Final advisory meeting – Birmingham

On Monday 23rd June the advisors for the Co-Creating CARE project met along with some of the Birmingham participants and Fiona and Mary for the final advisory meeting.  The other meetings have been in Falmouth but on this occasion we took the opportunity to meet at Soho House in Birmingham.

It is a beautiful house, the elegant home of industrialist and enterpreneur Matthew300px-Sohohouse1 Boulton from 1766 to 1809.  It was once a regular meeting place for some of the greatest minds of the 18th century. Matthew Boulton (1728-1809) was a founding member of the Lunar Society, a group of great thinkers and inventors who met regularly at his home at Soho House. Boulton’s guests included James Watt, Erasmus Darwin, Josiah Wedgwood and Joseph Priestley.  The “Lunar Society” became the formal name by 1775. The name arose because the society would meet during the full moon, as the extra light made the journey home easier and safer in the absence of street lighting. The members cheerfully referred to themselves as “lunarticks”.

The house was the inspiration for designs and one-off items made by participants in the sessions run by Craftspace as partners in the CARE project.  Three of those participants – Alex, Robyn and Viv – came to give us reflections on their experience with the project as well.  It is really important for these projects to not merely foreground or reflect academic outputs but to give equal weight to all researchers involved, so it was brilliant to have them there.  We had developed a series of research questions and spent some time with all of us sharing thoughts and experiences.  In fact Viv’s reflections are in part a response to these questions.

As well as the questions, and getting feedback from our critical friends/advisors, Deirdre organised a display of the work done on the project; it was so good to actually see and touch some of the outputs.  In addition, Rachel, deputy manager from Soho House gave a short talk on her experience of  this part of the project.  From her point of view it has been a big success and she would like to sell items that have been developed in the gift shop.  This potentially takes the project on to other things – we will have to discuss this element further!

The following is comprised of notes taken during the meeting.

Co-creativity and opportunity:  Craftspace has offered Alex, Robyn and Viv a space at their offices to use to meet in. Rachel, deputy manager Soho House, is part of a group of community museums in Birmingham. She is/they are keen to support the group to continue making pieces; they could provide a room, and would like to sell pieces inspired by Soho House in the shop.  This would be an alternative form of souvenir and a potential social enterprise. The Birmingham group are having an exhibition at Soho House. We will also be showing work from the project at the MakerNow exhibition and conference at Falmouth University. The Dublin group have shown their work in Dublin castle and participated in leading workshops and tours, and examples from all of the groups will be shown in Cardiff.

The problem is how to keep a group going without a facilitator. Daniel from Voluntary Arts said his organisation has produced a mentoring tool kit to help amateur groups support themselves to keep on meeting and achieve their aims and become self-supporting.

We talked a it about the interplay between the dialogic and the dialectic in these types of groups.  We agreed that the language of making and humour were similar and important.  Skype sessions with Dublin group worked really well – only a few had used skype in the group and one member described as ‘magical’ the experience of opening up to new people and experiences.  A sense of social connectedness, of enlarging horizons, recognising that there is a larger world out there began to develop: “the room suddenly felt larger”.  Another example of this was when members met up in Falmouth for the MakerNow digital fabrication workshop – they met in real life, after Skypeing.  Alex, from the Birmingham group, went to Dublin.  He was meant to be leading workshop for them but got co-opted by the Dublin women and worked with them. Alex is half Irish and half Jamaican and caused much amusement by describing himself as ‘Jamirish’.  It was quite hard for Alex going all way himself into what felt like alien territory – but he did it. Also Alex went  to Falmouth, and to Cardiff.  Here is where he started to get the idea of being involved in co-research – going completely outside his comfort zone. He has some serious health issues and he felt the ‘doing’ and ‘traveling’ and social aspects of the project have been a lifeline helping him manage his anxieties about his health issues. Culturally he met with a very different set of people; but using a similar language of making, interests, knowledge seemed to promote a binding, unifying effect.

Co-creativity and confidence:  When Alex was making his lamp it involved a huge amount of problem solving. It was a good example of co-creativity. The group all talked about it and had their opinions. When in Falmouth he had the idea to cut the vinyl into pieces and produce a kit so that people could select pieces and assemble themselves – they could have different sheets with different designs on them inspired by the house in different ways, so a lamp kit. There were ideas developing such as to tweet the kit….

