Trees are up, lights are twinkling and choirs are carolling – Christmas is officially here! But it’s not always merry for all. Guest blogger Liz has shared with us some of her thoughts about the festive season, and a few ideas of easy things we could all do to help one another out during what can be a lonely and sad time for some.
Every year I get very excited about the festive season. The lights, the celebrations, the time spent with family and friends, and the ‘goodwill to all men’ vibe it creates. I am a real believer in the meaning of the season.
What I struggle with is the sense of want and greed that starts to emerge alongside all of this goodwill. Accompanying the superficial generosity of gift giving is a real competitiveness. The comparing of giving and receiving; who has the biggest list of people to buy for, who spends the most, has the most Christmas parties, the best bit of new technology, the most expensive watch. This filters down with great impact to the next generation who have grown to ‘expect’, as indeed we all have.
We also expect a good deal of excitement in the pre-Christmas build up: a house filled with decorations, arguments over how best to decorate the tree, Christmas Day turkey dinner with all the trimmings, presents under the tree, watching films in the afternoon. Then visiting family on Boxing Day or ploughing our way through turkey sandwiches and pickled onions.
This, however, is not the reality for everyone. Homeless people, the elderly who live in isolation, carers, domestic abuse victims, those living in poverty or with mental health issues. For people who live in these circumstances every day, Christmas is no different to any other day.
In 2014 I chose to challenge our ‘culture of wanting’ by offsetting it with some creative giving in the form of an ‘Advent Challenge’. I shared what I was doing through social media not to shame others or glorify my actions, but to give what I was doing a platform, as well as a degree of accountability.
Some days of my advent challenge are random; I have to be spontaneous with random acts of kindness to strangers. Other acts are becoming habits from the previous year. Those that have worked well include:
However, Advent is a long time so I also came up with a few quick ideas to do something good for others:
Interestingly, each year at least one person on social media has credited me with inspiring them to do something similar. I am so proud of that. It has also led to people returning the kindness to me and during Advent I have started finding flowers, gifts, soup and other lovely things turning up on my doorstep.
I love doing it each year, but it is hard to be kind every single day, especially when the world is full of injustice, heartache and negative attitudes. But I guess those negative things are really all the more reason to do it!
Garvagh, a town in Northern Ireland, has been part of our Big Lunch community for some time, and this year they’ve taken their community activity a step further by working with Big Telly Theatre Company on a festive experience with a difference. So, if you are a family, community group or just an adventurous sort looking for some great fun, read on….
The Garvagh Development Trust and Corrymeela, in conjunction with Big Telly Theatre Company, will be running an interactive adventure that’s part treasure hunt, part performance. Led by actors, traders and volunteers, there will be magic and mayhem going on across multiple locations across Garvagh. Your mission, should you choose to accept it, will be to protect the town from the evil wizard Abhartach, who has returned to Garvagh and now threatens to conquer the village and cancel Christmas… forever!
The day promises to be full of excitement and would be a great opportunity to get together with friends and community to simply have some fun. If you’re in the area drop by on Saturday 10 December between 1.00-3.00pm for the Great Garvagh Quest. You’ll need to book in advance, in groups of two to eight people, and your team will be given a ten-minute starting interval on the day. The adventure will last one hour, ending at Garvagh Community Building with refreshments and Christmas cheer. The project is part of a wider exploration of the regeneration of the former Garvagh High School site as a place of play, learning, work and imagination, and a gateway to the Sperrins and the North Coast.
If you would like to join this adventure, please book your place with Claire Millar at Garvagh Community Building. Tel: 028 2955 7325 or by email email@example.com. Entrance charges are £4 for adults and £2 for children. Special group rates also available.
Inspired by Garvagh’s imaginative activity? Why not think up something similar where you live? Do you have a local park or field that you could transform for a day of interactive fun? Get together with your neighbours and uncover your creativity together to create your own version.
