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The Art of Invitation by Ruth Cross

At dusk on the first evening of the Art of Invitation short course in 2014, I sat in a circle of tree stump with 20 other participants along with facilitators Ruth Ben-Tovim and Anne-Marie Culhane in the magic of the Schumacher College gardens. As way of introduction we were invited to share a story; a story of the people, places and experiences in our lives that had brought us to be here on this course today.

The stories were tender, funny, vulnerable, courageous. We were community artists, public administrators, teachers, theatre directors and management consultants, each of us at different stages of using arts for change within our work.

That night as we walked back to the college, there was a tangible closeness in the group of recent strangers, and an excited chatter of exchanging what had emerged during the story telling. This was the first of many carefully crafted invitations that guided us through the following five days.

"I want to live a different story. To find a different way of doing and being," Anne-Marie Culhane (course co-facilitator)

The Art of Invitation is a visionary course designed by Encounters Arts on using art to create the conditions for change. It focusses on how to bring people together in active participation to design transformative projects in response to the urgent social and ecological challenges of our times.

What I loved about the week was that we ourselves were changing as we were learning to make change in the world.  It followed Ecophilosopher Joanna Macy’s ‘The Work that Reconnects’ Spiral, illustrated in this beautiful drawing by Dori Midnight. We began the week with Gratitude, moving to Honouring our pain for the world (feeling the rage, pain and anger of injustice), then Seeing with new eyes, and finally in the last few days preparing to Go forth with renewed energy, tools and vision into our projects back home. This framework was really supportive in gaining a deeper understanding of how transformation happens individual, collectively as a community and in the wider world.

Every day held a new invitation. In each activity not only were we invited to experience, honour and celebrate ourselves, each other and place, we were also simultaneously learning, sharing and practicing methodologies, frameworks and how to ask the right question to catalyse the impossible. Over the last three years I have applied these learnings in systemic and creative change projects, actions and residencies with Eroles Project and in my facilitation work in the UK, Spain, Senegal and Brazil.

Sessions were made up of practical insights, inspirational case studies, workshops, collaborative group work, celebration, solo reflection time, and 1:1 mentoring. My note book was abundant with reflective notes, colour, sketches, threshold moments, principles and projects to check out. We explored community engagement to nature connection, youth empowerment to walking practice, artivism to mass food festivals, always coming from hands-on practical application.

What struck me about the week was how effortlessly Ruth Ben-Tovim and Anne-Marie, along with the team of invited guests, wove their projects, practices and research into a rich and vibrant tapestry illuminating Lucy Neal’s newly coined genre ‘Transformative Art Practice’ (more on this later). It was a privilege to learn from people at the forefront of this new movement of socially engaged art and participatory practices. People working to transform conflict, oppressive systems and environmental degradation in meaningful and relevant ways.

My highlight was toward the end of the week when in small groups we were handed an envelope with ‘The Invitation’ written on it. It contained instructions for a day long collaborative activity: to devise an experience for the rest of the group to participate in. It was a brilliant way of inviting us to put into practice what we had been learning throughout the week. I was surprised by the beauty, honestly and depth of the pieces that were created, and the artful way in which we reflected on the experiences after watching each of them.

Another meaningful moment was acknowledging the importance of land, food and ritual by planting a pair of mulberry trees in the Schumacher gardens – they like to be planted together as they give each other mutual support, in itself a touching metaphor. We had been invited to bring a jar of soil from our garden or a place close to our home, and as we scattered our soil whilst planting the trees we were invited to make a wish or saying some words for our ancestor and those no longer with us.
Talking of ancestry…

During my studies almost a decade before at Dartington College of Arts (formerly a near neighbour of Schumacher College on the Dartington Estate), I remember the stories of ‘historic moments’ which had happened in the very studio where I was making my first choreography shaping my sense of belonging to a field of practice. For example, in the 50’s and 60’s the iconic meeting of minds and bodies challenging for the first time the conformity of Western dance by playing, talking, rolling, free expression, contact improvisation, mixing dance and film. And further in the past, Dartington's safeguarding of Jewish dancers during the Second World War who had continued to create on the floorboards I now stood on.

During Art of Invitation I felt again this tingling sense of belonging, when Lucy Neal gave her first public presentations of her very newly published book ‘PLAYING FOR TIME – making art as if the world mattered’. It was as if a ‘historic moment’ was unfolding as ‘Transformative Arts Practice’ in all its myriad of forms was recognised and united. Lucy described the process of interviewing and collecting writing from hundreds of artists for the chapters in the book.

I call this book my bible, and even though it’s almost 500 pages and weighs as much as a brick, I carry it around with me. Its recipes for action, frames, principles and practices give me an immense sense of feeling a part of something bigger; a connection to peers also using the alchemy of creativity and the power of participation to catalyse new narratives for our time.   

I was working for Encounters Arts and Schumacher College in 2014 at the time of this course, so it really was a coming together of many of my favourite things. But it came at a time when I was feeling overwhelmed by disconnect; governments not listening to people, insignificant protests against corporate control of seeds, land being privatised for cheap housing and deforestation, undercurrent of resource wars and human rights violations.   I remember crumbling into tears during the closing circle, tears of grief and gratitude. Grief that many people around the world are have been killed for their creative activism, for standing up for what they believe in. And gratitude that I had found a sense of kinship and connection, and the renewed will to be the change creatively and with joy. 

This is an invitation to join Ruth Ben-Tovim, Anne-Marie Culhane and Lucy Neal for this year’s Art of Invitation short course at Schumacher College.  If I can be, I’ll be there too.

You can find out more about Ruth Cross on her Cross Collaborations website and on Eroles Project website.