Cas Holmes: Teaching art in the community

Based in the UK, well-known fibre artist Cas Holmes has spent time teaching art in the community and working with a diverse range of abilities. She discusses her techniques for getting students to engage.

Cas’ Friday Feature Art Interview can be found at the bottom of this page.

As well as being an author and internationally renowned artist, Cas Holmes spends time working in community arts and encouraging differently-abled people to express themselves through a range of mediums. 

“Art is about communicating,” Cas explains, “And that, for me, has been my main tool of communication.”

“Sometimes people don’t have a voice, depending on where they come from, their social-economic position and their learning abilities. I have worked with adults who had severe and profound learning disabilities, as well as in the prison service.”

For Cas, it’s all about getting engaged. “Once you get people engaged, they kind of click and can express themselves more freely.”

Working with various projects or prison services and hospitals has required Cas to really listen to people. “Listen to their voices, watch how they work and become attuned to that. I don’t always get it but I try to be sensitive.”

Cas also tries to avoid judgement during her involvement with community art, and to find ways to make the experience enjoyable. “If, for example, I’m working with a student who cannot hold a brush, we have to find a way of wrapping it with tape or using other tools that are available. And if they’re enjoying spreading paint on the page, (as the teacher) you just make sure that they have plenty of paint and observe how they’re using it.”

“And once you have people engaged, it’s not about saying ‘You mustn’t do it that way’ or trying to ‘get all the yellow inside the circle’,” says Cas, explaining that art isn’t always about getting things right.

One skill of Cas’s which has always come in handy when working with community art is the recycling and reusing of materials. “I’m very conscious of how much waste we produce and it’s not only through my practice that I reuse things. It might be that the cloth has a history that’s really interesting, fabulous and it’s part of the story,” Cas says.

“But even the overlooked things that go past our hands daily can be of use. We’re in a post-industrial post technology world, and we produce so much stuff. When I started working in Community Arts, I had to be inventive with what I was able to do because we had limited funds for materials, and whatever funds I had, I wanted to spend on good brushes and good paints. So I would find different ways of working with what we had to stretch that money a bit further.”

When teaching community art, Cas maintains a sense of excitement and discovery. “Students will see me turn on a penny in the classroom when something exciting happens. I often say to them that we are learning together. When we see something happen, we have a discussion about it and talk about where the person wants to go with it… what it means to them.”

“I might have done something different but what they do makes it their own work and whatever happens has come about as a result of our partnership.”

Cas sometimes includes the people she works with in her own art, for example collecting scraps or asking people to share words on what they value or miss so she can bring them together as one piece. 

When sharing advice to budding artists, Cas’s recommendation is to “Carry a sketchbook because you never know when you might seize upon an idea. And the other thing that’s useful is to look for things that you can handle easily to begin with; little things or little projects. And you don’t always need to work towards something. If you’re working on something you enjoy or feel comfortable doing, just relax and something might come from it.” 

About the artist

Cas Holmes is an artist, writer and lecturer whose training in fine art painting and photography is evident throughout her well-known work with textiles and mixed media. 

Cas’s work comes from a place between the ‘what and the why’ of creation, between natural and urban environments, people and place, and flows from neither a solid idea, technique or desired outcome, but rather through a subliminal, intuitive and fluid process. 

By responding to materials such as discarded cloth and papers, Cas’s work contains ‘a history’ and offers the viewer an instant feeling of intimate friendliness, as she magnifies the details of the often overlooked simplicity of daily life. 

Cas’s work is often and perfectly described as ‘painting with cloth’ and ‘stitch sketching’. She is the author of several books for Batsford publications, including Stitch Stories in 2015, and most recently, Textile Landscapes: Painting with Cloth in 2018. Cas has received many awards for her work and recently completed a commission as part of the Gypsy Maker for an exhibition created by the Romani cultural and arts company supported by the Welsh Arts Council. Her work can be found in private and commercial collections all over the world, from London to New York and in Australia.

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