The daring young girl on the flying trapeze

A powerful short film about Waltham Forest artist Nancy Willis will be screened at the E17 Art Trail this weekend. Penny Rutterford writes…

Local artist Nancy in her garden (Image courtesy of Nancy Willis)

Nancy Willis is an artist who has lived in the borough for the whole of her adult life. An award-winning short film about her life and work, The Daring Young Girl On The Flying Trapeze, will be screened during the E17 Art Trail. 

As a child, Nancy dreamed of becoming an explorer, or joining the circus as a trapeze artist. She also had a passion for art, but a diagnosis of Muscular Dystrophy when she was still a child in the early 1960s meant that she needed immense determination to get into art school, when there were few facilities for those who were disabled. 

Now in her 60s, Nancy was not expected to live beyond her teens or 20s. The film celebrates her resilience, determination and talent. 

She says: “For an able-bodied person, you might take off your shoes and socks and run through a meadow. For me to paint and get my hands in the painting, it’s like that – it’s a very physical thing.” 

The film is an intimate and tender portrait, made by filmmaker Nina Ross, the daughter of Nancy’s close childhood friend Judy. 

It’s a documentary about the societal discrimination she has faced, the day-to-day details of living with a progressive disability, and how she has always adapted so that she can make and share her art, which is featured throughout the film. 

The poster for Nina Ross’s film

Nancy says: “In those [early] days, I was not disabled – we used to run around playing together. Nina was studying for an MA in Film at Goldsmiths, and made me the subject of her graduate film. It was the perfect chance to show people what art making has meant to me in my life.” 

Made in 2019, the film has been screened at film festivals around the world, receiving many plaudits, including the Best Short Film award at Hebden Bridge Film Festival. 

This will be the fourth year that Nancy has been involved in the E17 Art Trail. She says she is looking forward to showing the film locally, and for her friends and the wider community in Walthamstow to see it for the first time. 

The Daring Young Girl On The Flying Trapeze will feature a pre-recorded introduction by Baroness Jane Campbell, a friend of Nancy’s who is a veteran disability rights campaigner and has a similar progressive disability. 

Baroness Campbell wrote of her impression of the film: “The whole film is a wonderful depiction of your relationship with life and love of its wonders… you express what it is like to be quite frail but at the same time drawing upon strength from within, which chimes with my own experience.” 

The film will be shown at Truman’s Social Club, as part of the Walthamstow International Film Festival, on Saturday 10th July at 3.30pm. Afterwards, there will be a short Q&A with Nancy. The film is subtitled, and there will be BSL signing for the Q&A. 

Places are free but should be booked in advance by visiting the E17 Art Trail website