In 2002 I was invited by Anna Harding (no relation!) to write an essay for a book she had been asked to edit entitled ‘Magic Moments – collaboration between artists and young people’. These were to be written by artists describing those magic moments that happened to all of us who participated with young people in making art. After a long and difficult gestation period due to, among other things, funding problems it was finally published in 2005 by Black Dog Publishing.
Anna wrote as a preface to my essay:
Harding’s socially engaged artwork in Scotland since the 1960s offers an exemplary practice for artists engaging in social inclusion today. With social inclusion in the arts high on the agenda, his insights and experiences can assist contemporary artists who have similar ideals and convictions as artists of the 1960s and 1970s. Harding argues that while new strategies are always being developed and practices evolving and becoming more sophisticated, there is no need to re-invent the wheel. He also looks for evidence of what good these projects did.
“WORK AS IF YOU LIVE IN THE EARLY DAYS OF A BETTER SOCIETY!“ (1)
The challenge thrown down by the borrowed title to my essay reflected very much the attitude adopted by artists who began what came to be called Community Arts.
In the three decades after the Second World War many people believed that working for a better society would help to bring it about. As the years passed this did seem to be the case; things did get better. Now it seems that as each year passes things get worse. In place of that idealism I find a cynical acceptance that, despite the great efforts of many groups and individuals, society will continue to fragment; the rich get richer and the poor get poorer and more marginalized. In his book, ‘Deschooling Society’ (2), Ivan Illich pointed out that the major losers in education come largely from the less well off majority whose taxes actually pay for our educational systems.
Imbued with that post-war idealism, many artists directed their creative energies towards marginalized communities. They saw involvement in art as liberating and transformative and often best experienced outside the strictures and structures of formal education. My advice to students on the ‘Art and Social Contexts’ course at Dartington College of Arts going on placement was, ‘Don’t set up a placement in a school!’ This advice sounds perverse – schools were at least places where art was taught. But in my experience they often held very fixed presumptions about what art was and often students would be expected to carry out those presumptions. Our aims for the placement were much broader than that. I further advised that, ‘If you want to work with teenagers, don’t go into schools but engage with them on their own territory.’ For those young people for whom school was an alien, adversarial setting it would be better to engage with them out of the school environment and not on the limited terms offered by schools. I am not however claiming that it is fruitless for artists to work with and in schools. I, and many other artists I know, have worked on very successful projects in schools. Another piece of advice I would give to my students was, ‘Offer a gift to the host setting.’ Anthropologists say, ‘the gift is not free’ and often a gift will open up opportunities for more ambitious projects. Working with young people out of school and in the public domain could often realise that kind of ambition.
There is something special about artists working in public. It’s an acknowledged fact attested by numerous artists that, when their work demands that they do it in a public, unregulated space, it begets a special experience. This has something to do with display and with the spectacle of performing one’s skills in public. It becomes an event. It catches the gaze and interest of the casual passers-by. It has something to do with the resulting interaction with those passers-by and the frisson of excitement that derives from that engagement. It has something to do with making a visual contribution to and making a mark on a place adding to a stronger sense of that place. Often those places are either blighted by decay or by a numbing uniformity, the kinds of places where one never goes for a stroll just to enjoy and get to know them.
If these experiences mean something special to artists then for young people working in similar settings, in unregulated public places, there is an equivalent if not enhanced experience of performance, identity, contribution, engagement and exchange. For this reason it has always seemed to me that contributing ‘legitimate’ marks to the surfaces and spaces of the public and built environment and, even more specifically, to one’s own neighbourhood, taps into some of the things that prompt the often (though not always) alienated impulses for making graffiti or carrying out acts of vandalism. Working with artists in this way offers otherwise alienated young people the opportunity for performative display attracting attention both to themselves and to their work. For some it can also be a transformative experience. This is different to graffiti in one major respect. Graffiti is done anonymously and often the only audience for the action are friends as collaborators or onlookers.
In the 1970s and 1980s, the most common vehicle for these kinds of art projects was the large mural. Many of the street murals of this period are much maligned and sometimes for good reason. Too many contain all the old clichés and are badly done. They often seem to have been done without imagination or conviction and simply to occupy the young people who have been told, ‘do anything you like,’ in a failed attempt at free expression. I learned that young people respond to planning, organisation and the aspiration to achieve something special. Because of its size the mural is ideal for collaboration. And by collaboration I do mean a shared responsibility among a group of people for the development of the ideas, the design and the execution of the work.
