Part one of this interview is here
What about Community Arts?
While studying for my degree, I always watched from a distance to see how things were at home as the Troubles where very much part of peoples lives at that time. Peacebuilding wasn’t part of my degree (it was part of my masters which came much later) but I couldn’t understand why people at home couldn’t live at peace and that the fighting seemed to be so constant.
After graduation, I returned to Northern Ireland. Initially, I taught a few courses at Flowerfield Arts Centre, Portstewart for the Workers’ Educational Association (WEA) and then took on some classes in community education for Further and Higher Education.
Is that where you first heard about CAP?
I was involved with New Belfast Community Arts Initiative before it became Community Arts Partnership (CAP). I was working for the Workers’ Educational Association (WEA) and we were rolling out a regional Creative Learning programme. I met up with Josh Schultz initially. We had a chat and he suggested that I meet Conor Shields, who later became a Board member in fact Treasurer of the WEA.
I remember meeting Josh and Conor in the Head Office of the WEA in Fitzwilliam Street; opposite Queens University. At the time, our project was funded by the Department of Employment and Learning and CAP was considering getting some of their Arts programmes accredited.
I remember running a training session with artists in the office above the Northern Whig, to explain the paperwork associated with assessment and the requirements for accreditation.
This approach didn’t completely fit with all of CAP’s provision, however WEA ran a few very successful accredited courses which were delivered by CAP’s artists. This was the start of a strong partnership between the two organisations.
This must have been some time ago?
Yes, about 20 years ago if I remember correctly. My background was in community arts and community education: doing a range of roles and initiating different projects. I had always tutored for the WEA, then worked mostly in community education for Further and Higher Education Colleges, before taking on the full-time role as Development Officer for the WEA which was obviously community education.
Did you have a theoretical background similar to that of Community Arts Partnership?
Well it was New Belfast at that time. My background was more intuitive than theoretical. Through the experience of my practice in the early days just after leaving Art College, I recognised how powerful the arts could be in community settings. For example, I initiated the community art creative response in Omagh in the immediate aftermath of the bomb in 1998.
It was called “Petals of Hope”. That bomb was the single worst incident of the Troubles and post-Troubles period. I’m quite sure that it was the only artistic response to any atrocity here which was made directly by the community who were impacted by an incident- their finger prints were all over the artwork. I returned a couple of times and concluded this longitudinal creative process at the twentieth anniversary in 2018.
So when I facilitated that type of project, I didn’t have the theoretical background that underpins Community Arts Partnership because I more or less responded and worked instinctively to the situation as it happened.
During my initial work in Omagh in particular, the community art interaction created space for people to be distracted as they made beauty. They were involved in something constructive in response to what was an overwhelming destructive atrocity for their community. Their involvement allowed then to find a path beyond this desperate situation. The arts have the power to reach into communities, hold them and lead them beyond testing times. I thought then and still believe, that community arts can be used to address all sorts of questions and issues which shape social change.
That led you to connect with CAP?
Yes, I suppose it did. I recognised the dynamic that occurs when people are in a space and lead to make something together, to have the experience of co-creating a piece of artwork that they can celebrate; I still recognise this to have great significance.
The context and people in the group make each experience different to any other and this is captured in CAP’s work. Since my early days of being introduced to CAP until now, the organisation has always been consistent in terms of utilising the arts approaches and creatively engaging people to address questions that were arising politically, socially and economically. I was always aware of aesthetic and creative engagement of CAP and also how the organisation has been involved in advocating in the sector.
As I said earlier, I have had a connection with Community Arts Partnership for over twenty years. That is a very significant period- because it was the twenty years which followed the cease-fires and a dynamic of trying to live at peace. Twenty years is also a generation.
Originally the organisation was called New Belfast Community Arts and it really was a new thing, a new approach to the arts and a fresh engagement for creativity in the people of Belfast. At its base was the idea that the arts could be part of the rebuilding of Northern Ireland, that people could express themselves through the arts- even the most difficult issues could be looked at using the arts.
CAP was always about bringing people together. Groups facilitated by an artist, to help those from all communities to use their imagination, to find ways to express their ideas without degenerating into difficulty.
You see that approach as important?
Most definitely. I just believe that there has to be a way of exploring dialogue, even if there are difficult issues, questions or circumstances, and CAP has been part of facilitating that in many situations.
CAP is the regional champion of community arts. There are many grass-roots organisations that work with the arts in local communities, often in partnership with CAP but we use a wider lens to work right across the province on many levels, to advocate right across the sector, connecting across this island and beyond. CAP has a vital role to play in these contexts.
The organisation is not limited to boundaries whether they are geographical areas, Councils or demographics of people. CAP creates processes which allow people and communities to cross bridges to come together.
It doesn’t matter whether it is visual art, or crafts, video, ceramics or poetry, whether we are working with designers or architects, street artists or poets, the scope of what CAP does has very few artistic limits and everything is geared towards allowing our society to find voice and move more closely together: creatively. That is why, in my mind, CAP’s work is so essential, especially in these times.
You ended up working for Community Arts Partnership?
Many years later, I think it was 2015 when I was studying for my Masters, a part-time post became available. It was the role of Project Co-ordinator for the Landmarks Project. I applied and was successful. I really enjoyed working for CAP – there was a real buzz, and would have loved to stayed a part of this creative and hard working team but after graduating, the reality was that I needed a full-time job which meant ending my post at CAP. At that point, I was asked to consider coming on to the Board, and been involvement in this way for just over two and a half years now. So I am very happy that I have maintained a relationship with CAP over all this time.