SLiCE: A Retrospective or 3 years as a SLiCE or The Crow of the North.
All Artwork by me: David Wearing.
Can engagement in Arts and Culture improve well being?
This could be a very, very, very short and pithy response to the question posed!
The short answer is a convincing and conclusive big fat YES, in capitals to emphasis and highlight! No need to read on if you’re convinced. But, while you’re here – I invite you to step on the National Express and come on a journey with me….
If, like me, you are a twitter user – the question above might look like this;
‘Engagement in the arts and culture improves your health and mental well-being’
I’ve just tweeted it! – no doubt it will get a few likes and an occasional retweet and comment in agreement. BUT, that’s in my bubble of social media. A place where I have carefully curated a group of supportive, friendly and motivating friends. Ones that agree with the majority of my thoughts, perpetuate and advocate for arts and culture in all of our lives and will now be eagerly hitting the heart (like) button or the retweet icon.
What I would like to attempt to discuss and draw out in this paper is the impact that arts and culture has had on me personally. How my art has shaped my life, shaped my leadership, shaped the vision that I have for the pupils in my school and in wider school communities. How my art and the art of connecting with others supports and improves my own mental health and well-being.
I have a confession. I am not a great writer. It’s never been something that comes naturally. I managed to get a 2:2 in my BEd degree despite having top grades for teaching on every practice. I’m just not great at essays and dissertations. I prefer the chatty style. I hope you enjoy reading this and some of it connects and resonates. Here goes…..
I was born in Barrow-in-Furness in 1972. I love the place. A sprawling industrial town, sat at the end of the A590 (loving referred to as the one road in, one road out highway) responsible for numerous warships and nuclear submarines. Travel further along the road and you come to the end of it – the marvellous peninsula that is Walney Island; inhabited by swooping seagulls, anxiously protecting their young, dipping in and out of the marram grass sand dunes and basking North Sea seals. A protected and outstandingly beautiful place.
Bird Hide, Walney Island – 2018.
It was here, in Barra (I’ve since lost the accent), where my love for art was first noticed, nurtured and supported.
Mrs Ward was my Y6 teacher at St James Primary School and in the early 80s the curriculum was, how should I say, fairly loose in its approach. I vividly recall Fridays – in particular the afternoon – it wasn’t called it then but it now has the title of Golden Time in many schools. The day would start with myself and Gary (now a Headteacher in the town) scaling the huge A-frame – no health and safety or risk assessment to think of! – to flip over to ‘When a night won his spurs in the battle of old’ song sheet for Hymn practice. No OHP or fancy projections as we are all accustomed to now. Post assembly, perhaps the one TV that my small primary school owned might be wheeled into the class to watch a BBC episode of ‘The Boy from Space’ (a ‘scary’ 80’s series for schools that gave me and likely many of peers nightmares!). The best part of the day was the afternoon! Lovingly referred to as ‘free-time’. This was when my A3 sketchbook came out alongside the dizzying array of Derwent pencils, bought on a visit to the factory in Keswick, not far away. I remember spending hours and hours carefully copying images of tigers, lions, cheetahs – any large cat to be honest. I just lost myself in those moments and have happy, content feelings about that short time in my life some 40 years ago. You’re probably wondering about the relevance of this to well-being. Whizz forward to GCSE’s and options.
I had obviously taken my love of art to high school and always thoroughly enjoyed the art and occasional pottery lessons. It made sense to me that I would always choose Art as a subject to study further. It seems that the teachers had a different view. I was persuaded down a different route. Sciences, Technical Drawing and Computing. That told me all I needed to know about Art, my art and its future.
1.2 The Yard
Being a diligent student, I studied in those disciplines hard and eventually ended up as an Electrical Technician Apprentice in the local Shipyard – VSEL. Looking back, I can see the rationale behind pushing certain subjects. It prepared you for life in the yard. Prepared you for a 7am-5pm job. A repetitive job that required the skills that science, computing and technical drawing gave me. What it didn’t offer me was an outlet for my creativity. It stifled my art and I never picked up that sketchbook again. It stayed closed for at least 12 years. My mind closed off to visual art, any art for that matter. I had subconsciously told myself I couldn’t do it. So I didn’t. I just closed my ears, eyes and mind to it.
Don’t get me wrong. I felt lucky in those days to have a job. So many were on the dole and scraping by. I had a regular income, a roof over my head and some typically 80’s NightClubs to fill my weekends. But it was a drudge every day. A routine that I had got into. I guess looking back now I didn’t really even stop to question whether I was enjoying work or not. It was just something that you did. Mostly everyone my age worked in the yard. Apprentices in different disciplines; plumber, painter, welder. I just got on with it.