I have done numerous art projects with young people since I began working as an artist in the 1960’s some of which carried that very special experience of somehow having ‘stepped out of the box,’ of having offered something special to a group of young people, something they had not experienced before. I witnessed in them a serious and intense commitment and a display of skills not heretofore demonstrated. I have no idea how it came about but I seem always to have had an instinctual belief that involving young people in art projects was a good and rewarding thing. This belief is of course not unusual. However, I learned that they carried with them the same frisson of excitement and sense of achievement from which I also benefited. By young people I do mean all kinds of young people. But on the occasions when they were alienated or excluded young people and/or from poor backgrounds then those experiences were heightened and took on a more cutting-edge and an almost transgressive character.
I taught art in a remote rural part of Nigeria for four years in the 1960’s. Here I adopted a policy of not exposing my students to European art forms or history. I did not teach general lessons on proportion, perspective, colour or composition. Instead I insisted that ideas should be drawn from the students’ own lived experience. My bible at the time was, as may be deduced, Herbert Read’s, ‘Education Through Art.’ Two hundred miles away, not far by Nigerian distances, was the nearest university. I made a visit to the Fine Art sculpture department and was surprised to see that the student works were entirely based on making derivations of Marino Marini sculptures. The students’ tutor was from the UK and I regarded this kind of teaching as cultural colonialism. It could not have been further from my own aims for my students.
When, in 1968, I was appointed artist to the new town of Glenrothes in Fife, it was no part of my contract to do anything other than, ‘my own work’. This was defined in my contract as, ‘to contribute to the external built environment of the town.’ I rented a council house in the town in order to experience ‘new town living’ as most other people experienced it. A common criticism of architects at the time was that, while they were quite happy to design council houses for others, they would never themselves live in one. I chose to set up my studio in the corporation workshops among the plumbers, joiners, bricklayers etc. Later I was to become a member of UCATT, the building workers’ union. All of these things were connected to the
notion I had of identifying with the people of the town and the notion that the artist was not necessarily a special person or part of an elite. This role was the artist as artisan. The bricklayers were skilled in one way and I was skilled in other ways.
As an artist I had already developed what could be described as a ‘contextual’ practice. I certainly wanted to contribute to the developing built environment of the town but was also concerned to create opportunities for other townspeople to do so as well. The early new towns, of which Glenrothes was one, were mostly built on greenfield sites and the citizenry imported. Thus new communities were struggling to form with little shared history and tradition and often with broken extended-family relationships. It seemed to me that one of the areas in which an artist could operate was in creating memorable
landmarks within the fairly uniform housing areas and the incorporation of ‘marks’, however small, by local people. I made contact with a number of primary schools each of which were located in specific identifiable neighbourhoods. I organised whole classes (the staff wanted to select those pupils deemed good at art to work with me) of primary school children in modelling their own individual ceramic tiles and signing them on the front. These were then fired and cemented by each child onto walls adjacent to their local play areas. I felt in this small way that each child might achieve a certain identification with the place where they lived.
Throughout my ten years in Glenrothes numerous participatory works with different groups were carried out by myself and other artists who came to work with me – among them a group of graffiti ‘vandals’, that we met and engaged
with on the street, youth clubs and school groups. One secondary school group was described by the head teacher of the school as ‘unteachable.’ I had them out of school for two weeks to design and paint a mural in a pedestrian underpass. They were involved from the beginning of the project in developing the ideas and the form of the design. They worked
on the project with enthusiasm and commitment. Some time later I happened to meet the head teacher at some function. He said to me that the pupils had returned to the school transformed. They had organised other mural projects in the school and had engaged positively with their studies in ways that would have seemed impossible before the project in the
underpass. ‘What on earth did you do with them?’ he asked.
What could have brought about this transformation? Firstly they were given respect which is easier to do with ‘problem pupils’ when it is a two week project out of school, compared to having to deal with them ‘week in
week out’ in a school environment. But then this is one of the things that justify art projects such as this. It is out of school and so the pupils do feel liberated and in that mood of liberation transformative things can happen. They shared with the artists the responsibility of developing the ideas, the form and the colour of the mural. They worked
in a very public place making images about things that interested them. It was a performance under constant public scrutiny and often enquiry. I’m not talking about great art here but a well-executed decorative rendering of a dull, blighted, concrete pedestrian underpass which itself was transformed. It was a simple design; there were no figures and, very importantly, no rainbows!
