“Breaking down the walls gently through creativity” – The Monthly speaks to Community Artist – Ash Reynolds – Part 1

Earliest memory of a connection to the arts?

We were always making things in our house as children. I was always creative because I wasn’t really interested in the academic side of things. I would tend to drift off into my own world at school and I would draw on my school books, so I knew early on that Creative Arts was the world for me.

My Dad painted and my grandmother was very interested in crafts, making knick-knacks to sell to tourists or anyone else who was interested. We were always encouraged to be creative and to use our imagination.

There is a strong historical culture of craft-making in Ireland and we were brought up in the midst of that. One of my other grandmothers kept a drawer full of random recyclable material to get creative with and I would get whatever treats from that drawer as soon as I would visit her, and make all sort of things, a tea set made from tin foil comes to mind for example!

I was encouraged at school as well. I had a very good teacher who would allow us to use our imagination and be creative wherever possible and was brave enough to show us how to wood-carve using chisels when we were only about 9 or 10! That does not happen is schools now!

Did you have any other experiences?

I used to call around to a woman’s house, Betty McGuire, when I was about 7. I didn’t know much about her or how we even met, but I would call in for hours and she would give me materials to play with and show me all sorts of little craft tips with glue, buttons, felt and so on. I met her again much later on in life. She had done very well as an artist and sculptor and I reminded her that I was the little girl who used to come around to her house.

Did you go on to do the Arts in Higher Education?

I did art at school and I did well. But I didn’t really move into college straight after school. I did apply but I didn’t get anywhere straight away so I worked happily in local shops for a couple of years in County Meath.

My parents and friends’ parents were always trying to encourage me to go on to college and to keep trying but I didn’t do that initially. Then I applied for a BTEC (Business and Technology Education Council) at a college in Lurgan.

That was in 1990 and I came up from the South with my Mom and Dad for the interview and we crossed the border. At that time you had to go through barricades and checkpoints. I knew absolutely nothing about Northern Ireland so it was all very new to me.

You did your higher education in Northern Ireland?

Yes and it was great. I worked with graphics, ceramics, textiles, printmaking, photography, painting. All the teachers were amazing and encouraging and it was a fantastic experience.I was there for 2 years and all the building blocks of my creative and artistic practice were moulded there. In some ways they were the best years I could have had in developing my skills.

You go to Belfast after that?

Yes. I applied to do a degree in Belfast but I wasn’t able to finish that. I really wasn’t able to concentrate on one aspect of artistic practice and I needed to do that in order to write a thesis. It just didn’t sit well with me.

What happened after that?

I fell into a job decorating the Kremlin. I was given a free hand to do that. I would work closely with the entertainment manager and the owner on the themes and then I would design the props ahead of each Friday. I would then come in and do the installation of the decor and props on the Friday. I would also create an 8ft x 8ft backdrop painting for the given theme each week.

I did that for 8 years and I enjoyed it immensely. I would be climbing up ladders, teaching myself how to hang things, building all sorts of sculptures and props.

I was doing that even while I was pregnant and later on my son would come with me in his pram! That was another fantastic experience. But as well as my new addition, more structural work had been done to the premises to extend it so I would get my brother Ed to come up from Dublin to help me with it and paint some backdrops for future events, but eventually it all got to much as I started teaching around the same time and was getting busier with that which I also loved.

Where do you go to from there?

I started work in 2002 for the British Deaf Children’s Society and through that I met Dhearbla Reynolds. She is now my brother’s wife. When I first met her, she had just taken on the very large project of the Special Olympics and she asked me to facilitate workshops.

Again that was an amazing experience and I worked with a lot of groups facilitating workshops all over the province.

That was my first taste of getting really involved in Community Arts and Community Arts practice. I have now worked for the last 15 years in Community Arts. I love being part of helping people get creative. I love seeing the excitement as people develop their own individual or collaborative projects.

You have been a full-time community artist for all of that time?

Yes more or less. There are times when it goes quiet for a while and then it picks up and It can be non stop. I have been working almost constantly since I became a community artist. As each project finished I pretty much moved straight into another artistic project.

I found that this was where my passion lay. I loved working with groups and people of all ages and abilities. I always found great satisfaction in watching faces light up when they develop some skill and when they produce their own work.

How do you go about your work?

In many cases I will be asked by a group to come in and work on a specific project. We might be making a huge lantern or working on a parade or making props.

I try to get a sense of what the group is thinking of initially. Then I find out what their abilities are. Even when working on a group piece, I want to find something that each individual person can work on and is comfortable doing. I almost always know then what the end art-piece is going to be like or represent. I am very instinctive in that part of my work.

I want to get every person working individually, so that everyone can physically see what their contribution was to the finished piece.

If you can see what part you played in the creation of a large group piece it is a great feeling and I think that is a much better approach which I know allows everyone to develop uniquely.

You seem to have a very natural approach?

I think that is true. I am not motivated by the theory, rather, I have learnt on the job and my own natural ability and instinctive practice carries me through no matter what is thrown at me. I find that clients / participants just want to be able to feel relaxed and safe and under no pressure. When provided with the right materials and encouragement, people enjoy the imaginative journey of exploration with the materials and develop at their own pace and don’t feel rushed.

I have never really been fully trained in the Administration side of Community Arts. I’m an instinctive worker and I trust my own judgment and sixth sense about things. Obviously, I have completed all the necessary training in First Aid, Health and Safety, Child and Vulnerable Adult Protection, Autism, Mindfulness and how best to work with elderly dementia sufferers. I have also been trained to work with people who are Hearing and Sight Impaired. I think this is very important training which everyone should brush up on regularly when working in this sector not just to benefit the participants but also the artist’s own protection and correct management of situations.

My big mantra is to “always be prepared” – equipped both mentally and with the physical materials to start a positive workshop from the beginning!

Is there anything that doesn’t suit you working in community arts?

My experiences are by and large pretty good. I can remember working on various projects in the Shankill with some community organisations many years ago, and have to admit I was very nervous starting the first time. I did not think I would be made very welcome but the hand of friendship was offered to me straight away and I still get called back to do creative work in that area. I’ve been with a particular youth group in the Shankill now for many years who I see as my best friends and some are almost like family!

I have also worked with other community groups, all ages and abilities, and I have lots of good fun and positive stories from that part of town!

I can say that I’m not a big fan on form filling. I find that side of things not really for me. I find trying to analyse a project on paper and pinpoint exactly what transformation took place or what outcomes were achieved or trying to single someone out doesn’t really work.

I think there are magical things that can happen when people are encouraged to be creative and especially when they can see their own development , when they can actually see their engagement and skills improving over the time we work together on a project.

That magical transformation can’t easily be translated to paper. Written reports can’t always construe to the reader just how transformative and empowering it was for the participants engaged in an art project. So that side of the job isn’t my forte, but the creative, imaginative and teaching side – now that’s where I am at my best !!

Part two of this interview can be found here

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New Belfast Community Arts Initiative trading as Community Arts Partnership is a registered charity (XR 36570) and a company limited by guarantee (Northern Ireland NI 37645).Registered with The Charity Commission as New Belfast Community Arts Initiative - NIC105169.