What exactly does a community artist do?
Hilary Cox Condron is a community artist and engagement worker. Intrigued at what this means? Read on and find out how this vibrant and remarkable woman, who Dave Doggett, ex-Chairman of Cambridge United, describes as the ‘community glue’, uses and teaches art to motivate and empower people and galvanise the communities they live in.
I have known Hilary for several years, mainly through her involvement in community initiatives. So it’s good to take time to talk through what she does in Cambridge. As a result I discover there is much about her that deserves our respect and support.
Hilary crystalizes what she is all about early in our conversation. “All young people should have a voice and a say in the decisions that shape how they live. But to do this they must feel ownership and inclusion, and crucially, equal to their peers. Therefore, I believe that having access to the arts and the doors it opens is fundamental.”
A course in illustration at Cambridgeshire College of Arts and Technology (now Anglia Ruskin) drew Hilary to Cambridge. She worked as a designer and illustrator for a short while before leaving the UK to work in South Africa, soon after apartheid. This experience is at the root of what she now is and does. She explained, “I settled in Johannesburg, living a very basic existence and working as a mural artist. I got to know the kids that were living on the street – they would come and paint and make and sell beads with me.”
Hilary recalls: “These children were treated shamefully and barracked as good for nothing by passersby. One of the boys , who was around 9 years old retorted. ‘No, I’m not. Today I made this.’ And proudly held aloft the piece of jewelry he had made with me that morning.” Regaling this story now still affects Hilary. “I had no idea of the impact – I thought we were just having fun – those boys are my biggest teachers. They changed my direction.”
Back in Cambridge Hilary soon got involved in community theatre using art to tackle issues like bullying, racism and teenage pregnancies. This kind of collaborative working remains central to Hilary’s working life. “I love working with other artists and learning from other people so we can deliver better things.” As an example, she tells me about recent projects commissioned by City Homes and Abbey People.
“My brief was loose: to ‘make Abbey Homes a happier place’.” So how did she start something like that? “First I had to gain trust within the community, so I ‘recruited’ Zelda, my dog, who everyone loves. I would walk her around Ditton Fields and people just started talking and telling me what concerned them about the area.” She continues, “Meanwhile I ran art consultations involving young people to get inspiration for a worthwhile project.”
“And this is how the idea for a new park was agreed upon because their existing one was dreadful. Following an outline proposal, we then had to present it to the East Area Funding Committee. Most importantly, we did this with the children.” She laughs, recalling, “I don’t think that had ever been done before, but we got the funding. It was a major achievement, of which the children should be really proud. Consequently this project gave them a real sense of pride in where they live. It was brilliant.”
In her role as a community artist, Hilary has worked over many years with local cultural venues and authorities. As a result, she has built important relationships with museums and the city council and says that she has huge respect for teams at Kettles Yard. Hilary states: “we share ideas and they inspire me.”
Her role has led to the establishment of other key relationships across the city – from cultural initiatives through to the local councils. Hilary tells me: “I currently have two pieces of community work in the Hyperlocal Radio exhibition at Kettle’s Yard: one called Brave Hearts and Hidden Voices; the other about the Sea Cadet Hall. And I also have some Extinction Rebellion banner making workshops coming up.”
Arts to empower
Hilary is a key contributor to Activate Cambridge (Cambridge City Council funded project that offers young people the opportunity to engage with the arts and cultural venues across Cambridge). She says “Activate is effective because it connects the young people to the city, giving a sense of belonging and identity through embedding arts and culture into their lives.”
Acutely aware of Cambridge’s social divide Hilary tells me: “There are communities in Cambridge where young people don’t feel like the city centre belongs to them at all, and are unaware that the museums and theatres offer them anything. Ultimately, Activate Cambridge helps to empower these young people to have their say, increasing democracy and lessening this divide.”
With a huge energy, Hilary is a natural ambassador for side-lined communities, including travellers and low-income families. She is getting wide recognition in the area; for example she has an invitation to speak at The Big Up Education Conversation. Furthermore, after the success of her celebration of Cam Vote 100 (commemorating 100 years of women’s votes), she was invited to talk at the Cambridge Union. “It makes me chuckle – I was told to leave school when I turned 16.” I ask her how she felt the first time she stood at a podium. “I was so nervous. I didn’t feel like I had the vocabulary or the confidence, but now I really enjoy it.
Hilary recently worked for Babylon Arts. She tells me about the resulting Talking Bout My Generation project. “We are gathering musical teenage memories. The goal is to create an online archive, touring exhibition and book celebrating the 1960s, 70s and 80s music scene in the Fens and Brecks.” She says, “ I have followed that up with a Kettle’s Yard installation telling the story of the 80s punk and rock sub-culture that developed at the Sea Cadet Hall near the Museum of Technology on Riverside.” Hilary concludes. “I would love to just keep gathering more stories – telling the people’s history.”
Hilary is a vehement supporter of Extinction Rebellion, and its commitment to protest about the planet’s degradation. Hence she is raising awareness by developing pop-up workshops to take into schools and museums. I ask Hilary what her ideal job would be. She is a rebel at heart: “I’d love to have a Cambridge Peoples’ Museum of Activism. It would have arts and creativity at its core and focus on social justice and social change with young people actively involved.”
A work in progress
As our interview comes to an end, a picture of Cambridge pops up on the Guardian website. It’s of school children holding placards for the Youth Strike 4 Climate outside the Guildhall. Hilary looks and shrieks, “That’s my banner; I was up till two in the morning making that.” Why does that not surprise me? I also note that on the 12th March Hilary is running a make your banner workshop at Kettle’s Yard.
I’ve only just touched on the work that Hilary does, there is so much more. For example, her work with Capturing Cambridge collecting social histories or her position as in-house artist at Jimmy’s Night Shelter. She is a trustee of Abbey People, and has collaboration with artist Emma Smith to create the light installation at The Fitzwilliam. And more recently her upcoming Women, Art and Activism workshops at Kettle’s Yard.
To find out more about Hilary and the work she does please visit her website. Like Hilary and her art, it’s a work in progress and really worth a peek.