Augusta Boal, the Brazilian theatre director and founder of the Theatre of the Oppressed, gave this contentious advice to artists, ‘Never go into a community until it has articulated its need for you.’ If this seems extreme and idealistic then so be it. It’s good advice, if only to say to artists be cautious and be respectful. In the late ‘80’s just such an articulation was made to me as head of a new department in the School of Fine Art at Glasgow School of Art. A tenants’ association approached me through their local housing officer asking if my students and I would paint a gable-end mural for them. They had a site and they had the money. Blackhill was a small housing estate and, as its name could be taken to infer, had a bad name for poverty, unemployment and crime. In fact it was often described as one of the worst areas of deprivation in Glasgow. (How often we have heard that description applied all over the country?) It was special too because 100 yards from the gable end was the home of the most notorious criminal gang family in Glasgow. The house, an extended, over elaborate, ostentatious fake of a place was known as, ‘The Ponderosa’. But for all that, I found Blackhill to be a good community of good people well served by the activities and concerns of, among others, the local Church of Scotland minister and Catholic priest.
I’ve always regarded what we did in Blackhill as one of the most rigorous and productive examples of socially engaged art practice with which I’ve been involved. Working closely with the tenants’ group, public meetings and workshops were held and many ideas were discussed. The students, Nathan Coley, Alan Dunn and Meg McLucas drew on these, prepared proposals and presented them for discussion. Slowly the concepts and the design were refined and then approved at a public meeting. The gable end was about 40 feet high facing a large stretch of waste ground. Though the winter was on us and, despite the cold, the wind and the rain, quite a few local people, and even the City Council housing officer, took time to assist in the painting. Young people joined in at weekends. There were, however, two brothers aged 13 and 14, Hugh and James McNulty, who worked with us more or less continuously throughout the four weeks it took to complete the mural. Asked why they were not at school they simply replied that they preferred to work on the mural. They were serious about it and worked hard. One day James brought a comic strip he had created and drawn with a ballpoint pen in a school
exercise book. He made several copies on the school photocopier and distributed them around the area. Two or three other issues of the comic were done. This achievement impressed us and we visited the brothers at their home nearby. It would be difficult to exaggerate the poverty in which they lived. In the experience of working on the mural the two of
them seemed to have found something that they felt good about and something with which they strongly identified. When the mural was complete they featured in the television and newspapers reports of the project. Locally, they were recognised as major contributors to the mural. It gave them status and pride. This seemed to me to be as important as the actual mural itself. The ‘dedication’ of the mural (always a crucial element in helping to embed an artwork into a local setting) took place as part of the annual Christmas procession around the streets of the area. Later, unknown to me, the city council fixed top lighting to the mural wired to the street lighting. Thus at dusk the mural burst into light. It remained virtually free of vandalism and in excellent condition until the general demolition of the area sixteen years later. Recently a police inspector, whose work often took him to Blackhill, told me that the ‘godfather’ of the gang family had made it known that anyone found attacking the mural would be punished!
Of the three students who worked on this project, Alan Dunn has carried out billboard projects in Glasgow, Newcastle and Liverpool among others. He co-founded, ‘tenantspin’, an interactive internet and TV project working with a group of pensioners in a Liverpool tower block which is now part of FACT in the city. Nathan Coley exhibits widely with works such as ‘Urban Sanctuary’. He proposed the idea, and succeeded in becoming, the artist in residence at the trial, in Holland, of the man accused of the Lockerbie bombing.
Around the same time I organised a mural project for my students in the Douglas Inch Centre in Glasgow for excluded secondary school pupils. It seemed to go very well and, at the party arranged for the dedication of the mural, this feeling was endorsed. However it was not until I had received a letter from the head teacher of the centre that the full implication of what had been achieved became clear to me. I think it’s worth including the text of the letter here:
Greater Glasgow Health Board
Mental Health Unit
The Head Teacher
The Douglas Inch Centre
2 Woodside Terrace
18 Dec. 1987
Glasgow School of Art
Just a note to express once again our gratitude for all the help and cooperation we have received from you and the students over the last month or so.
