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Taboos, class, and Marilyn Monroe: SE London is Sputnik at its strangest and best

A Sputnik Meetup. I’d missed my last local meetup in Brum as I was inconveniently coming out of an unscheduled coma (another story), so I bit Jonny Mellor’s hand off at the chance to attend this gathering of artists at Bermondsey’s City Hope Church.

It turns out the folk in South East London represent many of the best things about Sputnik in microcosm. I’d never met anyone there before, but as we began to share our work we realised we’d discussed the realities of domestic violence, the incorporation of paganism into the Christian story, racial profiling in the performance arts and the emotional trauma of emerging from successive Covid lockdowns in a matter of minutes.

These aren’t conventional ice-breakers (unless you’re a Sputnik regular), but perhaps convey what we’re always going on about – that art possesses a unique ability to cross boundaries, break down taboos; to act as a language of translation. We got to hear and see some really good art, from poems and songs to installation pieces and a capella rap. City Hope’s Emily reflected on being an actor-musician, an actor whose physical performance incorporates the playing of their particular instrument – something I’d never heard of before.

After circle time we heard from this meetup’s featured artist, which is where the day diverged spectacularly from anything I’ve experienced with Sputnik before. Suzie Kennedy is an actor and stand-up performer who looks considerably like Marilyn Monroe. She has played Marilyn in films like Blade Runner 2049 and The Theory of Everything as well as television ads for Pepsi and After Eights. She has performed on stage both in the West End and Stateside and is leading a show in which she reflects on almost 25 years of embodying and living with the not inconsiderable legend of one of the 20th Century’s most famous and eulogised figures.

Suzie performed some of this show to us, including singing some of Marilyn’s most famous songs. Jonny got the infamous ‘Happy Birthday’ sung specifically for him, which was both hilarious and the most uncomfortable I have seen him in a long time. Suzie offered a fairly withering review of Kim Kardashian’s then-recent appearance at the Met Gala in one of Marilyn’s own gowns, as well as some terrifying insight on what it was like to be a Marilyn Monroe impersonator around people who actually knew her. “Wow, even your skin feels like hers,” said an (overly) friendly man at a memorial event, who it transpired had been Marilyn’s coroner. Yikes.

This was the most boundary-morphing Sputnik meetup I’d ever been to. 

Things got even more meta than that. So striking is the resemblance that Suzie’s photograph has been accidentally used in place of Marilyn’s and she has even met people who have gotten tattoos of her face believing it was actually the Hollywood star.

But Suzie’s performance and her own reflections on her life and career went much further. As she swayed in a sequined dress in a Bermondsey Church (under an austere stone with an inscription dedicated to Charles Spurgeon) it struck me that in terms of the cultural class divide that permeates the entire lived experience of being British, this was the most boundary-morphing Sputnik meetup I’d ever been to. 

Like most evangelical Western churches in general, the make-up of Sputnik gatherings are predominantly middle-class. The art tends to be conceptual and will usually reference some basis in an academic tradition. I think Jonny would probably recognise that most of our hip-hop, a definitely working-class artform, is on the cerebral end of that particular tradition.

Suzie’s performance clearly drew from the music hall/variety tradition that originated not all that far far from where we were meeting. It’s a particularly working-class heritage distinctive even to London, and through Suzie’s humour, honesty and craft it was an enormously powerful and effective means of exploring deep and weighty themes such as hyperreality and generational abuse, all whilst being significantly more accessible (and fun) than a good few white-cube installations I’ve seen in my time.

Despite looking almost exactly the same, Suzie Kennedy is obviously not Marilyn, something she playfully references in her performance, proudly reminding us on multiple occasions of her Streatham roots, seamlessly switching between Marilyn’s husk and her own Tower-Bridge-Cockney as well as offering some insight on how the neighbourhood’s herb gardens have evolved post-gentrification.

Paul Brown, the pastor of City Hope Church knows Suzie and interviewed her for the day’s event. It came as not too much of a surprise to learn that Paul had recently co-written a book on church and class called Invisible Divides on class, culture and barriers to belonging in the church.

Though I haven’t yet read the book (it’s on order), it was a joy and a blessed discomfort for me (despite 10 years in Erdington and the very best of intentions, I’m still a middle-class prude) to see that subverting these cultural barriers is something Paul and his church community are not just talking or writing about, but effectively embodying and practicing with a great amount of care and love – making good use of art’s power as a language of translation in the process. It was rare, precious and a significantly more transcendent glimpse of the age to come than I was ready to expect.

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The magic of meeting up: Falmouth Hub meets in-person

We live in a time of death, and a time of life. A time of endings and a time of beginnings. Of discontinued normals and a carving out of new paths. 

It feels like a lifetime ago, but Sputnik used to host termly Hub meet-ups (when we could). Meet-ups where you got to see people’s legs as well as their shoulders! In person, in the flesh — 3D.

We’re not interested in winding back the clock, but we’ve always believed in the importance of embodied reality and so, at the first opportunity, we wanted to facilitate live meet-ups again. The plan was to gather — and that alone would have been enough — but I also wanted to understand the precise lay of the land for us, at this strange juncture in history. Perhaps some roads have ended; perhaps new opportunities will present themselves.

What better way to do that than to gather a group of artists in a room, share work, eat brownies and reflect on our practice? So, having thoroughly enjoyed the Faith & Arts day in Brum — and with the Edinburgh event a week away — that’s exactly what we did in Falmouth on 7th November.

The heart of any Sputnik meet-up is always when artists share their work, and this was no exception. In our circle, we heard from a painter who was fascinated by a particular field, but didn’t know why — and so would return, day after day, to draw, paint and photograph the space, in search of the source of its allure. Another artist talked through how he explored his own mental health difficulties through his wonderful creation, Nanook the bi-polar bear. However, my favourite moment was the discovery that the same illustrator blended his own tea while listening to a certain seminal hiphop group. The blend was called Electric Relaxation. If you know, you know.

The featured artists for the event were the Moses Brothers, Davidson and Richard, who are perhaps the most amiable, gentle and pleasant human beings I’ve ever met. They also seem to occupy that rare space where words like ‘genius’ or ‘prodigy’ get tossed about.

For example, Davidson spoke of the time when he first started learning the guitar and how Richard, who is a few years younger, asked their mum if he could follow suit. Their mum decided that Richard was too young, so Davidson took it on himself to teach his younger brother everything he learnt in the lessons. All pretty standard, until they revealed a key detail: Richard was three years old at the time! Now, at 17, he seems to play anything that he can get his hands on. And, without blinking, he can tell you the pitch of a passing bus.

One of Davidson’s biggest regrets in his life so far, he told us, was laughing at Richard’s first songwriting effort. This led to his brother screwing up the song and throwing it in the bin, lost forever. Ever since, he has tried to put that right by encouraging his younger sibling and, as we listened, we were aware that he was going further still. He was encouraging and inspiring us all with the generous, open hearted freedom of his approach to music-making.

And we got a glimpse of the fruits of his redemptive journey. The brothers performed two songs, their 2020 single Living Water and a South African folk song. The performance was largely unamplified which, while it lost a degree of definition for that reason, drew us all in by forcing us to truly listen. I don’t think Davidson or Richardson really noticed though, as they were clearly lost in what they were doing. It was a joy to hear them envelop themselves in their own creative skills and perhaps even more so, to witness the synchronicity that they achieve in their music. 

After the performance, Davidson quoted Psalm 100:4: “Enter his gates with thanksgiving and his courts with praise” but pointed out that we need to be careful in defining God’s courts too restrictively. Yes, we were gathered in a church hall for the afternoon, but God’s courts extend much, much further. Davidson and Richard have the desire and the talent to bring their thanks and praise of their creator into the nooks and crannies of the divine court rooms that many of us have forgotten are His at all.

And so, with all of this done, and with a bellyful of the most extensive selection of homemade cakes I can remember, I hopped back in my car to bomb it up the M5. I won’t lie, it’s an absolute mission to get from Brum to Falmouth. A five-hour mission each way, to be precise. However, it was worth every minute.

