Radical Acts: Unconventional Wisdom for Shaking Things Up

“We wrote a book that reminds us, and maybe helps others, to avoid the trap of trying to think our way to solutions. We propose creativity, making and loosening up.” In their new book, Lee Ryan and Viv McWaters propose a different way to respond to the challenges we face when working with groups, organisations and communities. 

Radical Acts is full of insights, influenced by the arts, personal experiences, and indigenous knowledge. And peppered with playful illustrations by Steve Chapman, who shares his experiences of working on the project.

What was enjoyable about the project? What was frustrating or difficult?

Well firstly I loved the opportunity to collaborate with Viv and Lee. I know Viv a little but we’ve not really worked together and I hadn’t met Lee before. It was great to get to know her and her work.

The main thing I enjoyed was the freedom of the brief. I tend to not do commissions as I find them too restrictive. The vast majority of my art is improvised and I discover what it is as I create it and often commissions disrupt this process by specifying a specific thing to create.  But the brief from Viv and Lee was to simply do some drawings, in my own style, in my own medium (black and white acrylic pen) so that was liberating and meant I just kept a sketchbook with me everywhere I went and added to it frequently.

I also enjoyed the process in which we co-created.  Viv and Lee sent some draft words, I drew whatever came to mind as I read it. I then sent the drawings back with no reference as to which bit they were inspired by and they fitted them where they felt they fitted in the text. Sometimes it was where I’d been inspired. Other times not, which made it feel a fully improvised and co-created thing.

I normally get frustrated with projects but I actually didn’t with this one. The difficult thing was us working across vast time-zones (Lee in NZ, Viv in Australia, me in the UK and Mary who did the cover, lettering and editing in the US). And as we did 90% of the communication and sharing via email it meant that a question or a response ended up taking a couple of days for everyone to see. But I also think that added to the feel of the project and we were practicing what the book preached about setting a creative direction and then doing stuff.

How did the process of illustrating this book differ from others you’ve been involved in?

The main thing was the freedom of the brief. A totally open brief is tricky but an overly prescriptive brief is usually enough to make me say “no”. So the loose boundaries of knowing what the book was about, reading the draft words and knowing the rough number and type of drawings was just the amount of structure I like. Often for book illustrations the author has a very clear picture in their head of what they want and how they want it to look. I wish I could do those briefs but I’m not that kind of artist really.

What did you discover about unconventional wisdom from collaborating in this book?

I said “yes” to doing the illustrations before I’d read any of the book and I remember vividly when I read the first draft and thinking to myself “Oh, I actually like this – that’s helpful!” So many books about creativity are overly prescriptive and do the work for the reader that they should really be doing for themselves. So I liked the way that Viv and Lee practiced what they preached, offered some wisdom, some provocations, some questions but no answers.

Aboutism is one of my bug-bears in most of the work I do. Clients want to talk ABOUT disruption. Or ABOUT creativity. Or ABOUT not knowing. But they don’t actually want to experience it. I often tell a version of the Chinese parable “The man who loved dragons” to illustrate the difference between liking the idea of something versus actually being prepared to experience the thing itself. I really liked the book’s focus on this. And the idea of loosening people’s brilliance, which is a great way to think about it. Like applying some oil or WD40 or massage to loosen up things that have become stuck and rigid. And just like oil/WD40/massage, some people need more than others. And some are maybe so fundamentally rusted that there is little an external influence can do to help.

In what ways do your illustrations connect with the words that are written?

I’d say they are inspired by the words. A couple of them are literal, like the person hiding behind the sofa. But most of them came from the words being a catalyst for a chain of thought that ends up with, for example, a snake doing a painting of a sunflower.

What I really appreciated was that the illustrations ended up inspiring the format of the book too. Like the wisdom of the creatures section was a lovely surprise to see in the finished version.

If you had to choose one creature to take with you to Christmas Day, who would you take and why?

Oooh. A great question. In terms of real life creatures it would be my dog Poppy, an 8-year-old sweet cockapoo I don’t get to see very often. In terms of creatures in the book I think it would have to be either the bird that is cooking dinner (handy to have over on Christmas Day) or that poor sheep in the harness thing as it looks like it could do with some love. (And as a vegetarian it would be safe with me for Christmas dinner)

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