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  • Saskia Müller

Interview with Fenya Sharkey, Artistic Director of Compass Arts

Last month, I had the privilege of talking with Fenya Sharkey, the passionate and dedicated artistic director of Compass Arts.

Founded in 1998 with a mission to break down barriers to arts participation, Compass Arts has evolved into a dynamic organisation based in Eastbourne, UK. What started as a response to the exclusion faced by people with disabilities in the arts has blossomed into a multifaceted initiative that embraces inclusivity in all its forms.

At its core, Compass Arts is about creating a space where everyone feels valued and empowered to express themselves creatively. From working with female offenders to supporting the learning disability community, the organisation has broadened its scope to address a range of societal issues, including health, equality, mental illness, hidden disabilities, and social isolation.

What sets Compass Arts apart is its artist-led approach. Instead of dictating from the top down, the organisation prioritises participant-led initiatives, ensuring that the voices and experiences of the community are central to everything they do. This ethos of collaboration and inclusivity is reflected in their diverse weekly programs, which cover everything from poetry to textiles to music. And the best part? These programs are offered completely free of charge, eliminating financial barriers to participation.

But Compass Arts is about more than just creating art. It's about creating a supportive and compassionate environment where personal growth and skill development are nurtured. Their spaces are described as safe havens where individuals can explore their creativity without fear of judgment. And through curated exhibitions, publications, and events, Compass Arts amplifies the voices of its participants, providing opportunities for them to showcase their work and connect with the wider community.

As someone who identifies as a disabled artist myself, I was particularly intrigued by Compass Arts' commitment to serving disabled individuals. During my conversation with Fenya, I learned about the organisation's tireless efforts to advocate for those who may feel excluded or overlooked. Their dedication to celebrating diversity and championing inclusivity is truly inspiring and serves as a beacon of hope for marginalised communities everywhere.

In the interview below, Fenya shares her insights into the transformative power of the arts, the importance of creating spaces where everyone feels welcome, and the ongoing journey of Compass Arts as it continues to evolve and grow.

This is my own photo


Hi Fenya, thanks for joining us today. Could we start by asking you to tell us a bit about yourself and your role as Artistic Director?


I have been a Social Artist for more than 30 years and influenced by the artists Joseph Beuys and Richard Demarco.  For a long time, my real practice went unnoticed.  Although I have always made art objects and have exhibited those, my real interest has very much been led by the encounters with individuals and groups that have related to my personal life and biography. 

In 2009, I came to Eastbourne, and I picked up a commission to deliver an oral history project to over 55’s.  This led to an invitation to work with a charity that focussed on engaging people with mid to late stages of dementia.  A few years later I received a phone call from Compass Arts inviting me to lead an over 55’s textile project.  Working with older people awoke in me a sensitivity to the impacts of social isolation and I decided to focus on finding individuals who might not speak to another person from one week to the next.  I became fascinated by their resilience, back stories and how they looked at the world.  Many had been diagnosed with a severe mental illness, yet I felt that a group of significant artists was gathering.  This approach is what I have brought to the role of artistic director at Compass.

A role that is multifarious. I must ensure that the governance, financing, and legalities of running a charity are all in order whilst at the same time visioning the future of the creativity and its activities.  In other words, managing all the administrative and artistic elements at Compass, as well as the HR and culture of the organisation.   The vision is emergent and always responding to the people who are accessing Compass at the time, their interests, and skills.  But at the heart of my contribution is a desire to create spaces for freedom of expression whilst responding to concerns around environmental and social responsibility through the arts.  There is a desire to improve the lives of people and care for their environment.  The idea is that we reveal subcultures and the colour and soulfulness of those subcultures which brings people together and changes the narrative from “problem” to “curiosity and interest” and hopefully “greater appreciation” and “better understanding” and “recognition” without falling into the socio-economic trap of “gentrification”. 


Could you provide an overview of Compass Arts’ mission and how it addresses social isolation and mental health challenges within the community?


Based in Eastbourne, Compass Arts is an artist-led organisation for anyone vulnerable to social isolation, lived trauma, mental illness, and hidden disabilities. Our tried and tested approach recognises that people feel most empowered when given independence, responsibility and are at the ‘giving’ end of care.  We have nine professional artists delivering a weekly program of interdisciplinary arts including poetry, textiles, and music, across several sites, free of charge and without any expectation of the participants. Our spaces are always safe, supportive, and compassionate and provide new direction and skills in people’s lives. 


We select outcomes from the weekly program and curate exhibitions, publications, and events as an approach to widen the community and introduce new audiences and opportunities for our fledgling artists.  Over time some people will move away to develop other aspects of their lives, and some will continue at Compass.  Those that stay to deepen and develop their creative expression will have access to working more independently in the studio spaces and joining the Compass Collective that meets twice a week and is a learning community, exploring ideas and theories that underpin their art practices.


