

The surface of the second medal, is missing the children’s key from the surface. Instead, there is now a more recognisable, bona fide set of keys, clearly the type used for doors. They are sturdy, and more complex in design, while still being entirely functional, bearing the logo of the key company RST on the front. These are they keys to the front door of my family home, that I was given at a young age around eight or nine. It was around this age that I began to face my first major life conflicts, with my grandmother (whose home we lived in, then inhereted by my mother) passed away, triggering my mother’s first major episode of a psychotic manic episode, leading to her diagnosis of bi-polar disorder, leading to a period of hospitalisation. Shortly following this in the following year, my father was diagnosed with cancer of the kidney which spread to the brain, hospitalising him and having him pass away soon after on my ninth birthday. The again caused my mother to have another psychotic episode, leading me to spend a large part of the next year living with other family members, and visiting my mother in the mental hospital, while coming to terms with my father’s death.

Needless to say, this was a traumatic time for me, and signifies to me a very clear loss of childhood, and a sudden mounting of responsibility, represented by both the new set of house keys, and the painfully absent set of children’s keys. While this back story is clearly not something which will be understood or inferred from these medals, an outsider will not look at these two medals and deduce “this is a representation of the artist’s loss of a father figure as a child and her mother being institutionalised”, they may be able to understand the dialogue; the loss of childhood innocence moving into a different stage of life, and the sense of both loss and new found responsibility and independence.

The third medal in the set, this time shows still the set of house keys from the previous medal, but also a new, more ornate key. This key is in clear contrast to the more practical house keys, looking more decorative than functional, with a complex handle and simplistic locking mechanism. Rather than being held with a sturdy keyring, it is instead held with a set of two small loops, such as you would find on a necklace. We can understand from this key that is perhaps more sentimentally valuable, than for its function as a key, and that this is a new addition in my life.

The key in question, was in fact a gift that was given to me by my boyfriend of five years throughout my teenage years and school. If we understand that the first key is that of a young child, and the second is a first set of house keys, we can then deduce that this third medal is perhaps set in the teenage years of the person’s life, and that they have a new sentimental attachment of some form in their life that they treasure.

necklace key

a photo of me in my teenage years, almost exclusively always wearing the key necklace

This relationship was one that was incredibly valuable to me throughout my teenage years, as my life became increasingly turbulent. Teenage years are often a turbulent time for many, a stage of uncertainty and insecurity, beginning to question, search for and identify your own personal values and your relation to others, while also navigating the needs and troubles of others in your peer group. Not only this, but once again I had to face the various periods of my mother’s mania and depression, and while this was not a constant condition – with her often going many years without an episode – the interludes were often filled with an uncomfortable role reversal of parent and child, attempting to manage her general absent presence and alcoholism. My relationship with my boyfriend of the time, and his family, acted as a much needed anchor and support system to fall back upon in these difficult times, in the face of otherwise isolation.

The house keys, both in a literal sense and the symbolic sense representing my relationship with my mother, are still present in my life, despite being an anchor in the suffocating sense, rather than supportive sense of Martyn (my boyfriend) ‘s family. While time with Martyn and his family (represented by the decorative key necklace) is a welcome relief and separation between myself and the family home, the distance – again, in both a physical and symbolic sense – is only slim, and the looming sense of responsibility from home is never far.

On the reverse side we can see imprints of both the childhood key, and the house keys despite them still being present on the surface. While the childhood key was not present on the surface of the second medal, it is still something that is felt as an absence even into the teenage years. However, the colouring of the childhood keys are less dark than the previous medal, and lighter than the near black tone of the house key imprint, signifying the depth of the loss felt. This is a continuing conflict throughout the medals, the simultaneous presence and sense of absence of the home keys, as it is a continuing theme and conflict throughout my life – of feeling inescapably tied to my home life.

