The Site Gallery café was closed on Monday morning when we went there to meet Auriel Majumdar, but because Auriel knows Kirsty, who works there, we were able to go in and sit and talk for a couple of hours.
First Auriel introduced us to Kirsty, so we could hear about Site’s part in the Going Public exhibitions that are on at the moment. International art collectors have granted Sheffield galleries access to their collections, and world class art that is normally hidden from public view is on display in Sheffield until mid-December.
Kirsty told us about the contemporary Chinese art, most from the Guangdong Province, on loan to Site from the dsl collection; a glimpse of some major artists from the Cantonese art scene in South Yorkshire. Then she offered us some tea and left us to talk to Auriel.
We talked to Auriel about a lot of things, and left feeling like two hours with her weren’t enough. One of the things we talked to her about was knowing people like Kirsty, and knowing that we would want to hear from her about the new exhibition; about being “a Malcolm Gladwell-type connector,” as she put it.
“There are two things that I wake up in the morning and feel absolutely privileged to do,” says Auriel. “One is to have this facility for putting people in touch with each other, and connecting people. That comes from thinking people are amazing, and being really curious about what’s going on. I always love to know what’s happening, I’m nosy.”
Another thing we talked about was the second of Auriel’s waking privileges, but perhaps the first of her passions; coaching.
“I call myself a business coach,” says Auriel, as if she would rather just call herself Auriel. “I think there is a lot of rubbish talked about coaching both within the coaching world and outside it, and lots of claims made for it that may or may not be true.”
We talked about how, five years ago, Auriel had no idea what coaching was, “And I was a bit sneery about it. I knew about sports coaching and I’d heard of life coaching, but I didn’t understand it as a way for people to develop.”
And we talked about what coaching is, to Auriel, and how she has been able to carve out a niche in Sheffield as a business coach for people outside of the traditional collar-and-suit world of what’s normally regarded as business.
“Coaching, to me, is about questions,” says Auriel. “It’s always about questions. Questions help you think about the world in a different way.
“A question like, ‘What would you put in a business plan?’ isn’t something I find particularly energising. It just makes me think of reams of boring paper. But questions like: Where are you going? Who is interested in what you’re doing? How are you going to reach the people you need to have a conversation with? Those are still business questions, but they’re a more interesting way of understanding business.
“I know a visual artist who has done her business plan in pictures. That’s genius. If it has to be taken to a bank manager it might have to be put in words, but why can’t it be planned in pictures if that’s what works for you?”
Auriel didn’t tell that artist to do her business plan in pictures; she doesn’t tell anybody to do anything. “I don’t think people have any problems being creative,” she says, “And I don’t help them be creative in any way.” But we talked about the difficulties creative people – artists, painters, poets, musicians, designers – have when faced with business practicalities.
“I think there is something about confidence,” says Auriel. “The real problem is taking an idea and making money out of it, turning it into a sustainable business. Making a living while doing the thing you love is the big challenge.
“People say things to themselves like, I can’t do it; what if I get it wrong? They worry about doing things for free, and about how much they should charge. Can I sell my work without selling my soul? What if I’m successful and people hate me? They fill their heads with all this crap.”
We talked about how although they may not realise it, the ideal people to face those challenges, and overcome them, and answer the questions, are creative people themselves.
“A coach is not someone who tells you how to do it,” says Auriel. “In coaching, we talk about ‘space’ a lot, and what I do is create a space so that people can think really effectively, and really creatively.”
We talked about how Auriel’s bag full of Russian dolls – “I have hundreds of these” – helps with that.
“There is a technical term, which is situational modelling,” says Auriel, but she also says that it’s really just about playing. “Creative people are wonderful with this, because as soon as they have permission to play, they just go for it.”
We talked about how easily people get used to telling the same old stories about themselves; because they’ve told people those stories before, they’re safe. But when people are asked to tell those stories using the dolls, they see the stories from outside, see themselves as characters, and see possibilities they didn’t see when they were rehashing their rehearsed yarns.
