Arty Chats: Cultivating Community at The Forge

Creating art is a great way to open up conversations and help people connect.

Arty Chats: Cultivating Community At The Forge 

As told to: Hannah Gray

Community Artist, Rebecca Fraser is cultivating community connection in Parkhead, Glasgow. Rebecca shared with me insights of her current project Arty Chats based at The Forge, a shopping centre in Shettleston Ward. She spoke of the importance of stewardship, honouring life stories and her love of working where she lives in the East End of Glasgow and why she keeps asking unexpected questions.

Can you give us a wee overview of what you do?

I’m a community artist that works in Glasgow East. At the moment I’m working as part of Glasgow Life's Artist-in-Community program. I’m doing a creative befriending service at the Forge Shopping Centre, but up until this point I’ve done very different projects in the community. I’ve done a public garden, we’ve also done a podcast we’ve also made a story archive online- so it’s varied.

I’m one of the North East artists. This is where I’m from. I originally applied for the Shettleston Ward because I’ve lived in the Shettleston ward most of my life and I was bringing up my family here so there was a lot of natural cross over. It just makes sense that I would work on my doorstep if that is where all my neighbourhood connections were- you know the school gates, the nursery gates, bounce and rhyme at the library. 

What are you working on at the moment that most excites you?

Arty Chats. That’s my new project. It came from a pilot I did in October that was part of the Health and Social Care Partnership consultation for the new Parkhead hub. It’s getting built on the land that Parkhead hospital was on. It’s going to be a health hub- so dentists, doctors’ surgeries, etc. The consultation was called Messages- talking to people about why they were in the Forge and what they were buying- their messages 

(note: in this area, when you go shopping it is referred to ask “getting your messages”)…

The Forge is right across from the hospital. The people in the Forge are going to be the footfall- walking past the hub. By consulting the people at the Forge you’re effectively consulting the people who are going to access the hub. The Forge is really busy and one of the days was match day so Celtic fans were in… We thought it was a consultation that would have high numbers and quick interactions but instead we found that we had less people than we thought stopping because people were stopping for like 45 minutes to chat to us. They were in no rush to go anywhere else. It was very diverse- some young parents killing time with their kids somewhere warm and dry that wasn’t the park, some people were waiting for their partner to get off shift. There were young people who had mental health problems or social things who were obviously lonely, and of course older people. There seemed to be a spirit of willingness to engage with that friendly opportunity for a chat .

It made me feel sad that we did two or three days and that was it when there obviously was a need for these chats to continue. Weirdly the next day the next phase of Artists-in-Community (fund) was announced and so I applied with this nugget of idea that I’d like to see what would happen if we continued these arty chats for a longer period of time in the hope that we could build up genuine connection with these people who could benefit a lot from moving over to hub when it’s opened.

There’s going to be lovely welcome spaces, community café, the Parkhead library is going to move there; walled gardens and court yards. It would make sense for them to go over and access all that stuff, but they’re not going to go without an invitation so I see this project as the invitation to come over to the Parkhead hub when it’s actually built. So that’s my long plan. It feels kind of innovative and exploratory... I feel like an explorer in the Forge trying out this weird new way of working that is not about accessing big numbers of people quickly. Actually almost looking for lower participation levels because the work is going to be deeper- playing the long game. At the moment I’m trying out how that works.

What does Arty Chats look like?

I arrive at the Forge, I park my car, I get my trolley and fill it with random art equipment… I then push my trolley around the Forge and I stop wherever I see people who might like an Arty Chat. I’ve found you need a question to engage people and break the ice, so I’ll say “We’re doing a project about Glasgow- what colour do you associate with Glasgow?” or “How are you finding January? Do you believe in the January Blues? Is that a thing?”

And then they’ll maybe start chatting to me and maybe trying to hone the creative activity that encourages engagement in an accessible way, in a non-intimidating way, and it can potentially just take 2 seconds but also could get really stretched out if someone wants to sit for 20 minutes. Some people are really interested in creative writing, some people don’t want to do that at all, some people want to draw, some people don’t want to draw but they would like for me to draw and for them to colour in my drawing and that’s quite nice.

As you’re working on Arty Chats what would you like to experience?

My other projects were all about capturing life stories. The sense of responsibility when you’re holding people’s life stories and personal stories- even if that’s “how has your morning been?” “Oh my morning’s been awful, I had a nightmare getting the kids to school.”

