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We Shine Portsmouth: An Interview with Artist Clarke Reynolds

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Last week We Shine Portsmouth, an exciting art and light festival descended on our city and shone a light on the talent and creativity of the city.  The University of Portsmouth’s Faculty of Creative and Cultural Industries was the main collaborator of We Shine Portsmouth Art and Light Festival and the event, which was led by the arts group Portsmouth Creates, and saw local and national artists take to the streets for three nights (18–20 November) of art and light installations.

The CCI faculty at the University of Portsmouth was heavily involved in the planning and organisation of We Shine for 2021 and its Centre for Creative and Immersive Extended Reality (CCIXR) has collaborated with a wide range of artists to create an Audio Trail around the City, which was then integrated into an app, enabled by space technologies – to aid the experience of the festival. 

Pippa Bostock, Business Director for CCIXR and a Director of Portsmouth Creates, said: “I’m delighted that CCIXR has been able to collaborate on a number of projects for We Shine 2021, working with communities and artists to bring the city to life in a new and unexpected way. We have worked on audio trails, apps, immersive experiences, and light projection – and that’s just a small taste of what the festival has to offer. I can’t wait to see We Shine light up the skies in Portsmouth, and this is just the beginning – plans for We Shine 2022 are already underway.”

You may be asking – what has this got to do with the space sector? Well during the festival, Clarke Reynolds, University of Portsmouth alumnus and blind braille artist brought us his space-themed installation titled To See Stars.  Clarke is known for using sound and touch to bring his art to life for visually impaired people. Speaking of the work Clarke commented that one of the things many blind people say they miss most is viewing ‘the stars at night’. So, for the We Shine Festival, Clarke created a fully immersive night sky installation for both sighted and blind people, that used lights, sound, and braille to enable one and all to experience his version of the stars at night. 

We met with Clarke, whilst he was installing the exhibition at the Eldon Building, University of Portsmouth and he spoke in detail about his work, space, and the opportunity this festival has provided him. 

Who are you and what do you do? 

My name is Clark Reynolds. I am an artist from Portsmouth – in fact, I lived two minutes away from here growing up, which feels significant during this exhibition.  Art is my life and I always wanted to be an artist. 20 years ago I studied Fine Art at the University of Portsmouth and got my diploma before going on to get a degree in model making – which, having never gotten any GCSEs I didn’t think would be possible. I began to lose my sight in one eye aged six ( Clarke has an incurable, degenerative condition called retinitis pigmentosa) but it didn’t stop me from working stacking shelves, and then becoming a dental model maker. 10 years ago I started to go blind in my second eye – and this forced me to get back involved in the arts sector, becoming an associate member at Aspex Gallery, who then offered me an exhibition where I was able to create textile artwork with the general public in which you could touch sound. And since then in the art world – things have gotten bigger and bigger for me. I learned braille and I realised how beautiful and necessary it is, and since then have been working with people of all ages and backgrounds to inspire them to use and learn braille. 

For me, it is important to raise awareness about visual impairment and blindness and remove the disability stigma. I would love to be a mentor/role model for the future generation.

What is it about space that’s really important to you?

When you go on forums online within the blind community, and you are talking about your experiences, a common theme is that people have generally lost the ability to see at night – something that sighted people really take for granted. People want to be able to see the stars! Then I learned that NASA had recorded what stars sound like – and obviously, I thought, how cool that is! And because I work with Braille, I thought – that there must be a way of reading the stars – which leads us to my installation – you can hear the sounds of the stars from NASA and if it’s possible for you, you can view the constellations that I created, filled with braille facts of the stars. 

So in this case, space is really important to me – it’s a memory and an experience that I am hoping to share with everyone during the festival. 

Why is art so important? 

Art truly saved my life. I lived in a council flat, literally a stone’s throw from here and it was not a positive experience for me. But I knew I wanted to be an artist and that kept me going. 

With all the trials and tribulations going on in my life, like the sight loss, if I didn’t have art as a constant, I wouldn’t be here. But fortunately, I had art, and the power of art meant that even in difficult times like during the pandemic, where it was difficult for everyone to cope with their mental health – art was a way of connecting with other people – and myself. So if it wasn’t in my life, I would be in a totally different place.

 What could this artwork tell us about space?

I hope that you can come here and enjoy a deep and meaningful experience. I love the idea that children can come, enjoy and experience the stars in a different way – with neon paint, graffiti style, and bubbles. This artwork teaches you the sound of the stars – something that can really surprise you because who knew that stars make a sound? 

My daughter, she’s fascinated with stars already. She wants to go to Mars. She’s seven years old. I have told her it’s a one-way trip, but she says she doesn’t mind! I hope that this artwork can offer that type of inspiration for the young kids in the community – and teach them to explore space with their imagination, and take a trip to another world! 

Being alumni of the University of Portsmouth and growing up here too – How significant is it for you for this artwork to show at this festival in Portsmouth?

Amazing. Truly, I mean, it’s so important to me. I felt so honored to be invited. Because I grew up in this city – I’ve never felt so proud. And as a result, I’ve never been so nervous in my life, ever.

Also, I wanted to say that even though I’m blind and often labeled as a disabled artist, I don’t see myself as disabled, I’m just an artist that happens to be blind. And unfortunately in the art industry, we’re tainted and often treated as ‘other’, perhaps we are too expensive for big galleries, with artworks they do not take the time to understand. So it is really significant for me to have the faith of the University  I studied in showing this piece. 

And it helps fuel the fire inside me, my ambition is to be a famous artist. I want to be as big as Damien Hirst or Tracey Emin. I want to change people’s perceptions of disabled artists – and be a mentor for visually impaired children growing up – and for their parents, losing your sight really is not the end, it can be the beginning. 

You can catch up with Clarke and his latest news on his own website here.

Chloe McClellan
Media and Communications Assistant
Chloe McClellan is an experienced communicator and social media specialist.