A pilot project with Elizabeth Cooke commissioned by Smiths Row Gallery as a strand of the Communities Connected programme.
In June this year we were commissioned to to undertake a micro residency in mid Suffolk making work fed by research and consultation with a group of older, isolated men. This action research would contribute to the development of a new participation and engagement model for Smiths Row.
Our proposal asked the following questions:
What’s a good model for a space where older people can get together to make art and also start a conversation about the role of art in ageing well?
How do we invite men to take part? Our research tells us they want a clear idea of what they’re signing up for so how do we do this without limiting the scope of the commission?
After research in Stowmarket we identified the yard of the Kings Arms pub as a venue. We were keen to offer opportunities to explore materials and art-making as part of the reflective process and this venue offered flexible indoor and outdoor spaces where we could experiment with a range of art forms. The Kings Kitchen food caravan offered cheap food and drinks with Paul the vendor, an enthusiastic advocate for the art sessions. The space was visible from the road but secluded enough to feel safe. The yard is situated among historic buildings of Stowmarket and we saw this as a possible starting point for art making and conversation.
Over the eight week engagement we found it difficult to draw in a consistent group of men from the town, we learned that turning up to an art session was more daunting than we imagined and that people wanted a clear idea of what they would be doing, this usually implied traditional tuition. If any isolated men had turned up would they have spread the word?
On the other hand the pub regulars maintained a close interest, sometimes in the form of banter, often advice and occasionally art-making. We started to adjust the process to their interests, starting a scrap wood assemblage on the wall that represented a map of the town. People added local landmarks, urban myths and personal perspectives of the town. This group’s interests focused on street art and a range of traditional rural crafts and they suggested techniques that could be used for this type of outdoor work.
The group meetings came to an end at the beginning of September. Paul moved out due to a rent rise and the power relation within the space changed. We left the town map in situ as an invitation for further contributions.
Through this engagement we learnt more about how this generation might want to engage with the arts but somehow the commission feels unfinished.
Our publicity suggesting this was a club ‘mainly for men’ was controversial. Some questioned whether it smacked of discrimination while others applauded the fact that the issue of isolation for older men was being very directly addressed. The tag ‘older, isolated men’ is misleading. We had much younger men joining in who suffered equally from isolation. Many of the men that took part were just over 50, is this categorised as ‘older’, older than whom? Men at this age may be working from home, partially retired or without a partner, all potential causes of loneliness
Retrospectively, we ask ourselves whether aiming the group at particular participants tipped the balance towards a project with stronger social than aesthetic outcomes. This balance between the two remains complex. We might initiate engagement seeking artistic outcomes but once immersed in a situation the boundaries become blurred. Perhaps we’ve learnt from this commission that the people we’re collaborating with don’t really care as long as their encounter with art is interesting and engaging. The rest of it is a discourse limited to the art world.
We also realised that the idea of setting up a club that would evolve through the interests of the members was flawed. We needed to send out a clearer invitation to this group and probably offer either a clear learning experience or an activity that benefited other local people. The time for conversation would come later once we got to know each. If people wanted water-colours, that’s what we should be offering. Artists like to work with uncertainty but potential participants are less sure about this approach.
Towards the end of the engagement we started to find people who acted as connectors and networkers in the Mid-Suffolk area. Rural Coffee Caravan and a contact from the Town Council would have been helpful to know before the meetings started. On the other hand we had to be there, making and talking to find out about them. Sometimes its not the preparation time that’s important but the length of time immersed in the situation. These contacts will be important for future work in mid-Suffolk and one of the groups has already taken the idea of the map assemblage for a group of teenagers.
So we’re not finished. Look out over the next few weeks for our artistic response in Stowmarket. We see this as a cumulative series of proposals and provocations situated in the town.
Meanwhile we are building on our findings with an open invite art meetup in a pub in Bury St Edmunds, The Making Space. Drawing and printing is the specific offer, we’ll see what happens.