Breaking down the walls, gently, through creativity. The Monthly speaks to Community Artist Ash Reynolds – Part 2

Part one of this interview can be found here

You have worked on a lot of projects. Are there any particular projects which spring to mind as good examples of what can be achieved through Community Arts?

I worked with many groups in the Shankill and one group in particular I love. I asked the parents and leaders if it was possible to convince them to walk with the children on the St Patrick’s Day Parade!! That required a lot of discussion and sensitive, collaborative work. We had to make sure everyone involved would feel welcomed and safe.

This actually happened quite naturally through the process of working on the actual project. We were working on St. Patrick’s themed material anyway and the children were eager to showcase their work outside the club so it felt natural to invite them to take part in the carnival. I promised I would lead and accompany them and their parents during the event and keep them safe. I had built a level of trust with everyone and the children were just so excited when the parents agreed to it!

Of course there were concerns and some very nervous parents and leaders but we had managed to create a very strong and trusting working environment and the final experience for the group seeing the children’s faces filled with pure joy and wonder as they showed off their creations to a massive audience of thousands spoke volumes !!  I was so proud that day seeing those wee faces light up and break down old stereotypes and open new arms of friendship and at the same time lose no one in the crowd!!!

Do you have many situations develop like that?

Yes, I was working with an adult group in Bangor, through Community Arts Partnership on their Landmarks’ project, and we were creating super large spring flowers using willow and cellophane. It was a 6 week project with an end result to produce a large public sculpture to use in the interiors of disused shop windows in the flagship shopping centre where the group was based.

After chatting with the members and leader and knowing at a later date there was to be the Annual Spring Carnival, I asked the group would they like to be involved and bring their families with them to also take part using some of the sculptures already created and building some more for costume! They loved it and through further collaborations with The Beat Carnival organisers I got to work longer with the group and lead them and their fabulous work on the Easter Parade in Bangor.

The group agreed to be part of the carnival and that meant that they could show off the work they had created again in a public parade to a much larger audience with their family’s also!

We started with a simple project and through thinking about how we could link different projects together we were able to show what is possible through working creatively and collaborating. I have many stories of how art and inter-community arts have played a part in transforming people’s lives. Breaking down the walls, gently, through creativity.

You do seem to have an imaginative approach to your work and a commitment to the development of the people you are working with?

I really do think that inter-community creative engagement  allows for sensitive questions to be addressed and complicated issues to be gently prised apart in a very alternative, creative way. A way in which people ,otherwise unable to be heard, have the opportunity to work happily and productively together?

I’ve seen this happen time and time again. It requires an imaginative approach to the work and to always be looking for opportunities where people can develop their unique potential.

You mention the Beat Carnival a fair bit. Have you worked with that organisation a lot?

Yes, again, they contacted me quite some time ago and I have worked with them regularly over the years. I love what they do to promote a sense of fun and bringing so much colour and music to the streets in a positive and mindful way, generating a feel good factor for everyone involved and everyone watching from the sidelines!

I think there is something about street parades and  carnivals that allow people to come together and if they are part of making things for the carnival or a street parade they are even more connected than if it was just a straightforward arts project.

And now you are part of The Vault?

Yes- Adam Turkington put out a call when he was offered space in a building up on the Newtownards Road to be used for ‘creatives!’.

My car and house was always a colourful mess and packed full of arts material and I really did think it was time that I found a space both to hold my community arts materials and  projects and  a space to focus on my own work.

We had to leave the Bank Building after a great year getting established, and so we ended up in The Vault!

Why do you think The Vault works so well?

There is a fair bit of luck. Adam got a phone call – an empty building was made available.  Adam and a committee team drove the project forward  but we still had to all come together individually and I think there was a feeling that by coming together as a community good things might happen.

This is an incredibly supportive environment. Everyone here gets on very well together. Sometimes I find that I will come in to The Vault and I am talking to people for two hours. That is the kind of atmosphere you are walking into.

Are you doing your own work now?

Well, I never had the time, nor the energy to do my own work. I was pretty flat out with Community Arts projects for nearly 16 years. Usually I would be so tired when I came home that I just couldn’t find the space or have the energy to do my own work.

Unfortunately, I was diagnosed recently with a very serious illness. Sadly, I’ve had to leave my community arts work and I have decided that I will be working on my own work for the foreseeable future.

I have a great space to work in and I’m hoping to get enough material together for an exhibition in the summer.

Many people would know now that you have a serious illness. Clearly you have found a lot of support at The Vault?

I have found support from all over, not just the Vault – who have been amazing by creating a more accessible studio on the ground floor for me and decorating it beautifully – but support too from all the Arts organisations I was connected with over a the years.

The well wishes and phenomenal outpouring of support even from some of the people I taught over the years has been deeply touching and has given me a reason to fight on and turn this illness into something more positive than crawling under the duvet. It’s given me strength to keep going creatively and not allow the illness to take over any time soon!

The Vault Collective here have created a special space for me as I said, and so many people from everywhere, collectively and individually sending me positivity and good intentions has been so inspiring for me – it’s my time now to make beauty with it!

Do you have any specific plans?

I am working on a project which I came up with only  hours after my diagnosis. A friend of mine is a set designer and he is going to build me a party box which will be my wake casket. This is nothing unusual, many people do it around the world already!

Obviously, many people want to meet up with me after hearing my news, and I just can’t have too many visitors during treatment because of high infection risk and fatigue which totally frustrates me as I am a social person and want to see all the happy faces. So, when treatment improves and gets less intense and the weather gets warmer I am going to have more time for everyone to visit and participate in the decoration of that party box with me around cups of tea and chats!

It’s going to be a chance to catch up, have conversations around the question of death and dying and what lies ahead in a positive, creative and happy environment.

I am working on my own artworks at the moment which I do while having chemotherapy. I’m stuck in a chair for four hours and it takes my mind off what’s going into me and lets my creativity blossom out!!

No matter what happens, I hope that my artwork can be used as a catalyst for fearless discussions around dying and my own positive and organic approach to my art and my community arts work.

I want the discussions to be about imagining and sharing wondrous, colourful collaborations and a creative bringing together of people to promote happiness, peace and positivity!

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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.