Unforgettable Encounter: Clare Attwell ~ Changing the World Through Art

Clare Attwell is an artist with a background in arts administration and community activism. While no words seems to be adequate to articulate the depth and substance of her work, she may be best described as a systems artist who is skilled at using textile and multi-media to communicate complex issues related to environmental, social and economic systems. She also takes on a role as a citizen artist who links people through art to expand a community’s awareness and understanding of itself through participatory art projects and collective visioning. As Daisaku Ikeda notes, “If high art cultivates the soil of human life, then it follows that it will also support the flowering of humanistic culture”. Ultimately Clare’s work enables the conditions for people to flourish by creating the space for imagination to emerge, empowering individual/collective expression in place-based artistic projects. Her work exemplifies art’s expansive potential to impact others, cultivating a sense of the interconnectedness of life, embodying the concept of ontological design – “design that designs us back”, bringing forth the wholeness and fullness of our humanity through artful means. A conversation with Clare revealed not only a talented artist, but someone who is also an artist of poetry (poetic heart), philosophy and faith.

Dominion Deconstructing (55" x 38")

Hand painted & commercially printed fabric; machine stitched

Growing up in South Africa and moving to Canada in her 20s, Clare embraces diverse cultures believing strongly in social justice, which was influenced by her lived experience in Apartheid (institutionalized racial segregation). Unlike most white residents, her family expanded their circle of friendship, including attending a multiracial church, where Desmond Tutu was the Dean. Her late father, Christopher Cresswell, was a scientist and creative thinker who thought outside the box. Her mother, Evelyn Cresswell, a poet & educator, began teaching in prisons in her retirement, believing that community healing was possible if the cycle of violence and trauma, so prevalent in Zululand at that time, could be interrupted through life-skills development and someone caring enough to spend time teaching instead of punishing. Her parents regularly opened their home to the wider community, where people of all races and social status were invited to gather around food and conversation. Their guests included academics, journalists and ordinary people, but most notably they included people such as anti-apartheid activists Desmond Tutu, Beyers Naude (though banned, he continued meet to meet in secret) and Mamphele Ramphele. It is clear that the way her parents lived, has been etched into her innermost heart.

At a young age, Clare questioned the legitimacy of the conventional ‘successful life’, paying more attention to what happiness entails, which she could see was beyond materialism and conventional social norm. She felt a sense of wrongness in the way the world functioned, particularly in the way that contemporary life disconnects us from nature and each other. In her quest for meaning, including how she could best contribute to the world, she realized that art not only gave her joy, but it helped to facilitate vibrant and soul-rich cultural flourishing. She recognized that the power of art was its ability to pierce through, where logic too often failed.

Creation process

Clare has the capacity and experience to create custom, large-scale art work for public spaces. She describes her art making process as a dynamic, multi-sensory (and consequently exhausting) exercise, where she needs to be fully present to the flow, balance and dynamism created by all the interacting elements in an art piece, - all while befriending the fear and doubts of the process. “With art”, she says, “there is no roadmap, nor a set of instructions to guide me as to which color, shape or proportion to choose.” She explains that she cannot merely use her eyes to help her know where to put the next piece of fabric or brush stroke, but rather, it is about engaging all of her senses to work together to discern the next step. As with any creativity, she explains that creating art for her requires a dynamic responsiveness to all of the parts, as every new addition or subtraction changes the proportion and balance of the whole. And just as an early explorer setting out on a voyage of discovery, has to embrace the risk in order to seek uncharted territory, so too does the creative process involve risk. Sometimes a precious piece of fabric may not work with the rest of the piece and therefore has to be discarded, - but until cut up and tried, there is no knowing whether it would have worked. One has to overcome fears and self-doubt that inevitably surface in these moments of uncertainty. Over time, Clare has come to understand that, creativity requires the artist to simply show up with an attitude of openness and responsiveness and to trust the process, even though they may feel wholly inadequate. Clare believes that authenticity shines through, when we overcome fear and stay true to the process. Though self-doubt is normal:“Have I done justice to the subject I am trying to tackle in my art?” “What will they think?” “What if it’s too bright or small or big or . . .”, Instead she believes that paying attention, being present, listening carefully and being humble is what art requires of the artist, if the art is to reflect the truth that inspired its creation.

Surging Tides of Consequences (55.5” x 39.5”)

Acrylic inks & paints; sheer & cotton fabric; stitched

Systems thinking reflected in art and communicated through art

Clare is especially interested in exploring what makes complex systems functional, and in particular, how they relate to organizations and society. Captured in her work is the artistic exploration of various contemporary issues relating to a living universe; the interconnectedness of all life; beauty in nature; flow; emergence; meta-narratives; awareness of global issues; social consciousness; earnest inquiry about the validity of our current economic systems; spiral dynamics; order in chaos; the global shift required; and changes in the undercurrents of society. Her understanding and exploration of complexity through, both the individual and society, is embodied throughout her work, artfully engaging and challenging her audience to consider different perspectives. She nurtures a richness of ideas through her art, especially where thinking in terms of networks rather than linear systems, relationships instead of disconnected parts, are seen as the foundation for building a more resilient and connected world.

Community Development

Clare has worked as an arts administrator, cultural animator, textile artist and most recently, as Artist-in-Residence at Cadboro Bay United. Clare believes that art should involve relationship that connects with people directly. To Clare, beauty is a dynamic, relational experience that can be best discovered when we are fully present. When authenticity is captured in an art piece, the art becomes a powerful touchstone for a community’s commonly held beliefs and identity. This shared enjoyment not only connects us to each other, but it connects us to the rest of the world - and such shared delight is surely the essence of beauty.

Essential to Clare’s community art work is the understanding of Cultural Democracy, where artists work with a community to help articulate their understanding of themselves – whether by producing art that is closely connected to those community’s conversations, such that community members recognize what is important to them in the art, or by facilitating the production of art by the community themselves. The contribution of art in community building is further revealed through increased coherence and a strengthening of the social bonds, including a greater sense of common identity, - which has been diminished over time through the market-based economy. Participatory art making and volunteer neighborhood beautification projects are such examples of the enrichment of a societies’ cultural commons organized by artists.

Systems thinking is non-linear, and neither is Clare! Recognizing that helping to create the conditions for this approach to being in relationship requires intersecting with multiple domains, Clare is also engaged with several planning groups that work with local governments and business councils to help build and support mechanisms that foster community aliveness and resilience. The element she brings is fundamentally a proactive commons approach to shape the cultural transformation people want at the local level, bringing the community and their ideas to life. This is essential to the Glocal movement gaining traction worldwide. For regenerative development to achieve qualitative growth, the unique character of a place, - needs to be honored and nurtured.

Reverberating Thoughts

What a delight to get to know Clare! Her work exemplifies the expansive potential of art to restore wholeness and cultivate the human spirit. It conveys a lasting lesson on the power of presencing to awaken our life force and unlock the unbounded creativity found in the creative process. Most importantly, we see that artistic interventions, both at the individual and the community level, serve as healing balm for the wounds of Separation that are part of the structural basis of modernity (e.g. self-interest maximizing individuals in neoliberal economics), thus creating authentic connection for wholistic health and wholesome human existence.

To find more about Clare and her art, please visit https://clareattwellartist.wordpress.com