Last year, at the beginning of 2019, a group of emerging artists and creative activists gathered at ChapelFM – Arts Centre for East Leeds.
The first cohort arrived for the beginning of a new, year-long, course called UNION – The Northern School of Creativity and Activism. The same weekend, 52 weeks later saw 15 of us meet for the final weekend at Wortley Hall, aptly named, Finishing with a Flourish.
The significance of the location of this weekend’s residential wasn’t lost on the cohort either.
Wortley Hall is a grand stately home that has been associated with the British Labour movement for over six decades. This was reflected with paintings, photographs and shelves bursting with socialist and left-wing books of prominent activists and politicians. A print of suffragette, Sylvia Pankhurst, hanging in the library was a personal favourite.
The weekend was very much about tying up loose ends, evaluation and closing the course with the future firmly in mind.
Friday 10th January
The weekend started earlier with a welcome back and check-in with facilitator Chris Taylor. This was followed by a Master Class in Funding and Application Writing with Deborah Best from Arts Council, England.
After a tasty dinner, there was break out groups to reflect on Where am I, One Year on.
While some retired for the night, the rest of us shared a song that was important to us on our journey as an artist-activist. You can listen to the playlist on Spotify here.
Saturday 11th January – Tying Up The Loose Ends
The morning started with a hearty breakfast and some self-care yoga with Sara. As a mum, I took advantage of the chance of an hour’s extra sleep without being disturbed.
The Morning 7 C’s of Change
Convening in the lounge, Chris outlined the structure the day would take. We were then straight into the first session learning about the 7 C’s of change and relationships. It’s a super useful tool in learning how we need to develop projects and relationships.
It allows you to reflect on where in the process something has gone wrong. Usually, because a step has been missed out.
The model also provides a framework to allow you to pause and reflect on how to approach issues and projects going forward and at a planning stage.
Most pertinently, I thought, was the final two stages of the model – Change and Closure. The stages we were being guided through by Chris and the rest of the UNION co-facilitators, as the course was drawing to a close.
At this point, we had to buddy up and chat about our plans for the future. Providing each other with the space to listen to what we want to achieve going forward without providing our own advice or guidance. To ask pertinent questions about the how and why. Something me and my buddy struggled with to some degree.
I was reminded of a time when I worked with a wonderful coach who told me that winter is the time to burrow down, rest and reflect.
A time to plant the seeds and think. For growth and development to reflect and align with the changing of the seasons. Perhaps January is as much about intentions than planning the work we want to achieve?
My moment of clarity would come later that afternoon.
Open Space Afternoon
The afternoon sessions utilised the Open Space technology that we used from the North East weekend which saw the group split into smaller groups of particular interest.
Putting Your Work Out focused on practising creating our profiles for the imminent UNION website with Katy.
Linda Strudwick – one of our co-facilitators, provided funding consultations to those of who individually are looking to make bids in the future. Linda has been a great support throughout the year, and I’m incredibly grateful for the clarity she gave in this particular session.
I’ve been deliberating about applying for the Arts Council England – Develop Your Creative Practice funding for around 5-6 months now, yet not been able to figure out the step-change I need to make to develop the projects I would love to come to fruition.
Linda’s knowledge and expertise helped me realise I already have the skills required for what I had originally planned to apply for. In fact, I realised I need to focus on the visual element of my skills to get me where I want to go next. I know that sounds quite cryptic at this point, but it’s allowed me to catch my breath and focus better.
One of the final sessions with Anthony from Participate, an organisation that provides social venture enterprise, via Zoom entitled Organisation Structures that is based in Bradford. This session was for those of us who have plans to set-up our own creative organisations in the future. Anthony was a fountain of knowledge and it’s made me realise that I was right not to venture down this path while I’m still in the development stage of my work.
UNION Open Mic Night
The talented artist and wordsmith, Hannah Whitlow, MC’d the evening’s planned self-made entertainment and merriment of spoken word, poetry, comedy, a play and a piano sing-a-long or two.
