Kevin Ryan, a pioneer of community art in England, died in hospital on Wednesday, 22 April 2020. He had been diagnosed some months earlier with asbestos-related lung cancer, but never stopped working and caring for others.
We met in 1982, through East Midlands Association for Community Arts, which connected people involved with the dozen or so community arts organisations in the region. Kevin was part of Charnwood Arts, based in North West Leicestershire. It was then a small group with a strong volunteer ethos but already shaped by Kevin’s unique creativity. Over the years, it grew and he grew with it. By the time illness forced him to step down from its leadership, Charnwood Arts had become a cornerstone of creative life in Loughborough, involving thousands of people from every part of the community. Kevin was a gifted photographer, who put his empathetic eye in the service of others, teaching, sharing and encouraging. In 2017 he and Liao Yun Ching documented Rotterdam’s International Community Art Festival, producing a lovely, and typically modest book of the event. After the Festival, Kevin gave me a photograph he’d taken of me speaking that remains one of my favourites, as well as images of a performance by Fada Theatre, to be included in A Restless Art.
Kevin dedicated his life to others, especially those less fortunate than himself. He knew that having the chance to express yourself, to share your feelings and ideas, to make something beautiful to be treasured by others, is not a luxury – it is central to what makes us human, and life worth living. I knew Kevin as a principled, creative and generous man, always working for the wider good, and always beaming with cheerful kindness. We had lunch together at the end of January, when he knew he was dying. There were tears but much more laughter, plans about new work, and talk of his beloved family. All of Kevin was there, his courage and commitment, his intelligence, his modesty and humour, above all the love for others and for life of a great heart.
The work of community artists is unknown to art critics and historians because it is not about themselves. Kevin Ryan spent his life enabling others to reach their creative potential, and they will remember him. I count myself fortunate to have known him as a brother on this road. I mourn his passing, but with love and admiration for what he did to make his part of the world better for others. The photograph at the top of the page is borrowed from Charnwood Arts. It is Kevin as I will always remember him, surrounded by people, at an event that he made happen, one among many, smiling.