The origins of Regular Marvels
Around 2010, I found myself lost, and unsure which way to turn. I had spent 15 years working as a community artist, and about the same researching, writing and working with a wide range of organisations from local arts projects to national and international bodies. But I could no longer see a shape to what I was doing, or a purpose. A change of government was bring huge cuts to public services, undoing much of what I believed in and had been working for. More personally, I’d turned 50 and was increasingly conscious of the limited time I had left to make a contribution, and of the changing character of cultural work. And, for the first time in three decades of freelance life, I was short of work. I put in bids and tenders, without success.
The answer was to create my own work by bringing together the different threads that I’d made my professional life: community art, research, working with projects and writing. I also wanted to solve two key paradoxes about most research into community art, including my own.
- The first was my belief that one aspect of art’s importance is that it is a unique form of knowledge, capable of expressing things that cannot be said in other forms. So I wanted to find ways of researching and writing about cultural life that used the methods of art, notably those of literature and visual art.
- The second paradox was the realisation that, although I had always written in clear, non-academic language, the fact was that none of the people who contributed to my research work would ever read the final reports. I felt I had strayed into a way of working that was the antithesis of what I had set out to do 30 years before.
It took me a while to find a way to resolve those paradoxes, and I was lucky to find people who were willing to accompany me while I searched. Without the trust and support of Emma Chetcuti (Multistory), David Cutler (The Baring Foundation) and Eugene van Erven (Verde van Utrecht), I would not have found my path. I’m not sure what they made of the three small books they eventually received, but they never complained. For me, the five books that eventually made up the series I called Regular Marvels, are flawed in different ways, but also very close to my heart. They are like nothing else I’ve done; nor, I think, is there much to compare them with. None of them success entirely in answering the questions I set myself, but they go some way towards it. They have been read and valued by the people who contributed to them, and some of what they told me in response has felt like an important validation. How far their use of literary and visual art succeeds in challenging dominant forms of knowledge production I leave others to judge. The links below will open PDFs of each book; (the printed copies are mostly all gone now).
The five Regular Marvels
The story of a wonderful, but also typical, amateur theatre company that has been thriving since 1937 and the West Midlands town that gives it life. With a DVD by Benjamin Wigley and photographs by Kate Jackson and François Matarasso. 100 pages; ISBN 978 0 9563457 9 0 Published by Multistory.
Explores how the practice of art, whether professional, amateur or occasional can change the experience of aging by strengthening our capacity for agency; with iPad portraits by Mik Godley. 80 pages and 10 colour plates. ISBN 978-1-906172-16-9 Published by the Baring Foundation..
Draws on the experiences of artists who have migrated to several European countries to ask questions about identity, value and culture’s claimed universalism With images by Bill Ming, and two poems in Hindi by Mohan Rana; 116 pages. ISBN 978-9-081-60505-2 Published by Vrede van Utrecht.
Considers the place of the village church as a focus of art, culture and community memory at a time of diminished religious observance; with photographs by François Matarasso; 136 pages. ISBN 978-0-9929966-1-1 Published by Transported.
Looks at a programme to bring the arts to rural Norfolk and Suffolk, and asks what lessons it has for the arts and the future of community development; with drawings by Rosie Redzia. 114 pages. Published by Creative Arts East.