How to create a piece of community digital art

One of the better aspects of my lockdown (the summer 2020 one, in case anyone is reading this in the future and the summer 2020 one was the first of hundreds) was a piece of digital community art I created with Hastings Museum and Art Gallery. Though inevitably we learned as we went along and we could refine the process another time, it was easier than you might think to create this beautiful and joyful piece of work. Here’s the step-by-step process.

  1. I worked with Carissa Tanton, an illustrator, to convert a painting from the museum’s collection into a simpler colour illustration. We then split this into squares in Photoshop and, through the museum’s Social Media channels, publicised our plan.
  2. We numbered the squares and logged who had what number.
  3. We sent out squares to anyone who requested one on a first come first served basis. We gave out second, third and fourth or more squares if people wanted them – partly because we didn’t want to end up with unfinished ones, but also because the spirit of the project was creativity and joy, not scarcity. Each volunteer was emailed a colour and black & white version of a square (distributing them so we didn’t end up with a cluster of unfinished ones in one corner) and asked to recreate it however they wanted.
  4. Our co-creators photographed their contribution on their phone and emailed it back. We then added their square to the piece in Photoshop and shared examples on Social Media. The plan was to share particularly brilliant or inspiring ones, but it was actually more of a challenge to stop myself sharing them all.
  5. Most people have a camera phone and an email account but not everyone has a printer, so asking them to copy rather than colour in meant that we didn’t restrict them – it also led to some ingenious solutions. One person arranged pasta, some painted their square or welded precious metals; one child recreated it in socks and t-shirts!
  6. Splitting the piece into a fairly large number of squares meant that most of them were pretty abstract. That meant they were easy to replicate in almost any media, which was both inspiring and achievable for our volunteers.
  7. The most time-consuming work was sending 192 squares out and then receiving them back, logging them and uploading them to our shared drive (since me and Carissa were working remotely). Another time I’d perhaps offer the squares and instructions as a download, the only disadvantage being that it would sidestep the most time-consuming but also the most joyful part of the project – many, many conversations with strangers about creativity during lockdown! We also had to send out quite a lot of reminders and reallocate any that weren’t likely to be completed.
  8. We sent out precise instructions on how to photograph a finished square ‘flat’ but some did come back fairly wonky. But this didn’t matter too much – because there were a lot of squares you don’t really notice any small inaccuracies, and we just cropped to fit if we had to.

We had an incredible number and variety of people joining in from across the country and have even listed the print for sale, with any profits going back into similar community projects. Somehow, we have even ended up on the British Museum’s blog.

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