The future will not be the same as the past for any of us, I would imagine, and that is certainly true of Sputnik. By God’s grace, I can write that with a sense of optimism and excitement, and I know that, whatever that future does hold, it will include more meetings like this. There really is nothing like getting a group of Christian artistic practitioners in a room and letting the sparks fly.

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When a light shines: Edinburgh Sputnik Hub back in a building and melting the walls

Saturday the 13th of November was Sputnik Edinburgh’s first in-person gathering since a certain earth-shattering event, and the gathering was good. King’s Building, with its concentric rings of red chairs, was our spacious café complete with chocolate-covered digestives and oreos. We came from Edinburgh, far, far awa’ Dundee, and even rivalrous Glasgow. We came in faded jeans and face masks, smooth navy coats, resting mohawks and mustard beanies. We quickly found our way to my favourite new space where faith and art belong together and have never been separate.

“Save me into the belly of a fish, when I’ve been tossed into the waves because I tried to run away from whom you want to Save me…”

Gentle waves of that refrain lapped at the legs of our chairs as Rachel Zylstra’s leviathan song — featuring Christy Ringrose — took us into its mesmerising undercurrents. I didn’t notice the room starting to flood. My eyes were still closed when we were swallowed by the whale. Your turn: here’s Jonah by Rachel Zylstra, with animations from another Sputnik Edinburgh member, Amanda Aitken. 

Then, intros and art-sharing. Sometimes sharing work with strangers does feel like being squeezed between colossal moist ribs (we were still sitting in concentric circles of red chairs) but everyone participated, welcomed and showed appreciation. Ancient words like “How good and pleasant it is when God’s people live together in unity” lived out new meaning. 

Lunch was objectively amazing (I think we were spat out by now) because avocado goes with everything that can fit in a wrap, and there were these crunchy chunks of chorizo.

I shared a poem, on trying to rediscover race and black identity outside of racism. There was a song with rap verses by Phil Austin, who isn’t afraid of love, being saved or hitting falsetto tones.

An Edinburgh author, interviewed by Luke Davydaitis, shared the many times God called her to persevere, with faith — into blessing after blessing in her life and her writing. After being prophetically called into her craft, she learned to enjoy trusting the uncommon sense of God that has led to several timely opportunities. In describing her shaping of narratives and characters, she said it’s an ongoing partnering with words and the Word – “we do it together”.

That doesn’t mean it was easy to remember how the writing process starts, especially having committed so much of the recent past to a mode of ruthless editing, cutting out, “killing” and clearing that which needed to go to let the work speak for itself. In the space of honing, the “editor” has to be given the right, and the room, to move the work on. What she did remember from the space of starting was the voice of the “darling”, and its impulse to be playful or obscure, observational, imaginative, unfinished and unlabelled.

Then we heard the excerpts. As she read, the room was hushed and we journeyed through a world between oblivious childhood and obsessive adulthood, with characters from both and the transition. Her reading was deeply captivating, with the immersive imagery of Gilead and the quirky accuracy of The Brothers Karamazov. I saw everything she was saying, completely lost track of time and wished it could go on with the visceral remorse of a child called from playing. 

This author is hoping to find a publisher in the new year, and I can’t wait to read the whole story of a deep, young girl losing family and confronted with a titanic question: “how do you hold on to the moments you love?” The uncertain road to publishing throws authors against some other tough questions. She has had to seriously consider, after achieving so much and coming so close to sharing it, whether this book will ever be published. In the grieving, the meaning of past sacrifices (“good” teaching jobs etc.) the wisdom of her faithfulness, come under scrutiny.

If you knew a decade of work would come to ‘failure’ at the last step — would you still follow Jesus?

Wrestling with your purpose does not always look like “success”. So she asks herself, if you knew it would all come to “failure”… when “all” means a decade of work, and you lose right at the last step — would you still follow Jesus? “Yes, a thousand times yes.” Only she knows the weight of those 3 letters, beyond the word-count of her book; it’s the weight of Christian integrity.

Challenged to rethink success, we prayed. Christy Ringrose and Rachel Zylstra took the stage again, with a song that came just in time to soothe our wordless unrest – My First Winter by Christy Ringrose.  

I’ve been going back to that day in my mind, and wrote Manna as map and memento. 


Powerful. Saturday was saturated
With “Wow”, “mhmm” and the shock
Of respect cracking quiet
Honour’s chrysalis as 

“Churches are designed to feel
Too big so that standing 
In one reminds you of
Your smallness 
And G_d’s Grandeur.”
Like artists who can dance with
G_d and fill the entire stage       of my imagination
with                              living                  Word.

So, what to say about Saturday?
Manna? Or Mexican wrap?
It’s joys have sintered in memory
Like “My First Winter” it was
Boudica Bap-tism. We entered
The belly of a fish – at King’s Church
We saw G_d through
A prism of hard-won wisdom.
He asked me to give this
Living hand, now warm for His vision, I
Thank God and clap. 

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Loving the material world: Brum Sputnik Hub meets in-person again

After more than two years, Birmingham Sputnik Hub was finally back with a live, in-person meetup. The return of the mac. Except Oasis Church haven’t met there for years now, so we were hanging out at their building on South Street in Harborne instead.

First of all, there was a lot of catching up to do. There are some folk I primarily know through Sputnik, who I hadn’t seen in a really long time. There were some familiar faces, who are never very far away from me in Birmingham anyway; there were people I had met on the Sputnik Slack or over Instagram during the Plague, who I had the first opportunity to talk to in person. And there were even folk turning up to Sputnik for the very first time. Ideal.

We kicked things off with a Sputnik staple – sharing our thoughts and work in small groups. In my group we heard from the Godfather of Sputnik himself, Don Jonny Mellor, who’d spent his lockdown recording an album with his next door neighbour, which includes a track about how Queen Boudicea is (probably) buried under the Kings Norton McDonald’s. Rod Masih, aka Thinktank, blessed us with insight into his new single and why he’s so popular with kids (as well as being a great guy, it’s also proved an incredibly effective marketing strategy – Thinktank now has a long-term captive audience). Esther Lee tried to convince us all that she isn’t a photographer, all whilst sharing her stunning darkroom experiments using images of post-industrial areas of Birmingham.

Andy Gordon let us in on some beautiful instrumentals he’s been mastering for local folk artist Philippa Zawe. Writer Andrew, who’d travelled all the way from Sheffield for the meetup posed the question of whether Christian art is required to offer visions of hope, whilst newcomers Libby and Helen talked about using art to uplift and encourage, and prompted an interesting discussion about what makes art prophetic.

After that there was a delicious lunch entirely provided by Wumi Donald, before Jonny spoke to us about the importance of the material, not only to us as artists, but for everyone. Channelling his inner Irenaeus, Jonny warned against the latent Gnosticism often evident in folk Christianity that views the physical realm as something temporary, corrupt and ultimately distracting, arguing that such a distinction between the spiritual and physical doesn’t really exist, that the natural world is for our spiritual edification, and that the works of goodness, beauty and truth we contribute to here on earth have an eternal legacy.

Following Jonny, as part of an unstoppable husband-and-wife ministry, Jemma Mellor spoke about her own art practice, which not only used concrete and cotton as materials, but as co-producers, through which Jemma explored the history and agency of the materials in the creation of different pieces. These included painted self-portraits which used the materials to transfer paint to paper, creating images in their own likeness; shoes made from concrete and cotton that Jemma walked a mile through Birmingham in, and pillow cast in concrete that Jemma slept a night on. Just as fascinating were the thought and processes behind this work; the questions Jemma asked the materials before working with them, and the regular emails she sent to concrete and cotton communicating how she felt about her relationship to them.

After all that I needed a lie-down on Jemma’s concrete pillow. It was surprisingly comfortable, concrete of course solving that age-old problem of not being able to find the cool side of the pillow. The post-pandemic in-person meet-up was ace. Can’t wait for the next one.

