Richard Phoenix is an artist-in-residence, manifesto writer, volunteer, educator and musician (yes he even has a Discogs). “Do Your Own Thing” is his latest work, exploring his role with the arts project of the same name run by the learning disability arts organisation ‘Heart n Soul’. Richard Phoenix also takes a broader look at art, life and “not worrying where it might lead”.
Heart n Soul, a charity founded in Deptford, has been running arts events for over 30 years: ‘Do Your Own Thing’ is a free-form project which hosts learning disability arts events where you really can ‘do your own thing’.
“We believe in the power and talents of people with learning disabilities and autistic people. We work together to make great art with imagination, love and trust.”
Want to create your own music? A series of paintings, draw? Print, Illustration? DJ? How about bringing it all together into your very own music video? Anything is possible at ‘Do Your Own Thing’ and is captured in light-hearted, endearing detail by Richard Phoenix in this book.
Broken down into umbrella chapters like “Environment”, ’People’, ‘communication’, ‘Sharing’, each are in turn chopped up by everything from stretches of poetry, conversation and sheet music, to a number of charming asides and excerpts of conversation which put you firmly in Richard’s shoes as you navigate through the book, punctuated by the colourful art and exhibitions of the organisation.
Each chapter is itself made up of short sections, some of which read like mini articles on life and themes of creativity, others like streams of memory emanating from the rich history of Do Your Own Thing and riffed on by Phoenix. Much of the book is written in conversation with other creatives, members of Do Your Own Thing, and any of the other amazing characters Phoenix has met through his time at the organisation, in the music scene and at a variety of other arts initiatives across the UK and beyond.
One highlight is ‘Everything All at Once’, where playground conversations on making beats soon make their way into a studio, before an energetic afrobeat track comes together in just one take (with lots of jamming). This experimentation in music quickly turned into more jamming, more tracks and eventually a Do Your Own Thing album in 2017, as well as work with and performances at the Barbican and other arts organisations like ‘LSO Ontrack’ (London Symphony Orchestra).
Another from earlier in the book is ‘Access’. A short poem which encapsulates much of the theme and message of the book, what it means to be disabled, face barriers in life, be included, to grieve, but also be creative, motivated and more than just what society has labelled you.
That is what Richard Phoenix is communicating through this book and project, one moment you’re reading about ‘The Rise and fall of ghost biscuit and his army of cats’ , the next discussing later-in-life autism diagnosis, all juxtaposed and curated in-and-out of order like some sort of art exhibition or DJ set going on in Richard’s head, put down into words in his charming style.
Do Your Own Thing might be an art project, and a book, but it's also an allegory for the wider world and life. Fitting in, staying in your box and being labelled, are for so many such huge influences and limiters on life, be that as someone with learning disabilities or not. Taking Do Your Own Thing’s DIY, free expression (sometimes chaotic!) approach out of the art and the music and applying that to life can be part of the path to happiness, to joy.
Now this isn't just any book, published through the unbending Rough Trade Books (self-described-sister to the pre-eminent Rough Trade Records) “Do Your Own Thing” designed by Office of Craig (Addictive website beware!) takes the form of a small, colourful, pocket-sized publication packaging Richard Phoenix's writing in a suitably arty format. The chunky orange cover with gatefold flaps, vibrant pink endpapers and full page photo spreads of Do Your Own Thing’s art and photography all help to communicate the value of what’s written within, Rough Trade have done a fantastic job in publishing - it’s what you expect from one of the best independent publishers and record labels in the country - if not the world. In their words: “Bringing the same original spirit and radical direction to the world of book publishing.”
Overall Do Your Own Thing is a must-have for anyone even remotely interested in creativity, art and all of the transformative effects it can have, particularly when it’s channelled through organisations and individuals as right-minded as Heart n Soul and Richard Phoenix. Excellently written, endlessly engaging and wrapped up in a gorgeous format ready to shine bright on your bookshelf.