Wednesday, November 22, 2017

The final year of Community Maker

The 3 year Paul Hamlyn funding for the Community Maker project ends this year, so in many ways the 3rd year of the project could be seen as the end point, and as a good point to stop and catch our breath, but also it is a time to reflect and plan for the future.The project has been a partnership between British Ceramics Biennial and AirSpace Gallery, with me as lead artist. First, it is important to note down everything that has happened within Community Maker over the summer of 2017.
So,at the end of year one, the biggest finding from the project was that the community is desperate for a space to meet, and to put on events and activities; as being outside means you are really exposed to the weather and other elements. This was also demonstrated by Rebecca Davies in her Oasis Social Club project. These findings led to the offer of The Portland Inn pub, a question from the Council about whether the community could take it over, and run it. For the second year of the project's immense activity, I partnered with artist Rebecca Davies to apply to Arts Council, and we tested and delivered 54 activities and events over 4 weeks, with a recorded 622 participants.
After that, Rebecca Davies and I worked on a business plan, based on our programme and everything we had learned, in order to begin the process of a Community Asset Transfer of the building. This was handed in in November 2016, and since then we have continued to campaign to get the building. In the meantime it was important to ensure that there was still a presence within the area, even though, in the background, we are working hard, this is not visible on the ground. So, the final year of Community Maker has been about continuing the conversation about what the building can be, and what the community needs.
Image: Tile making decal imagery created by Community Maker participant.
The Portland Inn, in Summer 2017, was uninhabitable, the hole in the roof is much worse, and the spaces are very mouldy and unhealthy. This meant that we were back in the tent in the green space again for our programme of activities.
As it announced on the brochure of activity, that was delivered to each of the houses in the area: 'Clay has been used to gather and activate the community, encouraging individuals to communicate and form ideas about the future of our place.
This summer, you can join Anna Francis to complete a series of interactive 'clay tests'. The tests are designed to see what types of clay and creative engagement should sit within the heart of the new social enterprise, The Portland Inn Pub.'
The plan was to have a launch event, and then a few weeks later, to begin a series of 4 Saturday making sessions, from 1-4pm with a core group of individuals, signing up to attend all of the sessions.
We learned in year one, that asking people in the area to commit to a programme was impossible, I had thought this may be because the project, and I, were new to the area, and that given that 2017 was the third year, perhaps our commitment to the community may be matched by some members of the community committing to 4 Saturdays with us this year.
Image: Faces of the Community decal imagery created by Community Maker participants.
The launch showed that people weren't really confident to commit to this, and there are a number of factors that could have affected this. 1. being back in a tent - we are in a temporary structure, with no heating, ammenities etc.
2. problems affecting the area in 2017.
Image: House decal imagery created by Community Maker participants.
When the project began in Summer 2015, the one pound home owners had been moved in for approximately one year, and though there were still a number of residual issues, of fly tipping and some minor anti-social behaviour, things felt to be improving in the area. Our programme on the green space that summer was well attended, it was a pleasant place to be based and there was a lot of positivity and hope.
This then gave us a measure, to see how much had changed in the area in Summer 2017.
From the very first event, we noticed a change in atmosphere on the green space. Living close by, I was already aware that the well reported problems with addiction to legal highs in the city were impacting locally. It was also evident that a number of properties in the area were being operated by drug dealers. This, along with a public space protection order on the city centre, meant that the green space where we were hosting creative activity, which was just outside the protection order zone, had become known as a space to easily access, and consume drugs. We learned during the project, that it is known as 'The Mamba Fields.'
The associated problems caused by the above meant that running the project on the space was very challenging. We realised quickly that we needed at least 4 people to be present at each event, in order to manage the space, assure the safety of participants, and still deliver a viable and productive workshop. At times, the precariousness of the situation left us feeling very exposed.

