Gareth stands relaxed in front of a brightly coloured basketball court, holding a basketball in his hand
Nikki Wilson talks to Gareth Roberts
12 Apr, 2024
Member of the Month: Gareth Roberts

Each month, Nikki Wilson interviews an Ignite Member, asking five simple questions, to find out what creativity means to them, and how they see culture and creativity, and its potential, in Chelmsford.

This month Nikki talks to Gareth Roberts.

How would you describe what you do? 

Professionally, I’m a Graphic Designer by trade, as an Associate Creative Director. I work for an established 30 year old Brand Acceleration Agency called bluemarlin, in my career I’ve been lucky enough to work for many household names that you’d recognise from Coca-Cola and Cadbury to Tesco and Colgate and a lot in between. We work primarily in the US, India and across Central and Southern Europe – but the agency has always had a good global and local footprint with offices in India, Bangkok, Australia and the US over the years.  

I’ve been working in design for 20 years, up to Associate Creative Director in the Packaging and Branding space, having studied Graphics at ‘Norwich School of Art & Design’ as it was known at the time, now NUA, so my background has always been in the art and design space.

I started the idea of Project-in-the-Paint around 2018 ,the concept was to re-imagine under-loved and under-used basketball spaces, Basketball was my main focus because I had experience in playing basketball at quite a high level for England Boys as an under 18 (despite being only five foot seven – five foot eight on a good day!) and have always been hugely passionate about the sport.

An aerial view of a brightly painted basketball court. Pink and blue surfaces are dotted with circles of zebra print type pattern

My passion for basketball is beyond just sport alone, as a teen it taught me lots of great life tools and  transferable skills that I’ve been able to utilise going forward in life – teamwork, good ethics, determination, not giving-up, self confidence and drive, even how to deal with losing, how to be a good winner, enjoying, not fearing competition and competitiveness. All those things I’ve been able to take into my personal life and my professional career. So I think it’s really important to demonstrate and highlight just how transformative basketball can be. I’m also motivated by the fact that basketball is most popular in the country’s most underprivileged and underfunded areas, where there’s always a basketball court and a community that rallies around these outdoor spaces.

Likewise, I spent as much of my time on these outdoor courts honing my skills as I did on the indoor court – the paid for, organised version of the game, versus the fun spontaneity of the outdoor game, the free game of the people.

Once I had children, they gave me the inspiration to take them to outdoor basketball courts and introduce them to the game, even at a very young age, just take them over to a court with a ball and have some fun. It made me realise how unloved the courts were. In the UK particularly they’ve always invited antisocial behaviour (not from the Basketball community I would add), because they’re rarely monitored by cameras, they tend to be tucked away in dark corners of local parks and people tend to steer away from them, which in turn permits people to go over there and do unsavoury activities, whether that’s just drinking and smoking or worse. It generally means that there’s quite a lot of mess around them –  broken glass, cigarette butts, food and drink wrappers, so taking my children over there wasn’t particularly inviting.

Two people in high vis jackets kneel down to measure an unpainted basketball court

So just using the basic “broken window theory” backed by social sciences, which suggests that if you look after a space well and make it look more appealing, people respect it more, there’s more eyes on the space and that in turn makes it safer, and less likely to attract antisocial behaviour, that’s when I started Project in the Paint. The aim was to make safer, more inviting spaces to give UK grassroots Basketball a chance to grow and allow more people to get involved in the game, as well as offering opportunities for established and up-and-coming artists to create their art on a huge canvas that they may never have gotten the opportunity to work on.

And who, or what gives you creative inspiration?

So definitely this project specifically started with my kids in mind but I’m inspired by my wife Holly too. We both have an Art background, we met at Norwich at Art School in 2001 and we’ve been together since. Holly went into teaching art post-BA and did a Masters Degree in Art as well, so she’s a very accomplished and knowledgeable artist in her own right, and has her own creative small business called Jean Genie Denim where she continues to push her creativity by upcycling and transforming denim into incredible wearable art pieces. So my children and my wife certainly inspire me and are very supportive of Project in the Paint,. 

As a designer, I’ve always been inspired more by artists and craftsmen than other designers. Henri Matisse is one of my all-time favourites as well as William Morris and an incredible trailblazing designer called Alan Fletcher. What I love about all of those people is their bold use of colour but mostly the power of their simplicity. Admittedly, William Morris,is known for very complex craftsmanship, but functional simplicity is at the heart of all of his creations. he’s famously quoted in saying; “Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be beautiful or believe to be useful”, so functionality and the power of simplicity is what I take from all of those people.

