Extend and Make Room

The final residential for the Extend programme took place a few weeks ago in Leeds. It was a chance for the cohort of 2019 to come together one last time. As a group we shared stories about our lives as well as the progress of our group enquiries. We debated, talked openly and reflected on our journeys and connected with one another again.

It felt familiar, warm and supportive. As always, Extend drew into focus artists and organisations who provocated our thinking about what we do and why we do it. Extend do something very special. The team work exceptionally well to curate presentations and work which offers us all the chance to consider not only our leadership but our values, who we are, what we are doing and why we do it. It is a chance to challenge ourselves and take and make what we will of the process. Their own gentle, inclusive style of leadership really shows a brave approach to a new way of thinking. Leadership doesn’t have to exhibit loudness or forthright language. It can be about noticing, communicating, being brave, taking on difficult conversations and connecting with people. I applaud those at Engage Extend for the chance to take part this year. Thank you all. 

Challenging conversations was a theme for our last day with Extend. It raised some personal and professional questions about how we collectively and individually develop our thinking around difficult conversations. Our deep rooted thoughts about ourselves and others. From early childhood to adulthood notions about our values, our teaching and who we are take more centre stage. It struck me that for many of us, leadership presents conversations that we collectively avoid. We actively seek out irrational situations to avoid confrontation, interruption or question. We are adverse to upsetting feedback and thinking. We all know that this is massively counter productive to both our professional and personal lives but yet so often we tread this quite often hilarious terrain of distractions in order to avoid difficult situations or uncomfortable conversations.

One colleague of mine from years ago had a boss who insisted that their entire team go running together twice a week as a team. At the time it was felt that this would encourage team activity and productivity. Some people were good at running and some people were not. Slowly and surely over time, people were actively avoiding the days that the run occured. It became so consistent that for some of the month, team members had started to work from home or book out very early morning meetings to avoid attendance. Not one person wanted to explain to the boss person why it wasn’t ok to insist on people running twice a week. For many it was about choice, personal experience, ability or quite frankly desire. There had been no conversation or exchange about choice. The boss took the lack of enthusiasm for running personally and got very angry about what they considered to be a lazy team who they thought didn’t want to be a team. This went on for over a year. It snowballed into a culture of mistrust on both parts…for the longest time… with both camps thinking that the other ‘didn’t get it”…until finally the boss left the company and the conversation. Both parties hurt and angry. Both parties with their own version of the events. Yet a conversation at the start, a debate or exchange about wants and needs would have sorted it all out. The boss could have noticed. The team could have said. Yet, noone wanted to hurt anyone’s feelings or expose their own. What a bunch of weirdos we are. 

Then, all too quickly our residential collective gathering was finished and our last moments were filled with emotional goodbyes and hugs. We packed away our things and carried our bags to the station.

I travelled back to Somerset with my good friend Fran Bossom where we shared our often hilarious and complex lives over the last remaining drops of our coffee. Whilst we busied ourselves with insulting one another (one of our favourite past times), we both reflected on the unending struggle to balance everything in our lives through a whirlwind of plate spinning. Twirling and whirling through the minor and the major as we slice up sandwiches for small folk whilst contemplating the health, wealth and wellbeing of all the people around us including ourselves. Worries. All the time.

Time and the urgency of finishing things, completing tasks, making time, creating time, spending time, quality time. Time to watch my daughters legs get longer. Time to cut her fingernails. Time to connect. Time to read. Time for fun. Time to remember who the hell we are in all of this. Time to be creative, to make art. 

So, what now that I have completed Extend ? It’s all finished isn’t it ? Some of us may have tidied away our files and notes of the past year with Extend, my notes are still lying scattered across my desk with arrows and circles sketched across my paperwork signalling something developing….

So, what am I working on. Disruptive and questioning I don’t mind if I do.

