Can visual art empower young people to have more say in their local towns?
This young people’s outreach project in Cumnock, in the former mining area of East Ayrshire, set up a mini-art school to make this happen. The project was funded by the Scottish Government’s Youth Arts Fund, through Creative Scotland with support from Youth Music Initiative and Time to Shine.
As a response to the aftermath of Covid-19, 35 young artists from the Robert Burns Academy were able to conjure a vision of hope and possibility for the young people of East Ayrshire, by creating a modern urban myth with a striking visual identity.
On Saturday 11 December 2021 at 1pm, a group of enthusiastic local young people occupied the Town Square in Cumnock to proclaim the beginning of a new era for the town, in which young peoples’ voices will be centre stage.
They were led by ‘Billy Enigma', a gender-fluid bunny from outer space. Billy's rocket had crash-landed into the distinctive steel A-Frame of a former East Ayrshire coalmine. Billy then took up the role of helping the young people realise their futures. This icon of hope and self-acceptance, created by a group of S5 Art students at the Robert Burns Academy at the start of the project, has been adopted by all the young people as their figurehead. Billy’s image leads a graphic rebranding of the town through teenagers’ eyes.
To aid recovery after the Covid-19 lockdown, this project seeks to bring young people back together and breathe new life back into the town’s streets. Local residents have seen the young people’s artworks - in the form of original printed posters and banners attached to railings — redecorating the public spaces in the town to proclaim a new dawn. The project is based on the principle that if young people were given creative autonomy and supported to enact their ideas, they could help transform communities.
‘Welcome to Billy’s Town’ proclaims a poster. This could be a town transformed. Billy has rainbow ears and a vibrant unconventional appearance, featuring sky blue polka dots and an ‘enigmatic smile’. One large black banner with vibrant, white lettering tells everybody: ‘Billy says “It’s OK!”’. This is important because these young people are feeling under pressure. Billy says to them that it doesn’t matter, that they are fine as they are. It’s a truth that isn’t reflected in the competitive system based on exams . . . based on success and failure.
These bold posters are a vivid expression of the young people's talent and imagination. They have re-envisaged notable local landmarks such as the Barony A-Frame, Kier Hardie’s statue, the ‘Robert Burns’ road signs at Mauchline, Cumnock’s Town Hall and its Mercat Cross, in their own inimitable ‘Billy-print’ style. You couldn’t miss these striking posters, attached to the town’s pedestrian railings. Forget Banksy, forget Manga – ‘Billy-print’ is the way!
The young people have created this (silent) video to demonstrate what they are trying to achieve on the project.
This Youth Arts Fund project — to develop creative opportunities for young people in disadvantaged communities — is based on an alternative ‘mini-art school’, providing twice weekly after-school workshops at Yipworld Youth Centre and Barrhill Community Centre (below), since September 2021. This initiative, led by project artist Morgan Atkinson, is determined to tap into the creative potential of local young people as a valuable resource for the area’s future.
The project has also offered ‘pop-up’ creative printing events for several of the town’s youth and community groups. The core group of young artists are also creating murals in Cumnock and Auchinleck. These public art opportunities will positively rebalance the relationship between the young people and the rest of the town, which has been adversely affected by the constraints of the last two years.
The Silver Billy
This chrome giant, designed and built by the artists, is the most dramatic product of the project so far. It has been paraded through the streets to be placed at the town square’s Mercat Cross to encourage local people to imagine that change could be possible. The Silver Billy played a central role in the parades and processions during the Take-over on 11 June 2022.
For more images and video from the project visit Instagram @billy.enigma.
Billy meets the miners: Milton Rogovin’s photographs of Scottish miners
The project aims to link the past to the present, and to imagine what the future of the area could be. Connecting young people to their area’s industrial heritage is important, as is encouraging them to take a critical look at how the area’s history has been represented. Above all, the project attempts to support them to be able to influence the changes that are taking place during the regeneration of this former coal mining area. Major issues about relative deprivation, employment, industrial work and working-class life, economic sustainability, green energy technology and the climate crisis are at stake in these discussions about the past, and the future.
These remarkable photos by American photographer, Milton Rogovin (above) are from the National Galleries of Scotland's collection. In order to compile his international, Family of Miners documentary photography project, Rogovin and his wife, were hosted by the Scottish National Union of Mineworkers on their visit to the Scottish coalfields in 1982. His images show local miners at work, in their homes with their families, and at play. They also show the streets, the shops people used and their social life. The pits and villages of East Ayrshire were one of the key locations for these photographs.
Things have changed massively since then, especially due to the trauma of the 1984 Miner’s Strike and the subsequent destruction of the mining industry.
