ArtsWorkScotland – thoughts from Liz Kemp

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Classroom Mural St Mary’s Girls Secondary School, Nakuru Kenya 2012

Response from Liz Kemp to my blog about ArtsWorkScotland Conference

Hi Alan

I like your question about “where are the changes in peoples’ lives?” because, more often than not, I think they are not apparent after the fact of the social art project or engagement. This claim of impending transformation is regularly cited in support of participative art work (I use it myself) but in the general absence of proper post-project monitoring and time-based (3 months/6 months/2 years) outcome and impact evaluations of these “changes” how can any of us really assess the transformative value of our involvement – if indeed, we ARE offering “change” along with the art?

Of course, there will always be a place for the wonderful magic of the one-time only creative experience but the original driver of community arts work all those years ago, WAS to create something lasting in the lives of others and, when watching some of the fascinating Pecha Kucha presentations, I certainly found myself asking what happened, or will happen, afterwards. What will underpin any “changes”? And what constitutes “change” anyway? Is it a construct of the participating artist or is it a concrete movement of a community, a group or an individual towards a new (and preferably sustainable) reality that is seen to be a positive one? And who by?

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St Mary’s Girls Secondary School, Nakuru Kenya 2012

In this regard, I am reminded of the long ago gable end mural project in various communities in Glasgow where the then Scottish Arts Council funded a series of “transformative” artworks on gable ends in the city. One still exists in Garnethill. I can’t remember the community that was due this treatment but the scaffolding duly went up and the scene was set for the artists to work the metamorphosis. Brushes at the ready, overalls and toories on, rollies in the pocket, they were greeted by a formidable group of arm-folded local women who told them in no uncertain terms to take themselves off the premises as they were “not a deprived community and didnae want wan o’ thae murials.” A great example of non-negotiated community arts practice and unwanted “change.”

On the other hand, however, I do not doubt that contact with a creative experience can contain the possibility of transformation and change – it happens to me all the time – but I question whether this is an offer we can always properly follow through on as artists working in community/participatory settings. Should it be on the agenda at all? The aim is laudable but not practical, for after all, artists are not community/care/social workers and often we are simply not in place long enough for a community to be “classified” by them or for people to have the chance to see your contribution in a meaningful-to-them context.

In my own work nowadays I don’t know whether I am proud or slightly embarrassed to say that I find myself thrilled when someone attends a drawing workshop of mine and, on opening a box of utterly beguiling and beautiful chalk pastels for the next drawing, says on departure – “I’m off to buy a box of those!” That is the kind of change I aspire to engender these days if I’m honest – it seems do-able to me – for anyone – and it is the idea of people being at the heart of an art experience that still spurs me on to pursue modest goals of creative engagement – change will and should take care of itself.

On another point altogether I wanted to ask whether any actively teaching staff of our art colleges and other creative institutions attended the conference? In the absence of a participant’s list, it didn’t appear to be the case so do I have to wonder if these fundamental influencers of current and future arts development still need to be convinced that a participatory arts practice has value and offers a creditable career for graduate artists? Apologies if some of you were there and were just quiet.

Note for Artworks Scotland: re a participant’s list, will one be forthcoming? Details of who and where from/what they do etc would be worthwhile.

In Response to my e-mail to Liz

Good morning Alan and thanks for your email. I’m happy for you to re-post and am fine with it as it is – though if you want you can leave out the very last paragraph re the colleges etc if you feel it goes off in a new direction a bit.

As for photos, well, after 36 years of this kind of work I have millions! However, I have attached a couple of photos from a week-long project I facilitated in Kenya in October 2012 with 70 girls from St Mary’s Girls Secondary School in Nakuru.
This week exemplified many of the first principles of good community/participatory arts engagement for me, from the initial invitation to be involved, to the realities of dealing with the prevailing (and constantly changing) conditions, to the quickly emergent ownership of the classroom mural project that became the main focus of the week and my flexible role in it all. A nationwide teachers’ strike had sabotaged my original project and on arrival, I immediately found myself with a blank slate and 70 girls ready for anything. They decided on a classroom mural,they decided its theme and content, they decided when it was finished, I helped them to make it happen and backed them up with a support programme of art games, activities and Creative Body exercises. The school has since gone on to create an after-school art club (Kenyan government schools do not teach art at either primary or secondary levels) which has  proposed a mural painting programme for the rest of the classrooms. When I visited them again this year they were in the process of raising funding for this. I conducted an informal outcome evaluation with members of the mural group asking them if they felt that taking part in the 2012 art project had changed their lives in any way and found that several of them had developed small creative home-based businesses that were making them an income – cake decoration, house painting, dress design, giving drawing classes – and others were setting themselves goals to train in creative industries in the future. In general, the sample group I spoke to (approx 20 girls) felt that the art project had changed their ideas of themselves as creative people and that they had “found something to do that made life less boring” and that “other people liked.” It seemed to me that the week of creative artwork had raised expectations in the girls that they wanted to continue to explore and they were certainly very proud of their mural which looked as good as new despite a year of classroom life.

 

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