Art Is The Fire Warming Our Hands
A socially engaged poem from Ruthie Collins in celebration of art and creative communities in the UK

In celebration of the creative communities across the UK and the world, National Centre for Writing commissioned East Anglian-based writer and arts practitioner Ruthie Collins to write a poem reflecting on this theme. The result is ‘Art is the Fire Warming Our Hands’, a piece formed in response to conversations, interviews and research held by Ruthie as she worked as a writer engaging with communities all over the UK, in addition to encounters with art, culture, books and articles – across a diverse range of communities. Please enjoy the poem below; we’d encourage you to read the footnotes that reference many of those research interviews and encounters underneath, all of whom influenced this rich and inspiring piece of writing.

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Community mural by Sa’adiah Khan (Lead artist) @sadisoularts, Dan Biggs (Artist) @biggsart & Samirah Khan (Artist) @artist_samirah

‘Art Is The Fire Warming Our Hands’ was inspired by a combination of encounters and experiences with art across the UK and the world – from indigenous systems of knowledge-exchange, to street art murals and motifs, Banksy, to Ai Weiwei, to participatory artists and organisations working on the frontline of communities. What is the value of art in current times? How is art having impact on in communities? A combination of conversations, research interviews and the reading of three texts recommended to me by the National Centre for Writing influenced the piece. These include Nina Simon’s Art of Relevance, Ali Smith’s Public Library and Cultural Democracy in Practice by 64 Million Artists with Arts Council England.

The value of art is an ongoing debate, in current times. Many described creativity’s vital power to transform and sustain lives – entire communities. As I researched and wrote Art Is The Fire Warming Our Hands – listening to what people valued about art, from connection, to empathy, community – it became a love letter, not just to art and creativity, but to the qualities that sustain life, itself. To humanity. Hope. Mycorrhizal-style support systems; love and connection, an unseen ‘fabric of care’ (999 Call for the NHS), that unites of us. Thank you so much to all who shared your words, art and experiences.

I attended a range of events in the ‘new normal’, from a media launch and talk from activist artist Ai Wewei, to Artworks Alliance’s national conference for participatory artists, to Lost Species Day, to Freedom from Torture’s fundraiser at Sotheby’s, Drawing A Line Under Torture. Festivals. Pop up shows. Rituals. I also worked as a poet with commissioners across the UK, on projects and residencies, exploring ecology and our connection to the natural world, including with a restorative ecology social enterprise that works with indigenous communities in the Amazon rainforest. These were active influences, as was Ben Okri’s call to all artists to respond to climate crisis.

Art is as diverse as life. A vital source of agency. The frontline of communities in the UK today are being shaped by democratising arts models that are community-led, participatory and transformative. Where you are just as likely to see art as rave, or roller-skating as you are as on loan from the likes of the National Gallery. Worldwide, it is indeed a fire pit, of sharing knowledge. Colour. Ways of sustaining life.

Here’s to that warmth of spirit – here’s to life.

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‘where the beach turns wild’

Art is the fire warming our hands

These flames are hot, a fire pit of passion and play. Agency, heat

shimmering up walls sprayed with beauty bold, risen from ashes

A wall of hearts reminding us that love is the greatest gift we can ever give, until we go

Art, a legacy of life, explosion of rainbows, stars and sunflower

seeds, gifts of human soul. Care flowing with colour,

wind shining over sea. Knitting fractures with friendship, sharing of humanity, pains,

pleasure and dreams. Kindness always in season,

here at the end of time where the sands turn wild, strangers united by love

[crustaceans marching] light unpeeling. Representing heart and soul and community

blood. Art, expanding into futurity and possibility. Transformation, too,

a tree that glows, shining gold dressed in connection, touch. Enriching leaves

spilling words – like roses, fragrance

healing, wellbeing and hope found in nests overflowing with leaves, cups of tea and love

 

Art matters most when you can find it, or when it finds you – no matter who you are or

what you do. Amazing collaborations, a dialogue of joy, not always ‘Art’ with a capital ‘A,’

but when we find you as effort, passion and culture found in the everyday

Mycorrhizal roots starting movements and change

Rave and roller skates, celebrating home. Showing us what there is to live for

in connection, community, soul. Seeing things in new ways,

mayhem breathing, imprints of love on the ether. A book blossoming solitude

with creativity. Or simply, an invitation to be slow, breaking open, the lightning and love in us

all —– in you ——-  tour de foud. From a camel pacing on foot, to kimonos, too

Saving our NHS, or fighting fascism, giving hope, with dialogue and code

Fair warning, fair warning – sold. Giving comfort, knowing it’s there. Keeping us together –

light in darkness, our voices and solidarity all we have left

 

