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.