Jas Waldorf. Community Arts Practitioner and treasure chest of inspiration.
Jas shares her thought-provoking insights on Art perception, societal and educational barriers to creativity, the importance of art as therapy from a mental health perspective, and practical implications for community arts.
Community arts practitioner is just a fancy sounding way of saying that I spend time creatively collaborating with people in spaces within their community. I come to your space – a place where you already feel comfortable – and we spend time creating and enjoying the process, not preempting a product.
As a practitioner, you are essentially another instrument or tool at the groups disposal, you are not there to show your talents as an artist, but instead to introduce new techniques and methods in a supportive way, you are not teaching, you are exploring together.
“The ethos behind all my work is to rip that dusty, golden frame from the marble wall and read it’s inscription: “an artist made this, so it is art, and you will never know how they did it”, throw it over my shoulder to the past, and with my fist facing the future, knock a hole in the wall.
As light floods in through the open window, we write: “Art is for everyone and everyone must make art, look outside, inside and all around, for there is something you have envisioned that is waiting for you to create it into existence”.
Inequality and Exclusion
Community arts are definitely seen by many as a ‘tick-box’ which is deemed to have been provided, when in fact, the “community art” in question has little impact, input or engagement with the community it supposedly involves.
For example, placing a highly regarded and famous sculpture in a park, or recruiting local teenagers to create a mosaic (of someone they’ve never heard of, but who is seen as an important figure by middle aged white men on the trustees board of the largest nearest gallery).
I remember asking a University lecturer a question she point blank refused to answer; I wanted to know about the relationship between the regions of the country with the highest lottery ticket purchases, and the regions of the country where the Arts council funds (raised through the purchase of lottery tickets and scratchcards) was being spent.
I was told that that information was highly politicised information, and not available for the general public. It is plain to see that the majority of top down funded public art is tokenistic, self serving and hollow.
The missing link for me, is ‘Outreach’.
A golden word only whispered in these austerity riddled times.
Outreach is about embedding yourself within a cultural space or community, and investing time in creating not only a safe space, but a reliable presence with the individuals you collaborate with. A process with transparency about intentions for the project ahead, and the communication skills that allow you to empower the group to feel that they all have a stake, a say and equal input.
You weave together the varying threads of concept and intention in a way, so seamless that the group feel they might not even need you there.
Frequently, people who meet while taking part in community art projects become friends and continue to meet after the sessions. Creating in a group can be a vital form of healing for communities, a chance to pass time positively, in a harmonious and supportive environment.
My work is all about situating myself as not only an equal, but in fact a beginner, in terms of the unique issues, experiences and outlook held by the community I am working with. And so begins the sharing of knowledge and experience, which leads to experimentation, discussion and creativity, and time passes as we become lost in making.
Art is Therapy
School champions “likeness”. Even the most well-intentioned teachers are bound and gagged by a colourless curriculum. There is no space for using art as a means of emotion expulsion, or therapy. There is no space for using that time in the school studio to truly experiment, play and engage in art as an experience.
Making is a sensory experience. It is a chance to pause and step outside of the schedule of the day, the routine of life, to shut off the “what must I do? how must I do it?” brain loop and instead lose yourself in colour and texture, shifting or showcasing emotion.
I believe strongly that all humans , from infancy to retirement should engross themselves within a process which is task-less, that shatters the self worth generated by a productivity complex we are all too often gripped by.
To create with no care for what it is they have made, to be lost in paint that wets paper to ripping point, and not be scolded, but to have witnessed the colours sop and merge and change.
My grandmother was a reggio emilia educator and she told me of a boy in her classroom who dunked one brush in blue paint and one brush in red paint and stood by the easel swirling the brushes across the surface.
As she stepped closer she heard him narrating a high speed car chase, the two brushes are cars and the entire activity is a live action paint play.
If we do not lean in to see how others experience the world, and create space for their representations and depiction to be valid, if we remove notions of worth through “likeness” or “style”, then art can be experienced and enjoyed as a means of catharsis, self care and non- critical communication with our true self.
On Mental Health…
Sometimes we cannot name how we feel, sometimes mental health can be so debilitating and so intense that finding words to try and vocalise the sensations we are trapped in, causes more frustration than relief.