I have been working in London over the last month drawing brains and collecting stories from like minded folk as part of a piece of work. Years ago I collected lists and photos/prints of people’s hands Lets see about the brain works. Drawing things that no longer exist anymore from people, places, animals and objects. Don’t ask, actually do. Maybe. Much of my focus of late has been centred on Arts and Health and the curiosity of learning through arts as practice to raise our game, opportunity and progression for ourselves as artists but also our communities. 

There have been some great write ups lately about the importance of arts engagement, its value and impact. Have a read.

Me, I am off to draw a passsenger pigeon and another Dodo.

Read about:

Arts as Practice- by Robin Nelson


Natives Race and Class in the Ruins of Empire by Akala.

Openair arts practicing well

How do artistic creative activities regulate our emotions? 

We need arts premium in schools

What should I tell my daughter?

Books. Books are good. If I cannot figure out a way to answer or help my daughter, I buy a book for us both to read and talk about. I know more about dinosaurs then when I was 7 years of age, and I know more now about precipitation and marginal gains than I ever thought possible.

Usually the questions from my daughter arrive in twos. For instance, a while ago I was asked the following questions:

What is the point of humans ?

Followed closely with;

Is pain actually real or something we imagine as being humans and non of it’s really real ?

There is usually an outpouring of stories and questions when we are not sat opposite one another. Car rides are particularly good for this. The back seat of the car, can often yield animated discussion about life. Some of it is school based, but often it is based on books, people, overheard conversations, tv programmes or as I call it “what that hell is that about mummy ?” But despite buying lots of books about important women in history, role models and important valued women. I got this one question last week:

How come some things aren’t equal for girls mummy ?

So, yes there are books that I can share and I HAVE shared. I have quite a lot. I am not short of literature. The question has come after reading ALL of the books. So, who wants to have a conversation with their daughter about equality, and well stuff that every adult woman who I know has had to consider for all of their lives ?

How can I as someone who works in the arts support this learning ? What are we doing in the arts sector to engage and have a good conversation about this with everyone? Empowering girls and learning about consent isn’t just my responsibility surely? Surely its about everyone. It is a fairly obvious. A lot of the books about equality, suffragettes, feminism, activism for women, powerful women are still marketed towards girls. Surely, if we are to talk about safety, consent, misogyny, patriarchy and equality,  we need everyone to read them? Is it really just for girls to figure out for ourselves ? Surely, we need ALL kids to read those books, books about amazing women, girls who challenged, questioned and did something ?

Today I was reading a story about a dad whose son went to school, (reception). His son is into lots of activities; sports, cars, reading, playing, climbing, being silly. Pretty much the standard things that a lot of kids are into. On this particular day at school, he chose to wear nail varnish to school (which was allowed btw). He was teased ALL DAY about it by his peers. He was repeatedly called a girl by his peers about how it was wrong and laughable. He came home with an enormous amount of shame. So, think about it, we as a society are clear that girls should be supported to be empowered, equal in society. There is an endless road to achieving this. But in contrast, if a boy decides to wear and relate to toys/clothes and thing generally associated with girls they are ridiculed and mocked.

So, in the arts sector what do we do to engage children around this subject? Do we actively engage children differently based on their gender ? Are we working hard to actively facilitate a conversation for everyone to take part in ?

So, if I am going to be able to answer the question my daughter posed, “How come some things aren’t equal for girls mummy ?” I will need to do some work as it’s not just about girls. This is going to take more than a few dozen books about history, art and empowerment. It is going to take engagement, talking about good behaviour amongst girls and boys when we see it as well as challenging things when it is difficult.

A last word from her:

” I think if boys read some of the books for girls about power and how to be powerful and sticking up for yourself that would make it more powerful for girls. Girls should do the same and read the books that are about boys. It would make it more powerful. If everyone joined in, then everyone knows to be better and actually IS better”. 

So, we are off to study. Study artists, books and people and do as she says…include friends, boys, girls, everyone. Fancy joining us?

Are there any violins?

I find myself in a slight predicament this week. My daughter wants to learn an instrument. A violin. The girl would like to learn the violin. We have spent a long time arriving at this decision, talking about different music, styles and interests.