1.3 The Dole
Until, redundancy forced my hand. After four fruitful years training us up, VSEL got into difficulties. It found the easiest place to shed staff. We were all only contracted for a four year apprenticeship. After that, we were canon fodder for the companies budget holders. A generation of young skilled workers thrown out with a couple weeks wages tax free as a ‘thank you’. A lot of us stayed in limbo for a while. Signing on every week. Getting good a snooker and darts in the working men’s clubs and waiting for an interview. But non came. After four months on the dole I couldn’t stand it anymore. Plymouth was my new adventure but I was soon to find that a shipyard in another place was not much different to the one I left. I needed to be back in The North. After six long months I packed my Bjork collection of
The Crow of Industry is moving out – Digital Manipulation 2019
CDs and headed back to Barrow on the National Express. It was a long trip stopping almost everywhere along the M6, places I didn’t know existed. But, the length of journey gave me the opportunity to throw on my Sony Walkman (an ancient version of an iPod for younger (than me) readers (can you even but brackets in brackets?)), listen to some Happy Mondays, New Order and Wet,Wet,Wet* and have a think about the future. At the end of the A590 (see 1.1 for details) the coach pulled into the Town Hall and I made my way home. Up Holker Street and into the comfortable surroundings of my family home. On that final walk, I had made a decision. A turning point. I didn’t really like being an electrician. It was good money but I needed a change. In the final year at Alfred Barrow Secondary (no longer standing) we all sat an aptitude test for the yard. Only a few talked of the Sixth Form. It never even crossed my mind. I suppose the lure of a brown envelope each week sealed the deal for me and many of my close peers.
*Apart from that hit song ‘Love is All Around’ that seems to be in the charts the whole of 1994 – The Troggs version is much better.
1.4 Sixth Form
I knew that if I wanted a change I had to go back to school. I was guided by an amazing guy called John Burrows. A gnarly Biology teacher with fantastical stories of his near death climbing experiences in the Himalayas. He was the ‘mature’ student adviser at the local Sixth Form – creatively named Barrow Sixth Form (probably because there was only one!). I fell into the ‘mature’ bracket even though I was only just about to turn 20.
He asked me about my interests. Where I saw myself in 5 years time. How I liked to study. Questions I hadn’t thought about at all. After lots of probing he suggested Biology (as he was the lecturer and could help me out), Geography and English Literature as well as resitting by GCSE Maths*. This combo (sorry – was trying to be cool there but doubt it’s now a cool phrase to use!) would apparently get me into a range of University courses should I wish to go in the direction. Me? University? No one in my family had ever been to one of those places before. The pace at Sixth form suited me. It was relaxed but supportive and the lecturers really brought things out of me that I didn’t know were there. I relished tackling poetry in Eng Lit and found Geography fascinating. Biology was great for John’s stories but I didn’t do that well in the exams! Little parts of my creativity started to emerge. A tentative go at sketching a Roche Moutonnee for my Geography Case study of a glacial valley in the Lakes. Cells and mitochondria in biology.
*this was actually a good call as I needed it for future Teacher Training! (I got a B second time around)
I got into a band and joined a local theatre group staring with a small ‘s’ in ‘Man of La Mancha’, ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ and many others. Still, my love for drawing that had been nurtured in Mrs Ward’s year 6 class on a Friday afternoon eluded me.
Two years at Sixth Form quickly passed. Time to decide what to do next. Circumstances had made this decision a relatively easy one. Wednesday afternoons at Sixth Form were set aside for extra-curricular activities. I volunteered at an old folks home and loved being the caller for their afternoon BINGO! One of the residents used to shout quack, quack at the top of his voice when I called out ‘two little ducks!’ I spent some time being the in house DJ with Phil G and Jay – we basically just played the songs we liked! Happy times. I’m waffling as I reminisce.
The reason that the decision was easy is that on one block of Wednesday afternoons I put myself forward to help at my old Primary School – St James Primary. None of the old teachers were there but it still felt the same and the A-frames still stood though they had moved onto OHP’s (Over Head Projectors). I think there was probably some risk assessment required that stopped pupils from scaling the frames to heave over the giant hymn sheets. After a few weeks of helping I had a chat with John and the proverbial penny dropped. I loved learning alongside the children and ended up making a modroc diorama of Furness Abbey with a small group. I applied to Universities to start on a BEd. I got a conditional offer from Chester – my preferred choice – and waited for my results!
I got in! There was the usual student experiences but there is one memory that sits in my mind that brings this potted history of me to a kind of conclusion to work forward from. As you’d imagine – Primary Teaching covers a range of disciplines and we had workshops and lectures on them all. One morning I perused my timetable and saw the word Art on it for the whole day. To be honest I was expecting tissue paper and felt tips. That wasn’t what I got. As I entered the Art studio there was an array of items all laid out (artistically of course) on a colourful drape. The Artist introduced herself and gave out huge pieces of card and charcoal to everyone.
‘Of you go – find a space and draw what you see.’
That was all she said. My mind went numb then asked a hell of a lot of stupid questions. Where to sit? What angle? Is this being assessed? Are there any rubbers? What if this looks rubbish? I must have sat for a while doing nothing as the lecturer came quietly over and asked if everything was OK. I was honest with her and said….
‘I am no good at art…..’
