James Kerr has been the man behind the goings on at Derry’s Verbal Arts Centre for the past ten years. During that time, the centre nestled inside the City Walls has changed almost in a human like way, with no sudden major differences but gradually and organically - and arguably for the better. In that process the Stable Lane building has firmly established itself as a first class vehicle for making the arts more accessible to everyone. That, James says has always - and continues to be - his primary objective.
Any developments at the centre, James says, have been born out of conversations. Obviously appropriate given the ‘verbal’ tag.
In looking at his own career, which has been steeped in the arts since day one, the Derry man points back to a single conversation he shared with his late father, John Kerr, a former Mayor of Derry.
“I had convinced my dad to visit the National Gallery in London with me,” he says.
“Going into an art gallery was something he found quite intimidating but he ventured in with me and a conversation we had that day has always stayed with me. I remember we were both looking at a piece of Dutch art, I think from around the 15th century and he pointed out that the person in the picture looked a lot like a certain local councillor that he knew from Derry at the time. We really laughed about the whole thing and there, in that one piece of art, was something that had translated for my father and it was a place he would never have gone into if he hadn’t been persuaded.
“For me, the point is that the piece of art we looked at provoked a conversation but it’s about making people feel comfortable enough to be in a space to have those conversations and have those experiences where they really enjoy art.”
James credits his parents Carita, and the late John, with everything he’s been able to achieve throughout his career.
“I knew, quite early, exactly what I wanted to do. I always enjoyed art at school, but what I really wanted to do was art history. I remember we went on a school trip to Paris when I was at St Columb’s College and as a teenager, for me, that was totally transformative. Growing up in Clarendon Street, we lived quite close to the town and I used to spend quite a bit of time in the Orchard Gallery and that really allowed me to explore.
“I knew I wanted to write about art but when it came to choosing my A-levels, art history wasn’t offered as a subject so I didn’t know what to do. It was genuinely the only thing I wanted to do.”
When he mentioned what he wanted to study to his parents, James says he was met with nothing but support and encouragement and was never made to feel that he should consider art as a hobby and move in the direction of a more pragmatic career.
“Through the late Bernard McCormick, who was an art teacher at Derry Tech at the time, I was told about the Courtauld Institute of Art in London where I could study art history.
“I thought the chances of getting in were slim because they only had an intake of 25 people every year. I applied anyway by writing an essay and got an unconditional offer to study there, something which my parents completely encouraged me towards.”
The offer of a place at the prestigious art college saw James become the first student from the North ever to study at the institute in its 100 year history. One of his classmates was the daughter of King Hussein of Jordan, and the others were largely public school students from privelegedbackgrounds. That, James says, wasn’t the case for him, but his parents never questioned his decision to accept the place in London and pursue his dream of studying art history.
“They never once said that I should forget about it and just do art as a hobby, and they could have,” he says.
“For me, when you look at a painting, you see life, and my father was very interested in life and in people and his own identity. I think he had an understanding that art could be centrally important without it being just a hobby so when his 17 year old son came and said he had a place in the Courtauld Institute he didn’t question it at all. Despite the fact that we weren’t well off, what my parents did was give me permission to enter a world of art.
“At times when I was studying in London, I felt out of my depth and I’d look around at the people in the class and wonder what I was doing there. There was all this privilege around me and I was on a grant but I was doing something that I loved and I just kept doing that.”
His time spent at the Courtald Institute has been the basis for a solid career in the arts since then and in the surroundings of the Verbal Arts Centre, James seems as at home in his job as he is in the city he was born in. He says the centre works “under the radar” a lot of the time, but is very clear about its primary function.
“There’s a quote from a book called ‘The God of Small Things’ which won the Booker prize in 2004, written by Arundhati Roy and it refers the fact that there is no such thing as voiceless people, only those who are deliberatly silenced and those who are ‘preferably unheard.” says James.
“I think that concept of the ‘preferably unheard’ is something which has really stayed with me in terms of what we do here.
“Recently we had a project working with street drinkers and I think that term is so applicable to how they’re dealt with and essentially ignored. “We live in Northern Ireland, surrounded by the preferably unheard, some political viewpoints are seen as unacceptable. That concept is all around us and I like to think we offer a space where people feel comfortable to have their voices heard through the arts. For me, if we can achieve that, we’re doing something worthwhile.”
In co-operation with the City of Culture, the Verbal Arts Centre has established reading rooms across the city where people from different backgrounds read with one another and talk about what they’re reading. That too, James says, is key to facilitating conversations that might not otherwise take place about art, from people who might not otherwise be given the chance to explore it.
James is married to Vivienne and the couple live in Derry with their three children Evie May, Charlie and Tom. For more on how to get involved at the Verbal Arts centre, visit www.verbalartscentre.co.uk