In conversation: What impact has working with CPP projects had on your artistic practice?
Eleanor Turney talks to Geraldine Pilgrim, Jason Wilsher-Mills and Dee Patel about working on Creative People and Places projects and the impact of this work on their practice as artists
Artists working in Creative People and Places areas are crucial to the success of the programme - both in terms of the work produced and the quality of engagement for communities. Eleanor Turney spoke to three artists about their experiences of working with Creative People and Places (CPP) projects.
Jason Wilsher-Mills is a digital artist, who runs Blue Jay Way. He lives in the East Midlands and has worked with Made In Corby on a commission called Corby in Pictures. Photographer Dee Patel runs Outroslide and has worked with Creative Black Country on the Desi Pubs project. Geraldine Pilgrim works across theatre and the visual arts creating site-specific performances in unusual buildings and locations. She has worked with Creative Barking and Dagenham to devise Well.
Eleanor Turney: How has working with a CPP project affected your own artistic practice? What has carried through into your work?
Jason Wilsher-Mills: There’s no hiding place with this kind of work; you’re in the centre of the community and you can’t be too precious. That’s taught me a lot, and I’ll definitely take that into my future work. You’re directly engaging with the audience to make the work, and you become a part of the town that you’re based in. Corby’s become very much a second home. You’re engaging with the people who have set you on and put their faith in you to deliver the goods. So there’s a real sense of, right, I’ve got to deliver now! It’s about listening and making sure that the work has that authentic voice. You’re aiming for artistic excellence, which is always a bit of an enigma, but you’ve got to be able to deliver in a very real way, because this community has invited you in.
Dee Patel: I’ve recently received funding for a Heritage Lottery Project about exhibiting work and promoting it, and the work I’ve done with Creative Black Country has given me ideas of how to do that. One of the things that I’m doing at the moment is working with the Indian community, who are often very difficult to get into galleries and stuff. The aim of it, and this is what Creative Black Country did, is take the art to them, for example in pubs or temples or libraries or community buildings. So I’ve learned about promoting and exhibiting my own work. It has given me more confidence in my own work. The kind of community-based work that Creative Black Country has done has been great, and it’s fantastic that they have used local artists. I’ve seen some places bring in big-name artists and that’s not what it’s all about.
Geraldine Pilgrim: I realised that it was very important to me that the people who were involved in the project really felt that they were genuinely involved. I saw how working on a project that was related to a place that was important to the community was really valuable. I saw people feel allowed to have memories that they worked with, because they realised that they were in a supportive environment. I have taken that knowledge, of how important people’s memories are to them, into all of my future work. I’m now working with older people on a project to do with memories of happiness. It’s taught me that with more patience on my behalf and having more knowledge of how to respond to their needs as human beings, rather than just as participants or postcodes, which is how people might feel. Individuals have a chance to be themselves in a supportive environment.
ET: How do you stay flexible enough to make a community commissioning model work, while remaining true to your own artistic vision and knowledge?
DP: It’s difficult. As an artist you’re already learnt a lot, but I think you can learn a lot from the community, too. It’s a growth process, a two-way process. Remaining flexible is so important.
GP: I think it’s a really fine line that has to be carefully negotiated. It’s very important that the participants can own the project, but allow the artist’s vision to still come through. Because otherwise, it might as well be a community arts project, and I believe that CPP is more than that. It tries to reach a level of community input and artistic practice that is deeper than what is normally achieved. And I think it succeeds in doing that.
JWM: It’s difficult, but the way it’s worked in Corby has been a really interesting process. I’m working with a group of artists who primarily have disabilities, and have probably never been asked for their opinion before, to be honest. I’ve tried to ensure, with everything that I do, that it’s inclusive. It’s all about keeping people informed and making sure that they feel part of the process, whilst keeping that authentic artistic voice present throughout the work and not compromising that. It’s difficult with any kind of community arts project, but I’m very thankful that I’ve been working with a group who are very open to working with an artist; it’s probably the first time in many of their lives that someone’s stopped and asked what they think. I don’t think the artistic quality has suffered at all; in fact it’s encouraged my practice in an interesting way. I’ve ended up doing things that weren’t part of the agreed commission, making art about the participants and telling the story in ways that they’ve informed. We’re still doing the public art stuff and the engagement activities, but it’s just about sticking with that very simple idea of clear communication and starting from a point where everybody knows where they are. Artists can be a bit precious about the work, but with a project like this you’re working in partnership with a group, so you know where you’re starting from, there won’t be too many surprises.
