Rebecca Corn is an inspiring multi-media artist. She has travelled the world a lot, is always involved in helping others and has even created her own organisation Beautiful Change. She constantly produces art that reflects her commitments, from painting to writing and from video making to singing. She has been part of the Exhigone family for a while, exhibiting some of her brilliant work at a few of our artistic Sundays. Here is her story.
I always find this a really difficult question to answer! I was born in London, but my culture is a mixture of many things – my ancestors are English, Welsh, French, Hugenots, Gypsies, Jewish, farmers, artists, sailors, religious ministers. I grew up in a hippy family, lived in lots of different places, travelled a lot in a camper van when I was small, travelled a lot with a backpack when I was older, worked overseas a lot – and now more and more I work on humanitarian programmes, mainly in Asia and Africa. But where am I from? I am of the earth and the universe, and in my opinion that’s all that is relevant, really.
Did you always know you wanted to be an artist? How did it start? How did you make it happen?
I would always make and create things when I was little – Mum drew me for her illustrations and taught me about shadow and colour, and Dad would take me to building sites and design studios and taught me about perspective and line. I also played a lot of music, danced and play acted with my brother, my cousins and my friends. We created all kinds of things, and lots of performances and shows.
I learnt lots as we travelled around and spent time with many different cultures as I was growing up, too. I was shown from a really young age that ideas can become reality in lots of ways, and that expression means different things for different people. It was never about what I wanted to be when I grew up. I always found that a strange question… because I just wanted to be me.
I’ve always known that I don’t need a badge or a desk label or a notice on a door that says ‘artist’, to be an artist. I am an artist, so therefore whatever I do will be art and whoever I am will be art. What matters is the idea, the connection, and communicating that. Aristotle said “Virtue, then, is not an act but a habit – you are what you mostly do.” Whether you stand in the middle of a field and sing to the sky or graffiti on the street, all that matters is that you do it, with heart and soul and integrity and your whole self. That’s what makes you an artist, and that’s how you make it happen, I think. All the rest is just how you pay the bills.
Can you give us a bit of background about yourself? Can you take us through your artistic career so far?
My career hasn’t been at all art-like in the conventional sense. I became an engineer apprentice when I left school, went to work in Canada for a while, and when I was 21 set up on my own and travelled to many different countries designing for projects and training engineers. In many ways it was a good life and it could have made me very wealthy. But I was being asked to work for big banks more and more, and that it didn’t feel the right way to live. I didn’t feel like I was expressing my soul. So I folded my company and went travelling and volunteering around the world, including time working on community art and human rights projects.
As part of that, I spent time in Nepal, and went walking in the Annapurnas with my friend Naran. We stayed with families in small villages on the mountain side, where I helped with cooking, preparing meals, and rice harvest. At one point we had to change direction suddenly because word came to us that the Maoist rebels were in the forest we were about to walk through – which suddenly made it all very real. As soon as I got back to Kathmandu, I applied to go back to my studies to build a career in practical humanitarianism. During the next few years I spent time in Rwanda research post genocide social reconstruction, and worked on Colombia country research for Amnesty International. I also went to work on the Darfur crisis response with Amnesty, followed by time at Cambridge studying law and then an MA in Development and Emergency Practice at Oxford Brookes. Now I work as a human rights/ humanitarian consultant, a programme director for a new NGO and manage several studio projects.
None of this seems to have much to do with art? Well, for me, it does – In the more direct sense, because I worked with light as an engineer, I wrote many articles and created and expressed a lot of ideas over the years, and worked with lots of ‘art’ projects. But in a less direct sense too – and I am very passionate about this – because everything is about tuning in to my connection with humanity, the earth and the universe, and acting with integrity, expressing from my heart and soul with everything I’ve got.
I also have always spent time volunteering with organisations like Crisis, and in women’s refuges, working with homeless people and survivors of abuse – just using art as the way I connect with people. Often people who are struggling just need the permission to express, and art can be an incredibly liberating way to help them work out where they’re at. I know this from personal experience, because art has been my survival in tough times, too.
In terms of more recognisable milestones though, I was awarded a residency at Crisis Skylight Oxford, part of Arts at The Old Fire Station.The next summer I was one of nine artists whose work was chosen to be part of the ‘What Next?’ exhibition at St Martins in The Fields Gallery in the Crypt on Trafalgar Square. A few months after that I was an artist in residence at Banteay Srey women’s refuge in Kampot in Cambodia and also volunteered with an Arts Therapy organisation in Phnom Penh. I was part of BBC3’s Bollywood Carmen when I came back last year, and then last summer I was part of the In Art We Trust Summer Show 2013 – including a performance art happening called Love is… Careful Footsteps, about resilience and survival – and have been showcased by art projects/prizes such as A Creation in Yorkshire and the International Peace Project.
Now, as well as my own projects, I am also bringing together several projects in the UK and overseas under the organisation I founded, Beautiful Change – which works with survivors of violence, conflict and disaster. I also manage a mindful arts studio project and a pop-up gallery, and continue to work in human rights and humanitarian response.
You seem to be very multi talented as an artist, what type of art you enjoy doing the most? Why?
Thank you! I enjoy most when the ideas and collaboration take the lead. I also really enjoy action research – working with people to discover something or change something, whether it ends up as a mural or a report, or a song or a poem or a dance, whether it’s conflict transformation or healing, or even if it comes to nothing at all in the end. I love the process of creative dialogue!
You can describe my work as mixed media, mixed medium, and multi-discipline – but basically I very much enjoy the concept of dialogue – interaction between materials; fabric and paint, or wax and ink and bleach, or mud and chalk… or between mediums; sound and vision, performance and colour and space, words and sensations… or between disciplines art, performance, poetry, psychology, politics, philosophy, law, humanitarianism, human rights… I enjoy this big mixture of ideas and realities and people and existence, and all the art that makes, because – this is what it is to be alive!
How do you get your inspiration?
I am not sure… I live, and it comes. I have heard a lot of people talk about some kind of supernatural force that grabs you almost as if you are some kind of conduit, and what you create just appears almost as if you have no control (whether it’s writing or painting, or whatever) – and crazy as that sounds, that’s quite a good way to describe what happens sometimes.
When I found out that Maku Tabuni, the leader of the National Council in West Papua, had been assassinated and that the Indonesian police would not let his family bury him – I could not contain my feeling, and literally all I could do was paint. So I made a big portrait painting as my tribute to him and his family. When I was working on the Darfur crisis response team at Amnesty, after a particularly awful set of cases about gang rape in the camps, I wrote a long poem to express my feelings of sadness and inadequacy and hope. In these moments I could do nothing else – I just have to express my feeling.
What is your favourite thing about being an artist?
That it is a universal language, a way to communicate with people, planet – life, the universe and everything.
Is there someone that you look up to and inspire you? Why?
A great many people – and different people every day! Freda Kahlo, Simone de Beauvoir, Louise Bourgois, my family… the Guerrilla Girls, Caroline Lucas, Aung San Suu Kyi, Mu Sochua, Eve Ensler… and every survivor I have ever met. Also Juan Munoz, Lucian Freud, Picasso, Van Gogh, Gandhi, Mandela, Aristotle, Habermas, Satish Kumar… so many! People with bravery, humanity, kindness, generosity of spirit. And, my cats. I swear they are clairvoyant.
What is the favourite thing you ever created? Why? What does it mean to you?
I made a big teepee out of reclaimed canvas – I put a message out on freecycle networks for old tents and sails, and went cycling and bussing the length and breadth of the country picking up the most eclectic collection of material from all manner of people. I marked out a huge semi-circle in a field and ripped and stitched lots of pieces together, and coppiced big hawthorn poles. It was a beautiful colourful hippy teepee! At the time I didn’t know what I was making it for, just because. But a great artist friend of mine was diagnosed with terminal cancer shortly afterwards, and we used the teepee on beach in Aberystwyth to hold a big party with music and bonfires and dancing, and lots of running into the sea in our clothes, for her wake. I am proud of having made it, and having used it for that.
What are you working on at the moment/near future?
I am working on a few different things – pulling together projects and research for funding, for overseas arts work with Beautiful Change. We’ve just recruited a new intern, and I am working with her on East Africa research. I’m also finishing up a big human rights research project to make recommendations for legal reform . I am working on a mural project in Yorkshire, and a proposal for a big outreach programme focusing on women’s empowerment in South East Asia. I’ve been invited to work with separate organisations in Papua New Guinea and DRC on community arts therapy, and also have plans to go out to Kosovo and begin project work there too. I also have some ongoing personal projects – painting and poetry mainly, and also a dance performance collaboration. So at the moment/in the near future – I am working on my diary!
Do you have a dream project or a dream collaboration?
Actually, pretty much what I am doing is what I have dreamed of being able to make happen. I just need to keep trusting that it will all come together with enough thought and hard work. I’d love to get involved with festival art installations – like at Glastonbury or Burning Man, perhaps, just because I think that would be a lot of fun – to work together with my family and a bunch of good mates on something like that would be amazing. But honestly, just being alive and living creatively is pretty dream-like sometimes. Such a privilege!
Can you tell us something a bit funny and completely out of context about yourself?
I can climb telegraph poles… and, I really like cheese and marmalade sandwiches (apparently that’s weird).
Thanks a lot Rebecca for taking the time to answer our questions!
If you want to learn more about Rebecca, visit her facebook pages or her blog: