"I work with people and I make things. Often I do the two things together."
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Jean McEwan is a Scots born visual artist and organiser. In a previous life she was a community worker in Glasgow, and since she retrained in fine art in her early thirties, she has been living and working in the Bradford area. Her work includes photography, collage, installation, experimental video, artist books and zines, as well as participatory projects with lots of different communities and organisations. She believes that art should be an everyday activity open to all, and that doing art together can transform our lives and our communities. She is the founder of Wur Bradford, an art and social space based in a market stall in the city’s Kirkgate Market which explores connections between imagination, creativity, community and social change.
I wanted to work with Super Slow way because I feel we are both on the same page in terms of approaches to working with people. They understand it takes time to create meaningful art work with people – for relationships to build, for processes to unfold, to try things out and take risks in a way that is ok for them.
Jean spent the first weeks of her community residency with Circle of Friends getting to know them. For her, the quality of the relationships with the people she works with determines how authentic and meaningful the collaboration is – so this part was very important to her: “I think of it as laying foundations. That means building trust, being open of myself, and doing lots of listening.”
Jean works in a responsive way, which means that the things people do and share form the basis of the way the work develops. Often she won’t use the word ‘art’ for a while with a group so that people don’t feel intimidated or alienated, preferring to use words like ‘play’ and ‘imagination’ which people can often relate more directly to.
I wanted to find out – what is important to the people, both individually and as a group? What makes them tick? What inspires them? What are the stories they tell about themselves? What is important to them about coming together to meet every week – what do they get out of being in Circle of Friends? How can we explore walking together in a way that will be meaningful and important to them?
Jean says she is aware of her privileged role as an artist and the power relations that this can create. She tries to present herself as a facilitator rather than an expert, and tries to create situations and exchanges that are as democratic as possible to allow people to feel ownership, make decisions themselves and have confidence about their creative explorations, which is exactly the kind of ‘slow’ approach to art that Super Slow Way are trying to promote in communities and people’s lives.
There is structure and support built into the community residency, but also trust and freedom for me to develop, and try new methods, techniques and processes. I am not being pushed towards outcomes or to define the work too early. and I am really impressed by the ‘light touch’ and also the straightforwardness shown. I find Super Slow Way a very human organisation to work with, and it’s been a great experience so far.