In 2017 artist Jessica Harby led a workshop in both drawing and democracy, as part of our flagship education programme with students from The CE Academy. For this weeks Fermynwoods Friday Jessica describes the experience.
Teenagers have a tremendous gift for detecting bullshit and hypocrisy. The young people Fermynwoods works with, who have been excluded from formal education, often have no problem telling you their opinions and deductions. As an artist, these kids also happen to be my favourite source of uncensored art criticism.
The first time I was invited to lead a workshop at Fermynwoods, I brought democracy with me. After the double hits I took as an American living in Britain in 2016 (first Brexit, then Trump) I developed a referendum of my own. The referendum had two faces but both required the viewer to vote on my citizenship. A digital ballot, which was part of Can You Hear Me?, Fermynwoods online exhibition. Plus an installation, consisting of two embroidered Union Jacks, two embroidered American flags, and a decommissioned metal ballot box, which came with me to the forest that first workshop in January 2017.
My workshop involved demystifying the blank white page by making messes with loads of materials from my studio. We chatted as we splashed and cut and ruined. I got asked about the same “American” subjects young Brits always ask me. Have I ever been shot? (No.) Have I ever known anyone who has been shot? (Yes.) Have I ever seen any famous American people in America? (Yes, but nobody impressive to anyone under 30.) Why would I move to Northampton from Chicago? (I fell in love with an Englishman.)
These workshops can be lively. Often loud. The collective noun for a group of these young people would be a chaos, in the most joyful sense. But at the end of the workshop, as they were led into the room where my installation sat waiting, we experienced the first silence of the day. All chatter halted. Their hush had a weight. The adults had discussed that this was most likely their first encounter with democracy. They quietly read the ballot, voted, and wordlessly walked out of the room. I don’t know how they voted. I do know that in that moment they understood they were being trusted with a decision which would affect someone else’s life, which is what all voting boils down to. It remains the best experience I’ve had with an audience.
Look out for more Fermynwoods Friday posts each week looking back on some of our favourite projects.