“People will take the littlest doll and say, that’s me,” says Auriel. “And then these big dolls will crowd around them: here’s the bank manager, here’s the rent. But when you see it in front of you, you can start to ask questions. What if this doll was over here? What about this doll, that you said was an opportunity, what if that came to the middle?
“A lot of work that artists and creatives do is in asking, ‘What if?’ And the power of coaching is in the same thing, in future possibilities, in asking, ‘What if?'”
Dolls are only one technique. We talked to Auriel about how she became a coach, and how she came to it by learning about coaching, and a drawing.
“I worked for Sheffield Council for ten years,” says Auriel, “And my boss was keen on supporting and developing leaders, so I was put on this leadership course. One of the things we accessed was coaching, and I was allocated this coach who was brilliant. A genius. She changed my life.
“She talked about those stories you tell yourself, that trap you, and how they’re called ‘limiting assumptions.’ I had a ton of baggage like that. I was never good enough; my best wasn’t good enough; I was getting old; I couldn’t do things that young, ambitious people could do; I had nothing interesting to say. These were all things that I believed.”
We talked about how those stories held sway over Auriel as she dealt with the impact of austerity on the council department she managed.
“I was in charge of quite a big budget, so when austerity hit I had to do loads of cuts and make loads of redundancies and it was just… well, shit. It was really hard. Every decision I made felt like the wrong one. Somebody was always going to be unhappy because when you’re making cuts nobody wins. And I was fifty.
“My fella is in the music business, so his income is erratic and unpredictable – the typical creative business model. So we had always seen my income as predictable and safe; somehow I ended up being the sensible one.
“But as part of a coaching session I did a drawing, and without thinking about it I drew these figures at the edge of the paper, getting smaller and smaller. And when I was asked what they were I said that was me, and it was me diminishing as a person. And that settled it. I left at Christmas, 2012, and started in business as a coach in January 2013.”
We talked about the hard times Sheffield has been through before, in the 1980s, and how the response to them was the making of Auriel, and in many ways set a template for the city’s reaction to adversity now.
“I was around in the mid-eighties, and that era made me,” says Auriel. “That scene is really well documented. My husband ran one of the seminal club nights, Jive Turkey, that lots of people have talked about. But I’m really keen on telling the story over and over again, and I’m really keen on me telling it over and over again as a woman. I’m still always the one with my hand up at music seminars saying, ‘Yeah, you know there were women there too?’
“You would walk through town then and it was grim. It was like Soviet Russia, so grey, with splashes of orange and brown because nobody had changed the carpets since the 1970s. We thought a lot about clothes in those days; Heaven 17 used to have that thing of fake glamour, emulating the Dallas and Dynasty style that was everywhere but playing with it in a wonky way.
“C&A used to be in the Hole in the Road, and we’d go there to buy this awful fake silk, and we’d go to Oxfam and all the second hand shops. Club flyers would say ‘dress to impress’ and you’d turn up to the club in some old man’s coat, but you’d be dressed up and it was a form of resistance: we might be poor, but we could look great.
“When we had parties in the flats and clubs like Jive Turkey, people came from all over the country, and that felt like an act of resistance too. There were no mixed places to hang out in Sheffield – you had white clubs and black clubs – but the parties were spaces where everybody could come, people of every race, gender, colour, age, political persuasion, musical persuasion, coming together around something that was shared: the desire to make music and dance all night.
“If you ask if it was a response to Thatcher, then it damn well was. Did we change the world? Through music? And dancing? Well, my world changed. My world changed utterly.”
And we talked about how while the form of protest has changed since the 1980s, what Sheffield has retained from that era is the character.
“I was very political in the 1980s, but not party political,” says Auriel. “I was at the poll tax riots in London – that scared the hell out of me. I used to shake buckets for the miners during the strike. I was forever picketing on Fargate and waving a banner. Politics then seemed more real and accessible; it was part of our culture to be angry and to be doing something. And culture and music were definitely part of it.
