Leanne Prain is a yarn-bomber and writer, the co-artistic director of The Imprint ( a literary collective founded with poet Laura Farina to explore participatory acts of writing in public spaces), and a Comox Valley raised kid now living in Vancouver on the unceded ancestral territories of the Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh.
During the pandemic, she hunkered down to write
The Creative Instigator’s Handbook: A DIY Guide to Making Social Change Through Art (2022),
a book I’ve been poring over and enjoying since I got my hands on a copy, in large part because of this thesis that has been brewing in me, that culture and community are the things that shore us upon the face of precarity, and that a fragmented community (because of sudden surges of growth, a lack of shared vision, pandemic retreat, inflationary pressures, climate pressures, inflammatory global and social media paradigms), is vulnerable, like an immune system.
I love the idea that beefing up our collective immunity could be joyful and creative… because joy and creativity are what I need right now… and they feel regenerative, like they resupply themselves when you deploy them… they don’t really run dry.
I asked Leanne a few questions about making social change, and being a creative instigator. Our delicious email Q+A is below. Enjoy!
You sat down to start writing this book on March 3 2020! What was the question or idea that was driving you?
Yes, I did sit down to this book virtually three days before everything around me shut down. I had originally conceived of the idea of the book way back in 2017, but obviously the pandemic influenced the project. One thing that became very important to me was learning from artists who had staged projects in the past that had been successful, and looking at how their ideas and work could form a blueprint for other creatives wanting to do their own projects in the future. I consider art a long game of “telephone”: you make something, you show it to someone else, they pick up what they heard and they pass on their own interpretation.
The only good thing that I will say about the pandemic is that I did not have to make up excuses to sit out of my regular social life so that I could stay home and write, there were literally no excuses – every day at home was a writing day!
Your first chapter is about identifying your creative voice. How would you define yours and what are the key experiences or influences that have shaped that?
I think my creative voice is a little quirky, definitely political, sometimes sassy, but mostly curious. 🙂 Part of being to recognize your creative voice is to start making a lot of work – experimental, messy and haphazard work, and overtime you’ll start to see what common elements and themes come up for you.
In terms of key experiences, the first time I really thought about my creative voice was when I was 17. I was taking a visual art class and at our end of year review, my instructor looked at all five pieces I was presenting – a soft sculpture of twine and tennis balls, a large acrylic portrait, a pastel drawing of eggs, and a couple of life drawings and remarked that no matter what the medium was, she could tell that I was the author because of my choice of subject matter, colour and the way that I drew a line. This was the first time I really started to go back to my work and start to look for patterns and repeating themes. Now I see them everywhere – from the doodles I make when I’m listening to something to the ideas that surface in my writing.
What’s your main creative practice, or pathway?
I honestly have too many to count! For many years I worked as a graphic designer for a living, and this discipline spilled over into every part of my life. But I’ve also been writing almost every day since I was a young teen and I consider writing like breathing. I knit, sew, make jewelry, and use an antique printing press when I need to decompress. I also have a literary community art project with my friend Laura where we stage acts of writing in public places. In different periods of my life I lean towards different things, and I think that is normal. Just like we evolve as humans, we also evolve as creative beings. I haven’t met a person who isn’t creative in more than one way.
I have a weird resistance to “art” along the lines of my resistance to eating spinach, memorizing poetry and attending Council meetings – they all feel like things that are good for me, ennobling, but a bit too formal to be fun… But I just made a list of things around my community that fit the bill of “creative instigations” and there’s so many, it’s so cool to think about, and I’ve never really thought of them as “art” (said with a fancy posh accent.) WTF happened to art? AM I the only one who feels this way? How do we reclaim creative expression as vital, playful, and democratic?
I definitely don’t think you are the only one that thinks this way! Part of my inspiration for writing this book was meeting people that have all sorts of hang ups and fears about art. We often get told that art belongs to other people or is only for some people. I completely disagree with this, but I do think art has been subject to canonization and colonialist thinking, just like everything else. I think the important thing is to find the art or creative act that speaks to you and lights you up as a human being.
Why is mixing art and social change so vital right now??
These past few years have highlighted just how many things in this world need to be solved. We are not a just society but many people have been operating as we have been. The environment is dying, but we’ve been pretending that it hasn’t been. Many countries thought that we could never possibly have a world war. Art has a natural way of connecting people in dialogue that other methods do not. I think we need it both as an act of solace in troubling times, but also as a tool to unite people to come together to solve the issues and problems around us.