Even if these were the last days, at least we stayed human

The fire warming our hands, in this place we come to say goodbye

Here where so many are only just remembering, believing in belonging

Songlines in us all, this earth, this life, in sands and starlit skies

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‘Explosion of rainbows’ — In memory of artist and poet Dominic Mulvey. Photo credit: Oblique Arts

Footnotes and inspirations

‘Fire pit’ — Part of Aboriginal indigenous knowledge sharing centre kuril daghun, Queensland State Library, Brisbane, Australia – mentioned by Nina Simon in The Art Of Relevance.

‘Risen from ashes’ — Words shared by learner, Darren, at Cambridge Community Arts, describing the impact of empowerment through their creative courses.

‘Passion’ —Sarah Witcomb commenting at National Centre for Writing on art, citing Puppet Portraits, intergenerational puppet making workshops in care homes with Friend In Deed, The Puppet Theatre and Norfolk & Norwich Festival as an example of art having impact in the community.

‘Walls sprayed with beauty bold’ — ‘The Butterfly’s Metamorphosis’ mural by Sofia Camacho, on Havelock Road/St Peter’s Rd, Great Yarmouth, commissioned by Reprezent Project, whose work was recommended as an example of art inspiring impact by Paola at Norfolk and Waveney Mind.

‘Explosion of rainbows’ — In memory of artist and poet Dominic Mulvey.

‘Agency’ — Karen Thomas, Kettle’s Yard describing an example of art having impact in communities, the Open House project.

‘Wall of Hearts’ — Mural in memory those who lost their lives to covid – example of art having impact shared by Alex at Time and Tide Museum, Great Yarmouth.

‘Love is the greatest gift’ — ‘The greatest gift is to love and be loved…’ written at community mural made by residents facilitated by Lowestoft’s Greater Than, on Gorleston seafront.

‘Legacy’ — Word shared by journalist Donna Louise Bishop at National Centre for Writing.

‘Sunflower seeds resisting’ — Ai Weiwei, Sunflower Seeds.

‘Humanity’ — Shared by Stella of Age UK, at National Centre for Writing – cited project with Jewish residents, Jewish Centre, London as art having impact – sharing the stories of this generation before they are lost.

‘Sharing of pains, pleasure and dreams’ — Robin Hales, The Matthew Project.

‘Kindness is always in season’ — Kindness Is Always In Season, community mural in North Cambridge by Dan Biggs and Sa’adiah and Samirah Khan made in partnership with Chesterton Community Association, funded by Cambridge City Council.

‘Here at the end of time’ — Responding to Ben Okri’s call to all artists as published in the Guardian (November 21) to create in response to climate crisis.

‘Where the beach turns wild’ — Location of Banksy piece in Cromer, placed ‘where the beach turns wild’, as described by local resident and artist Beverly Broadhead, Artist Union England Regional Organiser for Norfolk and Suffolk.

‘A tree that glows’ — Award-winning Christmas tree (The Minster Christmas Tree decoration competition December 2021) decorated by Feathers Futures art and craft group, Great Yarmouth.

‘Shining gold’ — Woman In Gold, Klimt inspired art project by Catton Grove Arts and Crafts Group at Catton Grove Centre, Norwich – example of art having impact recommended by member at Shoebox Community Hub.

‘Roses’ — Inspired by The Beholder, story published in Public Library and Other Stories, by Ali Smith.

‘Nests overflowing’ — The Nest Project is a community arts initiative led by Eco-Artists Rebekah Boone and Claire Gebbett who are interested in our connection with the earth and the landscapes we live in. They see art as a tool for nurturing communities and creating safe spaces, beautiful spaces.

‘Amazing collaborations’ — Words provided by women’s art group at Corona House, Cambridge, facilitated by Jill Eastland. Corona House provides accommodation for women who are homeless or at risk of homeless and works with any women who have specific need of us in the community. Featured work is ‘We Are All Connected’, textile art activist piece created by 100 makers in response to COP26 to show solidarity in the face of climate change’ – lead artists Jill Eastland and Cathy Dunbar.