In my time at school, (a long time ago) music lessons were the other. The class tables were shaped in a horse shoe to face our music teacher with an assortment of musical instruments lined up in front of us. Our poor music teacher was a man of musical passion with a class full of students who did not follow his rules or his passion for play. Instead, he faced mockery and ridicule on a weekly basis. I had no violin lessons or even thought to ask if I could.

So, fast forward to the last ten years and I found myself managing a music inclusion service. I went on to work with Wiltshire Music Service and then the MusicHub for Wiltshire; Wiltsire Music Connect. We are all musical. We can all respond emotionally to music. We know that early communication between parent and child is musical, improvised musical language. It’s a bonding relationship for us.

I could tell you stories about my lack of musicality to back up my old belief. Somehow, I let those stories or past experiences define my engagement with music as I grew up. For me, the breakthrough came with play and interaction with my child. My daughter used to hum to herself when she was being breastfed. We started singing together. As a 7-year-old she still hums to herself when she eats, particularly if it is a good meal. She continues to sing and interact with music. It now shapes a lot of our time and we use it to take notice, tell stories and share good times and laugh a lot.

So, here I am with my own 7-year-old who wishes to learn an instrument. It can be quite daunting to find out how to help your child with this, especially if we carry a voice in our head that tells us that we are ourselves are not musical.

So, here are some tips from one parent to another:

  1. Finding the instrument that they like. We watched lots of youtube videos. We went to a couple of music shops and held instruments and talked to the staff and asked lots of questions. We spoke to friends about their children’s musical journey. We listened to different types of music. We read this book: “You are awesome” by Mathew Syed. It’s not about music at all but about learning something new and getting good at it. There are a lot of youtube videos out there showcasing very talented children. It’s important to remember that they practised A LOT to become good. Finding the right instrument for your child can be difficult. Age is a big issue for when to begin and how to hold your instrument so do your research with your child.
  2. Speak to your school. This might initially be someone on reception but could also be the class teacher or the music lead for the school if they aren’t sure. If you see another child from the school with their parent/guardian with a musical instrument stop and ask them about it ! Depending on what’s available, you could explore one to one teaching or there might be a small group they could join for instrument learning lessons. If not, ask your class if there is anyone interested in the same instrument and go from there.
  3. Cost. You could be entitled to a reduced rate depending on your circumstances. Always worth asking either the school or your local music service or hub for advice and support.
  4. Instruments and hiring them. In fact, try to do that first as it will be very costly for you if you fork out a lot of cash for a new instrument only for your child to state that it isn’t working out for them. Again, if you have spoken to your class or other classes and there are a number of you wishing to learn a particular instrument this could help encourage the school to explore further. Get in touch with your local music hub or music service and ask advice. Get to know your local music shop. They are great spaces to meet and network. If your school simply cannot support the instrument that you want, you might want to consider private tuition in your home or a tutor’s home. Again, ask your music service/hub for advice or your local music shop/musicians union.
  5. Safety first! It may be uncomfortable to ask if someone has a DBS but you simply must especially if you opt for out of school tuition. It should have been issued within the last 3 years. You can go to the Disclosure and Barring Service for more advice. Regardless if another parent is having lessons with this person, ask to see their DBS for yourself. It’s not enough for someone to say they have it or to presume that everyone else checked for you.
  6. What to expect and what to ask for I think a lot depends on your child and how they like to learn and how the music teacher teaches. It is vital that you listen to your child about the kind of music that they are into and finding the best match for your child. Have a read of The Music Education code.
  7. Practice. I remember one of my dear friends who is a music teacher telling me that actually the purpose of a private music lesson is to check learning and to assess next stages and provide encouragement. This lesson is nothing without practice. So, actually the far more important element is the practice in between lessons.
  8. Trial lessons. I can imagine that for some children it just doesn’t work out with some instrument or some tutors. It is worth asking if you can review it after a couple, to check in and consider next steps.
  9. Take part. How about you enjoy it with them! Maybe venture into new territory and learn an instrument as well. A friend told me recently that she was teaching a parent and their child to learn the piano. It sounds excellent and really supported both parent and child to develop and grow their learning in the same space. Sounds good to me.