The situation for the residents, participants in the activity too came into focus via the project. People told us that the green space was now viewed as a no go zone, and that the community would avoid the space when we were not there. All of this showed a need to reconnect the community to the services tasked with operating in the area. We contacted Marvin Molloy from My community Matters, a key partner in our work in the area, to ask him to help us to set up a meeting. The community were invited along with key service providers, the police, anti-social behaviour teams, drug services, housing teams, selective licensing team, and others. The idea of the meeting was to make visible the challenges in the area, and to ask for a multi-agency approach to dealing with the issues. The first meeting, there was a brilliant turn out from the community, but a disappointing turn out from the services, key partners were missing. At this stage, Marvin and I got in touch with our local MP Ruth Smeeth. Ruth has been a real champion of the project, and so we felt it was important to get her support in engaging the services. With Ruth's support, more of the services were engaged in understanding the urgency of the challenges being faced by the Community. Neighbours came to the meeting and talked about 'fear of walking into town' and young people refusing to leave the house, as they didn't feel safe.

Since then, a monthly meeting has taken place with the community, but with the services meeting fortnightly, to first set targets, and then to deliver the changes needed to improve on some of the problems in the area, without simply passing them on to somewhere else (as has happened here as a result of the public space protection order). This has been really positive, and within weeks the improvements to the look and feel of the area were visible. Community members have been incredibly active, and vocal about what was needed, and this has made a difficult situation better, quickly. There is still more to be done, but everyone is working together to ensure support is given where needed.
Image: Heart decal imagery created by Community Maker participant.
Leading the project over the years, and delivering the summer programme, meant we were able to see quickly, matters affecting the community, because they affect us too. The challenges this summer in delivering the workshops have galvanised the community around the project, really bringing everyone together around a common goal of improving the neighbourhood for those that live here.

In many ways, the creative activity, making with clay, became secondary to the work needed to deal with some of the issues we faced in working here, and at times the real work felt to be in advocating for the community in the all services meetings, but still, a programme of creative workshops was delivered over a month.
We wanted this time to see if we could make something quite sophisticated with the community. Alice Thatcher, our ceramics specialist on the project, has been working with us since year one, and knows the community well now, and has a great rapport with everyone. For both Alice and I, it was important that though we may have been operating from a bell tent on a green space, we wanted to step up a gear in terms of the ceramic skills being covered.
In week one, we brought moulds to the space and made press moulded plates with the community.
In week two, we worked on printing with clay, and making clay stamps, while our plates dried out and were fired.
In week three the plates returned to the space to be glazed.
Finally in week four decals made from images from year one and two were applied to the plates.
We had a lot of rain over the weeks, but the final session in pouring rain showed the commitment of participants, who stayed for the whole 3 hour session, despite the rain and the cold.
This session was very special, with participants, some who had come for all three years, but some who had only just started to come this year, told us how important the sessions have been for them. Working with clay has provided a moment of pause for people, the transformative nature of the material, which can move from one stat to another quickly, without fuss feels like a mirror for the community. 'We're going to miss these sessions,' one neighbour said.
The Community Maker plates made during this summer's workshops were displayed at the British Ceramics Biennial from September to November. Thousands of people saw works made by our community on display beside the biggest names in ceramics. A special meal was hosted one Saturday of the festival, with key participants from the project invited for a 3 course gathering, eating from the plates we made. We invited our local MP, and drank a toast to the project, and to the community.
 Perhaps the very last events for Community Maker were a community bonfire for bonfire night, where bricks were made, as memory boxes, by firelight to be fired live on Cencelebration, planned for mid-December.
These two events are different from the others, as they were not planned within the Community Maker project, but instead are events which the community has organised, and asked us to support. This is an important moment. Over the three years that we have been running the project, we have organised or been central to organising events and activity FOR the community, these two events are a turning point, we are now working on events WITH the community. That is the most important outcome of the Community Maker project in my book.
The urgency to have the Portland Inn transferred into community ownership became very clear this summer. This community needs a project like this, in order to be able to respond quickly to changes, and to be a support network for each other. As much as we love our tent, we know we cannot have another summer like 2017. Rebecca Davies and I along with the partners in the project are working with the council to make the project happen, and coming up with a plan for Summer 2018, to ensure the community has a space to meet and make together, even if the pub is inaccessible, hopefully, due to renovation.

Community Maker was used as a case study in the Local Government Association publication 'People, Culture, Place - the role of culture in Placemaking.'   and within the newly launched Culture Hub, a partnership by LGA and Arts Council England, highlighting good practice in delivering culture with councils and their partners.