‘Joy’ — Mash, describing outcomes of Bengali Stories project.

‘Not art with a capital A, but found in the every day’ — Discussions about art with artist Josh, at Artel, Norwich.

‘Rave’ — Inspired by 90s dance procession in Great Yarmouth, hosted by Freshly Greated.

‘Roller skates’ — Debby Besford, The Art of the Roller Skating – PRIMEYARC, originalprojects;, Great Yarmouth.

‘Tour de foud’ — French for a bolt of lightning, or to fall in love. Art collector, describing the feeling he has when he finds art that he loves, at Drawing A Line Under Torture, Sotheby’s, London, November, 2021.

‘Camel on foot’ — Nisreen Meddings, discussing Sudanese nomadic poetry as influenced by the sound of camels in the desert featured on the Finding Natural Wonder podcast.

‘Kimonos’ — Deanna Tyson’s kimonos, example of art having impact recommended by designer-maker Jane Horwood. ‘The Gaia Hypothesis’ carries the name of the theory that life on earth is a vast, regulating organism because, says Deanna, the current pandemic could well be seen as a result of our reckless folly and abuse of the planet.

‘Saving the NHS’ Threads of Survival‘ is a powerful collection of 28 quilts and textile art made by over 160 people across England, that honours the tradition of recording social protest through textiles. ‘The original NHS was created with a vision of a more caring society. Protecting that vision, cherishing that fabric is what Threads of Survival is about.’ Steve Carne, Chair – 999, Call for the NHS.

‘Come to say goodbye’ Discussing art as ritual to articulate extinction grief in times when there are few places for us to process this – Lost Species Day 2021: Interdependence Ritual held by Bea Xu for Remembrance Day for Lost Species, online November 30 2021.

‘Songlines’ Songlines: Tracking the Seven Sisters is an international touring exhibition produced by the National Museum of Australia with the ongoing support of the traditional Aboriginal custodians and knowledge holders of this story. Exhibited at The Box, Plymouth, 21 October to 27 February 2022.

Thanks to residents and artists across the East Coast, plus to Loukas Morley, staff and visitors to Sotheby’s, My Linh Le, Ed, the Mulveys, Jessica Sharp, Sa’adiah Khan, Lucien Ross, Jennie Pedley, Nina Simon, The Shoebox Hub, RAIN Umbrella, Ai Weiwei, Ben Okri, Kettle’s Yard, Artworks Alliance, Nisreen, original_projects, Debby Besford, Reprezent Project, Feathers Futures, 999 Call for the NHS, Artists Union England, Bev Broadhead, Jill Eastland, Corona House, Cambridge Community Arts, Sarah Colvin, Taz, Bengali Story Project’s Mash, Elizabeth Seymour, Gina, Rachel, Alex, Stella, Blythe, Vicki, Donna Louise Bishop, Catton Grove Centre, The Matthews Project, Karen Rushner, Artel, Josh, Banksy, DNA and kuril dhagun, Queenstate Library, Brisbane.

Also, thanks for space at National Centre for Writing, Dragon Hall, Art Pocket at Lionhouse Studios and Curious Directive where the start and final edits of the piece were produced.

 

Ruthie Collins is a writer and arts practitioner born in Cambridge, East Anglia. She specialises in socially engaged arts, making the arts inclusive and accessible. Inspired by the way writing can cross disciplines ‘off the page’ and into life, her writing and cross-arts text-based work has been broadcast on TV and radio, been published in the Guardian, and appeared as installation, texts, posters and critical writing.

She founded Cambridge Art Salon in 2011, now two artist-led spaces for over 30 artists and makers in Cambridge, to encourage equal access to art.

Ruthie read English Literature at University of Sheffield, specialising in feminist critical theory. Studied curating at Central St Martins School of Art, on Become An Independent Curator, with Emily Druiff, plus has a Diploma in Creative Writing from the University of Cambridge (First). Website

 

Header image: ‘The Butterfly’s Metamorphosis’ mural by Sofia Camacho, on Havelock Road/St Peter’s Rd, Great Yarmouth. Photo credit: Davide De Almeida

Thumbnail image: ‘Wall of Hearts’ mural in memory those who lost their lives to covid.

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