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The twenty first century Coracle: a motif for International Creative Collaboration

On Saturday 4 February Portuguese writer Inês Lampreia led a seminar at the Jönköping SmåLit in Sweden. Inês was joined by students and staff from a high school in Tranås, a small town 70km north of the county capital. Inês and her fellow writer, Welsh poet Mel Perry, have been working with students at the school on a variety of creative projects over the last six months, poetry, drama, performance, digital story telling, collectively titled the Young Writers Lab. Students are given the opportunity to explore their interest in these topics guided by their teachers but in collaboration with access and direction from an international panel of creative professionals. Inês and Mel haven’t physically visited the school since early September 2016. The vessel that bears safe and nurtures the creative thought of these young people is a virtual one. The branches which are interlaced to support these positive forces across the vast seascapes and landscapes that separate the participants geographically that are social media, video calling and online platforms. These particular branches have very strong origins in west Wales.

Through the work of Literature Wales the concept of school children having their earliest experiences of creative writing not directed by English or Welsh teachers but by professional writers and published authors in both the Welsh and English languages is almost common. This interaction between students and professional practitioners in education is of unquestionable benefit to the individuals involved and there is a direct correlation between these activities and the standing of literature in Welsh culture and society.

Between 2010 and 2013 Dominic Williams, as representative of lead partner the University of Wales Trinity Saint David, coordinated the Coracle project. The Coracle project was a €1.6m investment of European funding in the professional development of Creative Practitioners across southwest Wales and southeast Ireland. During those three years Coracle delivered on many project strands including the delivery of an MBA in Arts Management at Irish and Welsh universities and the creation in partnership with the National Trust and Literature Wales of the first Dinefwr Literature Festival. There was also a programme of short courses, conferences, seminars, residencies, work placements, performance exchanges and mentorships in the visual arts, disability arts and the language arts. The project also created a new physical theatre group, The Coracle Theatre Project.

Over a short period of time the name for a hand crafted, one-man Celtic fishing boat became synonymous with connecting creativity and linking artistic communities. In 2011 Colm Ó Ciarnáin was visiting Wexford from Sweden with members of the adult education organisation Studiefrämjandet . The visiting group were guests at the launch of of Elizabeth Whyte, director of Wexford Arts Centre a major Irish partner in the Coracle project .

Ó Ciarnáin was hugely impressed by the concept of connecting creativity, the ethos of Coracle and interested in many of the models, such as residency, that were employed to deliver the project outputs. Other models included Williams leading a team of Welsh writers, members of the Community Interest Company write4word, in creative writing projects in schools. One linked pupils at a Welsh primary school with those in an Irish primary school through video conferencing and write4word also worked in conjunction with an Irish county library to deliver professional writing workshops to Irish high School students. At the invitation of Studiefrämjandet, Williams and Elena Schmidt of Literature Wales with the support of Wales Arts International visited Tranås to discuss a joint bid for European funding. Those discussions eventually proved fruitless within the context of their original plans but in typical Coracle fashion the opportunity awarded space for creativity and innovation and over a few beers and cigarettes in stolen moments in high street doorways Ó Ciarnáin and Williams laid the foundations for a new platform to carry the ethos of Coracle to a wider community. The concept of a Coracle Europe partnership was conceived which would lead very shortly to the birth of a new organisation – Kultivera.

The idea of creating space for artists from all over the world to participate in inter-cultural dialogue and to collaborate in the small town of Tranås became a passion for Ó Ciarnáin. With friends living in the town: Peter Nyberg, Editor of the Swedish national online poetry magazine Popular Poessi, Magnus Grehn, local historian town librarian and punk musician and Peter Åkessosn arts manager; he formulated a plan that he took to Studiefrämjandet to create a space in their building Kraftwerket in Tranås to host international arts residencies. Soon Kultivera was in full pan-European operation. Using the as a networking tool the first contemporary arts residency took place in 2013 and included among the participants one of its most prolific young artists, Lauren Heckler, a former member of the Coracle Theatre Project. By 2014 an annual programme of international residencies had been established including a dance residency curated by Sheila Creevey, Irish graduate of the Coracle Project’s MBA in Arts management. Between 2014 and 2017 Williams will have curated four international literary residencies.

Driven by the residency programme hosted by Kultivera, who had adopted the mantra of “connecting creativity”, the transition of the identity of the relationship initiated by Ó Ciarnáin, Williams and Whyte was complete. From project to partnership; connecting creativity had become Coracle Europe, a global phenomenon. The open call for the second annual literary residency via received applications from award winning writers among over 100 from 35 countries. From Uganda to USA, from Peru to Poland and from India to Iran.

The original funding for the Coracle project was awarded through the interreg 4a Ireland wales programme. The funding strand was Knowledge Innovation and Skills for Growth - Skills for Competitiveness and Employment Integration. The fact that the partners chose to deliver on these themes specifically within the areas of creative practice was ground breaking for the arts communities of Wales sand Ireland and revolutionary in terms of interdisciplinary collaboration for the lead partner The University of Wales Trinity Saint David. Three of the five faculties that now exist in the university structure, Art and Design, Business and Management and Humanities and Performing Arts were all fully engaged with the Coracle project. The project, though clearly focussed around higher education and business growth is still cited as an example of best practice by Welsh Government at cultural funding seminars (Creative Europe Desk UK Swansea 25 Feb 2016).

In 2017 University of Wales Trinity Saint David will be leading a significant re-engagement of higher education institutions with Coracle Europe. Williams who as been a regular guest lecturer on the university’s MA Creative Writing programme over the last ten years will be curating this year’s literary residency and the participants will include Dr Jeni Williams, Senior Lecturer, among other academics from universities in Sweden, Ireland and Canada who are also creative writers.

Kath Gorman author of the independent evaluation of the Coracle project writes in her introduction: "Over a two – three year period Coracle has created a ‘ripple effect’ within the communities and individuals it has been working with and from the legacies demonstrated in this report, will continue to do so. By a ‘ripple effect’ it is meant that some Coracle beneficiaries have become ‘Coracle champions’ using their positive experiences to promote Coracle to other individuals or organisations. Coracle has engendered a loyalty and bond and many individuals testify their appreciation to Coracle to providing a pathway of accelerated growth in their professional development."

Over seven years the ripples have continued to spread and the community built around the ethos of Coracle Europe has become stronger. It is an international arts community. boasts an enviable database of contemporary artists, filmmakers, musicians, writers and performers from all over the world. The community is founded upon artist partnership whether that partnership results in an organisational or creative output. It is founded upon creative collaboration that engenders a spirit of peer support and advocacy. In early 2017 when western society is threatened by so much, it is these values of inclusivity that enable the arts sector to remain resilient.

Coracle Europe was born in 2010 the same year as the Europe 2020 Agenda was rolled out for the coming decade. As the British Government creeps towards invoking article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, creative practitioners have to seek out new and innovative ways to deliver the responsibility their art demands of them to grow, a smart sustainable and inclusive Europe.

So we are brought back to the Young Writers Lab. Mel Perry a Welsh poet living in Llansteffan in west Wales and Inês Lampreia a short fiction writer living in Lisbon educating young immigrants to Sweden with creative skills through new media and innovative techniques. Coracle Europe is keeping the agenda alive.

This article was first published on the Coracle Europe homepage:

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