The Creative Instigator’s Handbook: Leanne Prain on Making Social Change Through Art

4 May 2022
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Do you have a belief that you feel really passionate about? Something that you would be prepared to act upon to preserve, protect, or prevent? For me, talks of cuts in library funding make me feel that I would be prepared to engage in acts that might mean going to jail if it would prevent libraries from being closed. It seems the stories of the early suffragette movement’s protests had a big impact on me.

Maybe you have a hot topic too. We are, of course, not alone. In The Creative Instigator’s Handbook: A DIY Guide to Making Social Change through Making Art (Arsenal Pulp Press, 2022), Leanne Prain has tapped into that passion and highlighted how creative individuals can use their artistic endeavours as a method of raising awareness.

She demonstrates (pun intended) that making your voice heard on a subject doesn’t have to be an aggressive act. She guides the reader along a path of discovery, illuminating many different ways that social change can be achieved through acts of creativity rather than criminality. An instigator for sure, but also a gentle motivator for people who might need a little encouragement to begin a project they have in mind.

Leanne says that writing Yarn Bombing taught her that “projects don’t need to be large and aggressive, even a small creative act can make a change in one other person’s day.”

Other books by Leanne Prain:

Yarn Bombing: The Art of Crochet and Knit Graffiti, co-authored with Mandy Moore (2009, 10th anniversary edition 2019)

Hoopla: The Art of Unexpected Embroidery (2011)

Strange Material: Storytelling Through Textiles (2014)

All published by Arsenal Pulp Press.

Scattered throughout the book are Leanne’s interviews with the featured artists, so in that spirit I sent her several interview questions and she was kind and generous enough to share her thoughts with me.

The book is divided into ten chapters structured to mimic the arc of a project from conception through to execution. The supportive tone encourages would-be artists to try exercises to spark ideas, find their voice, look deeper into their values, connect with like-minded groups, and spend time learning, researching, and perfecting concepts. It also includes suggestions on how to keep going when encountering setbacks (either personal or external). It is rounded out by chapters on getting the word out, promoting, completing, and finally memorializing the project.

For me the Handbook provoked many positive personal reactions, and it certainly made me want to create something. I was also impressed by how the guide not only stimulated this feeling but offered practical realistic advice on how to handle other stages required to bring a project to successful fruition. Packed with sidebars of checklists, inspirational quotes, and prompts, I feel it will speak to many readers who will return to its contents over and over. I loved Leanne’s eschew of “art snobbery,” instead writing for everyone with a creative pulse.

The book is full of uplifting colour and has a modern format. Leanne has a background in graphic design which means that in tandem with her book designer they have produced a visual feast for the reader. Many of the artists featured in the book generously allowed access to images of their projects, which lends a personal element.

I was curious about what had sparked Leanne’s initial idea for the book. She told me that many things had inspired her. “Many years of working in community arts councils, interactions with artists and other creators (who I met at public talks) who were trying to do something public with their work for their first time. My awe at what other people have executed in their own public projects.”

She confirmed that she enjoys collaborative projects and believes that “the best ideas come about from spit-balling ideas and getting excited about what you can make together!”

Recognising that if she is “chewing over a problem, likely others are too” was also a motivation for writing the book.

The Projects And Textile Highlights

Throughout the Instigator’s Handbook, many different art media are explored through case studies. The scales of the projects are wide-ranging: from small, low-tech projects created by individual artists in simple surroundings, to elaborate, collaborative group projects involving lots of planning and acquiring of specific spaces.

Leanne is obviously passionate about the power of words and books. In fact, she grew up hanging out in a library where both her parents worked. Several of the featured projects are word related: mini free libraries, outdoor poetry readings, a writing and typewriter project, a wall for handwritten messages, and a long-established sketchbook project that encourages creative storytelling.

Of course, there are many textile-based projects featured.

Aram Han Sifuentes creates a lending library of fabric protest banners dealing with issues faced by disenfranchised communities. Shanalee Hampton embroiders signs for posting on trees to raise awareness of issues such as gun violence. The Kumugwe Cultural Society’s Red Dress Campaign brings focus to the issue of and honours missing and murdered Indigenous women. Diana Weymar runs the Tiny Pricks project, an embroidered archive of the tweets posted by Donald Trump during his presidency. Katherine Soucie, a London-based artist, transforms waste fabrics into sculptures aiming to create awareness of textiles and materials. Catherine West, founder of Significant Seams, a group of artists who all work as mental health practitioners, coordinated the fabrication a group quilt during the pandemic which acted both to raise awareness and as a support for participants.

image description: a close up of a patchwork quilt; the central square is orange, and the words "This too shall pass" are embroidered on it

A patch created by a community member as part of a participatory project created by Significant Seams during the 2020 COVID-19 lockdown in the U.K. Photo credit: Jim Wileman.

Leanne has done a marvelous job of gathering together artists with diverse missions, backgrounds, and approaches. There is a Danish artist who fashions wooden trolls and birdhouses from upcycled materials. A flyer-maker who shares motivational quotes such as “Be Mighty.” A multi-disciplined creative coach. A husband-and-wife team who collect drawings to highlight the challenges of the India / Pakistan border. An art industry professional who organizes events to sell limited edition art miniatures on buttons. A duo who makes bicycles that look like fantastical animals for middle school students who need to travel between school and literacy programs. Food salons, reimagined urban spaces, a street piano accessibility program, the Global Angel Wings Project, an artistic activism organization, and a long-time outdoor artist who creates beauty from broken things such as defunct cars and abandoned houses.

image description: a roll of white fabric, shaped like a roll of toilet paper, is displayed on a toilet paper holder; it's embroidered with words counting off significant numbers related to the COVID 19 pandemic, including a count of days, a count of deaths, a count of costs

JUST SEWN STORIES, Daily Briefings, 2020, assemblage, cotton, thread, paper. Photo credit: Jim Wileman.

Written During the Pandemic

In the book, Leanne poses the question “What time is it?” referring to the relevance of timing for a project. She herself has a history of capturing the current moment and way of thinking. She co-authored the book Yarn Bombing in 2009, tapping into the movement just as it was becoming widely embraced by communities outside of the fiber world. In the intervening years since it was first published, Leanne thinks that textiles have become a more common tool for protest. This new book addresses the current era, showcasing specific projects that chronicle a time and place, for example, Donald Trump’s tweets during the Capitol Hill riots, and the pandemic. Going beyond these projects, the book also offers advice on how to coordinate projects in the digital age, using updated ways of working as tools rather than as blocks.

Handbook was originally conceived in 2017. Once she began writing, it took Leanne a year and half to compile and complete. She actually began working on the manuscript just as the pandemic began, which caused difficulties when some artists were unable to participate because of their pandemic experiences. Other artists changed tack in what Leanne describes as “the most interesting and surprising ways.” Reflecting the backdrop of this particular timeframe, the book’s tone reinforces the importance of art and creativity as a source of hope through difficult time periods.

About the Author

When I asked if Leanne has a background in social change or activism her reply was,

“Have I attended a protest? Yes. Have I made art with the aim of influencing other people? Yes. Everything we do is political, and I think all of us have a background in social change and activism just by being alive.” 

image description: a portrait of a white woman, from the waist up, one hand is on her hip and she looks directly into the camera with a half-smile

Leanne has worked in programs in the Vancouver area with the goal of creating social change by harnessing artistic creativity, and in welcome programs for immigrants to Canada.

And she is a valued contributor to Digits & Threads. Her most recent piece is about Fibreshed Stories at Emily Carr University of Art and Design. In the past she has written about Lucas Morneau (The Queer Mummer), an artist doing incredible things with crochet and photography. Leanne also wrote about the “fifty-year flannel,” a handmade flannel shirt that was dyed, woven, designed, and sewn in Ontario.

If I were to describe The Creative Instigator’s Handbook in just a few words, I would say that it is inspirational and informative. It’s part explanatory, part how-to, part storytelling, part motivational: a rallying cry and call to artistic and social change action.

Let me leave you with a piece of Leanne’s inspiring wisdom. When asked about her interactions with the artists showcased in book and what she had learned from them, she replied, “Honestly, anything is possible. If you want to start a creative project—do it! The only thing holding yourself back is yourself. Making creative projects is not always easy, but it is always rewarding.”

All images courtesy Leanne Prain/Arsenal Pulp Press.

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The articles, tutorials and patterns we publish about Canadian fibre and textile arts, crafts and industry are made possible by our members.

Copyright © Fiona Ellis except as indicated.
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About Fiona Ellis

Fiona Ellis learned to knit from her Grandmother at a very early age. She went onto to study Fashion at DeMontfort University (Leicester UK) where she specialized in knitwear design. She has been designing professionally since graduating in 1993. Her original designs have been sold to major fashion houses in New York, London & Paris for mass-market production and have been widely published through premier knitting magazines and in yarn pattern booklets for many yarn companies. She is the author of the books Inspired Cable Knits, Knitspiration Journal and Inspired Fair Isle Knits & is also an instructor at Craftsy. You can find out what she is currently doing at www.fionaellisonline.com.

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