“When I grow up I want to be…. an actor, dancer, painter, musician…..”.
Arts administrator, marketer, manager…. are less common responses. And yet many of us working in the cultural sector spend our time behind desks supporting other people to get creative. I’m lucky enough to work for a charity and development agency, Voluntary Arts, that understands that creativity means different things to different people and that it’s the messy mix of collective participation and volunteer time that makes amateur arts all the more transformative for community engagement, good mental health, and self-discovery.
Over half the UK adult population is involved in some form of regular voluntary arts activity- from choirs and ceramics, to dance and drawing. Recognising this scale, the BBC has launched a new, year-long Get Creative Campaign, together with national cultural organisations such as Voluntary Arts, to celebrate creativity. There is a promotional video showing famous faces doing arty things that they are less well known for- Kate Moss painting, Frank Skinner on the banjo, and Johnny Vegas at a potter’s wheel, etc. But far more interesting, for me, are the extraordinary people giving their time and commitment to initiate creative activity in quite ordinary places – village halls, coffee shops, garden sheds and kitchen tables – every evening of the week. When BBC Radio Scotland’s The Culture Studio asked me to seek out a range of voluntary arts groups and ‘Get Creative’ for a series of review programmes, I obviously said yes. I set myself the challenge of trying out a different art form every evening over the course of a week.
Launch of BBC Get Creative, BBC Radio Scotland, 19 February 2015 (at 1hour 36 – 1 hour 45)
On the Monday, I went rapping. But not like any other sort of rapping. This was the Mons Meg Sword-Dancing Rappers. The swords aren’t the swash-buckling, fencing type, rather they are double-handed swords that link dancers in a fluid and very elegant group dance that originated in the mining towns of Northern England and is now also at home in a small pub in Leith. Kev and the other Rappers very kindly guided me through some easy moves (think tap-dance meets an eight-some reel meets in and out the dusty bluebells, all in time to accordion and fiddle accompaniment).
Tuesday was a tale of two cities. In the morning, I went along to the Maryhill Creative Writers Group in Glasgow. This is a group of aspiring and published writers that meet in the Maryhill Library every week (next door to the cafe featured in the ‘Still Game’ sitcom) and over a coffee offer peer to peer support. Writing is usually a personal activity so I was curious to learn about the importance of the group dynamic. It seems that having the expectation of a regular commitment can provide important structure and routine in our sometimes solitary lives. Further, the opportunity for honest, critical feedback on new work helps refine the creative process and allows others to bear witness to our getting creative. I hadn’t planned it but when asked if I would like to read anything of my own, I tentatively read my Tae Leith poem. I was thrilled when Bert, an ex-miner, and now published poet, said that the local references and syntax reminded him of James Joyce’s The Dubliners.
I left the Maryhill Writers Group on that surprise high and headed back east for an evening with the All the Young Nudes life –drawing club. This cheekily-named group is unlike any previous life-drawing experience I have known. For a start, there is no tuition. Rather, artists are welcome anytime between 7 and 9pm at the Cabaret Voltaire nightclub in Edinburgh and, working with their own art materials, chose from a series of short and longer timed draws of life models in dynamic poses. Whereas in taught art classes, the voice of my inner-critic has been a loud reminder of self-doubt and judgement against the silence of a formal classroom setting, at All the Young Nudes, the drawing time is punctuated by the beats of ambient musical playlists. The chance for a drink at the bar during the break certainly helps loosen up wrists and let go of inhibitions too. It’s a totally immersive experience that allows you to get lost in your own mark-making and creative expression.
“I worried that when I retired I would become isolated and miss the social connections of my workplace but the drawing club has brought me out of myself. It’s a complete mix of ages and backgrounds. I’ve really grown as an artist.”
Wilson, a participant at All The Young Nudes
There was a brief interlude in my BBC Get Creative week on Wednesday when I attended my own regular evening class in painting. Much as I have enjoyed my time at Leith School of Art, the contrast of formal, paid tuition to self-led, voluntary arts practice was noticeable.
I had already planned a work day in Perth on Thursday so sought out some crafting activity nearby. I took my Mum, Tricia (a keen crafter), along to the Perth Knitters group. The organiser of the group, Eva, gifted me with the softest of merino wool and gentle bamboo needles as her fellow knitters, and Mum, patiently guided me through the basics of ‘knit one, purl one’. And it was here that I learnt thatt:
“Knitting is like jazz. Making mistakes simply adds to the complexity and personality”.
Eva, from Perth Knitters
Finally on Friday, I sat back to listen to a performance at the Brunton Theatre in Musselborough of four different community choirs. I love music of every kind but of all my BBC Get Creative experiences, I have to admit that this was my least favourite. This reflection has nothing to do with the talent of the performers, the comfort of a large, professional venue, or the evident pride of the friends and family members making up the rest of the audience . I realise that I enjoyed this less than the writing, crafting, drawing or dancing, because I wasn’t the one on the stage. Getting Creative is all about being the artist not the audience.
(at 4 mins in) I was joined as a guest on the Janice Forsyth Culture Studio by Iona Barker of Say It Ain’t Sew
‘Creative’ can be a much used but often confused word. For me, it is about imaginative thinking, or imaginative play. Every human being is born with a basic curiosity for the world and an ability to play. But somewhere on the journey to adulthood, we are taught to conform to established norms of what does or does not constitute artistic ability and then accept our role as either artist or audience, with anything short of this tyranny of excellence* being relegated to mere child’s-play. Is a graffiti artist a frustrated Michelangelo and does a digital programmer sitting in their bedroom have the dexterity and concentration of a concert pianist? I don’t know. And it doesn’t really matter. So long as our governments prioritise equality of opportunity and access, getting creative should be owned and interpreted by each of us individually. Freedom of expression belongs to us all.
Across the different art forms I sampled in my BBC Get Creative week, the people I met all said similar things when asked about how arts participation makes them feel. They used words like meditative flow, focus, confidence, non-judgement, happiness, and being present in the moment. Indeed, the original meaning of the word ‘amateur’ comes from the French amateur ‘lover of’. And with love comes empathy, which is surely what the world needs more of. So when I do eventually grow up, I want to be a lover of all that I do. Like Kev, and Wilson, and Bert, and Eva, and Tricia- the real Get Creative celebrities.
*The expression ‘tyranny of excellence’ is a reference to remarks by Baroness Kidron (a cross-bencher and President of Voluntary Arts) in the House of Lords in relation to the funding of non-commercial arts. http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/ld201415/ldhansrd/text/150119-0003.htm