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Peter Laws at the Brum Hub: What can we learn from our morbid curiosities?

Peter Laws’ fiction mostly centres around an ex-Christian minister who spends his time hanging around Christians, in scenarios that are familiar to most Christians (communion services, prayer meetings, etc) but which feature elements that are a little more unsavoury than you might expect at your average church get together. Think: serial killers, axe murders, etc.

Peter is not exactly the same as Matt Hunter, his fictional hero. He is not an ex-minister, but still a card carrying reverend, with his Christian faith still intact. However, it was somewhat unnerving welcoming him to our Brum Sputnik hub meet up, knowing that this is exactly the kind of meeting where, if this were one of his novels, we would likely be about to witness a decapitation or demonic manifestation or ritualistic murder.

In addition to this, we forgot to put on the Eventbrite that we were meeting at a private home, and so a few of the guests looked even more on edge. There aren’t many Christian meetings that I’ve started over the years in which I’ve kicked off proceedings by trying to convince everyone that, despite their fears to the contrary, we did not lure them here to kill them!

In the event, nobody died, which was a definite plus of the afternoon. We also benefited greatly from Peter’s thorough and thought provoking examination of why people are drawn to the macabre and morbid. Flitting from 9/11, the Great Plague, Charles Manson’s hair and home made coffins to HP Lovecraft, vampires, werewolves, zombies and Victorian funeral rituals, Peter provoked us to think about how to approach the horror genre with a bit more nuance than Christians have typically shown in this area and encouraged us to think about how this should affect our own art.

Peter did not present primarily as someone who revelled in the darker side of life, but as someone who was more scared by this stuff than most. He is addressing these topics in his writing to try to come to terms with some of the less pleasant (or simply bewildering) aspects of human experience. As he put it ‘I take the furniture of that which scares me and rearrange it on my own terms’, while putting forward a pretty strong case for the fact that horror can shock people into wisdom.

There was certainly pushback in the question time, but that’s what I love about Sputnik meet ups. There was no party line here, just a group of people trying to think through how their faith relates to their art and to their general experience of being a human being. What we all seemed to agree upon was that we cannot flinch from the stark horror of death in our work. Yes, one day, we will be able to proclaim with the assembled saints ‘Death, where is your sting?’ (1 Corinthians 15:55) However, in the here and now, we, as artists who are Christians, must be able to wrestle with the complexities of living in a world where death still casts a pretty ominous shadow.

Of course, this was only half the fun though. The second part of the meet up was spent sharing practice and praying for each other. Jemma Mellor gave us a glimpse of a woven sculpture she is working on, we heard new pieces from Brum based jazz pop ensemble Argle Bargle, Joanna Karselis, Barrowclough and Pythagoras the Praying Mantis and to top it off, we were treated to a typically spell binding performance by David Benjamin Blower.

And then it all got really weird and everyone’s heads started spinning round. There was this shrill whistling noise, all the lights started flickering and, I don’t know what happened to everyone else, but I woke up in a nearby field in my boxers, covered in bruises. All I can say is, don’t look under the decking in the garden, and if anyone asks, there was no Sputnik Hub at our house on 9th March. I’m sure our secret’s safe with you!

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Falmouth launches new mini-Hubs with a gathering of Fine Artists

“Stand up if you’re actively engaged as an artist, or involved in a creative industry.”

This request was made to a church congregation in Cornwall last year. At least 60% of the 120 present rose to their feet. Is that normal? I don’t think so.

One can’t move in Falmouth without bumping into a poet, painter, printmaker, potter, performance artist, musician, designer, or film-maker. Falmouth College of Art features large, and a good number of its graduates seek to stick around after their three years of study. Cornwall is a prize to hang on to.

Where, then, are the support networks and sounding boards previously provided by the uni?

That’s where Sputnik steps in.

After launching the Falmouth Sputnik Hub in 2019 with a Faith & Arts Day a year ago, in 2020 we are launching a series of Sputnik single-discipline mini Hubs. The first, for Fine Artists, gathered on March 6th in a converted chapel for food, discussion, support and encouragement. All had an opportunity to share a piece of work.

Arguably, all fine art is to some degree auto-biographical. Artists cannot help expressing something of themselves, their thinking, their identity in their work. Such self-exposure can be daunting for many artists. Sputnik mini-Hubs provide the perfect safe place to share one’s work, and that was certainly the case at this event.

Comments and suggestions came from all corners of the room / dining table on subjects as diverse as limiting palette, the use of sketchbook and the bias some have experienced against artists of faith.

Really interesting work was put out on display, and none of the 11 present failed to be transfixed by the sublime sound piece from current Fine Art student Rebecca Kent.

The next Falmouth mini Hub takes place on Friday May 1: a gathering for Graphic Designers and Illustrators. If you’d like to book a place, contact

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‘This is the way, walk in it’ conversations from the Edinburgh Hub

Photo by Liam Rotheram

For our latest Edinburgh Sputnik Hub, 26 creatives from churches across Edinburgh came together to eat stuffed aubergines and fill their ears with Grant Holden’s journey from school-boy to adult-animator. We had a fantastic time sharing dinner and a bit of life together, and once well fed, we turned our attention to Grant, who graduated from the Edinburgh College of Art animation degree course last year.

Since then, we discovered he has attended 20 film festivals to showcase his work and has subsequently won awards and competitions (something which has come throughout his life as an animator, beginning when he was in secondary school).

Grant spoke about his development in confidence over the years, feeling as though God had said, “This is the way, walk in it,” bringing him peace in pursuing a career as an animator. We heard about the determination required to pursue projects that celebrate the overlooked and oft-forgotten aspects of life, seen clearly in animations such as ‘Waiting Room’ and ‘Cleaning in Progress’, including the patience for all of the production, modelling, editing and finishing that comes with stop-motion animation. This patience has also prepared Grant for the past year, where he has presented his work in many different places, meeting people and developing relationships rather than being in the animation studio.

We were left with a fascinating discussion over dessert on the question, “Are you still creative if you are not creating?”

This was one that got everyone talking about what it means to be a created child of God, as well as the task of using the gifts God gave us, with the challenge of where we place our identity when we are not necessarily creating creative work on a regular basis. So we present this question to you too, what do you think? Are we creative if we are not creating?

Photo by Liam Rotheram

We are keen to keep up the creative momentum and so are excited to let you know about our next Hub event, which will be on Friday 14th June!

For this Hub we are inviting you to bring creative projects you are working on for you to share, gather feedback and get some creative discussion going around what is going on for each of you. Start having a think about the kinds of things you might like to bring and tell others in your churches or creative circles about this opportunity to share and talk. We love the diversity of creative disciplines represented so do tell others about our Hub meet ups!

We will be having dinner together (all the best conversations happen over food) and will be meeting at 7pm at The Hub @ King’s Church Edinburgh.

Please bring £3 or a card so as to cover the cost of the food and drink.

Sign up on eventbrite.

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Holding our identity together: thoughts from the London Faith & Art day

Last week we launched our first Hub in London, joined by around thirty artists from across the city in an eclectic mix of people, disciplines and experience. What brought us all together was the shared desire to be part of a community of creatives who believe in God and are striving for excellence in our work. 

Jonny Mellor addresses the London Hub

I was struck by the paintings of Jennifer Litts, specifically her piece ‘Release’ – a visceral expression of deliverance. Not only because of the bold use of a bloody red biro, but because of the expression of sincere pain and exertion that she managed to portray.

This piece was reflective of her process in navigating the creation of art alongside her faith, and I think it expresses a sentiment that all Christian artists can resonate with. The deep desire to create work that can hold together multiple facets of our identity is an act of deliverance that we grapple with daily as we turn up to the page/ canvas/ screen etc.