When you are continually used to being shut down and squished and everyone you come into contact with, from the person who does your laundry, makes your breakfast and drives you to school is paid to do so, because you are growing up in care, it can be very easy to feel that nothing for you, is about you. That no-one actually listens or cares about your wants, needs and wishes.
I work extremely hard to create a space that demands nothing from those that inhabit it, and where everyone can take up space and feel settled, this means having materials and work stations on different levels, the floor, standing, seating, tucked away in a corner or in the centre of the room.
I also place materials out in easy reach, I am not the gatekeeper of the glue sticks and you can take all that you need.
When materials are treated as a very *precious!! resource, it creates anxiety, I don’t know what i’m doing , what if I waste it? This is a very common barrier to creating. Yes materials can be expensive, but once bought, they are here to be used, not observed.
One Size Doesn’t Fit All
Different settings allow me to see instances where I can make adjustments to my methods in order to ensure that the session is accessible and engaging. It is hugely important for me to be reflective and constantly strive to create workshops which are beneficial on an individualised basis, not just one size fits all provisions.
This approach to art workshops acts as the ethos underpinning the way that I believe all social and structural public services should operate, from school right through to mental health services.
I have worked in a variety of contexts with a huge variety of people, from babies, very small children, children in a refugee camp, parent, families, people with severe mental health problems, “at risk” young people, people in emotional behavioral difficulty centres, new mothers, older people and men in prison.
A group may share age, location, race etc- but the individual needs of each person must still be met with the same level of dedication as expected when planning work with a group with no immediate common ground.
My advice for anyone wanting to pursue a similar career would be that you must volunteer your time. Find an organisation that works with people and get in touch, give your time.
Do the long haul of making tea for everyone and emptying the bins and listen and learn and observe, absorb the best bits, heed the holes you may see in said organisation, gather knowledge and experience and give your time. If you are reliable and consistent it won’t be long before you are offered more responsibility, and in this way you grow as you go.
I started volunteering at 17 and have done so every single year, usually in several different places. Ever since, I have made mistakes and I have learned from them, I am a work in progress, as is my practice.
I think the most vital thing for me is shredding the idea of “helping people – it’s so fulfilling”. I am here to learn from you, we can find a common space and work together- my work is about empowerment, enabling people to see that they possess within themselves everything they need to live a positive life and contribute actively to their community.
‘Saviorism’ is rife and it’s hugely damaging. The people I work with don’t owe me anything.
If you have this notion that you’re a helping healer, you will be expectant of praise and jubilation, and left feeling resentment when
everyone leaves and goes back to their lives, not thinking about the project you’re working on as they raise kids and cook meals.
It is also really vital to recognise your capacity, and to rest and recuperate when you need to. Throwing yourself into a high intensity stressful setting because you don’t know what your doing with your life and you want validation through “self sacrifice” is a really bad idea.
Creating self worth through helping others when you really need help yourself is ethically gross. It’s fucked to think you have anything to give when you’re ‘in a rutt’, or slump, or crisis yourself. So be reflective, be self aware and make sure you have a break.
It’s the rest between projects that often determines their effectiveness. Make sure your well is full before you fill everyone’s buckets!
I do what I do because I love people, I love conversation, and making stuff has saved my life, it keeps me sane, I tell my sketchbook things I wouldn’t tell my therapist.
When I plonk a pile of textured paper in front of a young man in a rage, and watch as he subconsciously rips it into tiny bits instead of punching a wall, I am putting my own life experience to use.
As an adult who is privileged to have gained a formal further education, despite hating school, hating enforced routine and spending over half my life feeling really really angry, I can change outcomes through providing support in forms I know would have supported me. So I tap into those youthful feelings of powerlessness, now I am the adult, and I provide coping strategies, little sensory interventions and self soothing techniques that can be used and shared by young people.
If you’re keen to learn more, Jasmine has contributed in this book:
Jasmine is currently taking her own advice and Wednesday’s Child is on pause while they take some time to rest and regroup, although they have used the platform for BLM fundraising. You can keep up-to-date with her art and activism at @xbritneyxtears
Please support this wonderful human!
Photography credit: Saesha Ward