Aerial view across half a basketball court, painted in bright colours in abstract geometric shapes

Outside of that, it’s always been sports; sportsmen and women. You’ll know, Michael Jordan? To any basketball fan..or anyone, he’s an immediately recognisable name in the game. But it’s his famous drive and determination, his constant striving for greatness in himself and others that’s effectively made him a legend in his own lifetime. I believe he can serve as an inspiration for practically anybody, let alone artists and designers like me. Then there’s musicians – people who are not just skilled in one field, one style or one instrument, but artists that’re skilled in several! Prince is someone who excelled at practically every instrument he touched and wasn’t afraid to do it all himself. He championed creativity, originality, bucked trends, played against type and rejected any attempts to pigeonhole him into genres based on his ethnicity alone and often suffered for his artistic integrity to the benefit of those that came after him. They’re both massive inspirations for me.

If you could try any new creative or cultural experience or practice, what would it be?

I’d say photography. I find it quite magical and I’ve always had an eye for composition, but never pursued photography in any way. I’m even more keen on it since the emergence of things like Instagram where it gives you a place to publish and if you’re into it, you’ll take a little bit of pride in simply curating your own Instagram account, as opposed to trying to be a published or exhibited photographer. 

The power of photography is incredible and some of the most enduring images in human history are photographs. They have the ability to change history, you know and the adage that a “picture speaks 1000 words” is so true. So, I’d love to do travel reportage or capturing street culture, emerging communities. That would be great, to be Chelmsford’s answer to Martin Parr!

What excites you about creativity and culture in Chelmsford?

When I first moved to Chelmsford from London, about 15 years ago, it felt like a bit of a cultural wasteland.15 years is a long time,and in the years since then Chelmsford has done a lot to make up the deficit to become one of the more creative cities not just in Essex, but in the southeast. 

I’ve seen a real conscious effort to drive art and creativity into the city and it’s actually visible when you drive and walk around now more than ever –  there’s art on the side of buildings that were never there, and the electricity boxes and lamp posts are painted. It’s starting to come through in a much more visible way than when I first came here.That’s definitely been accelerated since we had city status bestowed on us. I don’t know if it’s because of that, or it’s just coincidental, but I’ve definitely noticed the difference since becoming a city.

What it’s shown me is that there was always a creative undercurrent in Chelmsford, I just didn’t know where to find it. There are more platforms now than ever for people to showcase creativity in Chelmsford. In the last 12 months I have seen more creative events in Chelmsford than I knew existed. It’s been exciting to see that happen organically and it’s been nice to be in a position in the right place and at the time to play some small part in that through what I do.

Gareth is holding a brightly painted basketball backboard with traingular patterns, he satand on a similarly painted court

What would you like to see in Chelmsford that isn’t here yet?

Firstly, bigger and better outdoor basketball facilities – I think that goes without saying! 

Writtle College is a great example; being an agricultural college that also has an incredible sports science offering, they wanted to get some eyes on the fact that they offered that as well as the agricultural side. I worked with Writtle University College via Rise 3×3’s’s Martin Dyan, and we commissioned Bristol based artist; Molly Hawkins to paint their new outdoor Basketball space and that received some great national media attention. It’s an incredible world class facility just on the edge of Chelmsford and people really don’t know it’s there, but as part of their campus it’s not always open to the public, so I think it would be great to have an equally World class outdoor basketball space, of that scale and quality in Chelmsford.  We’ve got more than enough space to fit a few full sized basketball courts in and they’re nowhere near as big as football pitches – I’ve had my eye on Admirals Park for a while now…Chelmsford Council. Talk to me, Haha!

From an art and creativity perspective what I’d really love to see is a permanent, and really reputable art gallery. For a city of our size, it’s a travesty that we haven’t got one. Obviously, it takes less than an hour to get to some of the world’s best galleries in London like the Tate Modern or Britain which is great, but that’s not necessarily offering local and emerging artists a chance to showcase their work in and to their own community. I’ve probably seen more art in the Foyer of Chelmsford Library than anywhere else in the city, I think we all deserve a more dedicated space. That would also give the community a proper place to congregate, rally around and celebrate Chelmsford from a creative perspective.

That in turn could potentially bring some art tourism to Chelmsford as a by-product. The Art Trail that we have in the summer is truly an amazing event that brings people to the city and I always engage in that, but that’s a really hyper focused weekend of creativity. I know there’s other great creative events scattered throughout the year obviously, and I don’t mean to detract from or be disparaging of the great things they do, but I don’t think there’s that one permanent place that consistently invites art tourism, such as the likes that Brighton and Bristol enjoy. Art has become a part of both their identities as cities, they’ve become Art destinations. I’d absolutely love to see that happen to Chelmsford. It doesn’t need to be high-brow, chin scratching and inaccessible. I truly believe in democratising art, art for everyone.

Gareth spins a brightly coloured basketball on his finger, buildings appear in a blurry background

Photo credits: Mark Howe – Coco Lom X Pink Lady Project: Joseph Grimaldi Park, Islington; Shameela Beeloo – Chelmer Village Green Project, Chelmsford; Martin Dyan – Writtle University College Project by Rise 3X3 x Molly Hawkins

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