I really feel a sense of stewardship around the conversations that are happening. I want people to feel genuinely listened to, like there’s no clock here that I’m watching. Which is something that was a game changer when we did that pilot- I’m not rushing you on, because this is obviously what you need right now from this experience and I’m not going to make you feel like you need to move on for the sake of someone else coming and engaging with this experience. I want people to feel for a moment in their day that they’ve been really listened to so that no matter what happens with the rest of the day they can think “I was heard by somebody and I was able to use my voice and tell my story even if it’s something that seems, you know, pretty mundane- what they were buying or doing this evening. That’s how I want them to feel.

What I really love about it is the sort of the creative inspiration that comes from a conversation or piece of artwork that I can mull over for the full week. I suppose what I get from it is a constant flow of information of people that I can then enjoy disseminating into public art.

You talked there about stewardship. Can you expand upon that feeling of responsibility that you feel around that stewardship of people’s stories?

I think that’s something you learn with life experience a little bit. I think when you’re new into a career that involves life stories you can get a wee bit carried away with yourself sometimes. You can listen to everything through the lens of your funder- how could this come together in a really powerful archive?

There’s been times when people have told me things and I know with my professional head that this would all look great from a funding point of view, but I know from a personal point of view, from a connection point of view with that person that I just really don’t feel comfortable letting anyone else know what was said in that conversation. It might have had really beautiful insights and turns of phrase or whatever that could creatively be powerful, but I sometimes just think no, I’m going to let that sit and I’ll wait until another thing comes along.

Whereas I think at the beginning you can think “Oh great, that was a really great story and I’m going to document that.” People can give permission for their stories to be shared, but it’s difficult when it’s just a snapshot of someone’s life and you’re not going to get that editing time with them to be like “do you want to go over this and double check before I share this?” If you’re not giving people that time, you need to keep somethings to yourself, I think.

I also think there’s a risk in community arts sometimes, because there can be a power imbalance sometimes, not that it’s exploitative, but you can’t get away from the fact that the artists are benefiting from the community, and the community are benefiting from the artists, and it is a partnership. Being a steward of that is checking yourself at all the stages that you’re letting this be a mutual collaboration and you’re always trying to reign in that power imbalance.

I don’t want them to look back and be like “aw, she told my story this way and now I don’t really feel comfortable about that now.” So I think a lot of that is just checking your power in that.

What would you like to experience in that role of Stewardship?

I think when you’re holding so many people’s life stories that can weigh heavy and it’s important for me that I have a safe place where I can share how they’ve impacted me. Then that means I’m more likely to hold those properly. It’s just a bit more healthy I think. I can process them somewhere that’s not my artwork and not a public sphere. That’s really hard to get when you’re a lone worker and when you’re freelance. I have different places I can go to for that and I think that’s quite useful. 

What do you think your next steps are?

I would love to bring arty chats over to Parkhead hub. It’s a linear next step. I’m funded until next August and then I think the hub will be opened next year. I keep talking about is as a bridge. They’re happening over here at the Forge, but when the hub opens they’ll happen over there at the hub across the road and I can bring people with me from the Forge over to the hub. Even literally, like a walking bus. That’s what I’d like to see happen. Not because it would benefit me, but because I think they would get such a huge benefit from accessing all the other resources over in that building. If I can aid that then I would like that to be the legacy for this project to be. Watch this space!

What would success look like, if that were happening?

Seeing people over here who are killing a lot of time, maybe still doing what they’re doing over here at the Forge, but just being able to open a world across the road of more opportunities for them. Like space opportunities- being able to access a sunny café area or a green court yard or a warm space, or a room with lots of lovely artwork or photographs.

It doesn’t have to be that they’ve gone over there and joined a music group, it can just be that they’ve accessed a different space. I think when people are isolated they talk a lot about their four walls, getting out the house, “I just want to get out the house”. How physical space is really important to your brain and exploring different physical spaces. Especially as you get older.

Can you contextualise for people who don’t know the community here, why that is so important for you and this community in particular?

Parkhead and Shettleston are ex-industrial areas. The Forge is called the Forge because it’s built on the old forge- it was a major iron works. It’s a working class community that has all this legacy of industry but obviously that’s all stopped now and with that has brought all the classic problems that come with a low income area that’s got all the fallout from that. An area that would have been poor anyway, that’s probably become poorer statistically and socially in different ways.

But saying that, the whole point in the life story project that I did was to show the vibrant, diverse life of the east end. Everyone always talks about how friendly the east end is. One of the life stories was literally a women who said she left her home on the coast and came to the city and all her friends were worried about it and she was like “and I’m having the best life and I’ve made so many friends and everyone’s so friendly” Other people’s life stories about how they’ve come here and found amazing education opportunities and they’ve had so much support in learning English and their neighbours helping them.

