John Martin Fulton is an award-winning Scottish artist who trained at Glasgow School of Art and is inspired by the heritage of modern Scottish painting. As part of North Lanarkshire Culture Collective and Here We Are!, John Martin has been working with numerous groups, using his practice to offer support to vulnerable communities. In this Q&A, he discusses the projects he’s been working with, the benefits that art can provide in areas of multiple deprivation and what he hopes for the future of such initiatives.

Can you tell us a little more about you and your practice?

I’m a visual artist who graduated art school in 2004. I do painting that involves people and landscapes and as well as that, for about 10 years now, I’ve done community-based art. I started off by running art groups myself for a charity called Turning Point Scotland. It’s a really diverse charity so I ended up working quite a lot with people that are in recovery from addiction but also people with learning disabilities. Through that, I’ve gone on to work with loads of different types of groups, consistently over 10 years. More than half of my time now is spent working with groups doing visual art.

How did you get involved with the Culture Collective? And why is it something that you wanted to get involved with?

I saw the positions advertised and thought they would be great to apply for. I felt like I had quite a bit of experience and quite a lot to offer the groups. I got involved in the North Lanarkshire group because I come from North Lanarkshire and so I’ve always wanted to work with groups in that area. It was a brilliant chance to get to do that. And the groups that I work with there are quite linked to my experience. As for Here We Are!, I live in Glasgow so it felt natural to apply there. It’s in Springburn which is an area of extreme deprivation – it’s in the top 5% of deprived areas. I like working with in-need groups, especially when art meets trying to help people.

Can you talk a little more about your work in North Lanarkshire and Glasgow? What does it involve?

In North Lanarkshire, I work with two groups. One of them is a recovery cafe and that’s something I feel really strongly about – working with people that are in recovery from addiction. I’ve been doing it for 10 years; it’s my most natural setting, I think. It’s about using art in a really therapeutic way and bringing it to everybody, making sure that they’re at ease and they can gain confidence. Everybody that I work with, usually they’ve got a certain image of what art is, and they’ve closed themselves off from it. But I really like to personalise it and pull them in and give them the comfort and confidence to just explore their own imagination and begin making beautiful things that they can show people and share with people and surprise themselves while they’re doing it. I like giving people a place to come together and make some pictures, using drawing and painting, with no pressure and a lot of support. A lot of the people that come along, it’s their first time in recovery or it’s their first time at the recovery cafe, so they can be quite nervous and withdrawn. And it’s just giving them something productive to do while they get at ease in the setting.

Then there’s another group that I run in North Lanarkshire, which I love. It’s for anybody and it takes place in Airdrie. The attendees that come along have been pretty much half and half; people with learning disabilities and people that don’t have learning disabilities. I’ve worked as an artist with people with learning disabilities for about 10 years but this is the first time different groups have come together so that’s wonderful. It’s absolutely great that all these barriers are removed and everybody’s just doing the same stuff and making friends.

In Springburn, I work with a few groups, including the North Glasgow Integration Network (NGIN), who support asylum seekers and refugees. When it first started, we thought it was just going to be grown-ups but these women are also bringing their pre-school kids. And they’re speaking Kurdish, Arabic, they’re from places like Syria and Sudan – it’s very mixed.

After that, I go to Barmulloch Community Development Company (BCDC), a group for adults that may have mental health issues and other health concerns.
 That one’s quite a small group but really good. And then after that, there’s Tron St Marys Youth, which is a drop-in class for 13-15 year olds. Some of them have really horrendous backstories but that’s not how you’re meeting them. You just meet them as a group of young people, taking them as they are.

What are some of the most interesting things you’ve learnt about your practice from being involved in these projects?

I think I’ve learned that I’m quite experienced, and that it’s okay to be relaxed and just trust yourself. I’ve always known that chatty interaction has been a strength for me. It really changes depending on the group but I’ve learnt how flexible I can be. The way I think I’ve developed is that I’ve learnt to be more relaxed now and I’ll actually leave a group a lot more to themselves and trust them a lot more. So it’s really just being on hand to support so that they feel that they can do it themselves too.

Have you had any feedback from participants that has stood out? Or anything you’ve been particularly proud of?

I really don’t tend to focus on what people make because some people can quite easily make something that looks very impressive and other people could really struggle to make something. So I really am not that fussed about end products that much. What I would say jumps out is that with the North Glasgow Integration Network (NGIN), language is removed a lot of the time. So I remember seeing a lot of the women there, and the happiness they get from making something. And the pride they have when they hold it up to show to everyone. I’ve really enjoyed the relationship with those women blossoming.

In terms of feedback, it can take the form of someone saying, ‘how long is this going for?’. They’ve got this need for it to continue and they know they’re going to miss it. Other times, you just get nice, meaningful conversations.

Why are projects like this so beneficial to somewhere like Ward 17?

One of the groups includes women that have lived in the area all their lives and being part of the group gives them something to do. There’s one woman who has told me that the group is the only thing to come out of the house for all week. It gives people something to do that’s productive, just to get together and focus on something creative. It gives people a kind of sense of purpose and something to gather around and enjoy together. Places can look quite grim and they can be grim and at times, things can be really difficult. And often it’s to do with things like poverty and not having a lot of money. So I think when it’s something like making paintings together, it’s just having these tools to add a wee bit of colour.

Why do you think art can be therapeutic, especially for vulnerable groups?

I think it’s a basic need. In our culture, it gets treated as if it’s this superfluous icing on the cake that can be done without. But it’s just so basic to normal experience, like little kids paint and draw all the time and sing and dance all the time. So how can you go from being like that, to just no longer needing that? It’s not an extra thing for better off people. I think it’s therapeutic, because it’s already a part of people. So it’s another hunger or another need. I think it’s therapeutic because people can fulfil that need.

What are your hopes for the future of the project and the groups?

I would just love for it to all continue. These areas, all the places I work, it’s just so needed. With all the groups, it’s not like an optional extra; it’s really important to people’s weeks and therefore, their lives. Based on the things people are saying, you can tell they don’t want it to go, they’re already thinking about that. So I hope things can continue in some form.

I really do believe in the importance of that kind of art activity in people’s lives, it really can make anything seem worthwhile. It can give people a better lens to see whatever is around them. If you can change people’s perceptions, and how they feel about themselves, it can cover all manner of ills. When you’ve got these nice bits inside you – you can draw, or paint or whatever it is – whatever’s outside, maybe you can deal with it a bit better.