“Today people are rebelling through doing positive things and creating their own space and staking a claim to the city. Sheffield feels doable. Maybe you can’t change the world, but you can change Sheffield, and there are a lot of people who are very interested in doing that, who are interested in the impact of what they do. It doesn’t take the form our resistance did, which was marching and getting angry; it takes a more creative form, which is probably healthier.
“Girl Gang is an example. That’s a brilliant thing from a group of young women; I’m kind of a grandmother to them, the oldest girl in the gang. They have the most phenomenal manifesto that is about positivity; it’s empowering, liberating, inclusive, it creates a community and they’re having fun at the same time. The fact they have seen a need and got together and done that is brilliant.
“I don’t doubt that they are encouraging more people to do even more stuff, because if they can do it, why can’t somebody else? It’s like the graffiti art around the city, that makes people think, maybe I could express myself that way? Or my sixteen year old son, building a DIY skate park with his mates, because why not? That, to me, is saying ‘Screw David Cameron, we’re going to do this anyway.’ And I love that.”
We talked about how Auriel feels confident about her son’s future in the city, because of her confidence in the people.
“He’s sixteen and has been skateboarding since he was twelve. He doesn’t go to any of the legit places; he goes to DIY places with his friends where they make films and come up with millions of ideas.
“People talk about how it takes a village to raise a child, and I know that now he’s at an age where he’s starting to go out to parties there will be people there that know him and know me, so they are going to look out for him and keep him out of trouble. And that makes me feel great. I’m not talking about a mainstream education system, I’m talking about people keeping an eye out, people who will help if someone is in trouble. There are loads of random acts of kindness in Sheffield that nobody ever talks about.”
And we talked about how part of Sheffield’s character is its honesty, and how that can work for creativity.
“There’s a certain amount of what we in Sheffield call mardiness,” says Auriel. “But that mardiness is often just honesty. Sheffield is really honest.
“I hate the phrase ‘don’t get too big for your boots,’ because I want everybody to outgrow their boots and get new boots. But calling people out on bullshit? I’m all about that, and this city is brilliant at it.
“It’s great at keeping you grounded. I feel really centred when I’m here, part of something really organic; and nobody knows what it will be like in five years. That’s the beauty of it.”
We talked about the exciting future, and about how the cuts to arts funding have meant people have had to come together to keep going.
“I could tell you twenty million stories about things that are going to happen in the next year that are going to transform the city. Or not even transform it; just make it better or livelier or more interesting. It’s not all big showy stuff. There is some serious thought going into quieter things; it’s a tune being played on many levels.
“The recession and Arts Council cuts to funding have been a blessing in some ways, because it has meant people have had to fight even harder, and have become really good at doing cool things without much money. Instead of fostering a culture where creative people are dependent on the council or whoever, there are healthy partnerships where creative people are saying, let’s get together and do this. There is a lot more collaboration than there used to be, and that makes it a brilliant place to grow up and live.”
And we talked about how, while they might not have the resources they once had, collaboration means creative people in Sheffield have much more power.
“I think the universities and the council have cottoned on in the last five years,” says Auriel. “They understand that the creative and cultural sector have a lot to offer. So we have things like the Culture Consortium, where because the council understand they don’t have that capacity or understanding about culture within their organisation, they’ve handed that responsibility to people who do, to be custodians of culture in the city.
“I’m working on a project with the University and the council called Renew Sheffield, about meanwhile use; about reanimating empty spaces, which is something that is on everybody’s mind. The thriving independent culture means ownership is evolving back to the creatives; Renew can provide things that will help them, like money and space, and talk to landlords and help with the regulations side. You can see it already with things like Peddlers Market and the use of Castlegate, and that’s going to change the face of Sheffield.”
We talked about the strength there is in numbers, even if that number is only two.
“It can be a lonely world out there,” says Auriel. “When you’re trying to do something that is pushing the boundaries artistically, and you need to make some money, it can be really hard. The thinking behind things like the Culture Consortium and the development of the Creative Guild, which is like a trade union for creatives, is that rather than lots of individuals trying to get things done, if the city presents a coherent story about culture then that can work really well.