I feel like I don’t want to give any time to things that stigmatise the east end. I’m not really up for that. I’d rather try and capture all the joy and silliness and happy memories that people are still able to make here even though there are a lot of barriers. People are still forging their lives and making great families and great lives.

There’s very explicit cultural barriers in the east end. A lot of people don’t drive and a lot of people don’t really venture out of the east end so when cultural experiences are all in the town centre or in other parts of Glasgow then that is impossible for them to access them. Really cultural experiences need to be in the heart of the east end for people to experience them. Which is why the Parkhead hub could be a really exciting place for people because they’re not used to having these big beautiful public buildings available to them and kind of owned by them. Hopefully that will happen.

That does sounds really exciting. What would you like, want or need from your community to make your next steps as successful as possible?

I’m literally stopping people or talking to people completely cold, who I don’t know. That’s sounds really intense and intimidating. I have the type of personality that I can do that. Because it’s such a friendly area most of the responses are positive. People kind of look at me a bit quizzically sometimes but then they’re like “oh I see what you’re doing!” and they have a wee chat.

I suppose I just need people to keep that open mindedness and silly warmth to this artist who’s bopping about the Forge, who’s got some crazy mission that she’s trying to do, like stopping people and asking them “do you want to help colour in this river?” or “Do you want to write a love note to someone who might be in the Forge today?”.

I think people use their brains in an everyday way- we have the same things that we think about every day, the same jobs that we need to get done, like what are we going to do for dinner… and if someone stops you and asks you a really random question like “if you were a colour right now, what colour would you be?” you’re like “oh!” and you’re forced for a minute to stop your brain working in the way it normally works, and work in a completely different way and find words that you would never usually use, for feelings that you would never usually articulate.

I personally love those moments where I’m stopped in my tracks and my head is pulled out of myself and I’m able to look at the world a little bit differently where I’m thinking “if I was a bird right now, what bird would I be?” I do feel that even if my conversation with someone is two minutes and I’ve asked them what animal they’d be and they’ve had a wee laugh and been like “well I’d probably like to be my dog because my dog has a great life” and we laugh and off they go, then we’ve had a nice moment.

And I feel like for this project to be a success I just need more people to be open minded.

With all this in mind, what’s the best thing that could happen?

The best thing would be… I feel like a really safe pal for them to bump into and they can have a chat with me, and they also become more open to have chat with other people.

The legacy of Arty Chats would be “I’m stopping you for an arty chat, but then you can stop someone else for an arty chat” and almost be a ripple effect of “oh that girl sometimes stops and chats to me, or joins me at my table and has a wee chat, maybe I can chat to the person next to me at the bus stop, or if I’m at the library and I see someone struggling to find a book, I could suggest a book.”

I think that’s a spirit of the east end that’s really nice and I feel arty chats really represents that and I’m hoping that it’s going to power people to keep chatting with people that they don’t know. I think that’s really fun and it’s a very unusual thing to do, that I think we’re maybe losing in this world, is talking to people we don’t know.

When people are talking to other people they don’t know, what do you think the ripple effects of that could be?

Starting conversations with people you don’t know involves a warmth and a breakdown of barrier that isn’t just in language, it’s in facial expression and body language. If we can have friendly, warm conversations with people that are gracious and kind then our bodies feel better for that. I’m sure that must help people’s physical health in an area like this where people are tense.

We’ve had a lot of talks this month about cost of living and people are cold. Their bodies are tight. I think it can be good for our bodies having these little moments of connection with people, whether they’re loved ones or strangers…

I do believe in our responsibility to welcoming strangers into our community. A stranger can be someone who lives along the street and you’ve not spoken to them in twenty years, but a stranger can also be somebody who’s just freshly moved into a community. I think how we treat strangers as a community is a representation of our goodness.

That’s beautiful. Thank you. My last question is, what meaning, if any, has this conversation brought you today?

I feel like from this conversation I’ve gained a little bit of what I think I would like to provide for other people. I’m going to walk away feeling lighter. I feel inspired. It’s helped to untangle… it’s always good to say things out loud because it helps things to fall into place. It’s helpful to articulate things and then think, right this is what I’m doing and you can kind of forget what your aims are when you’re in the nitty gritty. Talking it out, what the big picture of what this project is, I’m like “Okay, let’s do this!”

Story | 18.04.23

community, education, faith & creativity, Neighbourhood Care, Neighbourhood Democracy, England, Story

Also see