Right, off I go to explore violins…

The language of democracy in the arts

Recently I have begun working in my local community. It is a first. I have never entered into any working arrangement with or alongside an area that I live in. I feel slightly shy and a bit nail bitten about the proposition of my private home space and working life space rubbing alongside one another for any period of time.

It has got me thinking…How democratic are we with the communities that we are working with ? How much are they involved in deciding what, how, where, when things happen ?

I met the local history group who were really passionate about all things local. They were keen to show me photos of forgotten times, contrasting the old and the new and remarking about what had been lost, changed or torn down. They operated as detectives, exploring, sharing, shaping and piecing together moments in time. They all referenced and acknowledged, involved and offered advice to one another. One person was very keen to explain the history of hedgerows and the number of species living in them while another drew gasps of excitement for road signs and pathways. Another provided a vast array of maps which detailed moments of history, land ownerships, bridle paths as well as family homes. How was it that the local history group were able to engage me about a subject that I felt that I could participate with ? In an area that I didn’t grow up in. Quite simply, they used language that didn’t confuse me. They didn’t refer to me as hard to reach, difficult, troublesome or other. They made me welcome. Their enthusiasm was infectious. They didn’t bowl in with language that I didn’t understand. They simply showed me a variety of ways that I could take part or not whilst stating clearly that there were loads of areas that “we” could explore or not and that they were learning as well. Everything was negotiated and decided as a group. Anyone could join. They seemed to operate quite well, democratically even. They aren’t funded, they aren’t governed and they aren’t paid.

What on earth has any of this got to do with my work ?  After all, I can’t live on air so I need to be paid. Often my work is funded and governed. So, how much of our relationship with language and democracy within the arts is shaped by our funders and the policies that we create to manage ourselves?

“EVERYONE is so goddamnit hard to reach!” I remember one artist saying to me after a long exhausting day.

I know many organisations who have spent lots of time researching and developing a funding proposal. They have worked hard to develop partners and new providers in new areas. But still the numbers are low. Does it matter? Maybe the art form wasn’t quite right. Maybe the timing was off, maybe one of the partners folded (I have personally experienced this!) or maybe the entire youth service has ceased to exist, (I have also experienced this!) or maybe we just didn’t have time to build some of the key areas to help it grow. Or maybe no one wanted what was on offer or didn’t quite understand what the offer was. After all, most communities have their have own view on arts and culture.

So, If we are to talk about working democratically with/for and alongside communities surely we need to admit that we have a sometimes flawed, back to front, upside down approach. Surely we should start by developing a language alongside these communities that they feel part of ? Enough of the elitist language?

I have worked with communities that are incredibly rich with culture and arts but maybe this culture wasn’t “HIGH art” or “HIGH quality”. Therefore it needed some help to really engage. Make it proper.

“But we already have a cinema. We already show films that our community want.”


“They came in with a bunch of new artists to work with our artists. People who we trust, who we knew. It felt like we were being told how to do it. We didn’t even ask them to come here”

The above is a real quote that has stayed with me from the last few years. It does feel a little like we are in danger of turning into missionaries with that kind of approach.

Not very democratic. Certainly not authentic.

Maybe we need to be more like the hedgerow local history lady in our approach with communities. Gentle, timely and clear that we are just as passionate about arts and culture as she is about hedgerows.

Certainly, go where we are needed but also where they want us. Don’t complicate language and embrace ALL art forms and culture. After all, our notion of what is arts and culture is shifting and we need to change with it.

Different art students


Recently i met a young man and his family. He was clearly gifted and talented. The family were in awe of their son as he continued to dazzle people with his natural talent and passion for the arts. They were completely behind him in his pursuit for creativity and voiced their desire for him to follow his dreams. It was a wonderful and supportive situation to witness.

But it did make me think about his future and other young people like him as they progress through school, college and university.

