Words by Patrick Kirk-Smith. Photographs courtesy of Leon Jakeman.
Leon Jakeman is an artist dedicated to using his own experience to improve the lives of others through interactive, unifying, creative experience. He has been curating exhibitions at The Brink, one of Liverpool’s most exciting dry bars, since it opened in 2011 – which is notable in itself – and won awards to mark those contributions.
His efforts with the Brink and his other projects, including Space13, have one predominant link; recovery. But it is his unique approach to addiction recovery that sets him out from the crowd, it’s genuine, and passionate. It’s relatable even to those who have no history of addiction. And what’s more he continues to volunteer across other galleries and work with festivals to promote the issue very publically, making quiet but effective change in how Liverpool continues to develop its approach to addiction and substance misuse.
We were lucky enough to be able to pick his brain about the impact his work has had, and the effect he hopes it can continue to deliver.
What’s the theme to be concerning ourselves with when looking around Make your Mark II?
‘Make Your Mark II’ (exhibition currently showing at the Brink) can be looked at as an opportunity to be bold, make a stand & be proud of who you are. It focuses on five individual’s journeys (Ste De Costa, Frank Marnell, Jules Nylander, Maria Obeng & Maxine Rainey) whom engage In the Art sessions at Art & Soul (an abstinent based project) Mondays 1-3pm led by myself. The theme being exploration of mark making processes and expressions in various media, challenging initial fears cathartically by engaging with material and play. It’s through the turning up and having a go, without slapping ourselves senseless with judgement and expectation, that we confront such fears/ego, often ‘I’m not good enough’ by engaging in creative play. Art & Soul is a creative recovery service based in the heart of Liverpool. Activity programs complement an ‘open door’ approach to both group & individualised recovery routes. As well as being a creative and artistic base Art & Soul, remains a localised hub for help, support & social interaction.
Is it mark making that’s jumped out at you with this show, or has that just sort of stemmed out from some kind of art therapy, or awareness of process that was more critical through your historical work? Mark making is a huge spectrum to try and cover, but what was it that drew you into focus on it in such a direct way?
‘Make Your Mark series’ stemmed from the success of curating the initial exhibition in 2014 where 25 clients from 3 recovery services in Liverpool engaged, (Art & Soul, Genie In the Gutter & Sharp) The reason I chose a theme of mark making with the clients is that it’s somewhat connected to a letting go, freeing up & confidence building exercise and yes given the cathartic nature of the work you could say it has an arts for health objective. The nature of addiction is a fear based illness, so through this type of creative work we can often explore processes that creatively challenge that fear, core beliefs and self with the aim to reconnect us to an innocence in experimental play and truth.
You’ve held other exhibitions “through the eyes of a recovering addict” in the past (featuring another of our featured artists – Simon Yorke). Is that a theme that stuck around in your work?
Ok, so firstly I approached the Brink founder Jacquie Johnston Lynch as an artist/curator when the Brink first opened in September 2011 but equally significant was that I’d been in recovery circles for a few years after finally facing my own addictions and finally found myself clean and sober for the first time in 20 years.
My recovery came first and it gave me the opportunity to finally get things in order from the chaos, dysfunction, over functioning, isolating, daily life/death situations that I’d been battling with which to be honest seemed to be there before I first turned to alcohol & substances at an early age. So, it’s no surprise that the nature of my creative focus was deeply rooted in looking at the Human condition.
As a child I recall struggling to communicate on a verbal plane but lost myself in material, deconstruction and reconfiguring processes – it’s funny how when I apply this to my own life, how to recover, that I completely broke down in order to get to my place of being able to be put back together again with the help, love and support that I’d always denied. Whilst I’d already been practicing art for some years to a degree in all my mess and pain it was obviously only when I abstained from alcohol & substances that things came together.
I independently set up the Brink Arts Program in 2011 and gained UK first North West Creative Recovery Award for achievement within the field in 2012 from which I then set up Space13. Part of this involves working with other services delivering creative outreach sessions in abstinent based projects across Liverpool working closely one to one and with groups to bring about the importance of unison, relationship and partnership for change. The visionary aim for this being to impact primarily service users, groups and communities, focusing on how we relate, interact, perceive and work with one another. This invites a platform of opportunity and growth by uniting engaging services to bridge gaps socially allowing diverse individuals and groups to break stigmatism allowing an open minded freshness for all to develop and work together cohesively and constructively.
Another part is maintaining and curating the Brink visual space, organising exhibitions since its opening in 2011. This involves liaising and working with other agencies to produce participatory workshop client outcomes for display, community events and activities. So yes, I’ve put on numerous exhibitions at the Brink in the past 5 years for individuals, groups and alike, not necessarily focused or stuck on ‘recovery’.
The Brink, how’s it been received as Liverpool’s first dry bar?
The Brink has been received with great impact winning numerous awards over the years for its fresh innovative stance and social impact within what used to be one of the worst cities in the past for alcohol/substance misuse problems – its impact has had a big ripple effect in communities. Also acknowledging that HRH Kate Middleton became a patron of action on addiction and visited the Brink which in itself brought about a wider awareness to what the Brink is about and the impact such places can have in community. What we make, makes us.
Space13 has done a lot of good under your control, where do you think it sits in the bigger picture in Liverpool? Does it have the power to keep doing the same good work into the future – Make Your Mark 3?
Space13 is my own little baby so to speak and ever evolving with direction, whilst I have been part of studio groups and engaged on the scene, Space13 has been a virtual space with the hope and aim that maybe one day will become a creative hub where ‘stuff’ happens! I like stuff! Stuff is good! I’ve been involved in every Liverpool Biennial since they began and aware the city and the arts scene has evolved over the years, and looks like this year may be the first year that an Independents strand doesn’t exist? Who knows whether that’s good or bad? Artists will do ‘Stuff’ as artists do anyway. We have exhibitions in place at The Brink till spring 2017 and will be my 3rd year involvement in the ever growing amazing Threshold Festival (6) after last year’s epic success; personally for me with the ‘Drama Triangle’ installation. I still volunteer at the Bluecoat (Blueroom) and find that absolutely amazing. The group and staff are awesome and to be honest would love a ‘regular job’ within the creative sector as well as doing my own thing. Currently I do what I can, when I can as well as focusing on my own recovery journey and working in a treatment centre as a support worker.
You talk about play, expression and engagement in the advertisement for this exhibition, words that I think have some resonance in the history of your practice. How would you like to see those themes pushed further in Liverpool’s creative community? What can we do to produce work that hits on those notes in a more open way?
All I’d say on this is to remain open minded to what can happen not what can’t. To be all inclusive, with love and innovation. I’d be interested in your/others views on this for your input….