One of my favourite phrases right now is “make good trouble.” Can you speak to what that means to you? And how art is a method for making “good” vs bad trouble? What is “artistic troublemaking?” or “the art of positive troublemaking” and why does it need more press?
For me, trouble comes back to the fact that we live with a lot of imaginary rules a lot of the time. Rules, such as: Art only belongs in galleries. Children shouldn’t speak until they are spoken to. Politicians always know what is right….see where I’m going here? The idea of positive troublemaking is to spur on the ideas of allowing yourself to make a little trouble or break the rules by doing something that your friends and family might find outlandish in the spirit of making something that will connect with those you have something to share with. I think we hold ourselves back a lot in the interest of “polite society”, but we know in the underbelly of things societies are rarely polite. Artists and creatives have the ability to be our greatest truth tellers in such circumstances.
Why did you use the word “instigator” and “creative instigator” versus artist? or culture-jammer? or activist?
I used instigator because I want my book to be a pep talk to my readers. In reading my book, I hope the message that comes through loud and clear is: if you want to see something happen, you are the one who has to start it. I know so many smart, talented people who are looking to attach themselves to big creative projects and all they do is wait and wait. A big moment of change for me a few years ago was realizing that there is no point in holding back and waiting on other people – I could rally my friends and co-conspirators together and just make things happen.
I have this great quote in my journal right now from William Blake that says, “Creation is the only outcome of conflict that can truly satisfy the soul.” You speak about the natural tensions between art, activism, making, impact, participation and engagement. Can you say a bit more about tension, and conflict, and how those things might cause destruction OR creation, and what leads things in one direction versus the other? (ie I’ve thought a lot about the possibility baked into this pandemic disruption, and how it could have instigated so much positive change… but it feels to me at the moment that it’s triggered a lot more breakage and fragmentation… What’s your sense of what is needed to use these opportunities for positive change?)
I remember reading something a few years ago that said that change only happens in hindsight…when you are going through a change, you ultimately do not realize that it has happened until it is well in the rearview mirror. My sense is that the disruption of the pandemic is not over yet, and we’ve yet to really discover the outcome.
Making critical work is an act of faith, and when you put work out into the public arena it may create ripples. Art is not always palatable and a lot of people expect it to be. One of the things that I was hoping to get across is that I want creative people to be okay with tension and challenges – if you come to expect them, they are easier to navigate. Sometimes we need to make things tense in order to have open, thoughtful and honest conversations. Activist artwork is a platform in order to do this – when you look at projects in the book such as Before I Die (which asks people to consider their mortality) and the Unofficial Official Voting Booths (which point out a lack of true democracy), these are art projects which make people ponder their place in some pretty heavy subject matter. Is it worth taking them there? Absolutely.
My interview with the Center for Art Activism really highlights why this combination is so powerful. Pure activists are often focused on making a big change but may not know how to powerfully convey a message. Pure artists may be focused on expressing something and reaching people but may not have the tools to really push towards a measurable change. There’s a powerful blending of skills that come together when these two mindsets meet.
Art is slow. And the crises and need for change are urgent. How do you reconcile these two time scales?
Art can be slow, but I believe that it can build momentum. It can also invite people into the conversation who normally would not think of themselves as overtly political or having the ability to make a change. We are in a critical time, but we didn’t get to this dire place in an instant. The problems that we are reckoning with now were talked about in the 1950s… and the 1800s. I think there is a lot of power in using art to reclaim narratives away from big media and political self-soothing.
What is the importance of pleasure, delight and imagination in social change? I think of them as energies that have been sidelined profoundly by capitalism, to the extent that, for me, as a gig economy worker, freelancing creative, aged 47, my capacities for delight and imagination are very emaciated… even though they were the energies that sent me in the direction of creative work that I pursued? What remedies are there for this? (Because I feel like they’re really essential to making these days what they need to be… joyful and revolutionary, you know?)
I think there is a difference between creativity that pays the bills and creativity that moves you. Hopefully they can be one and the same, but it is rare. My hope is that if you find what really lights you up (and it may not be something that pays the bills), this is the start of something that will energize you and remind you of your creative self. You may not get to fully exercise that part of you in your wage earning work, but hopefully it will allow you to reserve a little sanity, rest and pleasure of your own to make the work worth it.
