Barbara Disney is a Bristol-based visual artist with many years of experience running participatory art and public projects in health and community settings across Bristol. She is currently working in St Pauls Learning Centre running printmaking and textiles workshops and at St Pauls Nursery School and Children’s Centre facilitating Wellbeing Arts Courses.
Describe your practice.
I have 30 years’ experience of working within the arts as a practitioner of socially engaged visual art projects. This has included community based projects, collaborating with other artists working in a variety of art forms and creating commissioned public art. I believe in making art accessible to all sectors of the community, while challenging some preconceived ideas of what is ‘art’, and working in whatever way is most appropriate to the individual or group. Each piece is based on an extensive process of research and consultation to ensure the work is appropriate to location and use.
I work with a variety of mediums, print, enamel, mosaic, paint, sculpture, digital manipulation, printed and resist dyed textile often using the same technique on a variety of surfaces. Some of the work is large scale and site specific, other small and intimate. Based in St Pauls for many years, some of my work is based here, while linking with communities across Bristol and beyond.
What are the main themes of your work?
Each project is different, and usually involves responding to a brief, or creating a brief for the group I am working with to respond to. My approach is anthropological, with a focus on place and time. Themes might be around movement and settlement into an area or country, memories and experiences within a community. I am working in museums and am interested in how people respond to the collections and interpret them in artwork.
Currently the majority of my work is with the more vulnerable sectors of society, particularly adults with mental health challenges. Engagement in creative activities has been shown to be therapeutic and help people re-engage with social situations and engage with the cultural life of society.
What is the most enjoyable part of your work?
Is seeing what groups or individuals produce, be they experienced artists, or those with little or no experience of portraying their ideas visually. I encourage a playful and experimental approach to art making, and from this stories and experiences emerge. While the way I work is about process and discovery it is also very meaningful when this process results in a public showing of work, both the appreciation of the wider public seeing the work and the pride and pleasure of the participants to see their work shown in a public place.
How has your career developed?
Initially the majority of my work was within educational settings, residencies in schools and some teaching. Over the years I have worked with festivals, mostly WOMAD, travelling internationally. I was a founder member and lead artist of the Arts organisation Vizability. I have worked within Urban renewal schemes creating public art, particularly ground mosaics and enamel panels. I have been lucky enough to have been sponsored to undertake research trips to Nigeria and China to study the development of particular art forms.
In the last 12 years the majority of my work has been with Arts and Health, particularly Art on Referral. This included the group ArtThur (Art on Thursday) – which ran for almost a decade at St Pauls Learning Centre and was commissioned to create work for events across the city, including the harbour side festival and St Pauls Carnival. My career has been an organic process of development and change, responding to need and setting up initiatives. As a self-employed artist, I enjoy the diversity of opportunities it has offered; it is more a way of life than a job.
Do you have any advice to others who want to work in community arts?
Obviously expect to work hard, and don’t expect a reliable massive income, do expect to spend quite a lot of time on admin. More importantly be true to yourself, your skills and interests and recognise you have a unique way of working. I work with emerging artists, when possible with them receiving payment, often with them volunteering their time. This does give the opportunity to find out if working within communities is of genuine interest to them. I hope I am able to offer some useful mentoring. I enjoy the input if fresh ideas and enthusiasm offered by these artists.
Where do you find inspiration?
As expressed above within the community I am working, be it the people and their experiences, or the physical location, or usually a combination of both. This inspires the process and the ongoing interaction with the people I am working with, and on a commission informs what is included in the piece.
What are you most excited about for 2018?
The current climate of austerity does present challenges. Cuts to public funding, institutions and organisations are stretched and changing. However the benefits of interventions such as Art on Referral are being recognised and new approaches are being developed.
So, I am most excited that with two colleagues, Beki Lines and Julie Matthews we will be developing CreativeShift, the Community Interest Company we have set up. CreativeShift devises and delivers innovative projects to improve Wellbeing. We will be building on CROWD and other previous projects, developing projects across the city and building bridges between communities. We are hoping to announce a project working with people in St Pauls and Knowle West for public showing in a high profile venue – watch this space.
What was the biggest success of 2017?
CROWD, an installation created by CreativeShift. An installation of figures and portraits created by people attending Art on Referral programs in Bristol, including the Wellbeing Arts group based in St Pauls, first shown at Vestibules in City Hall during the Culture Health and Wellbeing International Conference. CROWD acknowledges that in any group of people, 1 in 4 have experience of mental health challenges. CROWD subsequently toured community venues around Bristol and showed up at the Community Psychology Festival at Arnolifini and had a tour on the Severn Railway Line.
More locally, I was very pleased to work with DHI – Developing Health and Independence, to create banners, posters and flyer designs for the wonderful Recovery Festival in St Agnes Park.