Stuart and Mike are chefs at the Eden Project and this year decided to use their love of food and knowledge of the catering industry to tackle a major problem facing Cornwall and the UK, launching their social enterprise Keep Cornwall Fed.
What is Keep Cornwall Fed?
Stuart: It’s a really simple project. In Cornwall we’ve got high food waste and high food poverty, so we’re going to use the food waste to help those who might find themselves in food and nutrient poverty. To fund it we’re kitting out a horsebox as a pop-up restaurant to cater at festivals and weddings, and anywhere else really. For every meal that we sell, we’ll donate a meal back to someone in food poverty.
Where did the spark for Keep Cornwall Fed come from?
Mike: We’ve worked together for quite a long time now and we always wanted to do something outside of our normal day job to keep us busy. We did a function recently using waste food and we got talking about social enterprises, and giving back to the community.
Stuart: That was the kickstart. What we feel strongly about is, in a county if you’ve got high food waste and high food poverty, to us that doesn’t make sense at all. So I think that’s the bit that niggles us: we were saying for ages that someone should use one for the other, and in the end we decided to go for it ourselves.
What is food poverty and food surplus?
Mike: Food poverty comes in many forms. It could be children not having the right breakfast in the morning, single parent families struggling to balance paying their bills and buying healthy food – do they turn the heating on or buy food? It’s trying to make sure that everyone can have a nutritionally balanced meal.
Stuart: Food only becomes a waste if you’re not going to use it, so we call it food surplus.
You had an idea, but where did the motivation to act come from?
Mike: We wanted to do something different, something good. We both volunteer outside of work already, but, being chefs, cooking and catering is what we know. It’s what we’re good at. So if we know we can turn surplus food into healthy meals for people who are struggling to eat, then everyone’s a winner.
Stuart: We’ve been in the catering industry for 20 years, and at the end of the day it always comes down to profits and margins, but we’re getting to a stage where we think there has to be more to it than that – there has to be. We didn’t really know anything about social enterprises until about 18 months ago, but now we’re sold on the idea and think that we, and others like us, could eradicate a lot of problems in this country.
Mike: We thought it was something we could do and something we can achieve, something in our powers that we could deliver.
Were you nervous about telling others about your idea?
Stuart: No, we’ve told everybody!
Mike: We think it’s such a good idea – you’ve got one problem that can be solved by another problem – we should be telling everyone. We’re happy and proud to be telling people.
How have people responded?
Stuart: It’s overwhelming. We’ve had people donating paint, kitchens, supplies, discounted materials, all sorts. Plus support and backing on social media. Because it’s not-for-profit, community-led, and tackling issues people actually care about we’ve been inundated with help and support.
What’s your ambition for the future?
Stuart: We’re taking it in small steps. We’ve said we’ll feed 5000 people by the end of 2017. If we can do that, that’s 5000 paying customers, giving back to 5000 more – so that’s 10,000 people to feed. That’s quite a big impact. I suppose the ambition is to make the whole of Cornwall food poverty free – that’s the idea. I can’t see why it cant happen.
How has this projected impacted you personally?
Mike: For years and years you work in a kitchen and you’re always cooking for someone else. But for this, you’re cooking for a purpose – feeding the public but at the same time knowing that you’re going to give back to people who actually need it.
Stuart: It means something, it really does. We’re still doing what we do every day and we love it, but we know that with this, every meal that we sell is going to give back to the community. It is really challenging, but we are learning. We’ve probably done things a bit backwards, but it’s just a learning curve. We’re absorbing as much as we can so we’ll see!
Mike: Research. If you’ve got an idea and you think there’s an issue somewhere, use the internet because it’s only going to cost you your time. I always say to the guys I work with in the kitchen ‘There’s no such thing as a bad idea or a bad question, so take your time to research and see if there is a need for it, and what you can do’. You don’t want to be flying to the moon to solve a problem: you’ve got to select achievable targets.
