Over the past six years, Create’s visual artist Daniel Lehan has worked with us to reach some of the most vulnerable people in the UK, bringing his infectious enthusiasm for art to many projects. He has facilitated our workshops with groups as diverse as children with disabilities, young offenders and vulnerable older people and has used his playful approach to art to give disadvantaged children and adults the confidence to explore their own skills and collaborate with others.
We took a moment to chat to Daniel about his thoughts on accessibility to the arts, the importance of creativity and his upcoming projects with Create.
Why do you think engagement with the arts is important? What do you think Create’s participants get from the arts?
Engagement with the arts is important because they inspire such a wide range of experiences and thoughts. As a viewer, these include those about the art work itself, what you feel about the work, about the person who created it, and also about yourself. I can’t think of many other things that permit that. As a maker, a whole world is opened up, one which includes creativity and enjoyment. There is also the (perhaps undervalued) therapeutic aspect to creativity.
Recently with Create, I have been working on projects that bring together groups of young people – some with a disability, some not. The focus has been not on the differences but the similarities shared by the whole group, and it has been this starting point that allows participants to relate to each other providing the basis for mutual understanding and respect.
What is the role of the artist in society?
Well, even during my lifetime this has significantly changed and has been redefined. When I was younger the artist was generally assumed to be ‘individual’ working away in their studio. Now the expectation is that they are far more socially engaged. Some people would expect them to be able to address particular social issues and, although I think this is possible, I think it would be wrong to imagine that artists have some ‘holy fix’.
Have you always been encouraged to engage with the arts? Could you talk a bit about your relationship to the arts whilst growing up and what that meant to you?
I decided to be an artist at the age of ten, having watched an episode of ‘Animal Magic’ – a children’s programme, which featured beautiful paintings of birds made by a young artist. I was very fortunate at my secondary school to have a brilliant art teacher who encouraged me, gave me art materials, and helped me to apply to art college. And of course, I was attracted to the idea of being an artist. Since then, wanting to make work – whilst drawing a huge amount of pleasure and comfort from this – has been of great importance to me.
Do you think accessibility to the arts is an issue? What barriers make it difficult for people to access the arts?
Yes, definitely, I think it basically comes down to having, or not having money, and the opportunities that either provides, or does not. I’ve met people who simply wouldn’t have been encouraged or thought it possible to develop their creativity or interest in the arts, given their economic circumstances, and / or the expectations placed upon them. This is often determined by their upbringing and the opportunities available to them.
You’ve worked with Create many times over the last few years. What is it about Create that appeals to you and do you think we do anything differently compared to other charities and organisations?
I think the work that Create does is particularly inspiring, worthwhile and, it has to be said, often challenging. Create provides opportunities to work with different groups of people, many of who are extremely vulnerable. The support that Create provides to participants in these projects is fantastic. There is creativity, reflection, laughter and enjoyment. There are times when it is SO noisy and messy, and other times when you can hear a pin drop.
Do you have memories of projects that particularly stand out for you; any favourite quotes that the young people and adults have said?
I was working with a group of people who attended a Lunch Club. After their lunch we would paint and draw, and there was a woman in her late 70’s who had started to draw at home between the sessions (she had never drawn or painted before) and began to bring her work in to show me. She said how this new hobby was like a fresh beginning, and wished she had done this before.
Could you talk about any upcoming Create projects and what you’re most looking forward to?
Yes, I’ll be working with a group of pupils – those from a mainstream school and a school for pupils with additional learning needs. We will be working in a wood attached to one of the schools, and this will involve making a campfire, brewing tea, and using natural materials collected from the woods to make sculptures which will then feature in a performance.
Do you ever find yourself in a creative dry-spell? If so, what do you do to inspire yourself?
I have to say, rarely. When this does occur, I think there are two options. Either take a COMPLETE break, doing anything but ‘ART’, or work simply for the sake of working. I’ve preferred the second option.
What/who has most strongly influenced your work over the years?
The work of artists whose work I admire is a constant source of inspiration – this would include the paintings of Fra Angelico, Goya, Delacroix, Bonnard, Matisse, Picasso, Klee, Arshile Gorky and the writings of Bruno Schultz, Gogol, and Kenneth Patchen.
What is the best advice you were ever given?
Never wish a single day away.