A breath of fresh air

Ashley Johnson

Oxygen, an innovative series of lectures sponsored by the Royal Commonwealth Society and Creative Scotland, connects high-profile speakers with Scotland’s creative communities, bringing them inspiration and new perspectives on the world.

The average temperature at Mount Ever­est’s highest peak is -36°C. Certainly not the kind of weather conducive to painting your next masterpiece, considering the freezing point of linseed oil (the main ingredient in most oil paints) is a balmy -20°C.

Why, then, would mountaineer Mark Inglis, the only double amputee to have ever reached Everest’s summit, be address­ing a room full of Scottish artists in New Galloway? The answer is Oxygen, a high-profile lecture series launched late last year by the Royal Commonwealth Society and Creative Scotland, the national leader for the country’s arts, screen and creative in­dustries. Inglis – who is also a Paralympic medal winner and author – was the first of the project’s speakers. Each Oxygen lectur­er is prominent in their field, primarily from outside the arts, and speaks about their ex­periences, offers insights and new perspec­tives on global challenges, and in the pro-cess, perhaps inspires artists and others in the creative industries sector.

Oxygen is part of Creative Scotland’s innovative new programme, Creative Futures, which uses residencies and ex­perimental projects to develop the talent, vision, connectivity and ambition of Scot­land’s creative communities. For Scott Donaldson, Creative Scotland’s portfolio manager, it is critically important that the project be outward looking, “connecting to the rest of the world beyond arts and a nar­row definition of culture, trying to see the future differently”.

Not only does Oxygen challenge artists to think differently about global affairs, the project itself has a fresh approach to choos­ing venues and attracting audiences. In or­der to combat the monopoly that cities have on major cultural events, the lecture series takes speakers first to London but then to towns and villages across Scotland – from the Whisky Trail to the Highlands – to give cultural organisations throughout the coun­try the opportunity to host exciting and high-profile speakers. It also offers these communities the chance to hear stories firsthand that they would normally just read about in the paper or see on TV – opening up an entirely new audience to the diversity of the Commonwealth.

The first stop for Inglis was a sold-out event at the CatStrand art gallery in New Galloway – a village in southern Scotland near Dumfries, boasting a population of fewer than 400 people. He also travelled across the country to Huntly, near Aber­deen, where he gave another three talks, two of them in schools. It was in Huntly that the avid outdoorsman led a 10 km hike with local residents, using his mountaineer­ing expertise to put them on the right path after they got lost along the way.

“Mark gave an inspiring presentation and talk on his life, and the audience were in awe of his story,” said Sean Paul O’Hare, general manager of CatStrand. “His moti­vation was the compelling factor in his life journey, and the local community here was drawn to this man because he delivered his story with honesty, humour and a respect for human nature and the world around us.”

On 11 March, just a day before he gave an unforgettable performance at the Com­monwealth Day Observance at Westmin­ster Abbey, Hugh Masekela also took part in the Oxygen series, speaking at a sold-out event at Glasgow’s Old Fruitmarket. The Grammy award-winning trumpeter, composer, singer and civil rights activ­ist appeared in conversation with British writer and presenter Hardeep Singh Kohli. Masekela spoke of South Africa’s struggles during the 1950s and 60s, and how these experiences inspired and influenced much of his music, which became a clarion call for his country’s civil rights movement.

Oxygen’s most recent speaker, Jose­phine Rydberg-Dumont, had an advantage when she gave her lecture at the Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design. As former CEO of Swedish furniture giant IKEA, she could relate to the textile and in­terior design students who had come to hear her speak.

But, in the spirit of Oxygen, Rydberg- Dumont took her specific experiences at IKEA and applied them to a discussion on creative leadership and global business. Her central philosophy challenges people to move beyond ‘design thinking’ to ‘design doing’. Put simply, the key to success is to identify the problem that needs solving, list the specific strengths you have to address it, and come up with a practical solution. Excellent advice, whether talking business, design, or indeed, Commonwealth politics.

Having already hosted Australian pale­ontologist, environmentalist and author Tim Flannery at a series of talks throughout April, Oxygen continues into the summer. The next speaker in the series will be former Maldives President Mohamed Nasheed.

For more information about Oxygen visit: www.thercs.org/society/oxygen

About the author:

Ashley Johnson is External Affairs Officer at the Royal Commonwealth Society


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