Murals, craft and community art in the 1980s

My early steps in community art

In 1982, I got a job as a community arts worker on a council estate in Newark-on-Trent. My only qualification was a year’s apprenticeship at Greenwich Mural Workshop (thank you, Gulbenkian Foundation, for that investment). At Greenwich, I’d been trained in running a community printshop and painting murals, as well as learning about community art. So, of course, I set up a community printshop and began work on some mural projects.

Screenprinting was fast and fun. With a little help, people who’d not made a picture since leaving school could produce a stack of colourful prints in a couple of sessions. But, even in the new community centre where I was based, there wasn’t the need for posters there had been in London, where they spread ideas and fashion as well as publicising  events. Most people enjoyed the experience once but didn’t want to make any more of it.

It was much harder to get people involved in the mural work. The first, in a primary school playground, was simple enough – two dragons facing off over a pile of gold. The image came from the idea that their scales could be applied by small children using sponges rather than paintbrushes. It worked all right, in the days before the SATs tests and the national curriculum, with teachers happy to send out four or five kids at a time to do some painting for an hour.

The next two murals were indoors, small and simple: I came up with a design that could be painted without much skill. A clown on the wall of a youth club was completed in a day by teenagers, a Fernand Léger-inspired work scene  was done in a training centre, but it was painting by numbers and without artistic merit.

The Appletongate Mural

The most ambitious project was begun in 1983, when I was asked for a mural on the gable wall of building on Appletongate, in the town centre. The work was far beyond my abilities as a painter, so I brought in two local artists. Nadia Nagual (who’d worked with me on the dragons) and Bill Ming. The next 18 months were a struggle to secure funds to pay them while we worked on designs and a public consultation, with the help of the local paper.

We applied to the Mural Funds administered by the Royal Academy with the confidence and naivety of youth, and a gentleman came up from London to meet us and view the site; the decision was negative. We did get some Arts Council funds but couldn’t pay for scaffolding. Then Heather, the brilliant local woman who worked with me part-time (nominally as a administrator but really as a fixer), persuaded a couple of local companies to install it for nothing. Finally the project could happen: Bill, Nadia and I spent most of that spring and summer with our faces to the wall.

And that’s what convinced me there were better ways of doing community art. In the project’s 1985 Annual Report, I wrote:

The work was a sort of hybrid between public art and community art: most of Bill and Nadia’s wages came from an ACGB Art in Public Places grant – more usually spent on shopping precincts sculpture. We did get a few of the more adventurous people climbing the scaffolding, braving both the height, and the wet, to paint; some ten children painted areas they could reach from the first stage of scaffolding.

It wasn’t just the scale of the mural, which took months of drawing and painting. It wasn’t even the challenge of having people working on boards fifty feet above the ground. The problem was the skill needed to paint the work. The design has been chosen from four alternatives printed in the local press, but it was our ideas. It was inevitably rather anodyne, given its position in a historic market town, though the inclusion of a non-white figure drew a certain amount of comment at the time. And when it came to the work itself, we were back to painting by numbers, asking the few people who were willing to take part to fill in flat colour. The final mural was indeed ‘much appreciated’ as I subsequently wrote in the Annual Report. It just wasn’t community art.

By then, however, my work on the estate had changed a lot. The screenprinting equipment had been mothballed and that same year we did two community plays, a Welfare State inspired fireshow, a video film with a primary school and shadow puppets with a disability group. We also published a monthly newsletter, ran a creative writing group and had Open Thursdays at the community centre for retired people – and there was more.

By working with other artists – theatre companies, photographers, puppeteers, musicians – the limits of my own skills ceased to matter and people could do whatever creative work they were interested in. Much later, I saw that I’d become a kind of creative producer. Appletongate was the last mural I worked on.

Visual art and community art

These memories – and the excavation of old photographs –  were prompted by seeing the Appletongate mural again, 30 years after it was completed. It’s partly hidden by trees now, and a big section was lost when roadworks caused the render to fall. But there is not a mark on it, and it’s not much faded, which says a lot for the acrylic paint we used.

Visual art has travelled far since 1985. New technology has enabled artists to respond to profound socio-political change with equally novel methods. The performative and interactive possibilities of visual art have become central to many artists’ practice – often with the label ‘participatory’. The theories that made printmaking and murals attractive to early community artists – including their supposed resistance to commodification – have become less relevant as the same technologies have widened access to the means of artistic production and distribution. They’ve also become less credible, at least to many artists, with the rise of the creative industries and the market culture. Nowadays, people will chip a Banksy off the wall to get it in an auction.

