Winternest

A few weeks ago, I spent a day with John Fox and Sue Gill at their home on Morecambe Bay. It was one of those lovely February days where the damp of winter seems forgotten in the bright air, not spring yet, but the promise of it. The winter sunlight changed direction as the tide went out; the bay shifted shape and colour before my eyes. On the foreshore, the traces of John and Sue’s most recent artwork, Wildernest, were returning wisely to the land from which they had come.

In 1968, John and Sue, with other friends, founded a theatre, art and performance company they called Welfare State. Over the next 40 years  it would grow organically to become one of the most influential artistic forces in community art –  and in British theatre. Many of the people who worked with Welfare State, whether for a few weeks or for years, went on to form other companies. They took with them ideas about aesthetics, politics and participation that continue to resonate and evolve.  And through a seminal history/handbook, Engineers of the Imagination, people in distant places (including me) were inspired to create things they’d never have dreamed of otherwise.

Welfare State’s final show, Longline, was in Ulverston in 2006. Scores of local people performed a carnival opera that celebrated the strange and ancient landscape of Morecambe Bay with the company’s unique blend of music, puppets, poetry and spectacle. It was a fitting closure to an adventure whose ripples still spread.

Now that the company, like the art it created, is passing into history, its unique contribution to the language of community art is becoming easier to see. Two things strike me now as being particularly valuable, though others could be mentioned.

The first was the reckless bravery, a willingness to try something just for the joy of it, to stand up and not mind falling down. As John remembers, in the early days ‘we couldn’t play our instruments. We made noises on saxophones, banged oil drums and got an audience. I think we had an urge to show off.’ Sue adds: ‘Also, once people got the curiosity about working in different media – fire over here, ice over there or some kind of installation – we shamelessly used an invitation or a gig to research, for the first time, something that we had absolutely no idea how to do.’ That freedom to experiment existed in the early days of community art because there were not yet any fixed ideas about what was correct or how things should be done. Today, such space is rare in Britain, where risk assessments have to be filed before every workshop. It does seem to exist though elsewhere in Europe, where community art is more recent and, for reasons good and bad, artists have more freedom of action.

But that creative bravery wouldn’t have gone far without an aesthetic imagination, itself rooted in strongly held values. Welfare State created a distinctive visual and theatrical language, partly shaped by its use of found, recycled and cheap materials. Its artists created a wild beauty out of necessity, reconnecting communities with ancient rituals through fire, music and imagery. Today, I’m struck by its connection with the singular English  imagination of visionaries like Blake, Palmer, Spencer, Bawden or Ravilious –  unruly, exuberant and bursting with life. It is the antithesis of the rationalist and utilitarian that often dominates English culture. Non-realist or supra-realist, it glories in excess and fizzes with outrage or righteous anger, like Dickens and Hogarth, Lawrence and the Who. It falls flat on its face and picks itself up with a savage grin, laughing at everything and itself. Perhaps because it challenges my own instinctive caution, I love that wild art and feel the need of it today more than ever.

John Fox at Bradford - 1

But my conversation with John and Sue was never nostalgic. We talked more about the work they are doing now and the role of the artist in a threatened and threatening world. Their passionate commitment to a creative life and the values that have shaped theirs was evidently undimmed.

A few weeks later, I heard John speak at a conference celebrating the work of Albert Hunt, who’d  given him his first job at Bradford School of Art. He paid tribute to another influential visionary in the early life of British community art and read from 40 year old texts by Hunt that seemed as fresh as ever. He told the story of Welfare State, which some of the students present heard for the first time, but his gaze was always forward – surely one of the most reliable tests of an artist’s worth – and he closed with a passionate manifesto for the artist’s role today as:

 ‘… facilitator and fixer, celebrant and stage manager, a visionary linking the past and the future, a poetic diviner, a shamanic lasso, a trickster mongrel, revelator of layers of perception and the holder of what used to be called spiritual energy. Equally of course this kind of artist would also acknowledge the artist in us all and offer testament to the innate creativity recurring in every generation and every community where the intuitive is given freedom to participate and collaborate. Where re-generation is of the soul and not of economics. Where a holistic way of being is given credence and where making art is a daily experience for everyone.’

What was exciting about community art in 1968 is exciting about it today. It’s simply how that humanist vision of shared creative life is explored in endlessly different ways by people passionately committed to another way of living.

4 thoughts on “English visionaries: John Fox, Sue Gill and Welfare State

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