23 August 2016
Paul Northup - creative director at Greenbelt
Find out more about Paul Northup, creative director at Greenbelt, and the role of arts and creativity in Christian faith and community.
Tell us a bit about being creative director for Greenbelt and how you came to be in the role.
I first went to Greenbelt as an 18-year-old and I felt at home there. I'm now 50 and Greenbelt has shaped the way my faith has outworked ever since. When I first went I never imagined I'd end up working for the festival, let alone being creative director. I've been a punter, an artist, a volunteer and a trustee with the festival over those 32 years and now I've found myself on the staff team. And that's been a privilege.
In my role now I get to shape the content of the festival and also oversee the way we communicate the festival. It's a wide-ranging role and there's never a dull moment. I think the fact that I've been a festivalgoer and an artist at the festival helps me in my role.
I've also done some theology research as part of belonging to an emerging church group. It's this curious blend of passions and experiences that help me do my job today.
How did you come to faith?
Slowly. Slowly. I was raised by my grandparents, who were from Welsh Baptist stock. I grew up going to a village Baptist chapel with them and loving it because of friendships and stories. Parallel to this shaping, in my teenage years, I started to fall in love with the arts as truth-telling, especially with literature. And this led to my feeling really conflicted: I couldn't see how my love of and belief in the arts could fit alongside my love of the chapel and the story of Jesus of Nazareth. Cue Greenbelt.
As an 18-year-old, my first festival experience was foundational. At the communion service at that festival back in 1984 I felt loved, whole, at home. Not sure if that was me 'becoming a Christian' or not, but I do remember how it felt.
How does art support or encourage you in your faith?
Artistry is what speaks most powerfully to me - it's what makes me think most deeply about the world, about injustice, about who I am, about who God is. It asks and provokes all the big questions for me. Artists are my north stars, my bellwethers.
I choose to believe that God is the supreme artist, the source of all
imagination. To dream and will a universe of such potential into existence and
to conjure the incarnation requires the mind, heart and soul of an artist. All
acts of the imagination, then, for me, reflect on the creator I choose to
What role does creativity and art play at Greenbelt?
The central role, the raison d'être. We describe ourselves as an arts, faith and justice festival. As a space in which all those things collide. To be honest, the justice bit is 'easy'. To be faithful is to act justly and to pursue and work for justice. That's a no-brainer. But it's far less easy and automatic to work out what it means, as Christians, to host an arts festival. That's what marks Greenbelt out I think.
The challenges always lies in championing the arts. Because the Church, Christians, find it very difficult to understand the arts outside of a 'what are they for?' sort of frame. I think it will always be Greenbelt's role to challenge people from all walks of life to relax their understanding of faith as merely propositional and doctrinal. And to see it much more as an art form. Something that shapes and frames in a more intuitive, instinctive and opaque way. Something that is far more generous and imaginative that we allow of most of the time.
What are the best bits about your job?
When an artist you've wanted to come to the festival for years eventually says yes. When you pop your head into the Playhouse venue at the festival and you see a packed and rapt audience enthralled in the theatre they are experiencing. When you get noticed more widely in the festivals marketplace for the distinctive arts agenda you are pursuing.
What do you find challenging?
When the ambition and richness and variety of what we attempt becomes
overwhelming. Particularly when we're working with such small budgets. When
artists say no. When we work hard to seek out new work, but festivalgoers harp
on about the old and familiar. When what you try to curate and present is
greeted with suspicion and misunderstanding.
Do you think the Church in the UK embraces art enough as a form of worship or outreach?
Art is not a form of outreach, it is a form of expression. It definitely can be a form of worship and devotion, but it is not outreach. A church that embraces and celebrates and embeds creativity in its being and practice will be more attractive, in my humble opinion. And so in that sense, indirectly, a church that is more into the arts will do better with its outreach.
Art is part of who we are as humans. It is part of our being fully
human. That's why a left-behind city like Hull being next year's European city
of culture isn't just an esoteric nice idea from Eurocrats and culture-makers.
It's fundamental to the well-being of any city, of any community to acknowledge
and celebrate the power of the imagination at its heart.
What more can Christians and the Church do to reach those working in the arts?
Accept that the Holy Spirit animates life and truth way beyond the Church and that the best art and the best artists are always prophetic and prophets, respectively.
Here are a few practical ideas: commission artists to make work to be performed and shown in sacred spaces; ask artists to respond to the Christian story in their practice and then come and talk about the work they make and their experience of making it; place an importance on the aesthetics and musicality of a church space; place an importance on the theatre and drama of liturgy, and appoint artists in residence to work with a congregation to aid their self-understanding and their appreciation of the divine. I could go on…!