Kenneth Noble
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10 November, 2015

The Power of Art

A professor of applied music, a poet from an inner-city estate in south London, and a social entrepreneur from Sheffield addressed a Greencoat Forum on ‘The Transforming Power of Art’ on 3 November. The diversity of the speakers and the audience was in itself a testament to the power of art to bring together people of many ethnic groups and ages. Many had commented on what an inspiring evening it was.

The event was organised by Renewal Arts, a multidisciplinary, international network bringing together artists and those passionate about the arts who share the conviction that the arts can be a positive and powerful force for changing our personal lives, our environment and the wider world. It was chaired by Elisabeth Tooms, one of the founders.

The Rev Prof June Boyce-Tillman speaking at the Transforming Power of ArtThe Rev Prof June Boyce-Tillman from the University of Winchester began by getting everyone to feel their pulse and then clap in time with it. After teaching them to sing a song, set to the rhythm of an African drum, she then asked the audience to repeat the exercise. She detected, not only that the average pulse rate had come down, but that people’s pulses were more in sync with each other – thus demonstrating the transforming power of art.

She went on to give a lightning fast overview of the subject, including many areas where she personally was involved in arts projects – ranging from work with people with dementia, where music might be a person’s only memory, to her work as Artistic Convenor of the Winchester Centre for Arts as Wellbeing. The latter initiative had seen a rabbi and an imam chanting together in Winchester Cathedral, a photo of which featured in her Powerpoint presentation, also presented at lightning speed!

Her final example of the power of art was ‘an Intermezzo for Peace’, where weapons of war had been transformed into musical instruments; a gun into a flute, for example.

‘Art,’ she said, could turn ‘the hurt-ness of humanity into a thing of beauty’.

Jodie Marshall at The Transforming Power of ArtJodie Marshall had felt a call at the age of 18 to work in Brazil. This had later led to her setting up a social enterprise called 'A Mind Apart' which is based in Sheffield but also works with Brazilian street children. Although she was a committed Christian, and her values pervaded the enterprise, A Mind Apart was not a religious outfit, she said. Some of the children she worked with in Sheffield were just as deprived as the street children in Brazil, she maintained. She also works with children with mental health issues. ‘We never exclude anyone.’ All of Marshall’s staff were trained teachers, so they were able to work in a way that complemented the national curriculum, making them more useful to schools. Using acting, theatre, dance and music, the children were taken out of themselves and learned new skills, including skills for life. A Mind Apart’s after-school clubs and other initiatives were very popular – about 3000 children were involved in the course of a year and there was a waiting list for spaces.

Jodie also described the creative role that art had played in her own life. Music, dance and playing the violin had helped her through a ‘very dark period’ after coming out of an abusive relationship.

Kwame Reed at the Transforming Power of ArtKwame Reed was the final speaker. He had grown up with a single mother on a tough estate in London. All the young people got drawn into gang culture because that was all they knew. Rap music was the only art that was ‘cool’.

At school he had been identified as being ‘gifted and talented’ in the arts, which had encouraged him. He had then become involved with Intermission Youth Theatre, which targeted young people with low prospects and a high risk of offending. They encouraged Kwame and others to take part in plays based on Shakespeare but expressed in a modern idiom. It was at Intermission’s monthly ‘The Happening’ [informal gatherings] that Kwame had started to compose and read out poems. ‘Poetry has given me an identity,’ he said. ‘I look at art as a fun way to express yourself.’

He had played ‘a character called Macbeth’ in one of the plays. It had helped him relate to people, turning ‘judgement into curiosity’. ‘In that sense, art is transformative, because it helps you to understand people,’ he said. Kwame is performing in the current Intermission Youth Theatre play, Rise & Fall, inspired by Shakespeare's Julius Caesar.