CAP is going to feature a Community Artist in each Community Arts Weekly – For our first feature we have chosen Belfast based visual artist – Lesley Cherry
What and where was your first artistic experience?
My first artistic experiences would probably have been through my mum buying Remus Activity Kits from Stewarts Supermarket on the Newtownards Road and Leisure World, Queen Street. She was and is very creative in her own right, but is very modest about her talents. I always loved painting at Carew Street Nursery as well, but my first real art tutor was a teacher called Mrs. Anderson, who came to Mersey Street School every Monday. This was the highlight of my week, but even by the end of my primary school days this ‘luxury’ had been cut by the powers that be.
What motivates you to continue with your artistic activities now?
It can be hard sometimes to motivate yourself, but like all creatives, there is something deep inside which keeps us going. Exploring new ideas, seeing things in a different way, responding to my contemporaries and not being afraid to try something new are all good motivators. On a lighter note there is nothing more motivating than a deadline!
Are there any barriers, which stifle your ability to pursue your career in the arts
I think anyone who embarks on an artistic career – be that as a musician, actor, artist, producer etc knows there will probably be lean times within their chosen industries. Speaking personally, I like to think by being resourceful and multi skilled often negates any barriers that I have encountered.
You are a community artist – how did your activities in local communities come about
I don’t really see my community work and my own personal practice as being very different to be honest. As I have developed as an artist, my community practice has also developed to be more thought provoking, experimental and engaging. My own practice is based in the narrative, focusing on real life stories, observations and symbolism – areas which I find are inextricably linked to community projects I have been involved with.
You often are involved in work which might be considered contentious – why – and how does this impact your work generally
I was involved with some of the first programmes which addressed paramilitary murals within Northern Ireland, through the North Down Art of Regeneration Project with Gail Prentice in 2005, and then through the first phase of the ACNI Re-imaging fund, in 2007/8, in the Shankill Estate. As an artist/facilitator I recognized that a lot of people who had issues with these projects, didn’t actually live in the areas where the work was happening. Like a lot of artistic projects, there was a lot of focus on how much public money was being spent and ironically who or what was going to be portrayed on any new artworks which were created. I tailored the projects to be educational, inspirational, confidence building and informative for the residents, gatekeepers and funders involved and built strong relationships with key community figures to ensure successful projects. There are always a few set backs when working with contentious projects – sometimes created by the media and politicians, and there have been a few heated discussions with a some ‘community leaders’ but I have always managed to negotiate positive outcomes. I do think its also important to say that art projects which address paramilitary murals or contested spaces are not to be taken lightly though. There is still a lot of important and beneficial work to be addressed within these areas and art is just one of the many catalysts which can assist this process.
You recently received a career enhancement award from the Arts Council of Northern Ireland – what will this mean for your artistic pursuits
Working in partnership with the Golden Thread Gallery, the award will give me the freedom to develop my career and practice further, with their guidance and advice. The GT Gallery also has strong community outreach projects and a programme consisting of socially engaged issues such as labour relations, city planning, contested spaces and intergenerational issues – all aspects that interest me as both an artist and community practitioner.
Have you any experiences with Community Arts Partnership – if so could you say a little bit about them
I have worked with CAP’s CEO Conor Shields on numerous projects, most notably Belfast City Council’s first process within the Arts Council of Northern Ireland Re-Imaging Communities Programme, in the Shankill Estate, which I mentioned earlier. Conor had completed a lot of the groundwork consultation for the project, working closely with community leaders and gatekeepers and our job was to sell the ideas to the wider community at a public meeting. The media had got hold of the story though about how ‘these artists’ were going to come in and take all the murals down and paint flowers on them, so you can imagine there were a few angry faces in the crowd that night! However, Conor won the crowd round and I was able to add a bit of reassurance to the audience. The project went on to remove and replace 10 paramilitary murals and led onto further funding for the area. Conor Shields is a good man to have in your corner when you are up against it!
Have you any thoughts on the arts in the working class communities where you have worked
I mentioned earlier that one of my first artistic experiences was through primary school. This didn’t only mean art, I also had a teacher called Miss Adair, who in a previous life had been in repertory theatre, who produced some fabulous plays and musicals for us to partake in. I think no-matter what area you come from being aware of the arts from a young age forms your opinion of them – hopefully in a positive way. I grew up surrounded by large scale ‘King Billys’ on gable walls and saw them as big horse paintings, (rather than territorial markings), which I still reference in my own practice today. I am not naïve enough to think that working class areas are no different from middle or upper class areas, but I like to think I treat all communities be that working, middle, upper, intergenerational or migrant in a similar way – by finding out what it is a community would like to achieve, making projects entertaining as well as informative, having positive outcomes and striving for the best possible quality is what should matter, whatever community you are working in.