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Interview: Lydia Hiorns, artist and arts director

18 March 2022

‘I want to challenge the middle-class idea that your home has to be perfect before you invite someone in’

Art and creativity are integral parts of human life, and, with art’s unique ability to articulate, question, and inquire, we can change our communities and the world.

Shieldfield Art Works [SAW] is an arts organisation in Shieldfield, Newcastle upon Tyne,
which has undergone rapid urban development. As a project of the Methodist Church, we seek truth, challenge injustice, engage in social activism, and work for the common good. Anyone’s welcome to participate in our programme.

My team of six develops high-quality art exhibitions, events, workshops, conferences, and publications.
Although we support all forms of art and development, we practise art that engages with local and global issues, and give opportunities to emerging artists.

We’re housed in Shieldfield Methodist Church,
which was refurbished into a gallery and community space in 2010 to be reborn as “Holy Biscuit”, and then relaunched in 2019 as SAW. So, this year’s our 12th birthday. All our work is funded by a mixture of grants, donations, building hire, and individual giving.

We lost our core funders through the pandemic,
but time and time again God has provided for us. It’s often piecemeal, but it’s in that uncertainty and true need that we’ve seen God work most clearly.

Alison is the Methodist minister overseeing SAW.
She wants to engage with people who dismiss faith and church as irrelevant, and probably untrue, because of something they’ve encountered. Faith communities have often failed to be good communicators or representatives of the Christian faith, and we often talk simplistically about complex issues — unlike Jesus. Listening and questioning must come before speaking; so we give space for conversations, different perspectives, and encounters.

Kim runs our Painting for Fun classes.
As a burnt-out doctor, she experienced so much healing from being creative that she wanted to help others through painting.

Art articulates human experience,
expressing often hidden aspects of human life. It should be an integral part of human life and flourishing. It’s a tool for inquiry, allowing us to examine our personal and collective experiences differently. It can work both as self-expression and a call for a response from the world. It can nurture empathy, promote imaginative thinking and new ways of living, expose and challenge injustice, and transform society. It helps us expand our theology and relationship to God.

Many people are alienated by the reverent hush of a white-cube gallery,
where the artwork often feels inaccessible and hard to understand. Conversation and questioning is encouraged. We can disagree well, and the language is accessible. We often don’t give people enough credit or grace about their understanding or ability.

Our community engages with difficult issues,
like the social, emotional, and political impact of commodification of land, rapid urban development, and “studentification”, sustainable food production, community autonomy and resilience, death, life, and the spiritual and faith dialogues connected to it.

Lorna [one of the SAW team] would tell you that artistic ambition isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
We welcome everyone, no matter what their background, but still cherish artistic excellence. Artists have to promote their own work to live, but it’s all about motivation, and who they are aiming to serve.

I get angry at feeling powerless to help local residents
who feel ignored and forgotten in the rapid development of their area that they had no voice in. I also get angry when people say they haven’t got a creative bone in their body, that art is pointless, or that hospitality is for those who can cook. That’s bad theology.

I’ve been researching hospitality for ten years,
and I’m also a printmaker, and love to draw what’s around me. I create spaces and host events that enable conversations about hospitality in a hand-printed portable tent called KILN, after the Hebrew initials for “All of my heart and soul”.

Hospitality doesn’t depend on having a nice house and being able to cook a five-course meal.
I’ve just written a book to help everyone discover practical ways of offering and accepting hospitality with limited resources, or at the beginning of their hospitality journey.

In the Bible, hospitality happens within a large community,
to welcome strangers and ensure their survival. We’re scared of strangers whose needs may not be so apparent. Our communities are so much smaller, and homes may be shared or much smaller. I want to challenge the middle-class idea that your home has to be perfect before you invite someone in. It’s as much about offering emotional space and a welcome. Middle-class people are also so often constricted by diaries, and hate interruptions — even if they’re from God.

God is hospitality in essence:
he created the world, a spacious and gracious space. He welcomed us into it. Jesus came and ate with people. Jesus’s table was one of grace, not reciprocity. It was counter-cultural, and collapsed the distance between rich and poor, insider and outsider. Jesus’s table expressed the Kingdom of God. Hospes means both “host”, “guest”, or “stranger”. So, hospitality is welcoming the stranger.

My role of managing the programme naturally puts the host’s apron on me,
which is empowering; but something occurs when a guest’s contributions are recognised, and when a guest isn’t defined first as needy. This intrigues and astounds me. Jesus himself was the recipient of hospitality more often than he provided it. He enabled Zacchaeus to be a host, and that’s what transforms him. Christians often take the host roles, but sometimes we need to give others a turn.

Our April programme of events
to explore creation, ecology, and sustainability is called “Bee Lines, Through the City”, to inspire awe and wonder at the nature and diversity of British bees and their sophisticated, delicate symbiosis with plants.

We’ve commissioned Symphony in C from three sound artists
— dedicated to the bumblebee, who vibrates its body to the note of middle C to unlock pollen from certain plants like tomatoes. And there’s a response to this symphony by the dancer Francesca Willow — and we’re redeveloping of our garden.

I had a very happy childhood in a Christian family with my mum, dad, sister, two brothers, and a cat.
I now live with two friends in a house in Newcastle. We share meals and enjoy inviting people into our home to share our lives.

I used to get a lot of my identity from my grades and achievements,
and put a lot of pressure on myself to succeed. God revealed himself as someone who didn’t want me to be something unattainable. He loved me the same, no matter what I had achieved that day. I fell in love with who he was and who he said I already was.

I’d like to do lots of things:
write more music, swim a 10k, compete on Strictly, meet the Queen and ask her about her faith. But, more than that, I’d like to be more patient, kind, and gentle. Those are the fruits I ask God to prune and grow in me every day.

I’m happiest when I’m dancing.
And printmaking, drawing, cooking, gardening, singing, swimming in the sea, and coastal walking.

Last year’s gift was being able to drop in to people’s homes and chat for a while because I knew they would be in,
available, and excited to see a visitor. You were able to be an interruption in someone’s day, and, instead of being seen as time wasted, you were a treasured blessing of a physical presence.

I know that God is at work in our messy world, and I trust him.
I have hope when I see how God has slowly grown his likeness in me and others, and that gives me hope for continual growth in the future.

I pray through the alphabet when I swim.
Each two lengths is a different person beginning with the next letter of the alphabet. It helps me weekly commit 41 people to God. I also pray through what I read in the Bible each morning, and I try to take those things into the day. I’ve previously written my prayers and folded them into origami birds that hang from my ceiling, physically lifting my prayers to God; but I’ve started a jar of thankfulness, holding thanks on slips of paper, to read back over the year.

I’d choose to be locked in a church with my friend Julie,
because she’s one of the best listeners and question-askers I know, and she encourages me every time I see her. She shows me Jesus; so I kind of said Jesus, anyway.

Lydia Hiorns was talking the Terence Handley MacMath.


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