What about the exclusion of the arts and creative subjects from the new English baccalaureate for secondary school children and how it is already impacting on young people?

What about young people who do not have this support system at home or school?

What happens to their dreams?

In the last year, i have visited a number of secondary school in the UK. On each occasion and for a number of different reasons i have seen a decline in the availability of creative subjects. Some young people have expressed concern about the course content while others have stated that the subjects that they are interested are simply not available to them any longer.

Put simply, those young people who wish to continue studying creative arts are having to reconsider their options and their dreams.

So, if we continue down this route where state schools are not afforded the opportunity to pursue creative subjects, will art degrees become the home of the wealthy?

Are they already?

Friends of mine who currently work as arts lecturers in universities in the UK have spoken to me about the social mix of young people in their lectures. We are already seeing a wide range of young people in terms of nationality at universities but art degrees are far less mixed in terms of class.

It is nothing new that working class families are less likely to access higher education but that those that do take part, the practical core subjects remain the favourite. I remember a friend of mine telling me that his parents would only allow him to go to study art at university if he trained to be a black cab driver on the side.

I don’t know, maybe it is sensible to always ensure that there is a safety net when there isn’t one at home.

I remember my career adviser suggesting that exploring hairdressing was a more realistic goal for me. Tongue firming in cheek this seemed like a ridiculous suggestion given my unruly locks but the reality is that those without that parental safety-net tend to opt for more vocational routes and MAYBE not their dreams. A great loss for all of us.

Fabric of life- The finale

The Fabric of Life project is a young people’s project funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund in which the participants have looked at the history of fashion as a form of identity with particular focus on gender and sexuality. Forty five young people from Bradford on Avon, Chippenham, Salisbury and Trowbridge have engaged with the project.

You may have already been following the story of this project, but if not catch up by reading these blogs:

The Fabric of Life blog 1

Fabric of Life blog 2 – One Week, Three Museums!

Fabric of Life blog 3 – The V&A … Three times!

Fabric of Life blog 4- Theatre, Gender and Sexuality

Fabric of Life blog 5 – So Far …

Fabric of Life blog 6 – Summer is over

You are now invited to celebrate the culmination of the Fabric of Life project in Trowbridge on 23 November 2017.

Featuring interactive performances, poetry, a cabinet of curiosities as well as found artefacts and fabric. Involving forgotten histories and imagined stories from the past, the event will be display a series of playful nods to the past and present with an opportunity for visitors to reflect on our changing history.

Come along and join us as we explore the history of fashion as a form of identity, gender and sexuality.

In order to make sure that the event runs smoothly we need to know if you are attending.

Please RSVP to arts@wiltshire.gov.uk  by 16 November 2017

Worry time

Each day after school, my daughter and I sit down for a bit of “worry time” which is fast becoming “talk time”. It is an opportunity for her to share her worries and thoughts about things that she is struggling to shake off.

The idea of worry talk time was recommended by various books; “What to do when Mistakes Make you Quake” by Claire A.B. Freeland and Jacqueline B. Toner and “What to do when you worry Too much” by Dawn Huebner were two of the more recent books that have shaped this idea.

We are making good progress and she seems to be finding new ways to articulate and regulate her fears and manage her worries. We have upped our game in terms of play, arts engagement and exercise. We use a lot storyboarding.

Studies have pointed to the decline in the wellbeing of young people in Britain. An estimated 850,000 children and young people in Britain have mental health problems and related physical health problems.

Over ten years ago, arts on prescription or social prescribing as its often referred to evolved. It was set up whereby health practitioners referred people to a service or a source of support. The idea is to help people in their recovery through creativity as well as increasing social engagement.

Its true that we do need to develop and enhance our conversation about how we invest in the arts for communities and merge our practice to inbed this approach across all ages.

Social prescribing is a great idea and one I really value. The idea of working with health practices to prescribe arts and cultural engagement and enrichment, or libraries on prescription as well as leisure prescriptions. We need more!

For children it should be no different.