Before this book, I wrote several books on textiles and a key theme with textiles is that they are often considered functional and utilitarian (both historically and now in present day), that textile artists are often considered selfish if they do anything with their creative work beyond making someone a sweater or something else wearable. The idea that someone might want to knit to create an art piece is still considered a radical idea. One of the women that interviewed for my book Yarn Bombing said, “people would never consider me selfish for spending my spare time watching football, but if I choose to do something like knitting with my spare time, it is seen as selfish”.
I love that your book is a combination of a manual, profiles of inspiring people and little tips.. Why did this combination seem fertile for you?
It was important for me to have case studies so that readers could get a different idea of how each chapter of the book might apply to their work. I really wanted to include creatives from a wide range of disciplines because I constantly meet creatives that work in a wide variety of disciplines. The tips are there to guide and coach people through each chapter. I hope that readers know by the end of the book that they can put their ideas into action.
Rob Hopkins of the Transition Town movement says in his book from What Is to What If that imagination is functionally compromised when we’re under stress. (SO we really need to tend to it…) What tip or creative practice is the most helpful, to you… especially when it comes to holding onto hope and being creative?
I would say the best medicine is to just start making things without an expectation of the outcome. Doodle on some paper with the intention of crumbling it up. Draw only on Post-it notes. Sit in your closet and sign a song to yourself. The act of making things clears out your brain and offers positive reinforcement. I think when we focus on big goals and the outcome of projects, that becomes a source of stress. The goal is to just start to make things with the hope of losing yourself in the process of making. Evaluation can come later when you feel more recharged.
I love that you said that creativity requires vulnerability, and that hope is vulnerable too. What have you learned from your personal practice and also from the people you’ve encountered, about “making as an act of hope” and how to support that risky endeavor of putting our hearts out into the world?
I think what I’ve learned over time is that I’ve learned to be comfortable with getting things wrong. Everytime you put yourself out there – with an idea, with an artistic act, with a book, it is an act of letting other people evaluate you and your ideas. This can be really vulnerable and hard for people. I try to focus a lot just on the act of trying things – if I try something and I get it wrong, or it doesn’t go well, then that is an opportunity to learn something and do it better next time. I think the most hopeful thing for a creative person to do is to quell their fear and just start to try things with no expectation of what the outcome might be. If we can make ourselves vulnerable, we create space for other people to meet us in this vulnerability.
When you sought out the people you profiled, what did you want to know from them? What emerged that surprised you? Who did you have the biggest creative crush on, going into the project? And who, afterwards, would you most like to collaborate with, hang out with, or road trip with, and why?
This is always the most difficult question as obviously I love all the artists in my books, and I always wish that I could add another 200 pages to each book! Candy Chang, who created the Before I Die project is definitely a creative crush, as is the New York Poetry Society. I would definitely like to road trip with The Spirit of the Animals is in the Wheels, a project that created amazing aluminum animal bikes, because it would be the coolest way to travel!
And what was your favourite project or installation? I just love the Typewriter project because I’ve always had a secret fantasy about having a typewriter, and I LOVE THOSE TROLLS SO MUCH, but the activation that is really sticking with me is the Hot One Inch Action button project.
Hot One Inch Action definitely has my heart. It took place in my neighbourhood here in Vancouver for many years, and I even took a bunch of friends to attend with me on my birthday one year. It was the best way to interact and meet strangers at an art show. Probably my favourite project is Shanalee Hampton’s Wonderful and Horrible embroidered street art project. It is amazing how she can do so much with a few scraps of t-shirt fabric and thread.
What advice would you have for creative instigators who are working in a small community of our size, around 5000 people?
I would think about what are the big issues impacting your community that a public art project could impact. Is there a central place where people gather, or are not gathering (but they should be) that an engaged art project could be used to make them talk or interact with each other?
I would identify some topics that you feel passionate about and then figure out how to reach out to other creatives who might be interested in similar things, and then meet to brainstorm some ideas! Use community bulletin boards, your local newspaper or social channels, or good old fashioned word of mouth to find your collaborators.
If you could tell people just one thing from this book, what would it be?
If you want to make a big, wonderful, challenging creative project – you can do it! I hope that this book is a guide to help you make it real.