Transforming Communities: Stranraer, Scotland (2008)

Hope London
Creative Business & Entrepreneurship | 19 November 2010
This article was previously published in Art Professional (182), 17 November 2008.

Transforming Communities: Stranraer, Scotland

The past few months have been some of the most rewarding of my career, thanks to working with young people in rural South West Scotland. Stranraer is a port town, but, despite the ferries and fabulous views, the town suffers economic decline and high unemployment. Fortunately, regeneration initiatives are underway. On the seafront is Agnew Park, with the familiar problem of vandalism inflicted by young people with nothing to do. Last summer the Community Safety Forum spearheaded a mega-partnership—including local police, fire and rescue, and multiple Dumfries and Galloway Council teams—to support an intensive programme of activities for groups of referred young people aged 11 to 16, including school-excluded and foster children. The aim was to involve them in socially responsible tasks and teambuilding activities, including an art project involving a graffiti-damaged metal door. I accepted the commission though the budget was small and the time-frame even smaller— just two mornings to work with the kids to design and execute a mural.

Mission impossible. The first morning I explained the challenge to the group of eight young folk, and with the encouragement of youth workers they drew waves, birds, and fish that I simplified into repeatable graphics. I chose a limited palette—the Pound Shop’s best—for the sake of time and to ensure visual cohesion. I let the kids loose on the door each morning and each afternoon I stayed on, developing their work into a cohesive painting whilst braving the inclement weather for which the Scottish seaside is renowned. "Of all the activities, the public art section was a highlight," said Peter Ross, Wigtown West Community Safety Forum Chair, who commissioned the project. "The work was completed to the young people’s ideas and concepts." He continued, "The painting of the door_ has created an excitement and pride. And the fact it has not been vandalised in three months... speaks volumes for the value of public art in rebuilding the fractures in our society."

What better result could an artist desire? It doesn’t end there. As a card-carrying NUJ member and community artist, I’d been commissioned by Neighbourhood Renewal and the Council’s Youth Issues Unit to work with a group of teenage girls to create a publication about regeneration in Dicks Hill in Stranraer, an estate undergoing housing renewal. Last week found me slaving over a hot computer as we finished writing, designing and Quark-ing "The Big D", a full-colour glossy newsletter. The project provided a public forum for the teenagers to reverse negative perceptions about their neighbourhood and about young people in general. It demonstrated that they can be a voice for the community and an asset to the regeneration process—and they’ve gained confidence by doing it, seeing possibilities for themselves the may not have envisioned before. The term "regeneration" may risk overuse these days, but the young people with whom I’ve been privileged to work are making it fresh and meaningful, illustrating how artist-led projects can transform more than bricks, mortar and the public realm—they can open the doors of perception and help transform young people’s lives.

Hope London is an artist and art manager, and a guest lecturer on the University Of Warwick’s MA in Cultural and Media Enterprises.