Friday, September 15, 2017

The People's Walk of Fame

Today, in Hanley Market, Fountain Square, myself and artists Rebecca Davies and Glen Stoker launched 'The People's Walk of Fame' for Stoke-on-Trent.
From a market stall we talked to the great and the good of the City about who should be represented in a Walk of Fame and why. Far from being a list of Stoke Celebrities, we hope to hear stories about brilliant people from all walks of life, past and present from across the city - and we were not disappointed today.
We heard some familiar names, Stanley Matthews, Arnold Bennett and Reginald Mitchell, but we also heard from Shel, about her elderly neighbour Ray, who died earlier this year, but who had looked after her and her family when her husband had a brain injury, and about how people like Ray are so important in making a city a place to live.
Over the next month we will be visiting the 6 towns to talk to people about their Stoke Heroes, and then on 17th October, we will be back in Hanley with the longlist from across the city. People will then be able to vote for the shortlist, whose names will go forward for a public artwork for the centre of the city.
The idea of a Walk of Fame comes from Hollywood Boulevard, where stars of stage and screen have their names in the pavement. This is a fun idea for Hollywood, but for Stoke, we thought about something much more grounded. The idea of a Walk of Fame made us think of shoes, and creating a journey. I like the idea that you could try on your heroes shoes, it feels aspirational, and invites participation, so our idea for a public artwork is to create a series of trails of shoes to follow, tracking the names of Stoke People who have made a contribution to the city's development, its history, its reputation, voted for by the people of the city today. 
I am looking forward to hearing people's stories from across the city, of who should be celebrated. After just one day, we have already heard some brilliant tales. 
We met Mike Bailey, working on the stall next to us in Hanley Market. A true legend of the city, selling perfume and wigs, Mike has been working the market for 40 years. Mike was very generous, helping us to sort our pitch and get a gazebo up, and welcoming us to Market - he even got a surprise vote for the People's Walk of Fame.
People can vote online here until 15th October: https://www.surveymonkey.co.uk/r/P77BCHJ
Enormous thanks to Rebecca Davies for the brilliant artwork for the project.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Spode Rose Garden at RHS Tatton

Back in 2013, Andrew Branscombe, Glen Stoker and I embarked upon a mission: to see an abandoned garden in the heart of the Town of Stoke transformed. Details here about the history of the project.
Using an Action research approach, we worked with a ceramic flower maker (Rita Floyd), and a rose breeder (Gareth Fryer), to create a new species of rose, which would draw attention to the abandoned garden, and cause people in the city to question its state. Our dream was to bring together the people and resources necessary to see the garden transformed, and more, to work together with others to ensure the future sustainability of the garden.
In 2015 a Councillor noticed what we were doing, and towards the end of the year, we built a relationship with the city council, who owned the garden, to work together to secure funding to form a group and to renovate the garden.
A Friends of Spode Rose Garden group was officially formed in may 2016 - but a few months before that, the group had already started working together on a consultation with the public, and then on the physical transformation of the garden. The consultation told us that people were keen to see the heritage of the Spode Factory reflected within the garden's design, and as a result the landscaping and planting represents some of the most popular Spode patterns.
We have the Willow Pattern end of the garden, which was relatively easy, as there is already a huge and beautiful willow tree in the garden, but this year we decided to develop the other end of the garden, next to the Sub Station, using the Blue Italian pattern as a starting point, as this is one of Spode's most popular patterns.
Spode Rose Garden Launch September 2016
As well as developing the garden for these past years, and since formally setting up, the Friends of Spode Rose garden have organised and delivered a series of brilliant events within the garden over the year - which have brought new visitors and many conversations about the role that individuals can play in developing the places they live.
Sunflower Party, June 2017
Through these conversations we have realised what a fantastic example of people power the Spode Rose Garden has become, and so we decided to spread this story a little wider, by taking the Rose Garden to a national platform. We applied to RHS Tatton, in the blooming border section, and were pleased to be able to develop the design for the Blue Italian Border for Tatton, with a view to moving the border to the Spode Rose Garden after the show.
Dawn Mayer, one of the Friends of Spode Rose Garden group, and handily a landscape designer for the city council led on our design for the border. Different members of the group brought their skills, time and muscle to help make the border a reality -
with Andrew Branscombe building the framework, and Jo Ayre leading the group to create the ceramic plinths,
made from moulds from the Spode Factory, and also creating the blue italian tiles for the frame
- it was a real group effort.
The overall effect of the sculptural elements, with the blue and white planting was really beautiful, with everyone lending a hand with the installation.
Each day of the show the friends of group were at Tatton rain or shine, talking to people about the Rose Garden and the city's resurgence, and inviting people to come and see the border for themselves within the newly renovated garden during the British Ceramics Biennial later in the year.
It was amazing the conversation we had over the week with people about Stoke-on-Trent. People told us often that they used to visit Stoke but hadn't been for a long time. A lot of people have committed to visit, and in fact just this Friday, we met a lady in the rose garden that we had met at Tatton, who had no idea the garden was there.
Advocacy for the garden and the city is so important, as we see the city strive to change its reputation. What I know, from taking part in this project since 2013 is, that you can have an idea for something good and positive, and here in Stoke, you can make it happen. There are people here who will do it with you, if you really have the commitment to want to do it. We have learnt so much over the past few years of the project, about gardening, about plants and most of all, about the power of people to make positive change for their city. It has been an immensely rewarding project to work on, and RHS Tatton was a real moment to celebrate the achievements of the group, and we even won a medal!
RHS Tatton Blue Italian Border won a silver gilt.
Thanks to various members of the Friends of  Spode Rose Garden group for their photographs, documenting our activity.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