Stuart: Surround yourselves with people who are experts in their field. We know people who work in media, or who build kitchens day in, day out and to be honest, without them it would have been a lot harder. There’s no such thing as bad advice: ask questions, you don’t have to agree, but ask as many questions as you can. And just believe! Believe!
Floriane was frustrated by the lack of fresh, local food in her area and decided to do something about it by starting her own Food Assembly. Her journey running the Putney Food Assembly has not only reinvigorated the concept of ‘eating local’, but also her own sense of community.
Where did the spark to start your own Food Assembly come from?
I started by Googling ‘local food’. I used to order from a fresh food company, but I wasn’t happy when I found out that they imported a lot of their food. I come from France, where buying locally grown food is a big thing: everyone wants to know where their food has come from. Local food automatically means better produce; it tastes better because it hasn’t travelled half way across the world to get to you. I believe that climate change is very much linked to how we consume food, so it doesn’t make sense to me to import food when it is cheaper and more sustainable to grow or source it locally. I don’t want to buy spinach imported from Italy when I can grow it in my back garden. It doesn’t make sense.
How did you go about starting your project?
Once I decided to start a Food Assembly I did my research. I visited a couple of different Assemblies that were already up and running to see what to do and what not to do, before deciding to open my own where I live in Putney. For me, super local is the best way to meet people, find support and create a customer base. Putney is also quite an affluent, family orientated area, so I knew there would be an appetite for fresh food.
Were you worried about how it would go?
I wasn’t really nervous, no. I have been working in or with start-ups for years and have never been afraid to take on a new project. When you make the decision to act on something like this, you are in a way challenging the status quo, but I had a track record of building things on my own so I said ‘I’m going to do this myself’. On the opening day I was really proud. It gave me a sense of achievement.
How has running a Food Assembly impacted your life?
My Food Assembly has put me in the heart of a community, and because of this, I’m now involved in a community garden project. At the moment we’re in the process of selecting a committee and a piece of land. I know other Assembly hosts involved in more community activities too, from local charity work, food giveaways, cookery classes and school engagement. I like this culture of sharing and working for the community. In France, you are much more likely to know your neighbours than here in the UK. London, in particular, is very impersonal, so this community involvement is a good thing.
Do you have any advice for people wanting to start their own community project?
Everything takes more time than you think. I started my Food Assembly planning in November, with the aim of launching in January. I didn’t actually launch until April. The same is proving true of my community garden project, but you have to stay focused. It takes time to build a community, so you have to remind yourself why you are doing it; learning patience and resilience is important.
You also need to be self-contained. If your project or idea depends on the goodwill of others it won’t happen: the drive has to come from you. You will probably get help, but often it will come from the most unlikely places. My local baker, for example, told every one of his customers about The Food Assembly, and so have other local producers, because it not only provides them with another market, but also promotes the concept of local food that their businesses rely on.
If you’re inspired by Floriane’s story, why not start your own Food Assembly? Head over to The Food Assembly website here .
You know that sensation when you come across a word, or a phrase, and start seeing it everywhere? I have that with empathy.
Six months ago I started working with the Eden Project, on community resilience from the ground up. From neighbour to neighbour and outwards to entire communities. Before that I worked alongside local environmental groups in Oxfordshire (take a look at the wonderful CAG Project for some inspiration). I’ve had hundreds and hundreds of conversations with people who describe themselves as ordinary, but have done wonderful and powerful things to bring their communities together.
So many of them talk about how much they have learned about their community, the people they share their space with – who they are, where they’re from, the skills and stories they have to offer their neighbourhood. And I’ve only just started to realise that what they are talking about, though they might not use the word itself, is empathy. The ability to look through the eyes of someone else and gain an understanding of their experience. To not succumb to prejudice, no matter how subtle or unconscious.
But now I see it everywhere. I see it in every Big Lunch. I see it in the Feast for Peace, organised after the EU Referendum result to send a different message than one of division and fear. I see it in the actions of protestors putting themselves in harms’ way to stand up for the futures of those who can’t stand up for themselves. And if the events of this year have shown us anything, it’s that we are in need of empathy more than ever. Both to teach, but also to exhibit ourselves.
