So where did it all begin? Well for me, with Bob and Roberta Smith’s statement Art is your human right (2016), and a question – if that is the case then why do so many of us struggle to express our innate creativity as adults? That question has inevitably led to many more, and we have only just touched on the surface of it as we have offered art activities to a diverse range of people and had some amazing conversations, collaborations and experiences along the way!
As part of Artlink’s Square Peg disability and diversity programme, the underlined project has involved a series of workshops, and an exhibition of participants work. During the year-long project myself and fellow-artist Adam Wilson have also had the opportunity to attend the Engage 2017 Arts (disability and diversity) conference in Hull and to participate in Dementia Friends Training. These opportunities have run alongside the informal and research-based learning that has taken place over the course of delivering the project, so here goes for a final reflective blog pulling some of the highlights together…
1. The Workshops
The first set of workshops happened with the dementia group in Hessle who are not only an exceptionally creative and open-minded group of people but also regional bowls champions I believe! See below for some of the fantastic work produced in the context of unexpected interactions and mutual learning…
The second set of workshops were open-access and based on a collaborative drawing activity aimed at adults of all abilities. Using process-based drawing, it was the quality of interactions both within and around the art that made these workshops enjoyable.
2. The exhibition & community engagement.
When planning the exhibition, we wanted the participants work to be shown at a place accessible to non-art people – somewhere that would be visited by those who don’t normally feel that art-viewing is for them. Hull Central Library was ideal for this – the gallery is a good size and well lit, and in a popular community building. Local ‘art types’ know where it is, and more to the point it is on the main route to the library toilets! So, during the hours I spent in the gallery (and presumably the times others did too) there were so many amazing conversations about art with people who were intrigued by our question – why do people feel that they can’t be creative? We signposted people to local art groups, passed out art materials from the community activity provided at the exhibition, and talked with other community groups meeting at the library who took away art materials to do our activity independently at their sessions.
The text, colour and content of the collage work, and the fact that some of the work was produced by a group of people living with dementia made quite an impact on the people passing through the exhibition space. Often people hadn’t intentionally come in to see art, and they hadn’t intended engaging with the issues of creativity, disability or diversity, but when offered a universal question they did stop to talk and some interesting and unexpected conversations took place.
3. The ENGAGE conference
Highlights from the ENGAGE conference were the chance to meet with so many informed and experienced arts practitioners interested in inclusion and diversity issues. The conference offered an opportunity to explore the concepts of co-creation and co-production in community arts provision and the tensions that exist in a professional field that is both highly practical and creatively skilled whilst also intellectually and academically informed.
The panel discussions allowed me to think through previous learning from a session I had been privileged to participate in with a group of extremely well-educated and informed City of Culture volunteers for Hull 2017 (one of a series of lectures superbly led by Jill Howitt). At Jill’s lecture, the question was asked – does all good art have to be “informed”. To which most people gave a swift and intellectually rigorous answer “YES” without even a moment’s hesitation. I still remember how shocked I felt as I had never heard of this before. To me, even up to going to art college ‘the canon’ was just a big metal gun that old civilisations used to defend castles – what did that have to do with art?!
Intuitively (and i hope politely) I disagreed, asking questions about ‘outsider art’ and ‘what about those who couldn’t for whatever reason access accepted art tradition/education or understand the ‘art canon’?’ – was there a difference between ‘inherent creativity’ and ‘good art’? Much as I valued arts education (i’m involved in it after all!), what made someone with an art degree and ‘art speak’ so much better than someone with, for example, a learning disability who created innovative and intuitive work that challenged how we see the world?
The volunteers in the discussion group were gracious and open-minded to my opinion when aired following Jill’s discussion question, but it was refreshing for me to be at ENGAGE where organisations like Pyramid of Arts explored the same issues – when is it ok for an ‘arts professional’ to write an artists statement on behalf of a disabled artist if they can’t fill in the grant application forms? Why are such form set up so that such artists can’t understand or fill them in? Is that ok? Do you have to have an academic degree to apply for most “artist” roles (or an MA for that matter?) If so, is that justified in the role? and how are such systems set up with bias towards certain demographics? It was good that all these systemic questions and more were able to be asked of the Arts Council representatives who were present at the conference too.
These questions of equity have continued to resonate as I have navigated my way through the working processes of the underlined project. As I have reflected on my own practice and approach to planning and project delivery I firmly believe that as art professionals we have a duty to strive for excellence and informed practice to the best of our personal and organisational abilities, but as individuals and institutions we also have a responsibility to protect against elitism and be open to the creative potential of all. This is never an easy balance, rather it is an ongoing conversation, one that I am sure I have, along with others, not always gotten right…
And so, as the underlined project draws to a close, the bigger conversations about cultural inclusion, diversity and community arts continue. Not least, as far as Hull is concerned, with Graft in Flux arriving at Artlink, giving a taste of prison art induction. Their stated aim is to “use art as a vehicle to improve confidence, grow self-esteem, and to incrementally transform individuals by engaging them in a pro-active intervention program.” (artlink website). I’m looking forward to getting across to visit the exhibition and hopefully participate in one of their community workshops. But for now, the final words on underlined should go to Kath Robson Jervois, coordinator of the Hessle Dementia Activity Group:
“the activity group at Hessle are very pleased to have been involved with the art project and enjoyed the work they did so much. One lady who had dementia said, ‘I was so pleased with my artwork and didn’t realise I could produce such a picture.’ It shows it’s never too late to give a new activity a try.”
Many thanks to Kath and all the underlined workshop Participants who made underlined such an enjoyable experience!
Let me know your thoughts, comments and observations – email [email protected]
for more information about: