The empty space in youthwork is our hands

“Here we touch on a type of acting which, as an art, is closer to sculpture than painting. Painting involves the addition of colours, whereas the sculptor takes away what is concealing the form which, as it were, already exists within the block of stone, thus revealing it instead of building it up” (Grotowski)

In his work on the Poor Theatre, Grotowski is talking about acting, in particular the combination of improvising and formal discipline. The comparison between the work of the artist-painter and the sculptor, or at least their use of materials is one that provides a useful metaphor for youth work, and especially youth and community work that seeks to be asset based.

There can be the assumption that the community of the young people is the blank space in which the creative sparky youthworkers are the brush tips of creativity and sparkle to add colour to what is deemed a bleak space.

For the Sculptor, however, aside from a few tools, the finished article is already present. just in the wrong form.

For the community, and for the community worker, there are many contributions to this block that already exist in the space, from the tight knit families, the informal parties, the friendship groups, gifts that are already evident, self care and regulation, not to mention collaborative history and experience. They all and much more create the block of clay, it is already there.

Yet to not feel like the creative spark, the colours in the bleakness might be an uncomfortable place to be, uncomfortable in that we like to feel needed, or to help, or to rescue, or that  our message transforms. The message still does transform, but it builds from what people already have. Like the proverbial ship in the ocean, the transition to facilitative enhancing, from leadership creativity in the blank space might take a while or a force to help it move slowly.

It goes further, I wonder if the block of clay in a poor set of hands is likely to have too much, or the wrong bits chipped off by the over zealous sculptor – keen to make their own finished article and take too much (metaphor for power) away from the existing people in the space. Yes the bits taken off can be reattached – but far easier to be more careful in the first place. The overzealous painter might just find a new sheet of paper and leave one mistake behind. The sculptor still has the rest of the block and can start again.

What if we treated people we encounter as full blocks of clay waiting to be shaped and moulded? Like the actor learning to improvise, the cues to the performance make up the block, it is an ongoing revealing through time, space, response and re-enactment.

The cues to the appropriate sculpture in the life of the community may already be there, its about discovering those in the peeling back process, the conversations of positive questions, its in the exploring of the gifts, abilities, drives, dreams and ambition, of local knowledge that the ongoing remoulding of the block takes shape.

It means that our hands are empty. the community is full.

All it might take is hands that are willing to get engrossed in pliable messy clay, in the thick of it, to build on what is already there.


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