67 / Community Art

The other day, I received a lovely e-mail from Belfast.  An excerpt reads:

Things have certainly changed around Olympia since you were there with Neighborhood Open Workshops...miss them times ...do you remember the mural you did along the long wall behind the porta-cabin and we painted a big cat and used the hole in the wall for the eye, or the big inflatable tunnels that were put for us in the park.... also remember you and your colleagues devising new games to play in the crescent arts centre...gr8 times which are missed.

The email brought me back to 70s – 80s Belfast, a time of social and political belligerence.  In 1978 I was a volunteer on summer play schemes for young people in the city.  The organisation running the schemes was an independent charity and we were therefore able to work across the sectarian community divide.   At the summer’s end, a group of volunteers – including myself – decided to stay.  We set up a collective, Neighbourhood OpenWorkshops (NOW), to continue in the most deprived localities of the city and eventually anywhere in N. Ireland. With small charitable grants, gifts in kind and (thankfully) modest subvention from Arts Council of N. Ireland, the income was tiny but we believed in the work - and the summer had been great craic.

The e-mail above bears witness to the value of our efforts, at least from one person’s testimony.  The sender is someone who was a youngster at the time and frequently took part in NOW’s projects and events.  The wall he mentions was the perimeter wall of Windsor Park football club grounds.  The area on the other side from the football pitch, our side, was a rough wasteland.  A City Council portakabin had been put there surrounded by a high, spike-topped, metal fence.  Mostly we attracted kids from around 8 or 9 to 14 years old from the locality. For us the venture placed art in a specific community context; for the kids it was, we hoped, a joyful opportunity to encounter and engage with creative art activities.

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