ET: What does producing “excellent” work mean in the context of a community commissioning model?
GP: For me, although the process is absolutely vital, it should not be more important than the final project – I think both should be of equal importance. I believe that participatory work should try to achieve the highest realisation of ideas artistically. Because then it the participants feel that they have been involved in something that has broken boundaries and that they can be genuinely proud of, in terms of showing it to the public.
DP: It’s quite difficult to think about the kinds of work you make with a community group, because there are different definitions of ‘excellence’ and what that means for different people. Excellence is a perspective, rather than just a word. It’s always going to be based on your own personal perspective. When working with a community group, it’s about making sure they’re aware of what excellent work is, so that they can hold you and themselves to that standard. When you’re talking about community work there’s an idea that standards are lower, but they don’t have to be. And that’s really important to know yourself, and to make sure that the people you’re working with know. Just because it’s local doesn’t mean that people don’t care or that people can’t meet those standards.
JWM: Excellence is the holy grail that artists are always seeking, whether it’s community arts or any other platform. I work really closely with this amazing group who have advised me and been a complete part of this process, and it’s encouraged me! If you get those firm foundations right, the art and the excellence kind of look after themselves, and you’re able to create really interesting things because you’ve got a clear starting point and finishing point. I think I’ve done some of the most interesting community arts work through this project, but the proof of the pudding is in the presentation of the work. But there’s definitely some excellent work there.
ET: What is it about this kind of community-based work that appeals to you?
DP: I absolutely love doing this kind of work. I think it’s just the grassroots thing – working with ‘real people’, with their own stories. They’re not bogged down in politics and it feels more real. They’re coming in with a different perspective.
ET: What responsibilities do you feel to the work you’re making and to the community in which you are making it?
JWM: It’s a huge responsibility. I’m working with people who often aren’t represented and don’t have a voice in their community. I started this project with my ultimate aim to have the quietest voices in the community be the most powerful. To do that, I would take their artwork and present it to the whole Corby community. It was a way to follow my own artistic practice and give an opportunity for people in Corby to be aware of this quiet group of adults with learning disabilities who have been almost hidden away. This is a fantastic opportunity to engage with the community and remind the community of the people with disabilities who can be kind of hidden.
GP: I started doing community-based work about 20 years ago, and the reason it means so much to me is that I watch how projects that involve performers in a way that is above and beyond ‘being in a play’ actually transforms people lives. And I know that that sounds like a major thing to say, but I believe it happens and I have witnessed it happen. People of all ages, from all cultures, all genders, starting up a project. By the end, their eyes look at the sky, their bodies are straight and they look forward to being a part of it. I think the challenge is to make sure that this work that so transforms people’s lives has a legacy, so it isn’t something that an artist comes in and delivers and then disappears. For me, that’s really crucial.
DP: There can be a danger of artists coming in, doing some work and just using the community. It’s got to be about developing long-term relationships with the community, not only to benefit them but also to build a basis for future work. It’s so important to build those relationships. You have to keep that in mind, and make sure that you’re not just using people.
ET: What skills do you think an artist needs to work well with a CPP project, over and above artistic talent?
GP: Empathy, patience and a sense of humour.
DP: Communication, definitely. I’m not saying that my communication skills are great, but I have seen other artists who are really rigid in their approach, and that comes across as them having trouble communicating. They can’t break out of the rather insular world that they’re from. And that’s why I think communication is key, because you need to be able to speak to people from all parts of the community.
JWM: You have to be very open and have really good communication skills. You have to be able to listen, and adapt your own practice. There’s compromise all the time, but the one thing that you can’t compromise on is that authentic voice in your artistic practice. It’s about finding a way to hold onto that while meeting the needs of the community in which you’re working. They’re employing me to give them an opportunity to make art and share their voice. There’s a lot of pressure in that, and it’s a constant reminder that I see them as my employers. I may be the lead artist on the project, but it’s about being able and open to their ideas. You can’t live in an ivory tower, you’ve got to be on the work floor.
Some of the themes in this blog are explored further in Excellence: What it does to you, a research study by Consilium and Thinking Pratice commissioned by the CPP national evaluation.