As we spent some time pondering the question ‘what should Christian artists be like?’ an answer was provided in the most unlikely of places, specifically the youngest member of our audience (at 12 years old) who said: ‘Well surely we must be kind, thoughtful and hardworking?’ I think this message could be taken as the key take-home point from the day. It helps us all consider how we want to navigate the creation of our art in the world, not only in the final products we create, but in the relationships we build along the way.

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Spring 2019: What’s been happening in the Sputnik Hubs?

I like the internet. Seriously, I’m a big fan. Questions like ‘what sitcom was that actress in?’ or ‘can I reheat this 3 day old rice without dying’ are no longer a problem. And now I can literally watch Yo! Mtv Raps all day long.

Yes, I like the internet, but I like people more. People are better.

This term, at Sputnik HQ, we’ve been simply too busy to deal with both so we’ve had to make a call on this one. So you may have noticed we’ve been quiet online since January; however, when it comes to people we’ve been hard at work.

We’ve already put on 4 meet ups, connecting together over 100 artists for potential camaraderie, critique and collaboration. And the London Faith and Arts Day, and Benjamin Harris’ exibition launch in Newcastle are still to come. We’ll report on those (and also the cracking day Luke Tonge and I spent down in Falmouth a couple of weeks ago) shortly, but for the time being, we just wanted to give you a flavour of our three Sputnik hub gatherings this term.


Benjamin Harris:

Saturday 9th of March saw around 20 of us gathered in Joel and Danielle Wilson’s spacious front room to encourage one another in serving Christ through serious engagement with art. We kicked off with lowkey poetry and musical performances from local artists David Benjamin Blower, Jessica Wood, Pythagoras the Praying Mantis, Bernard Davis and Tim Riordan of Atlas Rhoads. Following this, we were blessed to learn from the wisdom and work of Edinburgh based artist Stephanie Mann.

Stephanie shared her playful artistic practice through the lens of process, sharing about the artist’s journey from conception through to completion, and exploring the tricky act of balancing the frustration of theory with the merriment of making. Stephanie’s work provoked much chin stroking, head scratching and thought provoking conversation culminating in a back and forth about Freud, Jung and whether Jesus had a subconscious!

Following a short tea break we rejoined to share about what is happening in our lives as individuals and artists before praying for one another. I personally find this to be an enriching part of the Sputnik Hub. Yes, we make art. Yes, most of us enjoy musing about the deeper things in life. Yes, we feel called to create. But more fundamentally, we are all God’s children in need of prayer.


Joanna Spreadsbury:

What an evening! We had 25 people arrive for dinner and discussion at our latest Edinburgh Sputnik Hub, with 9 different churches across Edinburgh represented, all coming together to discuss our creative artistic endeavours and our Christian faith.

Starting off the evening with some presentations by our hub co-ordinators, we had writer Hannah Kelly, illustrator Liam Rotherham, PR assistant Hannah Knox and dressmaking tutor and maker Joanna Spreadbury talking about their everyday work within the creative industry. From such a range of arts backgrounds, we were able to hear about the highs and lows of being a Christian in their work, about opportunities to share the gospel, and continuing to work for the glory of God, whether that is in marketing meetings, writing in a coffee shop or teaching classes.

Breaking down into smaller discipline groups (writers/musicians, visual artists and performing arts/production/misc.) we then talked about how we meet with Jesus in our everyday lives, the difficulties found in workplace environments versus freelancing and praying for each other to go out with boldness in the Holy Spirit, to impact those we meet with the creativity we have been given and cultivated.

Milton Keynes

Sharon Clark :

If anyone mentions the movie Jaws, what immediately springs to mind? Chances are its iconic theme tune will immediately begin to play on your internal juke box. The creation of soundtracks is a vital part of the movie and TV industry, adding a rich layer of musical drama and emotion to the visual landscape.

At the recent Bedford/Milton Keynes Sputnik hub event, Matt Hawken provided a wonderful insight into the world of background music, and his career as a composer and musician. The first thing that amazed us was that his skills go far beyond musicality and creativity – composing background music involves a huge amount of technical knowledge. Matt loves to create unnatural sounds from the natural via sampling, and demonstrated this with music that featured a cello bow being drawn across a rubbish skip!

Matt also told us how his working day is not one of a few minutes of creativity, but very much a nine-to-five production job. The industry is a highly competitive one, and musicians are constantly pitching their wares to companies knowing that only a tiny proportion of their work will be selected (unless your name is Hans Zimmer!) In a world where digital music is freely available on-line, Matt observed that it is now businesses and companies that are shaping culture because they have become the new patrons of the arts – the ones who are still willing to pay for music, provided it is written for their needs.

As a Christian, Matt says his faith is important because he knows his identity and value is not dependent on the next sale. He also pointed out that there is constant creation in God’s world, and this encourages him as an artist because there is always more creativity to come.

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How a Hub Works: the launch of Edinburgh Sputnik Hub

King’s Church, Edinburgh recently hosted their first Sputnik Hub gathering. We asked designer and Hub host Joanna Spreadbury to give us a rundown of the evening, as a way of looking at how a new Hub works.

On Friday 12th October we hosted a Sputnik Hub at King’s Church, Edinburgh.

Those arriving were from different churches around Edinburgh, with varying backgrounds in the arts and diverse interests in creative disciplines. We served a home-cooked meal and everyone ate and talked in various sofa/chair combinations, set up ready for the talk.

Jonny started the night off with an introduction into who Sputnik are and what we are aiming to do – I followed by welcoming everyone to the new Edinburgh Hub. I set out the vision for the Hub, with a desire to connect creatives who are Christian, encourage them, and offer an opportunity for critical reflection on their practice or work, as well as bring about a conversation about how God fuels creativity and how we can glorify Him in all things.

Stephanie Mann then took the floor. Having studied Sculpture at the Edinburgh College of Art and continuing to do a Masters in Contemporary Art Practice, Stephanie’s work is broad, colourful and often playful. Mann is a practicing visual artist, based in Edinburgh, and we were delighted to hear about the range of work she has produced including spoken word, film, graphic prints, paintings and sculpture. The diversity of her practice made for an engaging talk, particularly in relation to how her gut instincts act as a crucial role in the production of her work. Mann’s deep insights alongside humorous comments fed into thought-provoking questions from those attending and a dynamic discussion from many people followed.

We then split into discipline groups: Visual Arts, Writers and Misc. (the miscellaneous group being a wider range of creatives including rappers and broadcasters); opening up a space for those attending to share their work, ask for advice, offer an insight into their creative practice and opinions, as well as hearing about other peoples’ work. These groups of 6-8 created a relaxed environment to talk about how peoples’ faith works through their work, and we ended the night with prayer in these groups, lifting up our work to God from whom all our creativity comes.

The next Edinburgh Sputnik Hub will be towards the end of this year; keep an eye on our Facebook group for more information.

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Everyone loves a good story: David Blower at the Bedford Sputnik Hub

David Benjamin Blower Bedford Sputnik Hub Faith Arts

Picture a guy and a guitar and a retelling of the book of Jonah. How does that grab you? Well, with a talented performer steering you through the waves, it’s a pretty captivating experience.

Here at the Bedford Sputnik Hub we managed to snaffle a visit from David Benjamin Blower, a Birmingham-based ‘six-string theologian, writer and town crier’ and get a taste of his ability to tell a story vividly through sound. The text is taken from the King James Version, interspersed with original songs, and on this occasion the whole thing was underscored using an acoustic guitar that cost a fiver from a second hand shop. The set up was simple – a room with a group of people gathered on a semicircle of chairs to listen. Nothing more was needed.

David performs The Book of Jonah in lounges, bars and various other settings where there is an audience willing to listen (and even, at a couple of points during the performance, to help create a soundscape). He says that it’s for everyone and has found that the mention of God doesn’t seem to result in awkward uneasiness. After all, most people, whether familiar with the Bible or not so much, do love a good story.