The writer Rebecca Solnit once said “In the wake of an earthquake, a bombing, or a major storm, most people are altruistic, urgently engaged in caring for themselves and those around them, strangers and neighbours as well as friends and loved ones. The image of the selfish, panicky, or regressively savage human being in times of disaster has little truth to it… The prevalent human nature in disasters is resilient, resourceful, generous, empathic, and brave.”
We are facing disasters, that seems like an appropriate word, and the worst thing we could do is to forget about empathy, even with those who seem to represent everything that we see as wrong. We all have the capacity for it, but sometimes we need a reason or an excuse to use it, it needs to be provoked.
So while here at The Big Lunch we’re celebrating the sparks which drive us to do the things we do, I want to offer a provocation to empathy. Use it, recognise it, point it out and celebrate it for the challenging but vital behaviour it is. No matter the potential disasters we face as a society, I truly believe that empathy offers hope that no division must be permanent, and no future is impossible.
With no experience, how did Niamh – a Community Camp participant and now member of The Big Lunch team – learn how to build traditional boats by hand, and set herself the challenge of building one to be used by her community? Here she tells us how she fought the fear and found the spark to make things happen.
I grew up pretty much landlocked in South County Derry, Northern Ireland, but close to the River Bann. After university I went to America on my own, because it seemed like it might be an adventure. I ended up in Florida where I worked in marinas detailing boats. Then I lived in Alabama and Texas, and I was lonely and homesick for about 10 years; I never found any community there.
I came home in 2009 after reconnecting with my university friends via Facebook and took every opportunity that came along to get involved with people and community activities. I got to know people on Rathlin Island and on one visit someone asked if I wanted to row to the Scottish island of Iona in the Colmcille, which is the largest currach* in the world. With no rowing experience at all, I of course said yes! But really, I had just been through a traumatic time personally, and I needed something cathartic to help me through. That’s how I try to do most things: don’t let fear stop you. Leap in at the deep end and learn along the way.
* A currach is a traditional Irish boat, with a wooden frame over which layers of canvas and tar are spread to seal the boat.
So off I went with this motley crew and we rowed across the Dalradian sea: all brave hearts and kindred spirits. We camped on beaches, fished and fed seals, bonded by telling bad jokes and singing, and thought about our lives. And we rowed and rowed and rowed. It was a very spiritual journey – a Camino by sea – but full of madcap adventures I haven’t even touched on here. We made it back triumphantly, and I think we all felt a bit transformed. I didn’t get my land legs back again for weeks. I wanted more and I wanted to give other people that experience.
A few months later, I led the build on another boat, which we named Fionnuala, after one of the Children of Lir. We launched her in Rathlin, back where my journey with currachs started. Over the next few months I took friends and members of the community out on the Fionnuala on the River Lagan, which runs through Belfast City. Rowing on the river in a gorgeous wooden boat at dusk, when the water is like a mirror, was really special. People stopped and stared because it’s an unusual thing, and we got a brand new perspective on Belfast. There’s no politics on the river. No one community has ever claimed it.
Then I decided, having built one boat, I could leap right into teaching others how to do it. So I built three primitive currachs at the Steiner school, with classes of 10 to 14 year olds (although I did the usual panicking first). Right after this I went to a Community Camp at the Eden Project, which spurred on the ‘Big Currach Build’, an idea conceived over a pub dinner with some Belfast folk. We wanted to go for a more ambitious, bigger, scarier project – a currach about the same size as the Colmcille. I talked to the Heritage Lottery Fund and managed to convince them I knew what I was doing, so we put in an application and they decided to fund it.