Co-creativity: Creative mistakes and dialectic cooperation:  Gloria developed her design from wallpaper into laser cut fabric that went to Falmouth. She made up a block at MakerNow and printed it.  It had applique backing and then was sewn. Again it was a co-created piece with the group. She needed to take it home to complete but hadn’t got the confidence to work on it without the support of Natalie and the group. She was frightened about making mistakes. She did it and had a great sense of achievement, learning that it’s ok to make mistakes.  The idea of ‘creative mistakes’ links in to a point Irene made in her film, that “I don’t have to be perfect when I’m in a group”. The participants became aware of the enormous value of giving and getting positive feedback. Gloria doesn’t want to sell her pieces but rather likes to be part of a group being creative. People have different aspirations and it’s important to pay attention to these – not all want to go the same route. Deirdre talked about how she observed changes in the group; for example Gloria began very shy and would not make eye contact, but since achieving through making and being in the group her demeanour had changed.

Gloria and Myrtle exemplified an example of dialogic (exchanges of difference) and dialectic co-operation (the location of common ground).  There was a difference of opinion between the two as to how Gloria should finish her piece. Myrtle is a strong personality who runs her own group at the Weslyan chapel in Handsworth; she has worked as a professional in the health service and did an arts degree after retiring. Gloria persisted in completing the work in the way that she felt appropriate and when it was finished Myrtle conceded that she had been right. The location of common ground was found not through words but by doing – Gloria won Myrtle over by making her piece of work and materialising her idea; something that she was not managing to do when speaking to the more confident Myrtle.

Nadine in the group has learning disabilities and in one of the exercises she immediately took to technique of wrapping coloured thread around a wooden laser cut shape – this was  simple and really effective. The technique was picked up by the rest of the group and they all started doing it with a sense of shared purpose. Alison Gilchrist commented that this development is supported by the idea of complexity theory: fractals – tiny details and repeated iterations – showed that things spread apart and grow but are still recognisable; through small changes something unexpected happens.

Craft as an ‘interior’ activity: there was quite a bit of talk about the importance of absorption, in therapeutic benefits of making, and being in the moment. Alison talked about being in the flow of making; it’s easier to connect when one is busy doing something, for example walking or driving – people will quickly share quite personal things with each other in the ‘interior’ space of the car.  Crafting is an ‘interior’ activity and can be a catalyst to help people to share themselves in distinctive ways.  The act of crafting provides a safe space to have what might be very difficult conversations.

Innovation: craft is often seen as a ‘soft career’, sometimes one that is undertaken later in life, and one that is not perhaps challenging.  However, innovation is central to the idea of craft.  The group felt that the presence of others helps one innovate and take on new information or push oneself out of one’s own comfort zone, which is necessary in order to innovate. Robyn felt in a rut with glassmaking (her degree subject) and suffering ill health.  She had never thought of making jewellery, not even when she arrived in Falmouth. In fact she said she would definitely not make jewellery – but she did!  This arose out of playful making. Positive responses really helped (for example Rachel at Soho house and others immediately wanted to stock her designs).  Robyn felt that putting your work out there was much easier with group support as a form of protective armour. The designs have developed into bespoke souvenirs: the souvenir re-imagined!  Not only was this good for Roby, and others in the group, but it is an idea that could be very useful to museums. It resulted from a collective process of iterative making, sharing, challenging, questioning, playing, finding good use for offcuts (up-cycling) – all of the things that were really important for the group.

But there are significant challenges in taking this idea into business as an economic commodity. The group must become producers, not just consumers. Tensions can develop between amateur/professional; consumer/producer.  Robyn felt significant concerns about all the paperwork etc involved in this, that it would detract from the pleasure of making. Interestingly, these are similar tensions that Pippa mentioned experiencing in first project. Robyn’s concerns around responsibilities and lot of decisions were important especially in the context of developing ideas around health benefits of making, and were echoed by others in the group.

