Diary of a Clore Fellow: Newcastle, New York, New Ways of Belonging


Clore 14 Arts Council Open Fellow Jen McDerra is writing regular reflections on her Fellowship journey as part of our Diary of a Clore Fellowship series.

This is the most hectic phase of the Fellowship programme for me. April and May sees me on secondment in Newcastle before a two day turnaround at home to pack for my main international study visits to Trinidad and Toronto via New York. 'An embarrassment of riches' it has been called by some, and it does feel like a luxury to have time and support to work on this scale. Shifts in perspective are occurring on a daily basis, and time to catch up with my train of thought and follow up with the people I'm meeting isn't going to happen until June. These photos from my time in Newcastle and New York capture some seeds that have started significant new ways of thinking about leadership, as well as challenging my need to come to conclusions before sharing in public.

1.These are some of the exquisite people I learnt from while I was on secondment to Streetwise Opera an award-winning charity that uses music to help people make positive changes in their lives. 
Working with people who have experienced or are at risk of homelessness they run workshop programmes across England and stage critically-acclaimed operas. I was lucky enough to join Streetwise at a time when their two-yearly full show was ready for the stage, and I joined the team at the London office for a month before heading up to Newcastle for the two week rehearsal and show run at Sage Gateshead. The experience more than warrants a full article which I’ll publish when I complete my secondment this summer. The thing that moved me most was the quality of attention paid to each performer, and between the members of the artistic and production team. I went to see 'Ladybird' at the Tyneside Cinema while I was in Newcastle and there was a scene in the film where a nun congratulates a girl on her essay application for university. She notes how the girl really seems to love the place she's from because she writes about it with such tailored tenderness. 'I just pay attention' the girl replies. The nun floored us both when she says love and attention 'aren't they the same thing?' 

2. One day I woke up during the two week run and I knew I needed to be alone.
I was full. I took myself on a daytrip to the sea at Tynemouth. Here it is, in all its restorative glory. I'm learning such lessons about taking what you need so that you can better do the things you do. How have I got so far not knowing this? How is rest a revelation?  

3. Northern Print welcomed us as we drove around Newcastle and Gateshead flyering for the show.
I devised this role of About Town Ambassador for myself so that I could see how the cultural map of the place was laid out. Memorably welcoming staff greeted us at every place we visited. All of them happy to hear and listen, and seemingly unanimous in having an existing link to the work of Streetwise Opera. Such thoughtfulness. This mural moved me to think what it is to make a space for a person - something that's on my mind as I research how cultural spaces can be more welcoming. 

4. A scene in Tell Me The Truth About Love.
The joy that was created and shared in the making of this production is so evident here. The movement director, Polly Bennett, said something at the aftershow party to the performers which I am taking, too. She told everyone to try and keep one thing from this experience for themselves to energise and remind them in times which weren't so shiny. She said 'something to keep in your shoe'.    

5. Thinking about what helps someone feel as though they belong is a key thread running through my Fellowship.
Working with an organisation who bring together arts and homelessness puts this centre stage, but I'm finding it everywhere. At least three Fellows I have spoken to have immediately felt compelled to join the library when arriving to stay in a new place. Here I am needlessly getting something official to say 'here I am', just weeks after another Fellow had done exactly the same thing. Meanwhile the Irish Fellow, Kathleen Turner, asks for library membership in Glasgow and is told she isn't required to have a card to use the space - "but I want to belong!" she cries, and a card is duly administered. 

6. An artwork in Flushing Town Hall, NY speaks to feelings about how we make home.
I wouldn’t have known to spend my Friday night in New York at this place if it weren’t for ACE Fellow, Ross Burnett having made contact to work with them during his secondment. He invited us to join him in an area which is considered the most diverse in NYC. The work of Ellen Kodadek and her team to create a cultural place of real relevance to their local community has created a thriving centre with inspiring programming and local engagement. The night consisted of two bands being invited to play at the town hall, one Afrobeat and the other Latin Boogaloo, bringing in the bands and their fans from two different cultural communities. Dance lessons were given to the audience in both styles, and both bands played a set before joining together on-stage to jam as a superband while the audience did a fusion of dance styles and swapped partners and moves late into the night. The next one is 1st June Balkans meets El Barrio! I’d be there if I could.

7. A guitar lesson held by the lake in Central Park.
Being a nature loving introvert is a label I have only just fully embraced. It seems that everyone else knew this about me but it has taken me time to realise what I need when I am somewhere, and I wonder how many people are the same. One of the real gifts of the Fellowship programme is the time between things to think about why something didn’t work well and to then choose to try another way. 

8. Other people wanting you to be there is really important to a sense of belonging.
It’s a bonus if one of those people brings their daughter along who makes you all question your own important thoughts and just enjoy a boat ride and an ice cream for an hour. 

9.  and 10. Joining in. Just join in.
Dance and music and movement and togetherness. There aren't always words for the best ways of bringing people to a new space together. As someone with a literary leaning, this has been tectonic plate shifting as a realisation in my year. My form (words) and my aim (wider connectivity between people) do not necessarily fit together as the best method for the task. Literacy levels and language barriers mean words can’t be the first step for some, and suddenly I’m in a world of learning about dance, singing, movement, breath, opera, and I’m struggling to remember why I said I’d try and sum up this experience using words for a blog…

11. Doing.
This chalkboard outside a bookshop in New York stopped me in my 21,000 steps and its only lunchtime. I then bought a new notebook and there were two options for front covers. JOURNEYS and PROJECTS. Before my Fellowship experience I would have chosen journeys. The movement and the discovery being the thing for me. Now I am finding myself mid-shift to Projects. The doing, the being there, the tangible. The not having to explain or be understood. It is a lightness. One I would like to share. The most useful thing I have written in bright colours so far is that each thing that I do does not have to encompass everything that I care about.  

12. A different angle.
Reading poetry takes me to the heart of what I know, and finding the statue of Emma Lazarus behind the Statue of Liberty as we travelled by boat to the Migration Museum on Ellis Island was a small homecoming on this trip. Reading it aloud to a possibly reluctant listener was a moment of stretchy, blushing, weird joy for me. By the end we were both transported. Read her poem and be reminded like I was why words are sometimes exactly the right form. 

13. The ingredients of organisation.
How carefully constructed the private spaces we require to do our best work are. How can we make these environments available to more people? How can we better identify then create these conditions for ourselves? It has set me on a path of research about how spaces like the one provided by People United can be funded, and routes to them are cleared and signposted. 


14. Newcastle or New York?
The beautiful, big river Tyne. A month after the show and still on a loop in my head is the sound of the performance of Jimmy Nail’s Big River. Whenever I visit museums or cultural venues to talk about heritage, preservation, and the relevance of past problems to current divisions I hear the voices of thirty people who have experience of homelessness belting out: ‘If you believe that there’s a bond between our future and our past, try to hold on to what we had we build it strong we build to last. For this is a mighty town built upon a solid ground, and everything they tried so hard to kill we will rebuild. For this is a big river, I want you all to know that I was proud.” 

Read Jen's other Diary of a Clore Fellow article here: