REBEL Meets Unity

Martin Gooding || July 10th

Today I've been chatting to Will Sherratt from Unity, we talked about, amongst a thousand other things, approaching education in a slightly different way, the need for artistic expression in young people and the exhibition Unity are launching at Gallery 116 on Church Street in Stoke opening on the 29th of July. This interview could easily have been twenty pages long so I've done my best to refine it down to its core ideas...

Unity have built up a great reputation in the city as practitioners, educators and facilitators but for those who don't know can you tell us a little about Unity...

Unity is in its 12th year, I've been involved for 5 years, we'd always worked on the same vision of giving opportunities to young people who may come from disadvantaged backgrounds and addressing that balance, being good role models for young people, allowing them to express themselves through the arts. Whatever lessons they learn from the arts can apply to everything. Obviously there's many issues that are well documented in Stoke, there's need for "intervention" if you like, we don't like that word but it's technically correct. A lot of the folk we work with need to express themselves, arts and expression are valuable at any level that they want to engage. Raising aspirations, that's what Unity is about. Each year our showcase is made up of whatever art has gripped the young people, we're adding other things such as this gallery show, we are mentors as well as practitioners and hope to bring as many experiences to the people we are working with. 

How important is it to give young people this platform?, eg. to be shown in a professional gallery or have their works viewed in this light.. 

If you are to raise standards you want young people to have experiences, especially with everything moving on line, you can't beat real life experience. When I was trying to learn guitar, I waited four months for a David Bowie songbook, and it was wrong. Where as now I could go on Youtube and pick any song I like, and learn to play it, without ever leaving the house. It's great it gives so much access but what you can never get rid of is playing to people, it can bring its own isolation. We try to utilise the technology but give options like "you're going to be in a gallery", "people are going to see your work", "Oh you play an instrument, we're gonna go out and have a show, there's gonna be lights, you're gonna have to perform" presumably that's part of the reason you guys are doing REBEL to bridge that gap...

Yeah, it can be tough in the arts, especially with a lack of, let's call them, legitimate professional streams. It's not always easy to find a full time job, the legitimacy that comes through exhibiting in a gallery, it's such a good head start we can give people...

Well I specialise in music, instruments, recording, live music, I worked for the sports press through photography and was involved in the early days of the UFC, so I have probably met many of their favourite fighters, anything I can do to connect. We have Nick who specialises in graffiti and DJing, he's very urban looking, he'll work on murals with young people out working alongside him, they've just worked on the Blue Glove Boxing Academy. And we have Annie who specialises in textiles, ceramics and basically anything that involves getting your hands dirty. So there's our three sort of, broad sections. What tends to happen is a young person will click with one of us, because they like the art form or because they like us, whichever is fine.

A lot of the time when you're asked, if you can do something with young people, well I'm yet to meet a bad person, whether your stealing or setting off fire alarms , you want attention, we can get that out in productive ways  such as through playing music, etc.. When we can get that attention through more positive means then we have a choice, we can relate wiyj these real life experiences, credentials, people may not engage with a Food Technology teacher but they may engage if Gordon Ramsey came to teach them for a week.

I see a lot of similarities with what I'd call the Scandinavian model for education, where the focus is more on finding skills and interests the students have and helping them tailor that to something that's productive and possibly a career...

One of our students is really into very heavy metal, black, death metal, so I'll sit with him and we'll pull the tracks apart, Arts Award are great for that, we can get a level one qualification by fulfilling their criteria while investigating something they are passionate about. For the showcase we invited local band Sworn to Oath to play some of these songs alongside the student. I'm not sure everyone in the crowd enjoyed it but I don't want anyone obligated to come, this show, you like it or you don't but that's what he wants, it's about him and it's about appreciating what we have achieved and appreciating the work for it's quality, regardless of taste. 

"The Exhibition", part of Unity's "Progressionz" programme opens on the 29th July at Gallery 116 on Church Street in Stoke and runs until the 4th August.