How did you go about establishing yourself as a community artist?
I was very pro-active at promoting myself as a brand, as a business. I left the BBC, I set up my own business and I had some contacts in various communities and I drove myself to learn about the process of applying for funding, for tenders. I was taking on anything that would give me money and allow me to work creatively.
The situation was advantageous in that the troubles were over, the peace was being established and I think at that time local councils, for example, were looking to work with young people. It wasn’t easy; nine doors out of ten were slammed shut in my face, but I persevered.
I can remember getting a phone call from the Banbridge District Council; they called me a graffiti artist; really I had just started working with spray cans, but already word had got around. They wanted me to do workshops and even though I didn’t have a lot of experience I just went for it. Once I finished that job I got known as the graffiti guy and I got a lot more work.
Did you work mainly with councils?
There was a lot of work with councils. As I said I was getting known as the graffiti guy; there just wasn’t that many people doing that kind of artistic work, and I arrive at the point when graffiti art or street art is starting to take off around Europe and the UK.
As far as locally, the peace makes it possible for young people to start developing an interest in that art form and in the councils a lot of the younger people who worked in the local councils could see that this would be a way of getting young people to engage with these bodies. Local authorities do tend to find it hard to engage with young people, especially ones who have fallen through the cracks in society, those considered hard to reach. Street Art was one way of reaching them. And I loved doing this and for a while it was pretty lucrative.
How long did that situation last?
It was very good for a few years and I honestly thought that the work would never dry up but eventually young people coming out of Art College with very impressive skills starting gravitating towards community art work and that meant I had to rethink what I was doing and how I was approaching my work.
What is your process for working with community groups?
Community or youth groups always have to have some issue that they have to be seen to be dealing with. They have to tick a box and so there will always be a particular orientation that we need to adopt, it might be drugs and alcohol, it might be shared space or combating sectarianism or racism, but once that has been established I then want to impart the idea that everyone has the capacity to be an artist.
I always start with showing participants what is possible. I want to create an atmosphere of, “it’s for them” and they can do whatever they want. It’s not teaching and it won’t feel like school; it is more about allowing them to find an avenue to be creative. I do think that many young people have a fear of being creative. The way creativity is taught in schools might not always work for many children.
My principal aim is to reverse the idea that you can’t make mistakes; that you have to have some incredible innate ability to be able to draw or paint. I want everyone to feel that they can be part of the creative process. To do that I need the young people to feel relaxed and I have to be open-minded to anything and everything.
What groups do you tend to work with?
Over the years I have tended to work with young people. I have worked on the odd occasion with older people, and it was brilliant to see older people working with spray cans, but by and large it is with young people.
Part of my job is to find ways of making everything I do interesting for the people I am working with. I can’t afford to become complacent. Over the past 15 years I have worked on specific issues but that doesn’t allow me to simply turn up in a local community and offer something that I have done somewhere else.
The growth of social media has also made the world a smaller place so people in Ballymena can check out my work online and see what communities I have worked in and see what has been created elsewhere. I have to continually adapt and versify and that applies to my artistic work just as much as it does to how I go about earning my living.