There was a feeling among us all that the spiritual and secular ‘divide’ in our culture is more blurred than we’ve ever seen

Not only that – we’ve all heard about Jonah, the man who was swallowed by a whale. And as David pointed out (and we agreed) there’s a lot about Jonah’s response to God’s command that we can relate to as human beings. It’s a very understandable reaction to leg it in the opposite direction when faced with a hugely difficult and unappealing task. It came home to me more than ever how much I would respond in the same way Jonah did when David mentioned that present-day Ninevah is in fact Mosul in northern Iraq. As he said, “I wouldn’t want to go there, either.” Well, absolutely. David’s book Sympathy For Jonah (published by Resource Publications in 2016) elaborates much further on this.

The questions of who we make art for, and how unhelpful or otherwise the phrase ‘Christian art’ might be, did come up again – because they seem to have no cut-and-dried answers, and it’s always interesting to hear what new insights may be fed into the discussion. There was a feeling among us all that there’s more of a blurring than ever between the spiritual and secular ‘divide’, and that people outside the church are often very willing to consider and appreciate art that may be deemed ‘religious’ or is clearly inspired by faith.

Those of us at the Hub this time were very glad we were able to be there. I certainly felt encouraged and energised, and appreciated David making the journey to be with us all.

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Art is a way to get to know the world: Sharon Boothroyd at the Brum Sputnik Hub

Sharon Boothroyd Photography SW Sputnik Art Faith

We often think of making art like this: we form opinions about the world and learn about what life is like and then, having gained this knowledge and formed these beliefs, we creatively communicate them to others.

But what if this process should be viewed the other way around? What if our art practice should actually be the method we use to gain knowledge of what the world is like?

The painter and writer Makoto Fujimura writes that ‘art is a faithful way of knowing the world’, and compares art to science – as both are methods that help us on our journey towards knowledge. Science strives to understand how thing work inside the confines of the natural world, and art seeks to do the same, but pushing outside those boundaries.

I’d read this a while ago, and thought it interesting, but couldn’t quite see how it would work in practice. However, it all started to make a little more sense when I was at the Brum Sputnik hub a few weeks ago, listening to Sharon Boothroyd talk us through her practice.

Art as getting to know the world

Sharon is a photographer and university lecturer who moved from Birmingham to London about 10 years ago. It was an absolute pleasure to lure her back to her former home city and hear about her artistic journey – particularly how she was actively exploring areas of the world she didn’t understand, and trying to untangle some of the contradictions she recognised within herself.

Since I’ve known her, I’ve been a fan of Sharon’s work, and her project They All Say Please was featured in one of our early Sputnik exhibitions. However, where her early work comprised of carefully arranged set pieces, presented in series of superbly shot images, her more recent work has become much more immersive and expansive.

Sharon Boothroyd Subtext of a Dream Sputnik Faith Art
From ‘The Subtext of a Dream’ by Sharon Boothroyd

At the Hub, Sharon focused largely on her latest project, The Subtext of a Dream, which centres around the fictional character Madame Beauvais who is experiencing erotomania (the delusional belief that one is the object of someone’s affection despite that not being true). This character then acts as a springboard for an exploration of madness, hysteria and longing – but it also inspired Sharon into several interlocking projects involving public acts of confession, wallpaper printing, and an enigmatic series of images of water surfaces, accompanied by recompiled fragments of erotic literature.

The works seemed to me very much like the writing of a novel, and it was fascinating to get such a deep insight into the story while it was still unfinished, and with the artist herself unsure where it would take her next.

But as she was working, she was learning. Learning about the abuses of psychotherapy in the past. About the complicity of her own favoured artistic medium, photography, in the historical mistreatment of damaged women. And all along learning about herself.

She is practicing art as a faithful way of knowing the world.

What is a Christian artist?

Alongside this, Sharon sparked an interesting continuation of the perennial question of what it means to be a Christian artist. I’m sure that many are fed up to the back teeth with this conversation, but I honestly don’t think we can ignore it. As Christians, we want to honour Jesus in everything we do, and our artistic practice is no exception. Just because for so many of us, the expectations surrounding ‘Christian art’ have been so restrictive and unhelpful in the past, we shouldn’t stop asking the question of how we can practice our art for God’s glory.

Fortunately, the discussion on this occasion didn’t sink into grievances about how misunderstood Christian creative practitioners can be, and we didn’t just retread all the old conversations either. There were helpful new insights that took the conversation forward.

What was fascinating to me was how Sharon’s body of work showed a real progression in this regard. Early projects like If you get married again, will you still love me? and They All Say Please focused on the effects of divorce and what prayer means to different people respectively. They are thoughtful, beautifully executed projects, and I’m sure any Christian would deem these suitable projects for Christian investigation.

Sharon’s projects show a profound empathy, honesty and humility that is so winsomely Christ-like, I hope all of us catch a little of it in our practices

However, as Sharon has moved away from such generally approved topics, it seemed that her work has become if anything, ‘more Christian’, if such a phrase isn’t totally ridiculous. SW is a simple documentation of the characters, buildings and wildlife that make up South West London. It demonstrates a care for local community that sadly is so rare in many Christians, particularly middle-class ones, who see their local areas as mission fields, but not as communities to respectfully enter and try to learn from.

Sharon Boothroyd SW Photography Sputnik Faith Art
From ‘SW’ by Sharon Boothroyd

She also showed us works from a collaborative project with a number of people with learning difficulties, exploring their experience of employment. Throughout this project (as well as her ongoing adventures with Madame Beauvais) there is a profound empathy, honesty and humility that is so winsomely Christ-like, it is something I hope that all of us who were present catch a little of in our own diverse practices. If that isn’t Christian art, I’m not sure what is.

As if this wasn’t enough, proceedings were rounded off by performances by Charlotte Young, Barrowclough and David Blower and we even got a pre-premiere premiere of Mantis’ new music video. Oh, and Catriona Heatherington performed a poem that she’d written during the afternoon that quite brilliantly summed up Sharon’s presentation and our ensuing discussion.

All in all, another fantastic Brum Sputnik hub. Keep your eyes peeled for the next meet up in the New Year.

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Having Fun & Learning From The Mardlins

‘Why do we always have to make things for a purpose?’ asked Timo, wide eyed and animated. ‘Can’t we just make art for fun?’ At this, he handed Joel his phone and queued up a song that some of his friends had made.

It had been conceived and recorded in an all night session on the back of an evening’s banter and creative messing about. It was a jaunty funk track with lots of slap bass, comic autotune overdubs and flamboyant guitar solos. It was about Romeo and Juliet. That was about all I could work out, as it was entirely in Finnish. As the song ended, smiles were plastered on every face, except possibly Joel’s who stood up to interject seriously and authoritatively about the Christian Finnish hip hop scene.

This was my personal highlight of our last Birmingham Sputnik hub meeting, and topped off another informative, challenging, inspiring and possibly even, dare I say it… fun creative meet up in England’s second city.

Our guests this time were Phil and Harri Mardlin (who are doing the rounds at the moment!) They are actors and run LifeBox Theatre Company and Stagewrite, Bedford’s premier annual new writing festival. They also run the Sputnik Bedford hub. It was great to hang out, eat Danielle’s famous chocolate chilli and watch Benjamin Harris and David Benjamin Blower whisper together conspiratorially in a corner, but for those who disagree with Timo, and think that ‘fun’ is not quite enough, these were some nuggets of wisdom I took away from the day:

Acting is a tough gig

There are considerable challenges to be unearthed in all art forms, but, for me, I’m continually taken aback by those faced by actors. There’s the obvious task of making a living, something that Phil and Harri have shown great determination and ingenuity to pull off. However, there’s also the added immersive dimension of the actors’ craft. Most artists have to depict the fallenness and unpleasantness of the world, but actors have to put themselves into characters who often embody those features. The emotional toll this takes must be significant. Note to the church leader side of my brain- we need to look after actors better.