Some of these changes have made it easier to use visual art in participatory, if not quite community arts, practice. But the underlying challenge remains: it takes knowledge, time, skill and experience to create good visual art. Those qualities, which might be summed up as ‘craft’, may now be undervalued but that’s a mistake. They confer power, even if technology can bring visual expression closer to our reach.

One of community art’s best strategies for overcoming a weakness in craft is collective creation. A group of people can produce extraordinary work because they each bring something to the process, especially if they include some trained and experienced artists. It was perhaps always easier to do that in the performing arts, which are naturally collective encounters, and many visual artists – like John Fox and Sue Gill of Welfare State – gravitated in that direction.

But the visual is fundamental to human experience and communication. We need imaginative artists to reinvigorate it in community and participatory art practice, especially at a time when our eyes are saturated with the imagery produced by merely commercial interests.

This is what we look like after 30 years. To see Bill’s recent work, click here: Against The Tide.

Thank you, Kwikfit and Henderson’s scaffolders, and Dacrylate,Johnstone’s, Earnshaws and Mebon, paint-makers, wherever you are now, and ACGB for £1400.

1984 Murals discussion - 2
My flyer for an evening discussion about the problems of painting murals

Older artists working with older people

The Baring Foundation (of which I’m a trustee) has prioritised arts work with older people since 2009, supporting the a huge range of work in the UK and Northern Ireland. It has all been participatory, though that word has covered an equally broad range of practice, much of described in a rich library of free publications.

The latest project that is now coming to fruition is a series of commissions for older artists – not necessarily people with an established practice in participatory work. I’ve just seen these two contrasting films in which Ron Haselden (commissioned by Fabrica in Brighton) and Robert Race (commissioned by New Brewery Arts in Cirencester) talk about their very different work. They’re short but fascinating insights into ways of working with people – and the artworks are beautiful.

Inspiring change – the arts and older people in Ireland

Artist Francis Bailey at VOLTage, glór, Ennis, Co.Clare. (Photo: Eamon Ward)
Artist Francis Bailey at VOLTage, glór, Ennis, Co.Clare. (Photo: Eamon Ward)

Bealtaine must be one of the happiest arts festivals I know. Founded in 1995, it involves thousands of older people from all over Ireland in arts workshops, performances and events. It’s organised by Age & Opportunity, with some Arts Council funding, a network of hundreds of local groups and an incalculable amount of volunteer effort and goodwill – most activities are organised independently by people in their own communities. There’s a special focus this year on County Clare, which has an admirable record of art work with older people, but there are events from Donegal to Cork and everywhere between. Concerts, theatre performances, workshops, exhibitions, visits, readings – there really is something for everyone. In all this, professional artists have a leading role but never at the expense of other participants: the festival celebrates the creativity and imagination of every person.

Like all good artistic projects Bealtaine also thinks hard about its work. This year there was a seminar exploring creative approaches to residential care. This is not my beautiful house allowed artists, architects and campaigners to share ideas and hear about existing and planned projects. I was impressed to meet three older ladies who had come from different parts of Ireland simply because they had read about the event in the Festival brochure. Arts conferences do not always feel so open to those whose experiences they discuss.

There were several examples of new ideas in residential care. Rodd Bond talked about the Great Northern Haven in Dundalk, Rosie Lynch presented the Callan Workhouse Union project and, from NE England, Susan Jones and Esther Salamon spoke about their ideas for independent creative living. I was glad to learn about McAuley Place, in Naas, Co. Kildare, an inspiring combination of residence, arts centre, community hub and tea room, which makes a place for older people at the heart of the town and art at the heart of the project.

This Is Not My Beautiful House Seminar, Dublin May 2016
This Is Not My Beautiful House Seminar, Dublin May 2016

A development like this shows what is possible when people shape their own services, but I also wondered how such exceptional places could change the far less happy conditions of residential care as a whole. It takes such energy, cash and commitment to bring a single one of these initiatives to life – how could that be replicated for the tens of thousands of people living in ordinary old people’s homes? One of Rodd’s slides was a photo of São Paulo showing a smart housing development next to a slum: how can we avoid creating such inequalities in residential services for older people? And I was moved by Rionach Ni Neill’s account of her Irish language dance work with dementia sufferers in rural Connemara. It is frequently an uphill struggle to get the gatekeepers and managers to understand how deeply the opportunity to dance can affect someone’s quality of life – particularly when their feelings cannot be heard, but only seen in their faces or the energy of their movement.