Along the way, friendships form and naturally people will opt to visit exhibitions together, go to the cinema or meet up for coffee outside of the studio.


How does Compass Arts empower people through its co-creative, artist-led approach?


The majority of people who are referred to Compass have forsaken their voice, their opinions and have come to accept that their ideas and skills are not sought by the mainstream.  There is a sense of something “institutionalised” about their sense of self-worth, often having been diagnosed as mentally ill and/or disabled.  They come with the expectation that there will be a program for them to follow and a hierarchy of teacher/student or art therapist/client, but this is a dynamic that Compass has always felt the need to challenge.  We are clear from the start that we provide working spaces for artists, these are the studios.  Each studio has a colleague to work alongside, called the facilitator or studio lead.  The facilitators look for opportunities to learn and be led by the artists who have been referred and this different perspective has the impact of freeing people.  It is empowering and often we will hear someone say, “Before coming to Compass I was just a diagnosis, here I have a voice and an identity”.


That's so lovely. You've just recently had the closing night for your latest exhibition "The Big Conversation." Could you provide insight into the concept behind the exhibition and how it aimed to amplify the voices of artists with hidden disabilities?


Anyone visiting a studio space at Compass will experience two things, the spaces are industrious and there is a freedom of expression.  Often difficult and complex situations will be talked about and a wealth of lived experience and knowledge is revealed.  Many of the topics of conversation are hidden from the mainstream but are having significant impact if we read the commentaries around rising numbers of young people being diagnosed with a mental health disability, a rise in suicide, food banks, homelessness and racial, gender intolerances that can escalate to violent crimes and lifelong trauma associated with the mental and emotional traumas that accompany intolerance.  When we were invited to partner with the Towner Gallery and to put on a significant exhibition to accompany the hosting of the Turner Prize in Eastbourne, it was obvious to us that here was the perfect opportunity to share with a public audience the “big” conversations that we are privileged to have at Compass Arts and to extend those conversations to others beyond the walls of our studio spaces.

Compass Arts was founded in 2003 to address the inequalities that people with physical disabilities faced, by 2012 it was clear to me that the most overlooked in the community are those who are genuinely socially isolated and when I began to reach them, I discovered that they share two things.  They had a diagnosis of a hidden disability and they had had significant traumas that had led to them having to leave their communities and live in isolation with the added disadvantage that their levels of trust had been damaged by the trauma and it was too triggering to make new friends or have relationships with others. 

We have spent hours, around tables, trying to pinpoint the real issue e.g., everyone will suffer from trauma and exclusion at some point in their life, 1 in 4 will experience mental illness, everyone wants to be liked and loved and generally, we all wish to be known as kind and loving people; so why do some of us fall through the net unnoticed?  Why when a person explains that they are on the autistic spectrum or have been diagnosed with schizophrenia or fibromyalgia or identify as gender fluid or have had to flee their country of birth and start again with a new language, new food, new music, new etiquettes, do we step aside with criticism or self-consciousness around difference and not step forward with curiosity and openness to learn about each other?  This question is at the heart of The Big Conversation, and it has been moving to watch visitors to the exhibition leave moved, sometimes in tears or whip out their mobile phones and share their photographs with us or stop and share their own story of hardship.  Sometimes we have had people come in, swearing and angry that we are a bunch of privileged artists and when we explain who the artists are and what the artworks are about they have “fist bumped” and hugged and asked to join us, incredulous that their lives, their stories are being told by others who have lived through the same circumstances, the same misunderstandings…

Why when a person explains that they are on the autistic spectrum or have been diagnosed with schizophrenia or fibromyalgia or identify as gender fluid or have had to flee their country of birth and start again with a new language, new food, new music, new etiquettes, do we step aside with criticism or self-consciousness around difference and not step forward with curiosity and openness to learn about each other?


In what ways do you think "The Big Conversation" contributed to raising awareness and understanding of hidden disabilities within the community?


I don’t know if we have succeeded as there is such a long way to go but we have raised awareness of some of the assumptions and barriers that impact on the lives of people with hidden disabilities.  For example, the DWP film really moved people and whilst the exhibition has been on it was shown at a conference and shared during a consultation conducted on behalf of the DWP who forwarded the film to the Cabinet Office.  The text piece addressing the impact of living as gender fluid on young people’s mental health has stopped a lot of people who have commented and fed back to us that it should be circulated widely and beyond the confines of the exhibition.  There have been instances of families reconnecting and finding a new way to bond.  The hidden disability is no longer hanging over the relationship, they have met each other through the lens of the artist instead of the disability.  The quality of the work, the environment in which it has been exhibited and the prestige attached to the Turner Prize have literally reframed the narratives around the artists and their biographies.  The challenge will be how to open up new and better opportunities that will have similar effects on how we see each other and recategorise the way in which we look at people.  Not so long ago, we would not have been able to convince our artists that they wouldn’t be accused of being benefit scroungers by the public, that people would be interested and enjoy their artwork and that the artwork would attract so much interest and respect.  We have had inquiries from other places to show some of the pieces made for the Big Conversation.