We’re as good as the company we keep

The Mardlins opened up a little about the amateur/professional divide in their work. Harri had made a definite decision a few years before to only work on professional jobs, not in amateur or community theatre. They explored the question of what makes someone professional or amateur at the Bedford hub last time around, but on this occasion, Harri just gave one little glimpse into why she had made this decision. She talked of how she had grown in confidence from working with a certain calibre of actors and directors, and it had caused her to raise her own game. Neither Phil nor Harri were dismissive of amateur theatre and show a real keenness in helping others improve in their artistic gifting, but I think there’s a lot in this observation. If we spend most of our time working with and collaborating with people whose bar is set lower than ours, it is likely that we will ultimately come to set the bar at their level.

There is a more holistic approach to our perennial ‘Where Is The Line?’ question

Perhaps this is the thing I have been thinking about most since the get together. As you will know if you’ve read this blog for any length of time, we like to ask artists the question where they draw the line ethically in their work? What work will they take or not take as they live out their call to be artists and also followers of Jesus? What things will they do or not do? Say or not say?

Unsurprisingly, this question came up at the hub gathering and Phil’s answer was simple yet striking. He said that he liked to consider the artistic merit of the whole project rather than parts of it. He wasn’t so concerned about whether the character he was being asked to play said or did things that he wouldn’t usually say or do as a Christian, he was more concerned about whether those things had merit in the whole project, and whether the whole project itself was a worthy venture. He still had to listen to the Holy Spirit in making such decisions and also use wisdom to sometimes tone down unsavoury elements of scripts that did not add to the power and authenticity of the story, but such a holistic approach struck me as incredibly wise.

So there you have it.

If you’re involved in church leadership, are you looking to support your actors? If you’re an actor, are you seeking out support from your church as you face the challenges of your profession? 

Who are you working with who is stretching you in your practice and making you step up in your skills?

Where do you draw the line in your own artistic practice? 

And of course, do you know what it is to stop asking all these important questions, and just have some fun?

Thanks Phil and Harri and all the guys who showed out. See you again in the Autumn.

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Bedford Hub Report: What Is A Professional Artist?

So we kicked off Bedford’s second Sputnik Hub a few weeks ago and had a great time. A passionate group that included actors, visual artists and poets spent a good few hours debating the issue of ‘professional’ work.

Now I love a good debate and I’ll talk about what came out of that discussion in a minute but what I love more than anything is the passion, excitement and drive that came through from everyone that sat in my living room on a sun drenched Saturday afternoon.  We talk about coming alive when we do what we love, finding our purpose… you know the kind of discourse I’m talking about.  And it’s true, when I’m writing or performing I come alive… I somehow feel a little more complete; however, I also feel that when I simply get in a room full of creative artists and people. It feels like I’ve come home to a place where I belong, fit in and can thrive again.

So with Jonny Mellor having tackled the minor topic of ‘What is Art?’ in our previous gathering, Harri and I shared a little bit of our journey into the arts- how we started our company and where we are headed with it as business entrepreneurs and freelance actors. Within that we talked about our journey in identifying ourselves as artists, not least because we hadn’t undertaken traditional drama school training. What followed was a fascinating discussion on what makes someone a professional artist as opposed to an amateur hobbyist.

The line was clearly different for everyone – for some it was about quality of work, for others it was about whether they were paid or not, yet for another it was about training, time served or skill level.  I recently got embroiled in a discussion on an actors’ network over the issue of pay.  Innumerable actors, like other artists I assume, get highly militant over pay, and rightly so considering the assumptions often made in this area. There are many people who seem to think that you can either knock up a painting for them in a couple of hours or write, learn, rehearse and perform a short piece in just a matter of a day or two so see no reason to furnish you with a fee! I’m being facetious, I know, but I’ve yet to come across an artist that hasn’t experienced this to some degree.  Anyway, the point is, the discussion centred on the fact that one point of view was that if you didn’t get paid it was amateur.

My rebuttal was that we have been involved in collaborations where neither us nor anyone involved has got a fee but that doesn’t mean the work isn’t professional and high quality.  I know that, for me, it took a long while to call myself an actor or a writer because I didn’t have the traditional education that accompanied that. This made me wonder whether I could really call myself those things, even though by this time I was making a career out of it.  It would seem that the boundaries of ‘professional work’ are unclear but it certainly seems to incorporate values of skill, quality, pay and training with the weight of importance on each of these shifting depending on your perspective.  I have no doubt the debate will continue.

In the mean time, if you are an artist, working professionally, creating work and you’re around the area, we’d love to have you along.  Keep a lookout on the various Sputnik channels or get in touch and we’ll let you know when we are meeting up again.

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Brum Sputnik Hub Review: Learning to Collaborate Well

At our Brum Sputnik Hub gathering before Christmas, we set a project for us all to sink our teeth into. Sitting around talking about our work is worthwhile, but it’s also good to actually make some new work together sometimes. Therefore we initiated ‘The Future Project’.

This is the brief: create a piece of work that meets two criteria: it has to be based around the theme ‘the future’. And it has to be collaborative.

So, at our Brum Sputnik Hub meet-up on Saturday, we showcased some of the work-in-progress and discussed the whole topic of collaboration. As always, it was a fantastic way to wile away a Saturday afternoon. I’m afraid I can’t capture in a blog post the ambience of Churchcentral’s new office (oooh), the taste of aged Mexican cheddar on a bed of rosemary dry biscuit (mmmm) or the buzz of meeting new people (aaah). But I can jot down some thoughts about collaboration that we stumbled upon.

The basic challenge of the project was (and still is) how to encourage collaboration between people who don’t necessarily know each other very well or who aren’t really used to collaborating. We expect to see some excellent work produced through the project, but we know that if the bar is set too high, some people will struggle to take risks in teaming up with others. To one artist collaboration is second nature, to another artist it’s unknown, and somewhat scary, territory.

Well, here are some reflections on how people have navigated these difficulties so far in this project:

Collaborating at the ideas level

This seemed to be where most people started: Luke Sewell and Benjamin Harris’ conspiratorial meet up to discuss a future in which the empires of old are overturned. The three vocalists from the rap group Michaelis Constant (for those who are of a certain age!) getting their heads back together to create visions of 2088. Graphic designer Sanju Karmacharya and painter Jay Mcleister were well on their way to creating a positive and thought-provoking piece involving layers of beautifully cut card and then scrapped the idea as they became convinced that they should collaborate on a project about death, since when they think  of the future, that’s the word that looms largest.

I think that the idea of collaboration can seem very daunting because people think solely in terms of combining their skills together in the production of a piece. Actually, often the best way to start is to hang out, drink some tea and shoot the breeze. Even if one of the collaborators is more prominent in the creative execution of the idea, if the idea is honed together, that certainly meets the criteria.

Collaborating in execution

For Josh and Stephen Whitehouse’s impressive Humanization project, Stephen conceived the basic idea for this series of comics and wrote the story and then brought his son Josh in on the project. Josh is more than simply the illustrator though. His involvement is honing the project more and more as each issue emerges, for example by making it less dialogue-heavy and by populating Stephen’s world with characters from Josh’s broad range of inspirations from the world of animated and science fiction geekdom. This kind of collaboration, where one artist basically responds to another’s work and then transforms it into a new thing seems like a brilliant way to do things.

TJ Francis and Naomi Haworth simply brought their individual ideas into the group setting to get feedback and see if they could spark others off. Naomi laid out her thought process up to this point and where she feels the theme is taking her, and offered her service as singer and multi-instrumentalist to anyone who’d like to team up. TJ presented an excellent and very personal poetic response to the theme and an emotive field recording of a choir that had inspired him and sounded us out on who’d like to add another dimension to the work (video, music, whatever).

Some Brum Sputnik hub affiliates couldn’t be there this week including the band Midsummer and the artist Paul Chipperfield, and although not related to ‘The Future’ project, their present collaboration is also worth reflecting on. Not only did Paul design the album cover for Midsummer’s forthcoming debut album but he’s also come up with a comic strip to accompany the band’s anthemic ‘Made in Birmingham’. Again, great to see an artist sparking off another artist’s work to make something new.