The fouth and penultimate medal in the set, features again the set of home keys, but now instead of the decorative sentimental key, there is another set of sturdy, functional keys. Moving through the timeline of my life, from childhood, through to teenage years, this medal represents early adulthood. This set of keys is in fact the keys to my first flat, which I moved into during my second year of university after spending the first year still living at home, as my family home is in Cardiff. However, after my mother having another manic episode towards the end of my first year at university and the intense stress it was putting me under, thanks to the strong advice and support of the university’s chaplain Paul Fitzpatrick I was enabled to finally move out from the family home after having resigned myself for years that I was to be trapped in that destructive environment.

While I now had more options and avenues of escape in my life, with the new set of functional keys representing my new access to a home other than my family home, in many ways I was more isolated than ever before, and still strongly and crushingly tied to my home life. Shortly after moving out within the first two months of the second year of university, while still recovering from her previous manic episode from the end of the last academic year, only recently having been realised home from the mental hospital, my mother suffered a severe stroke. This left her hospitalised for roughly six months on end, being possibly more dependent on me than ever before. This left me travelling daily on the bus between university, the family home to look after the dog in the empty house, to the hospital to visit and bring support, supplies, and clean clothes, taking away her urine soaked clothes back to the family home to be washed, before finally catching the last bus to my flat. Although it most certainly would have been more practical for me to move back to the family home, I was determined to make full use of my small foothold of independence despite being pulled tighter home than ever before.

Meanwhile, while this is all happening, I am still feeling the loss of childhood – although the child’s keys are now a lighter colour showing my coming to terms with this, and clearly still the conflict of home, but also the loss of my supportive relationship in the form of my 5 year boyfriend and his family, as well as the loss of the family dog whom I loved that I was no longer able to care for.

As we can see from the medal, this was a period of much intense loss, with only the added modicum of independence being gained.

The final medal, while still having the set of house keys, more significantly features an entirely new set of keys, completely separate and overshadowing the house keys. These keys represent my shift fully into adulthood, becoming entirely independent from my home ties. Despite still being present, they are now a far smaller and less significant focus in my life. The new set of keys are they keys to my second flat in which I am living with friends from my course – rather than the previous year in which I was living on my own for the best part of the year. I am both living and functioning happily and autonomously, and although I still face pressures and demands from home I have deliberately put once again both physical and emotional distance between myself and the family home, setting a firm limit on the amount of time that I am willing to spend there. The absence of family life is still felt, although now much paler in colour than the previous medals as I come to terms with this, and there is an loss felt for my time at St Michael’s (my first flat) and the yearning for what my first year of independence could have been, this too is something I have largely come to terms with.

This final medal is far more hopeful, with the gains far outweighing the sense of loss. Not only this, but it marks the completion of the set, allowing all of the medals to come together in order for the poem inscribed on the side to be read.


Each individual medal is a thin and isolated slice on its own, as is any extract taken from a person’s life. Upon meeting a person, we only see and are able to interpret what is presented to us, the current iteration of their self, and perhaps speculate as to what may have come before it. We may, through investigation then reveal different slices and layers of their life, which may seem entirely distinct or perhaps only a very minor change to the version you see in the fully formed person. It is only then by putting these pieces together as a whole, that we can truly appreciate and understand the full breadth of a person and their experience, and understand the sonderous nature of another person’s life in relation to our own.

The lines inscribed down the side of the medal are extracts from Rudyard Kipling’s poem, “If”. They read,

” If you can keep your head when all about you

Are losing theirs and blaming it on you

If you can meet with Triumph & Disaster,

& treat those two imposters as the same

& so hold on when there is nothing in you,

Except the will which says “Hold on!”

If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,

If all men count with you, but none too much

Yours is the Earth and everything in it, & what is more

– You’ll be a Man my son! “

This is a poem which fundamentally expresses the process of the development of the self, in the face of both the trials and the successes, and coming out the other side more complete. This poem, and these lines especially are particularly poignant to me personally, while also serving to make the set of medals more easily accessible and understandable to the viewer giving the objects a context in order to decode the imagery and symbolism behind the keys.