“I really believe there is strength in numbers, whether it’s a union or working one-on-one with someone. Joining together with people and making smart partnerships without losing your soul; that’s got to be good.”
And we talked about how, as economic realities bring people trying to make their living as artists or designers or writers or dancers into much closer contact with the apparently unfriendly world of business, coaching can settle minds and concentrate them on creativity.
“I’ve been coaching for three years now and I am more and more convinced that it’s a model for something that can really help designers and creatives flourish. Because where else can they find a space to think about all this stuff?
“Business means loads of things, like having to wear a suit, behaving in a certain way, having a plan; and the bottom line is money. And artists have a set of stories about that, about struggling, about not selling out; that they can’t do it, they can’t write a business plan, they can’t look after money.
“But they’re so different, and so complementary, that if the creative world and the business world were two people they should be best friends. So I’m the person in the middle, the connector, saying come on you two, let’s get together and work out how we can do this.”
And we talked about how the kind of coaching Auriel practices – Gestalt – can be summed up as a way of uncovering what it is in people that makes them awesome, and making them realise how awesome they are.
“One starting point of my coaching is ‘do no harm’. But my other starting point, that is on my business cards and all over my website because I passionately believe it, is that people are awesome. People are resilient and creative, wonderful at finding solutions and amazing in business. I start with that as my general philosophy of life, that people are fabulous.
“Gestalt coaching is about uncovering; what they call ‘raising to awareness’. It’s like in archaeology, where you blow the sand off something and it reveals itself. The way I do it is called co-creative, where you and I might sit and raise to awareness all sorts of stuff that is relevant to you, or might be getting in your way, or might be an amazing asset for you that you’re not aware of.
“And through the process of playing, telling stories, creating things, creating possibilities, you start seeing a way through. All the answers are yours, and they were always there, but I’m just kind of blowing the sand away, taking a look and asking, ‘What’s that?’ And you say, ‘Oh yeah, that’s that thing.'”
And we talked about how Auriel feels when coaching works.
“I always say to people that coaching is not therapeutic in intention, but you will feel better. And people always say to me that they feel better. And I always feel better. I always feel amazing when I’ve been coaching, or even just when I’m talking about it.
“It’s hearing the stories from my clients that make me even more convinced that what I do is worthwhile. Of course you can make money and do amazing red-hot work, totally full of integrity. It’s a no-brainer to me. I can’t even conceive of a world where that is not true.
“I was working with one guy in my early days of coaching, and one of his things was that he was directionless. What I thought the problem actually was that he was really talented across loads of different areas, and he was being pulled in different directions.
“We worked together over four sessions, and at the last session we did a review of where we’d been and what his reflections were. I got this bag of objects and asked him to pick out something that described where he was right then, and he picked out this little toy compass. And he said, ‘I’ve chosen that because I feel really clear about my direction now.’
“It gives me goosebumps just thinking about it. That’s my sweet spot; that supports everything I do, everything I’ve studied, learned, experienced, believe and am passionate about; holding it all in me, so I can hold that space so that guy can do the work and say: I know where that arrow is pointing.
“That’s bloody magic, isn’t it? That’s real, isn’t it? Oh god,” says Auriel, “I love it.”
And we talked about how Auriel had to leave, because she was going to have a coffee with someone, and talk to them about a project they were starting in Sheffield; someone she didn’t know, but who had got in touch on Twitter and said they had an idea, did she want to hear about it?
“People tell you about interesting things,” says Auriel. “Stuff you didn’t know about. When you connect with people, that’s meaningful to me; when you sit in a one-to-one with someone, that is the most intense, honest connection. I am a butterfly, but every flower I land on is a meaningful one.”
And then Auriel left, and we thought about everything we’d talked about in those couple of hours in the Site Gallery café, and thought about how we could have gone on talking to Auriel all day.
First published in TCT