Scaling up: Alison talked about the ideas around complexity and growth and how these were involved with questions of power in community and voluntary groups. A community can develop around making craft entities, giving a sense of identity, and could build a sense of being bigger together. Exchanges (for example those with Dublin and  Falmouth) can reinvigorate the group – there is a sense of building community (against and with) differences of place, age, gender etc.  We can see a knock on effect in people’s lives, with things like confidence developing in virtuous spirals.

Alex  liked giving himself a technical challenge and relished this and other aspects of the project, like doing the brainstorming.  he felt he could lose himself in this and in other things that felt like a difficult route.

The word ‘Course’ came up to describe the time that was allocated to having an artist available to lead the group, and discussion followed on whether to call it a course or a Period of Learning.  We spent some time thinking about this: how was learning different in the group than in an official learning situation? There was some reflection on group brainstorming and on the benefits of seeing what others are doing, learning from doing and seeing.

Viv said she had  seen a change in Alex.  When Alex was first in group he spent a lot of time on his mobile not chatting much (escaping).   Later he was so busy and involved in project solving there was no mobile use any more! Alex reflected on this and said he knew there was an end in site for project and that this inspired him to make the most of it.  For example some of the group were interested in learning Illustrator so there was a cluster around a specific learning aim.

Robyn began a discussion about wellbeing and creativity in terms of running a group.  She sold one of her broaches to the head of Dublin Castle who wanted to buy the whole collection and loved the idea that Robyn’s jewellery showed of combining ornament and text. She is now keen to batch produce them, using the jigsaw and hand-finishing with the laser.  Robyn trained as a glassmaker and talked about her fear about running workshops. Daniel (our advisor from Voluntary Arts) mentioned that when you are learning something in order to teach it, there is an intensity to that experience.

Robyn also talked about the importance of space and a place to work.  She said it was nice to get out of home, out of Dudley, which she felt was an oppressive environment. Coming to group she did not feel so professionally isolated. She said she had been getting quite depressed, and now on a recent visit to her interpersonal skills therapist she came up as not depressed. She said this change was not caused by one thing only, but she felt that the group was an important contributory factor: having focus and playfulness freed her up, and gave her a new starting point.

Robyn talked about the idea of running a group.  She had wanted to start group, but concerns about responsibilities and decisions worried her.  She used to be a teacher and didn’t want to get involved in that again as she felt it had been a destructive experience. She liked the idea of starting small with little workshops to practice and maintain security during process of developing that side of the work. She said she had problems with having the confidence to say, “I know more than you”, but she loves making things with other people, just to sit down and have fun, making and chatting with others.  She felt that this is very valuable and did not want to lose it. She said that even at home with her mother she got them all making; now making was passing up the generations! There was a discussion about what to do if you have limited time and the consensus was that it was important to set goals. For example, agree to meet for five weeks, or work to larger plan/framework. This helps to make it more manageable. It is nice to know there is somewhere for it to go. The link with Craftspace was seen as a very valuable thing as, amongst other things, the organisational support helped to feel as if a burden was lifted off the shoulders.

When Viv joined the group she was quietly confident and involved in a lot of classes but feeling isolated as maker. She felt the project was very different from other workshops she’d been involved in because of elements like the skype, the Falmouth visit etc. She enjoyed watching people in the group blossom as they developed their work, and shared skills. She liked watching them gradually finding their way. “Giving and making with other people is an attitude”, she said.

Alex mentioned the difference in ages that he noticed when he first joined the group.  There were mainly older people in afro-Caribbean group and it was held in a church hall.  He was not sure at first whether he would get on in this group but after chatting and making things together, having a joke – he now misses them!

A gang of 3 (Alex, Robyn and Viv) developed with a shared experience – the trip to Falmouth was an important factor in them seeing themselves as a group. There were groups within groups. Also they felt the three of them had more of a desire to be more experimental, plus they were new in for this project whereas others were part of an established local community group. Geraldine for example has her routine etc and might join new group at Soho House, and Myrtle keen on challenge of new ways of doing things – but likes to have things done a certain way (her way!)  When talking of how decisions were made it was agreed that there were some very strong personalities in the group, especially some of the West Indian women like Val and Myrtle. There was a process of negotiation in decisions and Viv often acted as a mediator, which meant a lot of working on things (not just materials).  The importance of being in a different place and space like  Soho House for the change in group dynamics and for inspiration was also discussed.

