Salisbury Arts Centre played host to the Personal to the Universal Symposium last month. Lynne Blackwood got to speak to Jo Verrent about diversity and doing something deliciously different every day
Jo Verrent is the kind of woman who grabs you by the hand and draws you into a uniquely creative world. She channels this passion into diverse expressions of her professional talents and to the benefit of the disabled artists and projects she supports. She is a woman of multiple achievements and limitless passion who promotes the Creative Case and diversity in the arts at a strategic and a grassroots level. A Clore Leadership Fellow, Huffington Post and Guardian Cultural Professionals Network blogger, associate artist of Dance Digital, Co-Founder of ‘SYNC’, Co-curator of ‘PUSH ME’; the long list continues.
Jo’s passion for diversity leads her to work on, not surprisingly, very diverse projects, ranging from ‘Food for Thought’, a Yorkshire grassroots project promoting the Creative Case concept, to a long-term collaboration with West Kowloon Cultural District in Hong Kong, and the newest venture, ‘Short Circuit’, a project that brings together disabled artists and digital experts. A passionate woman indeed whose ethos is reflected in her statement:
“Diversity is everything. Difference is everything. Why would you want to eat the same thing day in, day out, every day of your life? We think we know what we like but actually, until we try everything else, we don’t. I think that we need to consume widely. And then more widely again. So I’m constantly on the search for things that I’ve not done before. It’s becoming an all-consuming hobby.”
With her Do Something Different Daily project Jo pushes herself out of her own comfort zone each day; whether it be a nose-piercing, walking on hot coals, or quite simply not speaking for twenty-four hours. Jo continually disseminates her work to wider audiences so others are influenced and encouraged to try something new, to push themselves into the open arena and assume their personal identities, whether disabled or other.
This theme of giving opportunities and ‘pushing’ people, or being a ‘chink’ in the door to mainstream arts and projects, recurs constantly throughout our interview. Jo spoke about ‘PUSH ME’, a series of short films featuring twelve artworks commissioned as part of the 2012 Cultural Olympiad. She talked of “seeing the world through different perspectives,” how “disabled people do that better than anyone else.”
Her passion is contagious when she speaks of the arts as the catalyst for changing peoples’ hearts and minds. “I think self-worth is at the heart of finding the ways to reach people. Until you believe that you have a right to be who you are, you will not be able to articulate and advocate for that. There are so many people who are alienated. We have to take on that responsibility to reach new audiences. And sometimes that might mean we have to do things that are outside of our own comfort zone… because we can, and that itself can be empowering, it means we can then stretch out to others and empower people.”
She discovered her own disabled identity through communities of similar people and found the power to give her the outlet for creativity and activism in support of disabled artists.
“For me, the early days of the Disability Arts movement were absolutely crucial in building my own disabled identity. And without those protests, and without that solidarity, I wouldn’t have it. I was, up until that point, a person with a hearing impairment who was not disabled, thank you. I would have seen disability as a negative thing. And it was the Disability Movement that drew me to see the benefit and the strength in honouring and accepting my disabled identity.”
Jo readily confesses to having a longstanding passion for the arts and how she is now creating her own work.
“Making my own work is a new foray. If somebody had said at 46 I’d be involved in making an art work myself, I wouldn’t have believed them. But that’s where I’ve been led. I’m learning so much. Not just about the new things that I’m trying. But actually, I’m learning so much about myself by doing that. What are the things that give me comfort? What are the things I retreat to? What are these things and how do I have to feel in order to push myself to something that’s very new?”
When finally asked what her dreams were, Jo’s answer is not surprising.
“The world is not a fair place. The world’s never been a fair place. But I think it’s getting crueller and more unfair, in some ways, when we have the technical potential to make it fairer. So I want to play my part in making my granddaughter’s world better. If I can’t make it better for my kids, maybe I could make it better for my grandkids. My chosen way of doing that is through following my passion.
I’m not frightened about that anymore. Well I am. But as well as being frightened, I’m not allowing myself to put a barrier in my way and stop because I’m frightened. I genuinely, until a couple of years ago, thought that I wouldn’t be able to do that. I thought that because I was hearing impaired, I wouldn’t be able to do certain things. I didn’t feel confident enough. And people always laugh and go, “Well, you come over as a really confident person.” It’s all a sham. It’s all a sham for every single person. Nobody has that confidence. Just sometimes you get to a point where you think, “I can go through this. I’m not going to let it stop me.” And actually, the more you don’t let it stop you, then the more you can do.”
Jo Verrent is certainly an unstoppable woman who passionately defends and promotes arts for all as a catalyst for change. Keep your eyes peeled for many more extraordinary projects, but be prepared to run fast in order to keep up with her.