There is absolutely no doubt about how worthwhile the project was – it was a huge success. Exactly how much each of our pupils got out of it is for each of them to say. All we know is that never once did any of them complain about having to go to work with the students. Neither did we hear any of them say that they were not enjoying the work and, believe me, they would have been very quick to comment had this been the case.
As for Euan and John, we could not say enough in praise. Their management of the pupils (and us!) was superb, their sense of humour and firmness when needed invaluable. To have chronic truants, delinquents volunteering to come in on their day off was nothing short of a miracle.
For us the ‘End of Mural ‘ party on Thursday will remain one of the highlights of our teaching career.
Again, Love and Many Thanks.
Have a lovely Christmas and New Year
Mary and Fiona
I have often heard from other artists about ‘magic moments’ that they have experienced. Here are two of these.
A friend, Rosie Gibson, writes from Edinburgh:
“In 1977, as Arts Centre Coordinator for Craigmillar Festival Society, a peripheral housing scheme in Edinburgh, we set up an art project for local primary schools on the theme of monsters using construction and performance. The children were aged about seven and, over six weekly sessions, they built their constructions and then paraded them through the streets of the local neighbourhood. Most teachers left the children with us and disappeared, but one, Miss Knowles, from St Francis School, sat through every minute of every session – to my chagrin. For six weeks I imagined how she was seeing what was going on – chaos, noise, lack of discipline etc. etc. At the end of the project, she asked if she could have a word with me. I expected the worst. But instead, she said she wanted to thank us. We had given her the opportunity to see another side of her class. Children who struggled in the classroom situation had flourished during the project and some children who shone in the classroom found the arts centre project difficult. She said it had been a privilege to be given this insight and she would take it back into the school situation with her. I felt surprised, pleased, relieved and humbled in waves. “
Another friend, Chrissie Orr, writes from Santa Fe
“Recently I was at a party and this tall young man dressed in black leather sporting piercings and tattoos kept staring at me. Eventually he came over to where I was standing and asked me if I remembered him. At first I did not but when he told me his name and I imagined him three feet smaller, then it all came back. Jason had worked with me on a mural project eight years ago. He had been struggling at school and life in general – an outsider to his peers as he dressed and acted differently. He had been through a lot of trouble. He worked hard with me and I challenged his creative spirit.
He told me that he hoped that one day he would run into me again so he could tell me that I had changed his life. He was now touring the world in a rock band and being honoured for his style and creativity.
He returned to his friends and left me staring into my glass of wine. When I looked up there was a woman of about my age standing next to me. She was Jason’s mother and she too wanted to tell me how being involved in the mural project had changed her son’s life. She took my hands and thanked me in such a truthful way that I had a hard time keeping the tears back. I did not know what to say. I remained silent.
Later I realized that I had been given the truest honour. What more could one want as an artist.”
Social inclusion in the arts is not new. In fact it was the very essence of what many artists were up to in the 60’s and 70’s. It went under the name of community arts. Disaffected youths, socially and culturally excluded, were a major focus for the activities of many of these artists.
Did it do any good? Difficult to say. One never really knows fully the results of what happens to young people when they’ve been exposed to a genuine experience of participation in art. For the artists, the idealism and conviction about the role that art can play as a dramatic, transformative tool in changing the lives of people was sufficient for them to do it. It was sufficient for them because it was a morally and politically good thing to do. Certainly most of them could describe examples of how individuals they had worked with had changed perceptibly for the better.
Today, with social inclusion in the arts being high on the political agenda, it is timely to revisit the work of that period. In describing in some detail a number of projects in which I, and others, were involved, it may serve to assist artists today who have similar ideals and convictions as those artists of the 60’s and 70’s. While new strategies are always being developed and practices evolving and becoming more sophisticated, often using new technologies, there is no need to go back to the beginning to re-invent the wheel.
- 1 Alasdair Gray, artist and novelist, derived from a line in a poem by the Canadian poet Dennis Lee,
2 Ivan Illich, ‘Deschooling Society’, first published in the UK by Calder and Boyars, 1971. By Penguin in ’73,’74 and ‘75 and Pelican in ’76.