We ended the evening with Tom’s video reflection of residential weekend’s and Steve’s ‘RedEye’ Arnott from Hull’s Beats Bus – No More Knives – a moving, hard-hitting campaign video to tackle youth knife crime.
Sunday 12th January
The final day started once again with self-care at the start with Tai Chi with Chris. Once again, I took advantage of an extra hour of undisturbed sleep.
Gerri Moriarty – a community artist, arts consultant, and independent evaluator lead the morning session.
We started off with our own personal reflections on the positives of the course and what we would recommend could be improved.
Next, we broke up into smaller groups, with one member of the UNION co-facilitators in each group where we had the opportunity to talk about the elements of the programme. Coming back together afterwards to talk about what’s the one thing we would keep and add to.
Often these events descend into the negatives, yet what struck me about the process was how genuinely positive and constructive the feedback was from us, as the cohort.
The Art of A Good Goodbye
The final session of the weekend was drawing the weekend and the course to a close.
Reflecting on the moments we’ve appreciated about UNION over the year
A particularly poignant moment was the chance to move around the room and give thanks to those who have impacted on our experiences while on the course. I don’t normally take too kindly to being called inspiring or people learning a lot from me, but hearing it in context made me humble.
The practice was a great model of doing goodbye well and ending on a positive note.
A badge, a certificate, a group photo and then teary goodbyes, and that was the end of UNION 19.
As we reflected on Sunday on what we have enjoyed about the course, for me, I have loved every single minute of being involved.
It gave me a language and context to frame my work and practice. It’s given me a network and a peer group to tap into. It’s shown me how to connect and build relationships in practice, that I didn’t have the confidence or necessarily the wherewithal of how to develop this time last year.
The residential weekends have also been a welcome respite. Providing the space to be able to reflect properly on my practice, my direction and meet people on the same path. A relief to meet people who understand the work I do and relate to the process. Feeling lucky and privileged to be able to be in a room of amazing people who care about making their worlds a better place.
I’m immensely proud that I’ve travelled by myself to places. I know I’ve done it before, but it felt scarier now I’m a parent. Proud of putting myself in situations that have challenged me. Physically, mentally and socially, and career-wise.
The course has helped me to figure out who I am, where my work sits and more importantly, that I am not alone on this journey. That this work can be fun, as well as meaningful. UNION gives you permission to become the creative practitioner you may never realise you could be.
After so many challenging years, I’m incredibly proud of myself that I saw something through to the end and that has ended on such a positive note.
I was feeling very sad that this was going to be the last residential in the week or so beforehand. Yet Finishing with a Flourish was infused with such positivity and camaraderie, that on reflection, we knew that it was the right time for us all to part on this part of our paths.
There’s was a mention that UNION is the hippy version of the Clore Fellowship and I think that is an apt description of the course.
The opportunity to pause for reflection, to meet other practitioners at similar stages and the chance to visit towns and cities and their artistic and cultural spaces around the North, has been an immense privilege.
My hope is that UNION will continue to support creative practitioners, artists and activists for many, many years to come.
I am incredibly grateful for all the support that has been given over the past 12 months. From the coaching to the accommodation. The co-facilitators for all their support and hard work in creating such an understanding, kind, accessible and supportive environment for the residentials.
To my fellow members of the cohort for being incredibly understanding and accommodating. I’ll never that first weekend in Leeds and the small breakout group all sat down so I could be on eye-level. I knew at that point I with an amazing bunch of people. It’s been wonderful to chat and share experiences with people who understand how we work.
A massive thanks to all the practitioners and artists we’ve met along the way. Meeting Shaz Darley in Hull was a particular turning point for me as a creative practitioner.
I loved the opportunity to talk to Kerry Harker and Gill Crawshaw to about the arts and disability arts.
So, in no particular order, here are my heartfelt thanks:
- Adrian Sinclair
- Chris Taylor
- Linda Strudwick
- Sara Domville
- Vicki Bissett
- Katy Haley
- The UNION 19 cohort
- ChapelFM, Hull – ArtLink, Manchester, Wortley Hall
- The cultural, artistic and creative practitioners we’ve met along the way.