What measures does Compass Arts take to ensure that its spaces are safe, supportive, and compassionate for all participants?


It is simple really.  We try to understand what is happening to a person internally when they have a hidden disability.  What are the barriers?  We have concluded that there is likely to be heightened sensitivities, giftedness, introversion, hypervigilance, atypical thinking and interpretation, idiosyncratic behaviours, speech irregularities, fear systems, coping mechanisms and we accept all of these.  In fact, we enjoy and appreciate all of these, as long as each individual is open to being tolerant of everyone else.

It is the most heartening experience to enter Compass, there is genuine freedom and real respect, care, and concern for each other.  This is modelled by everyone not just those of us that facilitate at Compass.  Because everyone is involved in creating this emotional and mentally safe space, it is palpable and the physical and social space is held by the stringent risk assessments that we conduct.  It is a place that celebrates authenticity and encourages ways to express “difference” as something “universal” and “human” through different mediums; be it storytelling, sound, the visual arts or moments of encounter and dialogue. 

Most importantly, we believe that everyone has a spark of genius, a story to be told and a pathway that is significant and unique to them and that if they can identify that pathway, they can participate fully in the unfolding events around them that will become history as well as leave behind artefacts that will inform future generations about the people who participated in history making.  In other words, if we can say something about ourselves through the art that we make, and those artefacts survive us we are leaving an archive that enables people in the future to know themselves through us.  If we leave out the story of disability, we eradicate its presence, we create a lie that the past is glorious.  Instead, we should be sharing the glory of mental illness and hidden disabilities for future generations so that no one in the future is overlooked or misunderstood because we have not kept a record of their inner world.  Art is the record of the artists inner world; this is far more revealing that the passing of a law or a statistic or historian’s critique.


What do you hope people take away from seeing your exhibitions?


There is a whole debate in the arts about “high” and “low” art.  There is an assumption that “low” art should receive adequate funding and equal opportunities that “high” art attracts.  When you drill down what is meant by “low” art, words like 'outsider', 'brut', 'community', 'folk', 'the peoples' are spoken.  Immediately, we then think of examples and terms like 'expressive arts', 'something throwaway', 'slogans', 'banners', 'murals', 'mosaics', 'graffiti', 'drawing pins' and 'mobiles'. 

As the curator, I wanted people to go away in awe of what can be achieved and a feeling of having been in a 'professional', 'high art' space.  One person who came to the exhibition asked, “Has this been put on by the Tate?”  Several others came in and assumed that we were 'The Towner' and others asked, “Is this part of the Turner Prize?”  These comments have thrilled me and excited me that we have pushed through the barrier of what is expected from artists with disabilities.  Now, I am excited for them and for art. 


Other comments have been, “thought provoking”, “it made me smile”, “it brought a tear”, “I have mental illness and I feel seen by this exhibition”,  “we have really enjoyed this exhibition and getting to know about the artists”.



Can you tell me about any exciting projects that you’ve got coming up?


In May we will be changing the artworks that are currently on show in Promenade.  Promenade is a biannual art trail, curated by Compass, that runs along Eastbourne’s seafront in 8 of the hotel’s public bars and lounges.  Its theme Water (May-Sept) and Land (Sept-May) showcases neurodivergent artists locally and further afield, as well as raising awareness of the environment and local environs.  The last art trail exhibited 30 artists. 15th May, the Collective, Waterweek, are holding a day of conversations, pond making, dance, puppetry, and community in Hydneye at our allotment which we plan to develop into another studio call the Art Land Lab.  On 19th May, six of the artists from the Collective who showed in the Big Conversation are travelling to Edinburgh to meet Richard Demarco and walk a part of “The Road to Meikle Seggie”.  This is the tile of an artwork that Richard made with Joseph Beuys 50 years ago.  We plan to return via Lindisfarne to our Sussex based studios and make artwork in response to this journey that will be exhibited in 2025.  We have an exhibition of photography and poetry, called Awakenings, opening in June at St Mary’s, Hampden Park.  

That's amazing! Thank you for taking the time to speak to me. How can individuals and organisations get involved or support Compass Arts in its mission to combat social isolation and support mental well-being through the arts?


We welcome visitors to come and experience the studios, exhibitions and events.  To sign up to our mailing list or contact us for a visit, email or telephone Lettie on 07840 536001.  Like any charity, we are always looking for new volunteers and offers to raise funds.  However, we enjoy nothing more than sitting down in a local cafe and exploring together what interests and dreams you might have that will strengthen and build upon the vision and community that is Compass Arts. 

If you would like to join or help a friend or relative to join the weekly program go to and take a look at the program to see what is on offer and then complete a ‘new members form’ on the Join Us page.


This is my own photo

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