A-N Assembly Margate: The Power of People at STAN Art Pod, Athelstan Road, Margate. 4/5/17

The event was hailed as an opportunity to explore how artists working with local community groups can, through creative acts, uncover and support resources pertinent to that community. It was designed as a workshop for artists working in social practice; with people in changing places. It was an intimate event, due to the size of STAN, but the conversation which the group had was so timely, useful and very productive. Many thanks to A-N, Louise Hargreaves and Dan Thompson for organising, but also enormous thanks to the artists and other practitioners that attended, and contributed to the thinking that follows.
I began by talking about how working in Stoke-on-Trent for over 10 years on projects which explore the city and its resources and the artists role within this changing context, I have developed an approach to working in the city; employing an action research methodology, which is always the same, even if the context can change drastically. For each new site this involves spending time really looking, and researching the place, gaining an understanding of the history, development, usage and users of the space. Next comes a time for planning an approach to the site, based on what has been observed and learned; perhaps based on the resources of the place, or responding in some cases to a need or gap. The planning process is also where partnerships can be formed around an approach to the site, plus additional resources are, at this stage, assimilated and the intervention agreed. Next comes time for action, carrying out the plan. And finally, and very importantly, comes reflection. The point in the cycle where the artist and those involved in the project look back at what has happened, what has worked, what have we learnt? Is there a new understanding of this place, and is there more to be done? Then of course, the cycle can begin again.
An important aspect of the work is in documenting every step, both visually  but also importantly, considering from the very beginning the importance of collecting thoughts and evaluation materials throughout, hearing from participants about the site, documenting any changes and then later exploring participant response to the intervention. This supports the reflection and analysis of the project, but also ensures as practitioners, we are remaining reflective and receptive to the context. 
Considering the action research cycle, it is possible to involve people at any stage in the process, and often is best to involve people at every stage, but this really does depend on the context.
Via this methodology, I was able to set out three projects, which demonstrate my particular approach, showing how an empty bandstand, an abandoned garden and a disused pub have all become sites for my practice over the years, and have all involved working with people, to temporarily and sometime more permanently make changes in the city.
I started by setting out the roots of the word Community: originating from the French late 14th Century, Comunité meaning commoness and everybody, it also has roots in the Latin Communis meaning 'Common, public, general, shared by all or many'. This feels important within an approach to working with people; keeping in mind consideration around sharing and inclusivity, and perhaps creating a sense of belonging. In my work, the 'community' I work with may be pre-existing, but equally sometimes the community forms [temporarily] around the project.
The 3 projects I talked about were:
Repopulating the Bandstand from 2010 - a one day project as part of an arts festival I curated within a park, that was identified as being quite neglected. The project recognised the potential of the disused bandstand, as a site for community celebration and action, and for just one day, my intervention saw it spruced up and used as a venue for a brass band concert. More here.
The Spode Rose Garden from 2013 onwards, proposed and abandoned garden, as an important green space. Through a process of intervention and engagement, myself and AirSpace Gallery have worked to turn around this disused space, which is now a beautiful and well used asset, transformed by a newly formed group 'The Friends of Spode Rose Garden'. More here.
and The Portland Inn Project, working with artist Rebecca Davies, using participatory methods to engage a community (with a number of issues ASB, drug and alcohol problems, etc) in finding an alternative and more positive future for itself.  More here.
Artists have worked with people forever, and the community arts movement of the 1960s and 1970s has led to an understanding of the way that artists can work with communities. Socially engaged practice too is not new, although there is relatively little written about artists working in social contexts, compared to other areas of the arts.
What is relatively new is an emerging animosity towards artists working in social contexts, and in particular, to artists working within contested sites of development. A new online 'Naming and Shaming' of artists working in these contexts aims to call out artists working in these settings for being either naive to the role they play in acting as a buffer between developers and the communities affected by development, or in some cases the naming and shaming goes further to blame artists for 'artwashing gentrification' something I found myself accused of in a recent project. An interesting Citylab article from 2014 sets out the complicated context here.  https://www.citylab.com/equity/2014/06/the-pernicious-realities-of-artwashing/373289/
Those naming and shaming include activist groups, working in particular areas of development, but in addition in some cases artists and academics are attacking other artists online. There have also been cases in America of communities themselves rejecting artists and art galleries in their areas - due to a perception that the presence of artists will lead to gentrification, and the eventual pushing out of communities. It is a complicated matter, and at this stage, not much has been written about the phenomenon, but it seems that for the artists, who are often working in very precarious contexts, often with little support, perhaps in unstable buildings and often with the sensitivities that come with working with people (especially in these contested sites) the addition of this external animosity may lead to artists shying away from working in these contexts at all, something which concerns me, when thinking about the area that I am currently working in, and the great need there.