Finally, Chris Donald spoke of his collaborative role as a musical facilitator. As Joel Wilson, Mike Gilbert and myself seek to create a rap narrative of a future world featuring our own grandchildren, he has stepped in to provide the soundscape to match our desire to avoid both strictly dystopian or utopian visions of the future (so avoiding the extremes of dour mechanical beats on one side or lush arrangements on the other). Another great collaboration, which I am presently absolutely loving.

Collaborating by inspiring

Let’s face it; almost all artwork involves collaboration somewhere. Yes, I’m sure there are a few of you hermits out there who just lock yourselves away and paint or write and thrive off that solitude. However, for many of us, we need others every step of the way, and if we do try to go it alone, our work will suffer for it.

Hopefully, just meeting together and discussing the challenges and opportunities we’ve found in collaborating, as well as showing some of our collaborative works-in-progress will itself inspire others into action. That’s the plan anyway.

Perhaps, you too feel inspired to get involved, even by this post. Well, the Future Project is by no means finished. A few of us have made a start, but we have an actual deadline now: 1st July. If the idea of responding to ‘The Future’ and working together with another artist floats your boat, get collaborating and submit your work to me by then. Here’s the full brief (ignore the somewhat premature deadline).

There may be an exhibition. There may be some sort of publication. There may simply be a whole load of visionary pieces of work floating about and a group of artists who are more effective collaborators.

All these goals seem like success to me.

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Why do we create? Lessons from the Bedford Sputnik Hub

There really is no better way to spend an afternoon than with a bunch of Christian artists.

If the 20 year old version of myself had known that 18 years later he’d be saying stuff like that, he would not have been a happy bunny. But I’d like to think that if my younger self was at the inaugural Bedford Sputnik hub meeting, he’d have come round to his older and wiser self’s way of thinking.

There we were. About 15 of us. In my mother in law’s conservatory. Painters, actors, poets, photographers, illustrators, sculptors, musicians. There were performances by Jon Brown (a beautiful song for his wife) and Ben Haynes (an eloquent and thoughtful spoken word piece), a Rob Cox self portrait and Nicola Dailey talking us through a community art project she took on to create a series of sculptures for the people of Dunstable. And it was great to finally see Phil and Harri Mardlin at work, if only on video. And that wasn’t even half of it.

The great thing about the churches I know in Bedford is that there is this underswell of creative enthusiasm that is liberating and infectious. People want to make stuff and they want to grow in their relationship with God. And to encourage other Christians. And to see people who aren’t Christians become Christians. And they want to do it creatively. Good work Bedford!

Apart from the work itself though, what I was drawn to throughout the afternoon was the question of why people make art. As we went round the group and the different artists started talking through their work, everyone seemed to have a completely different purpose for doing what they were doing. For some, their work was primarily for themselves (to creatively express themselves, to find their voice, to process biblical teaching), for others it was a way of deliberately communicating elements of the Christian message to others. For others it was more specific. One artist wanted to reveal beauty where it was hidden, one wanted to bring out the child in all of us. I particularly liked Lynne Harris’ main motivation which was that her painting helped her get out of the house and connect with the natural world.

This observation was perhaps prompted by the discussion that we’d had immediately before the time spent sharing work. One artist had honestly shared that he feared that his work was no good and another of the need to accept criticism to make work better. However how can you even define what is good (or how work can get better) unless you know what you are trying to achieve? And if you don’t know what someone is trying to achieve, critiquing is going to be at best pointless, and at worst really irritating!

I think that the best example would be if you had two visual artists- one who was making art to encourage Christians in times of corporate worship and another who was making art in a bid to engage with people outside the church (by getting included in a local gallery, for example). For the first artist, technical quality could be important but is not a clincher, but clarity of communication is probably going to be vital (if, for example, the piece is made to deliver a prophetic message, it’s probably helpful that people generally understand what that message is!) For the second artist on the other hand, ambiguity may be more desirable so as not to appear too didactic, and technical quality is paramount. Now, imagine the two artists critiquing each other’s work from their own standpoint. It’s going to be a car crash.

My advice to any artist would be to aim to become as good as you can at what you do. However, I recognise that an artist for whom the creative process is mainly about self expression and processing their emotions or relationship with God, isn’t going to be as motivated to do this as an artist with a different motivation. Also, for people who are just starting to explore their creativity, a high bar of technical skill may be incredibly off putting and may stop them developing.

I really hope that the Bedford hub (as with all our Sputnik Hubs) will be a group where people can improve in their work and it would be great to add in some elements of sensitive, constructive critique as time goes on. However, I’d love it too if it becomes a group where people who love creativity and love Jesus but are just starting out creatively can feel safe enough to push their work forward at their own speed.

That is always going to be a difficult balance, but I reckon that we got off to a great start.

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You don’t need to do it all on your own: lessons from the Brum Sputnik Hub.

For our third Sputnik Brum Hub, we had a quandary. How exactly do you follow Ally Gordon and Luke Tonge?

Not only are these guys two of the most talented, articulate Christian artists working in their fields in the UK at the moment, but they also both run national Christian art networks, making them well equipped to talk about pretty much anything related to art, faith and church (the three topics that Sputnik hubs tend to talk about).

Well, the answer was staring us in the face. We’d spent much of the early summer plugging Stewart Garry’s brilliant Sojourner project, and seeing as Chris Donald, who’d overseen the production of the project, had just landed back in Brum, we thought we’d let them run the show.

I mean, just to have Stewart playing in such an intimate setting would have been enough. But to have the two of them break down (and take questions on) one of the most interesting and well executed art projects I’ve come across this year was perfect.

As expected, their presentation and the ensuing discussion threw up all sorts of nuggets of gold, and I thought I’d summarise 3 of the main things I got from the afternoon for those of you who were unlucky enough to have been doing something else a couple of Saturdays ago.

1) The importance of the whole package

One of the main reasons that I was so keen for Chris and Stewart to come and share was that this project is so well executed from every angle. The music is obviously fantastic, but then again so are the videos. And the production. And the promo photography. And the typography. And the website.

This attention to ‘the whole package’ came through clearly in the afternoon and was a very helpful reminder to all of us. I’ve seen so many good projects fall down because even one element was lacking. You shouldn’t judge a book by it’s cover, but you do. And so does everyone else. And we all do the same to an album and even a free online bandcamp release. Similarly, for promotion through social media nowadays, a well shot video is no longer the icing on the cake. It is the cake (or at least the filling in the middle. Or the marzipan on the battenburg. I don’t know much about cakes, but you get the idea).

However, most of the artists I know have a tendency to try to do everything themselves. Perhaps it’s because of a shyness that causes them to choose to work alone. Perhaps it’s an insecurity in the quality of their work. Perhaps it’s simply because they don’t know anyone who can do the other bits that they’re not brilliant at.

Well, the first two of these reasons may still need to be battled through, but one of the purposes of Sputnik is to cross the third one off the list for more and more of us. It may be slightly intimidating to witness Chris, who is one of the few people I’ve met who has the drive and skill to do pretty much everything himself. However, for the rest of us, we need to rely on other people.

Just because you can write, it doesn’t mean you can art direct your book cover.

Just because you can sing, it doesn’t mean that you can engineer your music.

Where I fall short is always typography. Oh, just find a decent font. There’s bound to be one here somewhere. This approach always leads to trouble and I’d thoroughly recommend all artists who ever want to make promotional material for anything to keep their eyes peeled for typographers and graphic designers who know how to use a font properly.

Between Chris and Stewart, they presented us with what happens when you get it right.

2) Thinking through promoting your project

One of the elements that Stewart admitted to falling short on was promoting the project after its release. To be honest, he’s still way ahead of many of us and clearly put in some good work here as he certainly got the project into some of the right hands as a number of positive reviews testify.