Fiona Hackney asked about the dialectic-dialogic aspect, saying that making is both the means of working through differences, but also place where differences are most sharply felt. Making materialises difference as it also serves as a means of resolving it.

On ownership all were adamant that there was a strong sense of ownership of the project and work they did. Natalie (the artist who worked with the Birmingham group) was very good at gentle facilitation, being supportive not prescriptive. She gave good advice and there was “not a classroom feel” but rather a sense of skills being passed around and shared. “We were directing”; a very different sense from doing craft in therapy groups in day hospital (said Robyn) and with the Skype and the visits they did not have the sense of being infantalised by the system/institutions (having small groups is so important for this). Alex noticed Natalie placed herself very much on the side lines; for her the teaching or leading or advising was not a status thing, and she had a very gentle approach. Robyn does not like telling people what to do (in her previous experience of teaching she felt it gave her panic attacks) but wondered if this approach was more acceptable to her.

It was felt that flexibility was key to the successful running of the project and that it was “sort of managed”.  It was important that the structure was fast and responsive to change – a kind of “speedcraft thing” so that within the framework they all did their own thing.
Alex said that the “Dublin ladies were fast and hard”….

Viv said they all did a lot of talking and problem solving (a kind of design thinking) and mediating with people which made the project structure very different. The  role of the facilitator was a role shared with group and this made it special.

Problems
The participants felt that there was not enough time at the MakerNow workshop Falmouth and they also would have liked to have had Illustrator training before they went so that could have made better use of their time there.

Robyn felt there was less impetus to make now that the meetings were not a weekly thing.

We asked to what extent they were aware that they were part of a research project; did they have a sense of themselves as researchers?   They felt that when they were in Falmouth they associated researching with being filmed and found it difficult. They loved Skype. We asked what the researchers learnt from community group – DF said playfulness and the importance of being experimental in the FabLab context.

In Falmouth the participants talked about the pleasure of being involved in the cutting process rather than being at a distance. Working as a team with Katie, Justin and Andy and with the other people from Dublin, all felt very different and equal. It was very different from their experience at college before.  Experiences of formal education were all very negative and gave rise to a reluctance. However it felt more “grown up” here. participants were excited and interested.  We discussed the importance of looking at your project as an activity in itself rather than something leading to a mark or grade. There was a sense of open-endedness (there was a coherence to the learning in that it was social, there were business possibilities, the experience was not separated off or segmented and this gave the sense of fluidity). Robyn talked about “making for the fun of it, the sociability of it”, “not precious but experimental and playful”, and seeing what others do, giving the example of Yvonne’s lovely fabrics and layering. The importance of having “no plan and no preconceptions” was discussed.

Alex felt he had learned the ability to turn things that went wrong into positives and work with them, to develop the process of responding to mistakes. Robyn felt the process of “being there” acts as a catalyst, and said it “propelled me off in different directions”. The participants originally wanted perfect pictures and drawings, but learned that work of hand, with its irregularity, was more valuable. When Alex took a cutting from garden and pressed and drew around it, Justin encouraged him not to use a photo but to use his own drawing as a template. This was much more satisfying and the key learning was not to let being a perfectionist get in the way. They spoke of the importance of talking through the process of problem solving.

What assets were developed?
Not just skills, knowledge, making etc were developed, but also how to connect to make things richer. Robyn felt the importance of starting small and letting things grow. Viv said sharing, more sharing – for example first on facebook and then cascading – made the process very empowering.  The exhibition etc., going to Dublin… The ability to plant ideas – for example, Alex said about going to Dublin “I had the opportunity and I took the opportunity…”

The advisory group then discussed possible dissemination ideas:

  • There could be a visual booklet, or an electronic form of dissemination.  Interested parties or partners could be DCMS – Crafts Council – Nesta – RSA –
  • A picture book could be made using some of the fabulous images and illustrating the key lessons.
  • Museums and heritage sites could link up with the jewellery quarter in Birmingham.
  • Heritage and enterprise
  • Health and wellbeing
  • Business innovation and skills
  • Change political thinking – Tristram Hunt – apprenticeships – Prince Charles – Clarence House – heritage and enterprise.
  • And finally we wanted to produce “Does my society look big in this” – Alison T Shirts….
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