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Common Purpose / 29 August 2023
Storytelling is an artform in leadership. Simon Butler is living proof.
Step inside the art studio that tells a thousand words.
Simon Butler sits in his peaceful, sunlit studio surrounded by the relics of many stories. Some parts belong to his own story, while other parts belong to people millions of miles from this quiet base in London. Combined, they form the journey of non-profit organization, Migrate Art.
Simon founded the organization in 2016 out of a desire to take action on the global migrant crisis. An artist himself, he wanted to utilize his own experience and networks in the contemporary art world to spread the stories of people who needed to be heard – all through art.
In his studio, an oil paint made from ash pulled from burnt crop fields in Iraq lies in one corner. This was distributed to 15 prominent artists across the world who created and then sold their original works for a combined £250,000 at auction, all of which was donated to on-the-ground charities supporting those impacted by the refugee crisis.
In another corner lies red seed paste given to Simon when he visited the indigenous Waura people based in the Amazon. The village shaman, Kamo Waura uses this paste as body paint for ritual ceremonies. Recently, Simon completed a portrait of Kamo using the red paste and an oil made from the ash of burnt remnants from the Amazon Forest. Simon sent this portrait back to him in a gesture of solidarity and collaboration, and he raised awareness for this indigenous community in the process.
“If you look around this room, it’s full of stories,” Simon tells us. “I’ve met so many interesting people all over the world, and I could sit here for hours and tell you about all the various people I’ve met.”
It’s by sharing these stories that awareness for his organization, and for the people he wants to help grows. Yet Simon is acutely aware that he needs to do more of it in order for Migrate Art to reach its full potential.
It’s for this reason that he decided to challenge himself at the recent American Express Leadership Academy in London. As he dived into a series of leadership development modules (Simon calls this “therapy, but for work”), he and 56 other non-profit leaders were given an in-depth understanding of the art of storytelling, unpacking the important role it can play in developing as a leader, and subsequently the long-term value it can provide to an organization. During the experience, keynote speaker Leon Lloyd delivered insights and methods to practically articulate a story to others in the most impactful way possible. From becoming comfortable with pauses and utilizing humour at the right times and in an appropriate way, to using a box-breathing technique to calm nerves – Simon has already started incorporating this into his work, and he plans to continue to do so after recognising the difference it can make when communicating stories with others. That includes his conversations with stakeholders whom he relies on to help fund and support his organization’s work, or with the artists he collaborates with.
“I’m not someone who likes to be in front of social media,” Simon explains. “But I think that it’s really important for a person to be in front of an organization so that others can better connect with it. So I want to be giving more talks, and to be sharing our story and the stories of others with a wider audience.
“There’s the people in Iraq I had the opportunity to get to know, or the Indigenous communities in Brazil that I met, or the ex-ISIS fighters in Lebanon I spoke with - these people can’t leave their country, they literally don’t have the opportunity to tell their stories to the rest of the world,” he says.
Now that the Academy has instilled in him more confidence and a better understanding of the tools and methods that will enhance the way he articulates these stories, he’s incorporating this into the platforms and networks he has available to him. By doing this, he hopes to create more space for marginalized communities to be in front of the people who have the capacity to make a difference.
“I see myself as a bit of a catalyst to tell their stories to a wider audience, and to get those stories out there to people who can have an impact and can help - whether that’s with their money, their influence or by sharing their story further to raise awareness,” he adds.
Much like the art that his organization produces, these stories are in themselves an artform, and there’s no doubt there’s many more to come as Migrate Art continues to grow. The gems scattered across his studio are case in point.