The conversation at Assembly centred around the need to create support systems for artists working in precarious settings, but also showed a need for a set of guidelines and considerations, in relation to working with people.

Answers and votes:
- Value the artist's role in this context (we bring something different.) 6
- Recognise time and investment needed, (for this kind of work) before, during and after. 5
- Be a supporter and champion for other artists working in these contexts 2
- compromise
- lose the ego
- be honest
- Commissioners: Trust Artists
- Be vocal against Short-termism - and involve artists (and community) earlier
- Don't assume 1
- recognise that people are experts in the places they live and work 4
- it doesn't always have to be big 6
- the voice (build in space for the voice of the community)1
- practice active listening 2
- take responsibility 3

What has become clear since the event is that this is a much bigger question than could be reasonably covered in one session, and that as well as considering what the artists can do themselves within the contexts they are working in, this question, of support for artists in precarious settings is one that needs to include the organisations and funders that work to support artists. Since the event I have spoken to a number of organisations about the worrying artwash naming and shaming, and have found a sector which needs to really look at this, in order to support artists in making better decisions in who they work for, and how they work with often vulnerable communities in development settings. This is important and needed work, and the naming and shaming really does little to understand the precarious position of the artist and the people they are working with. Much of the work done by artists, in my experience, is not about being a buffer for developers, but is about visibility for those people being priced out of an area by development, as is described in this article about Bushwicks and Chinatown in New York City. https://i-d.vice.com/en_gb/article/why-local-nyc-artists-are-fighting-artwashing
 My intention is to rally support around this area, and look to gain a better understanding of how to support artists in these contexts, The A-N Assembly event was a great start, but much more time is needed on this. Since the event, I have been speaking to a variety of people and organisations about this, and will be getting something together in response very soon.
Write up of full a-n Assembly Margate event here. 
Image credits: Tony Jones, A-N, Rebecca Davies