Thus began seven months of sheer panic and heart palpitations; I wasn’t feeling that clever or brave. It was a huge undertaking; I work full time and I’m a lone parent. There were times when we despaired a bit. There was so much to organise and so much that could go wrong, and nearly all of it did. We worried that we wouldn’t get enough help, but we ended up with over 70 people helping at different stages of the build – including 12 Belfast based Community Camp participants – and we’ve had guidance from Lough Neagh Boats.
The build has taken 55 days so far, because every little piece has to be painstakingly handmade, and everyone is learning about woodwork as they go. We’ve had some activities for families, building little toy currachs so kids can come and float them on launch day. This boat will be around for decades so these kids will grow up with it. We wanted them to be inspired by the project, and to build a relationship with the boat themselves.
It’s a beautiful feeling to be inside this boat. One member called it a ‘womb experience.’ It’s lovely when there are lots of people working under it at one time; we’ve gotten to know every inch of the boat and everyone builds a connection to it and to each other.
So now we are coming towards the end of the build journey and are about to start another: launching the currach with a floating lantern event. There will be people in the boat on the water soon, and we will be responsible for their safety. There will be only three layers of canvas between them and the big bad ocean, but we can’t start being intimidated and afraid to try now.
Now, close to the end of the build, the nature of the fear is changing. You can only deal with fear in stages, in small chunks, and make yourself selectively blind to the rest until it’s time. But we know the boat is strong. We know it’s going to be safe. And we’ve come too far for fear to hold us back.
This month we are exploring how people find and share their spark: what ignites their spirit, lights a fire in their belly, and keeps them up at night with a brain buzzing full of ideas?
When we explain what we do — helping people to create positive change where they live — we are sometimes asked, “But, why? What’s the catch?”
It’s an understandable response; when something seems too good to be true, it often is.
Our response: we do it because we think it’s the right thing to do. We believe that better connected communities means a better world, and we hope that, with a few bright sparks leading the way, others will begin to believe this too.
So this month we want to celebrate these bright sparks — the change makers in our communities and the people who, with an idea big or small, made it happen.
They take many forms: a Big Lunch organiser, who brings neighbours together to share a meal; a woman who organised a ‘Feast for Peace’ in the face of growing tensions in her community; the man who kicked off a renewable energy cooperative that now provides his community with energy, money and a sense of purpose; even the founders of the Eden Project, who built the world’s largest indoor rainforest in a disused china clay pit in Cornwall. Yes, even the craziest spark of an idea can become a reality.
These are just some of many movers and shakers doing good things — but how, and why, do they do it? Where does their motivation and determination come from, and how did they find their spark and turn it from an abstract idea into a reality?
It’s easy to come up with reasons not to pursue an idea: I don’t have the time; the resources; the energy; I simply don’t know how to begin. But bright sparks are people just like you and I: powerfully ordinary people, whose small acts together create something much greater than the sum of their parts.
Don’t think too much – just do! Small things can make a big difference.
“If you think you’re too small to make a difference, try sleeping with a mosquito.”
Singer-songwriter Emma Stevens wants to re-engage people with their community through nature and song. Over the next few months she is asking people to plant a tree in their local community and will be filming the process for a music video, so that the trees become a visual representation of community action and the video an inspiration for others to do the same. Here Emma talks to us about how she fell in love with music and why she believes it can bring people together, change communities and change lives.
Tell us a bit about your music and how you got into it.
I first picked up the guitar at the age of two and was hugely inspired by my Mum who played nylon string. After my parents sensed my love for music, I started having classical lessons on cello and piano at the age of seven. I re-discovered guitar at around the age of 12 when I started mixing poetry with music and realized I was a songwriter. I then became obsessed with it! I felt drawn to different instruments and now find myself playing banjo, ukulele, mandolin, bass, drums as well as piano, cello and guitar! I will play anything with strings.
I lost my Mum to cancer in 2012 which was incredibly hard, but made me realize how short life can be. This kick started my career as a recording artist. I was lucky enough to have enough time to tell her my plan and so she designed the artwork for my debut album Enchanted. I have since released my second album, Waves and currently working on the release of my third studio album, “To my Roots”.