Project photographer Craig MacLean is encouraging local residents to take pictures that show what, how, and why things have changed, by sending us their own photographs. Using the camera on their phones, we want local people to make a series of photos to tell us what life is really like in their area today.
Some young photographers on the project, from a parent support group, have updated Milton Rogovin’s documentary approach to reflect the town they live in now. These images will adorn a large banner the group are creating, which will bring back memories of the National Union of Mineworkers’ banners depicting the local pits and the facilities they created to benefit the community. This creative process demonstrates how the young people involved can connect with the past and make sense of it from their own contemporary viewpoint.
Project display at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery
The young artists created a monumental poster wall in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, which featured in You Are Here from January – June 2022. It formed a giant shrine, featuring their posters, placards and a black and white Town Take-over banner stretched across the top. Through this display, we are proud to recognise the young people’s talent and the strength of their creativity, which proves that Scottish teenagers, when offered the opportunity, can create impactful art with a social purpose.
Town Takeover mini carnival | Saturday 11 June 2022
This culmination of the project saw local young people transform the town square on 11 June 2022 with graphic artworks, banners, music and dancing. About a hundred residents and family members attended through the day. This small-scale revival of the town's traditional carnival also featured contributions from several local youth and community groups, alongside an Impact Arts Creative Pathways youth group from Edinburgh, who all designed their own banners in solidarity. The giant silver Billy figure entered the square attached to the front of a fire engine. The Tinderbox Collective’s ‘Kouk and Dubh’ (Josh Koukpaki and Andra Black) backed up the rap performance of a new Town Anthem, written by the local, first-time MC, Oscar. Our film of the event by Lewis Gourlay, captures the excitement and class of the performance and the spirit of local pride.
A boisterous rap and spray-painting workshop had taken place at the Robert Burns Academy a few days before the final event (above). Our core group of twelve artists, wearing their self-designed white hoodies, successfully led the activities for the wider Robert Burns Academy students and for audiences on 11 June.
The Takeover presented a post-Covid recovery of the old spirit of solidarity and community care which had existed before and during the Miners’ Strike of 1984. The young people’s event combining the photographs of this era and their own Billy insignia made a direct link between their future and the area’s past. This made a strong impression on those who witnessed it, either at the public event or in shop window displays (above). The young people have made their mark on the town by graphically representing their own urban myth of hope and possibility. This homegrown youth-cult will be celebrated in a major exhibition at the town’s Baird Institute gallery from January to June 2023.
Billy Enigma: Capturing Cumnock | The Karli Bryce Interviews on Film
This film was made for the exhibition at the Baird Institute to introduce the personalities of the artists involved in the project to its visitors. Led by the forthright young interviewer Karli Bryce, it presents the anarchic fun and energy they brought to their art. A PhD researcher from the University of Stirling, Rosie Priest, had been present throughout the project interviewing the participants to assess its impact. Karli's attempts to get at the truth about art take a more assertive route.
Robin Baillie, outreach co-ordinator at the National Galleries of Scotland and the project’s manager, sums up the project’s achievements so far:
‘This project will prove how towns can re-brand themselves through the creative contribution made by young people - if they are given the chance. These young artists want to bring their environment to life in a positive way, creating an enterprising youth culture which allows them to have a say in shaping the places that will be their home in the years to come. It’s them speaking to everyone else via visual art, and saying, ‘be proud of us – we are the future of this area.’
Thanks to the young artists on the project: Carley Storrie, Emily Stewart, Karli Bryce, Rhian Phillips, Crystal Edgar, Cara Chidwick, Ayesha Musthaq, Sophie Craig, Imogen Scott, Jodie Morris, Paige Hazlett, Stephanie Caine, Casey Taylor, Iona Samson, Gracie Smith, Caitlin Fotheringham, Taliah Nelson-Bell, Abigail Conn, Eliza Wild, Scott Bradford, Charlie Reid, Dexter McGuire, Holly Leydon, Yasmin Kerr, Freya Kellet, Rachel Harvey, Kaitlin Lodge (creator of Billy) and the members of the Cumnock Action Plan Mural Group (Vicky, Blair, Brooklyn and Loughlan).
This project is led by National Galleries of Scotland Outreach in partnership with the Robert Burns Academy, the Coalfields Communities Landscape Partnership and the Corra Foundation. The project is funded by the Scottish Government’s Youth Arts Fund, through Creative Scotland with support from Youth Music Initiative and Time to Shine. The Youth Arts Fund ensures creative opportunities for children and young people continue to exist across Scotland despite the Covid-19 pandemic.
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