Cathy Woolley talk at City Hall, 2006

Cathy Woolley manages art projects for London Underground as part of its Platform for Art programme.

‘I went for a run today at 6am before going to work, and I wondered as I ran – what on earth can I say tonight?’

Cathy needn’t have worried. Her stories about life and work were as enjoyable and uplifting as an early-morning jog.

She went deaf gradually in childhood, and once went to three different mainstream, PHU and residential deaf schools in the space of three years, so ‘I’m a bit of mixed bag educationally!’ Art became her favourite subject – she would sneak to the school art room at every opportunity, and got great marks. However, studying art at university was more challenging. She struggled to arrange interpreters and other access services and felt isolated.

Eventually Cathy found a more welcoming environment at Wolverhampton University, where she researched deaf access to the arts and a BSL/English glossary for art and design education. Her Deaf Arts Escape in 2002 was a pioneering residential event for artists, and pointed the way to Cathy’s future in community arts projects.

In 2003 Cathy applied to work for Historic Royal Palaces as a community liaison officer, to arrange art events at Hampton Court, the Tower of London and other palatial places. The Royal Palaces had wondered, ‘How do we bring our art to the people?’ At the job interview, Cathy turned the question round – ‘How can people bring their art to us?’ And that was the clincher.

Most people visit the Tower of London only once, but Cathy’s projects encouraged locals to visit more often, with events including drama workshops and sculpture by Deaf people. The Tower’s stark halls and dungeons can be oppressive, especially to troubled teens who’d had brushes with the law, but Cathy made them feel welcome. She also learned how to be cool in a crisis, especially when Hampton Court had a power cut at the worst possible moment.

Cathy’s most influential mentors have included Laraine Callow, director of Deafworks, who ‘has been very important to my career and trained the last two mainstream organisations I’ve worked for.’ Cathy also looks up to Jenny Sealy, director of Graeae Theatre Company, and Penny Beschizza, deaf skills lecturer at Southwark College, who are her ‘great supporters.’

London Underground has a long tradition of commissioning and working with artists. Cathy had just joined its Platform for Art (PfA) when the capital plunged in one day from the euphoria of winning the 2012 Olympics bid, to the trauma of devastating explosions the next.

Cathy and her colleagues were shaken but stayed on track. Their community-boosting projects include:

Arsenal: a 52-metre mural at Arsenal station to mark the end of the football club’s residence at Highbury. This was Cathy’s first PfA project, and she described meeting the Arsenal board and their alarm at seeing a Deaf woman and interpreter, but they soon settled down to business. Ambitious plans to involve 1,500 people in making the mural were scaled down by Cathy to a more reasonable 150. When the mural was unveiled, she met players Robert Pires, Ashley Cole, and Thierry Henry, and was delighted to see a report in The Sun newspaper!

Bakerloo Line Centenary 2006: Cathy noticed that the London College of Fashion also celebrated 100 years, and suggested combining them. ‘You’re a genius!’ responded a colleague.

Year of the Dog: Cathy realised many people love dogs, so why not show local dog-owners in posters to celebrate Chinese New Year of the dog?

A photographer befriended London dog-walkers, some chosen at random on the street, and photographed them. 1,500 posters of ten owners and their dogs appeared across London, and the owners were invited to the launch. Some were moved to tears: ‘Nothing like this ever happens to people like me..!’ one sobbed gratefully.

Station Musical for Stratford: a 50 metre frieze made by local children, staff and passengers. Cathy’s interpreters assumed they were interpreting an actual musical, with spotlights and razzmatazz, so Cathy had to tactfully explain they were ‘only’ working for her… In her busy week, Cathy works with a wide range of interpreters, and appreciates they ‘they are human too’, dealing with frantic meetings, unexpected situations and the strain of travelling all over London.

Cathy discovered that London Underground station staff communicated willingly with her and an interpreter. This was probably because station staff meet all kinds of people in their daily work. She also noticed that staff in the more distant areas of the Tube network feel disconnected from the city centre, so she’s keen to involve them more in PfA.

‘One last question?’ asked Sally Reynolds at the end of DPN talk. A newcomer, who had evidently overindulged the ham sandwiches and drink, lumbered up and demanded the photographer take his picture with Cathy. She handled him with her usual tact and charm, and was finally able to relax with a well-deserved glass of wine.

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