Part of the answer is in that important (if sometimes over-used) word, ‘inspiring’.

Projects like McAuley Place and the Callan Workhouse Union show what can be done. They raise expectations and challenge us all – not just those responsible for policy and services – to think again and do better. They don’t just put an argument for the arts in making old age a time of learning, happiness and creativity – they enact it as a reality. Every town needs its McAuley Place, but each one of them should be different because it reflects the ideas and dreams of its community.

Dawn Chorus, Bealtaine Festival
Dawn Chorus, Bealtaine Festival

That’s the model of Bealtaine – a festival that encourages creative participation by inviting people to join in, not laying on some activities for them. Each year Bealtaine inspires new people to do for themselves what they have witnessed elsewhere. That’s how a festival has become a movement: this May some 120,000 people will participate – something like 20% of everyone over 65 years old in Ireland.* It has also inspired the creation of Luminate, Scotland’s own creative ageing festival, which marks its fifth anniversary in October.

In 2009, the Irish Centre for Social Gerontology published an evaluation of Bealtaine, which concluded that:

‘Bealtaine has had a profound and very visible impact on arts practice in Ireland at national and local level, despite having very limited resources. The festival provides opportunities for meaningful engagement in the arts among older people, both as artists and participants. […] There is compelling evidence that participation is empowering and transformative and that self-reported physical and psychological well-being is enhanced at an individual level. Bealtaine has proven itself to be a major positive force for the well- being of older people in Ireland.’

One person quoted in the report says: ‘The existence of the festival creates expectations and these expectations increase every year’. We don’t make change alone but good work inspires others to run away with the idea and make something more for themselves. We inspire change by raising expectations – our own and everyone else’s too.

PS The West Yorkshire Playhouse has just published a guide to Dementia Friendly Performances,which you can download here: another way of inspiring change.

* The 2011 census recorded 535,393 people aged over 65 living in Ireland: not all the Bealtaine participants are over 65 but it still reaches a remarkable proportion of Ireland’s older population.

Hearts and minds

Oresh Dance Group 2004
Young People’s Dance Company, Oresh (Bulgaria) 2004

There has been a fantastic growth in community and participatory art during the past 20 years, across the world. A practice that was once marginal – with the strengths and weaknesses that implies – is arguably now the most creative, energised and popular aspect of the non-commercial arts. But there are several reasons why it might not always feel like that to artists and activists, for instance:

  • There are many more projects, so even if there is more funding it has to stretch further.
  • Much of the art world hasn’t understood the practice or what it means, so it doesn’t get the attention it deserves.
  • The culture of evaluation – which has grown up at roughly the same time – is applied disproportionately to participatory art projects.

In fact it seems to be a principle of many arts funders that the less money you get, the more work you have to do to prove its value. An opera house can receive millions in subsidy without being asked for any serious evaluation of its audience impact, but a young people’s theatre project must show how everyone’s lives have been transformed for a few thousand pounds.

As a result, people working in participatory arts can be defensive about the value of their work and  frustrated at repeatedly having to provide reports they suspect change nothing, if they are even read. Actually, the reports do create change: the steady accumulation of increasingly strong evidence over 20 years is one reason why there is now so much more work than there was.

But it is only part of the reason – because we are only partly rational beings.

Experience – real, lived, powerful experience, changes people more profoundly than evidence. There is more support for this work among artists, teachers, managers, hospital administrators, prison governors and, yes, politicians because they have seen uplifting shows, visited impressive exhibitions, heard extraordinary performers. They have met people whose lives have been changed by the artistic experiences they have been part of of. Both the art and the artists have spoken directly to these audiences: and the experience has changed minds.

Evaluation is essential to good art. Without systems for independent critical thinking it’s not possible to sustain a creative practice. But evaluation is not monitoring and the evidence it produces is not very good at changing opinions. Experience, on the other hand, does change us. It opens our hearts to new realities. It makes us willing to hear arguments and listen to evidence. The participatory art sector may always need to provide evidence of its value, but it should always remember that belief is a matter of minds and hearts.