Project in the Paint takes Chelmsford by storm

Ignite Chelmsford has a mission to galvanise local passion, mobilise our communities and work collectively to raise our cultural profile.

It was recently bought to our attention that local resident Gareth Roberts was collaborating with Chelmsford City Council Parks’ team on an initiative called ‘Project in the Paint’ to spruce up a Basket Ball Court on Chelmer Village Green. It fits so neatly with the above mission, we asked him to pen a guest blog post to explain his motivation and inspiration behind the beautiful concept.

Images: Photography Shameela Beeloo / Andrew Strelczak (Drone)

Tell us about you… What do you do for a day job? What do think about Chelmsford?
As a designer I’ve been working in London for around 16 years, primarily packaging and branding for well-known global brands. Originally from the Midlands, I’ve lived in Chelmsford for over 10 years. I moved from London to live with my (now) wife who is a born and bred Chelmsfordian. I’ve seen the City change dramatically since it was awarded City status in 2012. Thanks to more investment and more improvements, it has steadily become a  great city to live, work and raise a family in. Chelmsford-folk are very open, friendly people on the whole, but unfortunately (and I’m sure I’m not alone) I’ve always felt that Chelmsford, and Essex, has struggled to shake off the stigma associated with the Essex girl/lad image. This is perpetuated in the media and reinforced in no small part by the likes of TV shows like TOWIE. Even to this day people bristle when I tell them I live in Essex and often have to deflect jokes about ‘The Sugarhut’. It goes without saying that the national image of Essex is diametrically opposed to the ideas of culture, diversity and creativity. Ironically, since moving to Chelmsford, I’ve only met inspiring people. I have been inspired by creative individuals with great ideas (not a single Joey Essex in sight). As an outsider moving to Chelmsford from London, at first I felt as though I’d arrived in a culture vacuum. This ended up being far from the case, I just wasn’t looking in the right places and certainly wasn’t doing my bit!

What is Project in the Paint? Where did the idea come from? What did you learn?
According to The Department of Culture, Media and Sport, basketball is the second most popular team sport (after football) in the UK for 11-15 year olds, with 32% of children participating. 336,000 people aged 14-25 or above play basketball in Britain at least once a month – as many as play cricket and golf combined. However, it receives nowhere near the same level of funding support and far, far less then the ‘national sport’; football.

I found this fact disappointing. As a former under 18 National Basketball Player, I found that basketball not only kept me extremely fit and active throughout my teens, it also increased my self-confidence, promoted social interaction and interpersonal skills. Plus, it taught me teamwork, discipline and gave me a hard work ethic. These are all skills that have carried me successfully through my professional career. Basketball is one of the easiest and cheapest sport to get into (all you need is a ball).

This eventually led me to begin steps towards launching Project in the Paint. A Community Art and Sport initiative helping to promote the need for greater investment in grass roots basketball in the UK. My project aims to re-imagine under-loved and under-used public basketball courts. Renovating and installing large-scale works of art, in order to strengthen communities and inspire play, culture and creativity in public spaces.

I was inspired by the discovery of an American initiative called Project Backboard. Around the same time I became a father for the second time and I stumbled on a study from Liverpool John Moores University. It had discovered that children’s physical activity was significantly increased by the application of brightly coloured marking on playground surfaces. Something clicked… people create their worlds with the tools they have directly at hand. If there’s only three things in the world that I know anything about it’s art, design and basketball.

As a designer I had a good understanding of how can art can effect communities positively. For me, the medium of Public Art is a perfect platform – it reaches people casually – when they’re not expecting it. Not everybody gets the opportunity to stare at a modern master in a gallery. Matisse didn’t drop-by Chelmsford on his travels as far as I’m aware, but by democratising art, putting it in everyday places that are unavoidable, I felt that I could transform public basketball courts into bold, beautiful and unique works of art. This will bring the art to the viewer whilst embracing the idea of basketball courts as places of not only sport but celebration, creativity, diversity and togetherness. These are essential elements in building a sentiment of belonging to our community, making the locale safer, reducing antisocial behaviour and brightening-it-up.

The German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche noted that, “He whose life has a why can bear almost any how.” Indeed, I certainly had plenty of answers to the ‘why’s’ but the ‘how’s’ eluded me. If it wasn’t for a last minute, chance encounter with a Spacehive/Essex Crowd crowdfunding workshop run in partnership with Ignite Chelmsford, I struggle to see how I would be in the position I am in at present. Many of my most important connections to the eventual delivery of my first court span from this encounter.

From that point on I had a plan on how to fund the project with support from Spacehive, great local connections via Ignite Chelmsford into the City Council’s Parks Team. I then had the opportunity to pitch my idea to a room of peers at the RSA Essex Ideas Aloud session leading to further connections and ideas on growing the concept beyond its embryonic stage. If I’ve learned one thing it’s that no man is an island… it’s the connections you make that turn your ‘how’s’ into ‘when’s’.

What’s next for you as a creative? Have you long term plans for Project in the Paint?
Professionally I intend to continue as a full-time packaging designer with plans to step into a directorial role. But I have lots of long term ambitions for Project in the Paint. I aim to transform 1 or 2 more courts in Essex next year, but I’ll be taking steps during Autumn/Winter towards setting up Project in the Paint as a CIC (Community Interest Company). I want to access more funding revenues and attract branded sponsors to partner with. My ambition is to become a self-sustaining model that can be taken national and allow me to transform courts up and down the country on a regular basis.

However, I’d like to become curator rather than creator, giving local, popular and up-and-coming artists the opportunity to see their art on a larger canvases and commission them to create unique art pieces for basketball courts. Although I have greatly enjoyed expressing my own design style on court, I would take real joy in seeing how other might envision their work on the same canvas.

How can someone get involved or support your project or work?
Project in the Paint requires many man hours of planning to deliver – accessing funding, permissions and the actual labour of painting the court. Not being a lifelong citizen of Chelmsford, making connections in the basketball and art world that this project straddles is a real challenge – but the connections I have made have been the life blood of the project so far. I’m always looking to meet people from both worlds. If you have some funding for a basketball space or an art project and you think you might be interested in transforming a court I’d love to hear from you. Equally, if you’re an artist or designer and would like to see your art on a large scale and you feel your style would fit the project I’d also love to hear from you too!

I feel that basketball is a transformative, inclusive sport for everyone; from wheelchair users and children to adults and families. It’s not a magic bullet to solve the world’s problems but can certainly help. My project is about getting people involved in the sport whilst engaging in the enjoyment of art. Why not look up your local youth team, wheelchair, women’s or men’s team?… pick-up a ball, call a friend, call a few, try it out. You never know I might see you on the court.