How do you think music can bring people, who wouldn’t normally know each other, together?
Music is an incredibly powerful tool to bring people together. An example that springs to mind immediately is a live gig scenario. For me, it’s one of my favourite things I do! A room full of people all sharing one intimate moment together. Music is hugely cathartic and can bring emotions to the very front.
You’re now going out into communities to link them with your music and with planting – what are the connections for you there about? With people, nature and music?
I have been a very long standing lover of nature, and I wanted to find a new and unique way to bring together people who love music and people who love nature whilst sending a strong and positive message into the world with the medium of a music video. My idea is to film communities planting a tree in their local area (followed by a live performance from me) and then edit the footage together to create a beautiful music video, spreading the word about just how important looking after the environment is, and how we can all be a part of leaving a legacy for others to benefit from and enjoy.
What potential do you think there is for communities – whether grouped by location or passion – with music?
Music choice is personal to every one of us and yet when we come together to enjoy a gig or a concert it’s natural for us to connect with one another as we share this experience. In those moments of connection we create special bonds with our fellow music lovers and each one of those connections can lead to further moments and experiences to be shared together. As a musician, I’m in a unique and privileged position, as I can encourage others with musical talent to share their gift with the group and this prompts others to have the confidence to join in. This camaraderie and mutual support creates a space where community members can express themselves more fully and this has the potential to create more friendships within the group.
Which communities will you be working with while filming your music videos and how can people become involved?
12th November – Llandrindod Pomarium Community Orchard, Rock Park, Wales
16th November – Holme Hall, Chesterfield, Derbyshire
24th November – St Botolphs Church, The Hill, Northfleet, Gravesend, Kent
Not often ye get to see dragons, but on Saturday afternoon I had the pleasure to see them up close and personal at the Community Harvest in the beautiful Botanic Gardens of Dundee. The event was organised by Dundee Urban Orchard. I contacted Jonathon, one of the organisers, who I had the pleasure of meeting on the day.
The Dragons are a nod to the two that stand proud on the City of Dundee’s coat of arms. For DOU they represent Social Justice and Environmental Justice. They played a starring role in the Community Harvest; a day of music, storytelling and dance to inform the gathering of folk on the importance of orchards and green spaces, on a typical Scottish day of many seasons.
We interviewed Jonathan Baxter from DUO, to tell us why art is a social practice, helping to give us something in common to celebrate.
What was the problem or need in your community that sparked your idea for a communal urban orchard?
DUO works with a call and response paradigm. So rather than ‘needs’ we think in terms of ‘call and response’. What calls us? How can we respond to that? This recognises that a call is more complex and multifaceted than a need. Unlike a need it can’t be fulfilled in the short-term; it changes in response to the response! Rather like a conversation. But to put it (too) simply, you could say that there were two questions we wanted to respond to: what can artists contribute to the communities in which they live? How can we, as a society, respond to the current crisis in food sustainability?
What did you identify as an opportunity or solution to help improve it?
We decided to focus on orchards as a metaphor for rethinking the city. As artists we would use our skills to reimagine and replant the city through a network of orchards. This allowed us to work with communities who don’t usually engage with the arts; connecting so called ‘hard to reach communities’ with more mainstream arts and cultural organisations. This meant that everyone — schools, community groups, neighbours who share a back green, arts and cultural organisations etc. had something in common and something to share, i.e. they each had an orchard, they each needed to tend to it, and they also had pathways for sharing skills and knowledge on a non-hierarchical basis. Of course, being artist there’s always something ‘more’ going on. And that ‘more’, in this case, was celebration. For individuals, communities and society to feel a better sense of connection with one another and the planet, we need something in common and something to celebrate. Orchards and community harvests are a good way of symbolising and practicing this sense of connection. Orchards are also a good reminder that this sense of connection needs to be tended — what we, borrowing from the artist Meirle Ukeles, call ‘maintenance and care’.
