Sophie Baggott talks Paul Monks, Core Arts founder and winner of the #Artskickers Community Superhero award

It’s 25 years since the artist Paul Monks came face to face, by chance, with what he now sees as the true purpose of art. In 1992 his organisation, Core Arts, was born in a dusty, vacant space within Hackney Hospital and is now decades into its work promoting positive mental health and wellbeing through creative learning.

This year Core Arts was voted ‘Community Superhero (organisation)’ at the #Artskickers Awards – and a worthier winner is hard to imagine.

In true superherIoic style, Paul saw the award as a tool to broaden the scope of Core Arts’ public profile. “It’s always great to be able to highlight the arts’ value, especially at times when they’re not as supported,” Paul said. “We need a constant drip feed to get our message out there, which has a knock-on effect for fundraising.”

Sharing the potential of the arts is all-important to the founder, who added: “It’s a continuous education for those who can make a difference to Core Arts: to help them see the power of the arts.”

On arriving in Hackney a quarter of a century ago, Paul was an artist seeking a reason for the arts. The result of this search was, in his own words, “totally unexpected”. He happened to meet a few long-term psychiatric patients while working in his Hackney Hospital-based studio, which swiftly grew into a haven for curious patients to express themselves creatively away from the grind of the psychiatric ward.

“They gave me a new interest in creativity,” Paul said, who views Core Arts as running with a mutual dynamic between members and co-ordinators. “We all have common goals,” he observed. The organisation not only harnesses the creative streak in its members (whether that’s in art, music or writing) but, vitally, gives everybody the chance to engage with those who have similar interests.

“The organisation lets our members share with each other what they’re doing,” Paul explained. “As long as you’ve got an honest endeavour, there’s an opportunity to find what’s right for you.”

Core Arts holds fantastic exhibitions and events to display the creations. “Members’ creativity is often just in the moment and the result could be forgotten,” he said. “They might sit and write a rap, then simply put the piece of paper aside.”

Before founding Core Arts, Paul had been teaching in a girls’ school, where he noticed the students were under constant pressure to achieve – piling an immense amount of stress onto them. He perceived this environment as a total contrast to his encounters with patients in Hackney Hospital, where creativity seemed to flow in a more spontaneous way.

Paul becomes emotional when talking of the many former Core Arts members who now tour the country as advocates of the arts. “It’s amazing when people pop in and explain what it meant to them,” he said. The organisation has developed from a dozen people to 770 as of last year, and Core Arts often have to turn away would-be members.

“The timetable has grown to 70 workshops a week,” Paul said. The organisation is all about improving quality constantly, aiming for the highest possible quality of teaching and a brilliant service. “Our board trustees are mainly current or ex-members,” he mentioned, adding that they often attend workshops so as to have a fully hands-on approach.

“We want to convert our space into a centre of excellence,” he said. “Our vision is what our members want, not what we might think they do.”


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