However, this raised a few thoughts about how we promote our work in general. For Stewart, the problem was one of tiredness. For him, the project was done and his energy had been spent doing the important stuff- putting the actual product together. On the back of this, geeing himself up to promote the whole thing (a huge project in itself if it’s to be done properly) was a step too far. Chris mentioned the possibility of paying someone to take this on in future, and I know of others who’ve factored this cost into their budgeting and found it helpful.

Even if you don’t have an online marketing strategy or the money to employ a PR firm to promote your project, it is worth thinking this through whatever you are working on. Perhaps this is just an addition to the first point, but again our assumption is always that the artists should do their own promo and I think this is almost always a bad idea. I remember doing a launch gig for an EP I brought out a while ago and bringing all my nicely packaged new CDs to sell. However by the end of the show I was so drained by performing and at my absolute height of insecurity, making it almost impossible to burst into ‘in your face-buy my EP’ mode. I saw this work very well, on the other hand, when I was in a band years ago and one member of the group mainly worked on the music (which was pre-sequenced) so didn’t feature heavily in the performance but attended all our gigs. He was fantastic at flogging merchandise and was the main reason that our first two albums broke even (or would have done if only we hadn’t pressed up al that vinyl just before we split up. Grrrr….) The reality was that he was involved enough in the product to support it, but removed enough from it not to feel like he was putting his soul on the line every time he pushed for a sale.

How does this work with your art projects?

Do you have enthusiastic advocates who you can enlist to flog stuff?

This may sound very mercenary, but the fact is that if you don’t make at least some of your costs back you’re not going to be able to keep creating new work and putting it out. When you consider that financing your work doesn’t just depend on the quality of the work itself, this makes it all the more important to think through your PR plan, even if it just involves extroverted friends who don’t mind hassling strangers for money

3) Being a geek

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again- to be a decent artist you must be a geek. Stewart is a case in point. His influences are all over the project (‘The Don’ being the foremost example) and even just a quick chat with him over coffee on the afternoon underlined this, as he quickly began listing off influences from outside of the world of finger style guitar (I’d certainly not spotted The Deftones influence before that conversation for example).

This is not just some guy with some pretty fast fingers who practised his scales loads. Stewart has fed on a diverse range of musicians for years and they all subtly bleed through his style.

The only genre many Christian artists claim any sort of geekness in though is in the contemporary Christian realm. Then, they want to win the world for Jesus through what they do. But, as the dieticians have told us for years, you are what you eat.

Stewart (and Chris) have been eating very well, and they are operating at the top of their game. I’m convinced that there is no other way to get there.

That concludes today’s lesson.

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Sputnik Hubs Are The Future!

At the beginning of 2016, we completed our WhatIsItToBeHuman? exhibition. It was a real step forward for Sputnik. The work was of a higher quality than anything we’d put on before and, certainly by the end, the events connected to the exhibition were really hitting the mark. But the question was- what would we do next?

This led to lots of soul searching about what Sputnik actually is, and when we’d had enough of gazing at our navels, we looked up and saw a clear path forward. This path was spelt out in two words: Sputnik Hubs.

We figured that we are first and foremost a network of artists and as such doing the odd national art project or gathering is okay, but if these are the only times we collaborate or have face to face contact, we will be fairly ineffective. We need to find ways to gather artists locally and regularly to encourage and challenge each other in excelling in our respective crafts.

We also concluded that one of our key values is our love for and thorough connection to the local church. We are based in a particular network of local churches, Catalyst (part of the Newfrontiers family) and this is not a peripheral connection. We have been given real permission from the leaders of Catalyst to push forward in serving artists in our churches and increasingly helping churches in our family to welcome artists more effectively themselves.

From these two concussions (sometimes auto-corrects are worth leaving in for comedy reasons, whether you can guess the intended word or not, that seems somehow appropriate), the Sputnik Hub was born. A Sputnik Hub is a community of artists linked to a number of local Catalyst churches in a specific area. Each hub exists to connect Christian artists with other artists and to encourage each other to excel in our work. The focus is always on making art outside of the church for a universal audience.

Any Christian artist, of any discipline, can get involved, but the leaders of the hubs (and I guess the majority of each hub) are from Catalyst churches. This church link is the thing that I’ve noticed is our most unique feature as a Christian art network and it is really helpful in two main ways. First, it means that our basic values are kind of set and pretty much understood by everyone coming into the group. Christians come in all shapes and sizes (which can be a very good thing) but to meaningfully connect, there must be an accepted value base, or at best we could end up at cross purposes (which is annoying) and at worst we could just spend all day arguing (which will suck the life and fun out of everything). Secondly, it means that Sputnik can focus on helping Christian artists in their art, without having to take on the burden of everyone’s spiritual growth. Just to clarify, this is not because we think that your spiritual growth is unimportant, quite the contrary- if you’re not growing in your love for Jesus, it’s likely that your work will suffer, certainly in regards to its effect. (Not to mention your most important creative enterprise of crafting a God honouring, people loving life!) Spiritual growth, discipleship, or whatever you want to call it, is vital but while hopefully connecting with other likeminded Christians and finding an outlet for your God given skills and passions will help you grow in your faith, we really have only one piece of advice regarding discipleship: get stuck into your church! Simples.

To be honest, by the time I’d polyfilla-ed the last hole at Centrala after our Birmingham exhibition, the theory was there. The last 10 months then have been spent working out the practice. Birmingham seemed like the natural place to start, so we kicked off our Brum Sputnik hub in March.

The plan was as follows:

  • We would meet once a term for a whole Saturday afternoon in some friends’ home. We aim for between 10 and 20 people each time (we have a pool of about 50 who’ve expressed some interest in being involved)
  • We would personally invite all the Christian creatives we knew who were (or at least were interested in) engaging with people outside the church through their art, who were: a) In Catalyst churches (Churchcentral, Oasis, The Crown, Real Life Church, Redeemer, Raglan Road and Jubilee Church are our locals) or were b) Christian friends any of us knew.
  • We would do four things when we met together: a) Eat food b) Discuss stuff that is particularly relevant to the intersection of our art and faith c) Give opportunity for everyone to share and talk about out own work d) Pray for each other

To achieve 2), and kickstart 3), we thought it would be great to invite in artists from different disciplines each time who are a bit ahead of most of the rest of us and/or have some particularly interesting projects to share. In our three Brum Sputnik Hub meetings so far, we’ve been blown away first by fine artist Ally Gordon, then by graphic designer Luke Tonge and last time by the tag team of Chris Donald and Stewart Garry who talked us through their exceptional Sojourner project.

The idea was that these gatherings could kickstart all sorts of other interesting connections and projects, and lo and behold, that’s exactly what has happened. We’ve done a few little field trips (outings to interesting art events in the locality to help us get to know each other a bit better), but most significantly, on the suggestion of Chris Donald, we’ve just started our first Brum Sputnik Hub art project. It’s on a theme, but most importantly requires people to work collaboratively, preferably with people who are from a different discipline. At February’s hub gathering, we will then showcase the work and see where it goes from there.

So, at this point in time, we have a working model on the ground of how to do church based, creative gatherings that are fun and purposeful. Therefore, it was brilliant to travel down to Bedford last Saturday to kick off our second Sputnik Hub, which Phil and Harri Mardlin are leading. A third one is in the wings too, as well as a possible fourth, which may take a slightly different form (I’ll keep this vague and intriguing for the moment).

Anyway, I thought I’d share this as we’re quite pleased with how this is all shaping up and we’d love to get you involved. If you’d like to connect in with our Brum or Bedford hubs, you’d be more than welcome and the best way to contact me is probably through Facebook or Twitter. If not, keep your eyes peeled for further developments, or if you’re from a Catalyst church and would like to start one of your own hubs in your area, I’d love to hear from you too. (If you’re not from a Catalyst church, but would still like to start one, give me a go. What’s the worst that can happen!)

The other thing you’ll notice is that we’ll start putting up brief reports from our different Hub gatherings to share the wealth with those of you who can’t yet connect in this way. So, in the next two weeks, I’ll fill you in on the last Brum one and the first Bedford one. You have been warned.