How did you go about setting it up?
This sort of project is complex. Artists who work in the public realm often work tactically through a series of short term interventions. But for the Orchard City concept to take root we needed to work strategically, forming alliances and partnerships with a number of key organisations in the city, starting with the council — both the environment department and planning department — to make sure we had support for the project. Without that support the project would lack credibility, which in the long run would effect the sustainability of the project after DUO itself had disappeared into the background, i.e. we wanted to ensure a public legacy for the Orchard City.
What has been the outcome for your community?
We need to be careful when talking about ‘the community’. Perhaps it’s better to think in terms of communities and networks of support. On a practical level, we now have 25 small scale orchards across the city. Each orchard is self sufficient and maintained by an identified orchard group (usually the people who planted the orchard). Some of these groups are more self contained than others. Some groups rarely engage with the wider network while other groups have developed a sense of shared commitment and solidarity. These latter groups are the groups who contributed to the Community Harvest. Both approaches are fine, of course. There are also reasons — financial and personal — for groups having different personalities. Some introvert. Others extrovert. Although it’s likely that the more connected an orchard group is to other orchard groups, the more sustainable their own orchard and the network will be, i.e. it’s harder to grub up twenty five orchards than it is to grub up one!
How has art has helped in all of this?
The first thing to say is that all of this is art. Art isn’t an add-on; something tacked onto the project to help visualise its aims or engage people etc. Rather, we think of art as a social practice. Something that human beings have always done: a way of embodying meaning and imagining a different world. Of course, as art there’s always a ‘fictive’ quality. Is Dundee really an Orchard City? Or is it a place with high unemployment, intergenerational poverty, and a lack of vision — social, environmental and economic? Perhaps the art in Dundee Urban Orchard allows us to play with this discrepancy. Hence my earlier statement about call and response rather than mere need. Art responds to a deeper calling, a deeper need. We don’t need the Orchard City — as if it were a brand — but we do need food sustainability and a more vibrant sense of social purpose and social life. And you can’t have these things without changing our current story. Hence the Orchard City print works, dance, storytelling, and dragons. They all tell a story which is different to global capitalism. They perform and project a more vibrant, sustainable and creative life.
It’s not unusual to see Belfast based artist Nora Borealis wearing a balaclava. But this is not any old balaclava — it’s bedazzled, with eyelashes, and one that she has made herself as a member of the guerilla knitting community, otherwise known as yarnbombers. Here Nora talks to us about the practice and its potential to transform public space from drab and dreary to colourful and connected.
How did you get interested in yarnbombing?
Everybody has to be good at something and I happen to be very good at knitting. I know there might be lots of more valuable skills, but my gift is with needles and wool.
Some years ago I saw pictures and gradually became aware of the phenomenon. It was so witty and absurd and renegade. I loved it! I could see that it could rewrite the mundane — like wool wrapped around a fence, or could draw attention to the important but invisible, like a yarn artwork on a significant statue — or it could just make people smile and brighten their day. I wanted to get in there.
I had long been a fervent and enthralled admirer of guerilla knitting and had a driving urge to do some yarnbombing myself. So I hunted and hunted for like-minded activists to join. For the past few years I have been on an interesting, but sometimes painful, trajectory as I have taken my knitting in a whole new delicious direction.
Don’t you get in trouble for doing it?
Sometimes I do ask permission. I wouldn’t yarnbomb a piece of art without checking with the artist first, for example. And sometimes I do a piece that is purely temporary and remove it the same day — like my yarnbomb on the Buoys outside the Art College, Belfast, two years ago. I was surprised when I first started doing this, though, how completely you are ignored by passing pedestrians, council workers and police people.
Reclaiming public space is often seen as a political act and is a particularly contentious issue in Northern Ireland. How does yarnbombing fit into this and what impact do you think it can have on a community and their perceptions of public space?
