John Conway is a visual artist working extensively with health-related communities of interest and in healthcare settings. He has devised and delivered numerous boundary-pushing art projects in a wide variety of health fields including oncology, forensic mental healthcare, geriatrics, paediatrics and children’s end of life care.
John is the Director of Other People’s Practices, an artist residency and research project that supports the production of collaborative, socially engaged projects with patients of the National Forensic Mental Health Service.
John’s work is characterised by the production and co-production of innovative projects which respond to sensitive and often challenging themes. His approach is often informed by socially engaged research with communities – particularly having discussions over tea.
John was awarded an artsandhealth.ie artist bursary in 2021 to reflect on his practice. At the time, he was working on multiple socially engaged art projects, including The Ballad of a Care Centre which weaves life stories of men and women from Naas Day Centre into a new narrative, melding traditional performance with virtual reality, and Moments That Matter, a collaboration with families engaging with LauraLynn, Ireland’s Children’s Hospice. He has also been adjusting his career as the parent of a young daughter; splitting his time equally between co-parenting and working.
A mind map, with apologies to Jeremy Deller.
Shuttling and weaving resources and imagination
I’ve had some time to look back at my recent career thanks to the artsandhealth.ie Reflection Bursary Award 2021. There is a chronological order to it. There is also a wider feeling of interconnectivity. Particularly the impact of working relationships. It has not been a linear journey, but a nebulous shuttling and weaving of networks, resources and imagination. I’m sharing what this might look and feel like with an illustrated map. I’ll try and speak a bit about this too. Being able to think about this has been a valuable exercise for me.
Doubt and cynicism as a motivator
I often doubt the inherent value we put on art, specifically in non-gallery health-related contexts. This cynicism provokes me and motivates me to continue to make work in health settings or with communities united by a shared trauma or health experience. Arts in health settings can be misperceived by healthcare staff as art therapy and in the field of arts as a soft space, an easy-out for art, whose primary purpose is ameliorative. Indeed many arts and health programmes emphasise wellbeing and this is something that is of tremendous value. My primary concern is with artistic quality, criticality, and authenticity to a context. I do my best to produce challenging and critically relevant work using socially engaged working methods, in response to sensitive and complex settings.
Sheelagh Broderick* introduced me to the term “reputational economy”. We speculate with reputation. Reputation, imagination, and substance help us secure opportunities and belief in our ability to handle and deliver projects. The challenge comes in maintaining an upward trajectory and continuing to push and deliver on your work. Other people are essential to the success of projects we take on. Success is a funny word, especially in art where measuring this can have so many parameters for so many people.
*Sheelagh Broderick is an artist, writer, researcher and health worker.
Any “success” within the projects in this chart are contingent on project participants and collaborators, the support of project partners, advocates, and each work’s champion. Each project has a champion. Someone who knows the terrain of the setting you’re working in and is truly invested in having you work there. They take risks to facilitate your artistic endeavours in novel ways and contexts. They, as Carolann Courtney* (one of my champions) told me, say yes to good ideas and hold the door open for them. These champions in turn are essential in advocating for my practice in the search for new opportunities and funding.
*Carolann Courtney worked as the arts, health and wellbeing specialist for Kildare until 2021 and currently works with Create co-ordinating the National Creative Places Network Service.
My desire for high production quality across all aspects of my work, and the changing nature of each project and output, leads me to work and collaborate with brilliant people. I work hard to maintain my career while working a 2.5 day week. The other half of my working week is spent as a full-time Dad. This has influenced how I work and manage my time. My practice has taken a move towards the directorial: the producer, the artistic director. This is also in response to the evolution of my typical methodology: on a project to project basis, I move into new mediums which I have not used before – gravitating towards what a specific context and theme merits. I rely on the expertise of others.
Overlapping points of expertise
My practice is about a meeting of imagination and expertise – the overlapping points of expertise from everyone involved. Deferring to experts in the relevant fields in each case and inviting them to exercise their skills and experience always feels like the right thing to do. This is particularly true when you’re pushing to break new ground. People – target communities and arts and non-arts professionals – are key to how I work.
The artsandhealth.ie artist bursary 2021 was awarded to artists working in participatory arts and health contexts to reflect on their practice. The bursary was funded by the HSE and the Arts Council.