Community Art: Community Language

Back in July 2019, after a meeting of the S-o-A Tenants' Action Group, I was asked by the local councillor for Clopton Ward, Jason Fojtik, what I thought about a community arts project for the area and whether I would be interested in being involved. My husband, Andy Nelson, also an artist and photographer, grew up in Clopton, his mum still lives there. It is an area that still has a lot of social housing and I had spent many an afternoon hanging around with friends who lived in the area during the 1980s although I grew up in the area of Bishopton. Long story short, I said of course I was interested.

I put together a preliminary proposal for a year long community art project and then got on with other projects I was working on. I knew the funding was being sourced from Stratford on Avon District Council. The money had been given as part of an S106 agreement following development on the Birmingham Road, some of which forms part of the Clopton Ward. I also knew that there was a time limit on obtaining the funding before it reverted back to the developer.

I heard nothing more on the idea until June 2020 when I was asked if I was still interested and if so, could I put together a new proposal and estimated time frame. I also knew how much the budget was going to be.

This time I had to think about two areas of Stratford and also the caveat that there should be a public sculpture at the end of it. I didn't like the caveat, it felt too much like an order and, to me, took away the autonomy of the community who may not even want a public sculpture. I proposed that my interpretation of a public sculpture was one that isn't necessarily visible to the naked eye. If it were to be visible in any form, it was most likely not going to be an object. Thankfully Jason Fojtik and the Clopton Community Action Group were in agreement. They did not want money spent on a physical sculptural object requiring ongoing maintenance. They wanted a legacy more far reaching than that and the money to be spent providing as much co-creation and community togetherness as possible. Thankfully, again, the proposal was accepted with a proposed graffiti art work and workshops at the school in Bishopton, as a 'public sculpture'.

Starting your first large scale community art project during a worldwide pandemic probably isn't the easiest way of doing things and Covid-19 has certainly made it challenging. Ideas that have been put forward have to quickly change or become impossible. It is and has been time consuming thinking around how a workshop designed to bring people together, may need to take place remotely. However when we got the money through we were all still allowed out and able to mingle, following guidelines of course.

After a meeting with the Clopton Community Action Group I was keen to meet other residents in the area. I wanted to hear what THEY WANTED, not just steam ahead with my own ideas. There is little use in providing multiple workshops that nobody turns up to. I've read many critical texts, including Claire Bishop's 'Artificial Hells', and more recently the work of Francois Matarasso, 'A Restless Art' and 'Colouring Culture' by Dr Stephen Pritchard, as well as attending zoom events and meetings with the Social Art Network. I had researched some of the hundreds of projects that have gone before me and observed the fine balance when working as a socially engaged/participatory/collaborative/community artist. As a sector we can't even agree on the terminology, getting so wrapped up in the semantics. Words do matter though as we seek to dig deep into this area of contemporary art, who is it for? For early career artists like myself it is like standing on the edge of a field full of land mines. This had held me back, paralysed me from moving forward for fear of doing it wrong. This is people we are talking about after all, whole communities. I couldn't take the risks I was and am prepared to take with the other parts of my art practice - they only impact on me.

The members of the Clopton Community Action Group are a great bunch, they aren't backwards at coming forwards and agreed that a 'drop-in' day for the community would give residents an opportunity to put forward their own ideas and suggestions. We held it outside and invited artist and photographer Andy Nelson along to convert the Ken Kennett Centre into a Camera Obscura for the afternoon.

The underlying theme for this project is language, and how the community communicates with each other and its surroundings. A list of potential workshops was shared with residents on the Drop In Day, one of which is for a camera obscura workshop. A way of looking at something familiar in an unfamiliar way. Residents were invited to step inside this large scale camera obscura to see what it was all about.

Long rolls of paper and drawing pens and paper were laid out for residents to add their thoughts, or just doodle if that's what they wanted. A few of the local children came along and were excited by the idea of the graffiti artwork proposed for the Bishopton school. It looks like we may have to incorporate something graffiti in Clopton too!

There were strong views on workshops being accessible across the age groups, more provision for young adults and encouraging understanding of the different people living within the area. Clopton is home to a number of migrant families, a really diverse community to be explored and celebrated.

Residents also came along to offer their own skills. From sewing to scriptwriting and comedy! There is plenty of talent and creativity in the community already.

The history of Clopton is also rich. Stratford upon Avon isn't just about Shakespeare, the stories of Clopton House and its various inhabitants over hundreds of years, the architecture, the use of the land. I'm quite intrigued by the different versions of the same stories I am hearing, as often happens with the passing of time.

We are keen to get started on the workshops that have been suggested to us. The challenge has been the increase in Covid-19 cases and making sure we can keep everyone safe. In Warwickshire the numbers are still low, and we want to keep them that way.

We are also acutely aware of how isolated some people are and the impact this virus is having on mental wellbeing. It would be easy to jump on the Zoom bandwagon but digital poverty cannot be ignored.

I have a meeting with the Action Group this week to propose 4 workshops that can be launched over the next 3 months and run until March 2021. Whilst we are still able to meet in groups of 6 we can make a start. When that changes these workshops can take place remotely in family groups or as an individual with the Ken Kennett Centre remaining as the connective hub - windows aren't just for rainbows!

As the project develops I hope that these stories, both old and new, become interwoven into a rich visual tapestry made up of text, colour and texture. Made by the community, about the community.

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