Sometimes public spaces just benefit from being more attractive and playful. It can make people feel better about their area if it is pretty and witty — like knitted slogans and crocheted flowers on lamp posts. Or the art can be proactive and make a positive statement.
In Northern Ireland, some people are offended by the display of flags, particularly during the summer marching season, as they are seen to promote exclusion and hostility between communities. In 2014, for example, all 42 lamp posts on Belfast’s Ormeau Road had a flag flying from them, but there was very little that people could do about it. So I decided to add a colourful knitted or crocheted piece to each lamppost so that people would feel less alienated by the flags during this tense time of the year.
My message was that this area is also welcoming and friendly, has a warm heart and a sense of beauty. I extended an invite to other people to take this affirmative, positive and constructive action too, and over the next few weeks a total of ten additional yarn art works appeared on the lamp posts — some whose provenance I knew about, but several were by complete strangers! That was extremely gratifying because I felt that I empowered and enabled some positive energy there.
It is often said that art has a universal appeal — it is something which we can all connect with, regardless of language, nationality, etc. Why do you think art speaks to our souls?
Art is for sharing. My pieces are supposed to entertain people and to lift their spirits. My yarnbomb of the Monument to the Unknown Woman Worker statue brought its subject back to people’s attention and reminded them of the important messages it was designed to promote: women’s rights issues of poorly paid jobs and unpaid housework. That was enriching and thought provoking for many.
Humour also plays an important part and is something that we can all connect with. I think my slogans speak for themselves — ‘The revolution will not be knitted’; ‘The lifestyle you ordered is out of stock’; ‘Careful Boys, Down with this sort of thing.’ And all my site specific slogans for the Buoys outside the Art College: ‘The Buoys are back in town’; ‘Big Buoys don’t cry’; ‘Wild Buoys’; ‘A Buoy named Sue’, and my favourite ‘Two Little Buoys — Too soon?’ And all my balaclavas are very ‘bling’.
And sometimes art can be shared more directly. On Belfast Culture Night this year The Big Lunch and Feed the 5,000’s project was about free food for all, so I decided that free flowers should be available too. I crocheted 280 flowers (there were 280 places at the Big Table), tied them on to the trees in Donegall St and put up notices saying ‘Pick a Flower and Take it Home’ . They had all disappeared by 6.00pm and all evening I spotted people with a flower tied to their wrist, their hair or their baby’s pram. A little bit of joy for random strangers!
What has art done for you?
It gives me great pleasure. I enjoy collaborative projects but am also happy to come up with ideas on my own. I enjoy supporting interesting projects with my work and I have also occasionally been able to inspire others, like the craft women in the Ulster Folk Park who thought I was ‘mad!’ when I first spoke to them about yarnbombing the park (they told me that after they did it). But they got the bug and went on to yarnbomb the park’s replica street and an antique bicycle! ‘There was a pram too’ they told me, ‘but we ran out of time. Maybe next year!
What have you learned about yarnbombing and what advice would you have for others wanting to do it?
Learn to let go. I once sat up until three in the morning crocheting, and the next day I put colourful knitted and crocheted decorations on every single lamp post on my street. And I was thrilled with myself. But abruptly, just six days later, ‘my’ lamp post was bare. I had expected for pieces to be pilfered gradually and in fact, a tiny, pretty jumper knitted with embroidery silk had already been ‘harvested’. But I hadn’t expected a total pillage. Every single lamp post had been stripped, violently and destructively too, as fragments of wool still clung here and there. This wasn’t someone trophy-hunting who wanted my creations for their own room. This was ruthless, ravaging and annihilating. I was gutted.
But, I’ve learned you can do this stuff on your own — you don’t need to be part of a team or to ask for permission — and make sure you have a fabulous photographic record of everything you do. And, most importantly, if you have arranged a really good photographer to take zillions of photos from millions of angles, make sure you get your roots done the night before!
If you have been inspired by Nora’s story and want to keep up with her work, check out her website: http://noraborealis.wixsite.com/yarnbombing.