It just came out. My subconscious vocalised for the first time. I believed it because my experiences had worked out that it was true. Why start something if you know you are going to be no good, my brain had told me. What happened next was probably the simplest and most effective thing any teacher can do. She had what I know now to be the best quality any teacher can possess.
*Definitely a word because I have heard @HYWEL_ROBERTS use it on many occasion!
Bothered to take the time to chat about why I thought I wasn’t any good and I explained everything in 1.1 to her. She was interested and invited me have a go. What could go wrong? I didn’t need to share it with anyone. I could throw it away if I didn’t like it. Just have a go. Some hints and tips about just moving the charcoal freely across the page and not worrying about it being perfection were all I needed. The charcoal moved. I looked up and everyone had gone for break. I had been so engrossed that I carried on. Another sheet of paper was pushed into my eager hands and a gentle nod of approval was all I needed to shift positions and start on another masterpiece.
That was it. That simple act of botheredness shifted me into the mindset I had when I was 11 years old; on a Friday in Mrs Ward’s classroom with my Derwent pencils drawing a Cheetah. I was hooked again. I started a sketch book. I drew and painted as much as I could. It became a part of me. Something that could have been lost for longer had it not been for the catalogue of events that led to that art session at Chester University.
I still have the sketchbook to this day. Art had found me and I had found art again. It was my go to activity and I spent hours making up for lost time. It made me feel relaxed. Made me forget about the 8,000 word assignment that was due in (for a little while anyway) and ultimately became a tool of self-regulation and reflection, communication and creation.
Bunny – White ink pen on Ikea wrapping paper – Chester Uni sketchbook – 1999.
1.6 The Reasearchy Bit
A pause in the life story to have a delve into the thoughts and feeling behind all this. The well-being question.
If I could have a conversation with the younger me at Primary, I am pretty sure that I would wax lyrical about my amazing drawing skills. I would be proudly showing off the sketch book and explaining my expansive array of Derwent pencils, the nuanced differences between a 2B and 4HB pencil. I would have felt good about it; be mentally uplifted.
The converse can most definitely be said for my experience at secondary. My self-esteem was dented so much that it somehow stopped me from continuing with my clear passion. I wouldn’t say it made me mentally worse off but I wonder where I would be today if I did that GCSE in Art anyway. I might not be sat here typing now….
I will touch on this more later on but it is becoming clearer to me that the mere act of creating, in my case art, music and photography is fundamentally a prerequisite for improved mental health and well-being. The complexities of modern life can be demanding and can cloud your mind and confuse your senses. Art provides me with an outlet and a tool to help make sense of the quagmire. There is also the addition of engaging with other art and culture, not the act of creating your own individual art. This too, is an antidote to modern busyness (if that’s a word!). Getting lost in a film at the cinema, listening to a great new John Bramwell Album, going to a gig, visiting an art gallery, enjoying a theatrical production, getting stuck into a box set on Netflix – all activities that engage the senses.
Ken Robinson articulates this idea much more eloquently than me in his RSA ‘Changing Education Paradigms’ speech back in 2010.
“The arts especially address the idea of aesthetic experience. An ‘aesthetic experience’ is one in which your senses are operating at their peak. When you’re present in the current moment. When you’re resonating with excitement of this thing that you are experiencing. When you’re fully alive. An ‘anaesthetic’ is when you shut your senses off and deaden yourself to what’s happening.”
“We’re getting children through education by anaesthetizing them. And I think we should be doing the exact opposite. We shouldn’t be putting them to sleep, we should be waking them up to what they have inside themselves.”
There is an ever growing research base that links the positive benefits of engagement in the arts with improved mental health and well-being – we should all be flexing our creative senses and waking up to what we all have inside of us!
Ground breaking research led by BBC Arts and UCL drew out similar conclusions on how creative activities can help us manage our mood or boost our well being and emotions;
There are three main ways we use creativity as coping mechanisms to control our emotions
1. a distraction tool – using creativity to avoid stress
2. a contemplation tool – using creativity to give us the mind space to reassess problems in our lives and make plans
3. a means of self-development to face challenges by building up self-esteem and confidence
‘Even the briefest time spent on a creative pastime such as painting, pottery or playing the piano, has an impact on our wellbeing and emotions.’
I graduated in 2000 and luckily landed my first teaching job at a school called Pooltown (now The Acorns) in Ellesmere Port. Amanda, the head was ace and nurtured my enthusiasm and energy. I taught there for six happy years and certainly learnt a lot from my mentors and other teachers but especially from the children. I began to develop my ethos for learning with Arts being a pivotal backbone of much of my classroom practice.
I was getting itchy feet and a Deputy Head’s job came up at Kelsall Primary. I had heard that they were the go to place for a creative approach to the curriculum, art and learning. I was inspired after the tour of the school for possible candidates (of which there were many) and spent ages honing my letter of application. I knew that there were way more experienced people out there but I could see myself there. The interview went well. I taught a decent lesson and waited most of the evening on the bottom of the stairs near the phone in the hall – traditionally where phones were kept in the dark ages! The call came and to my surprise I was offered the role.
I fitted in naturally and embraced the creative license, as a teacher, that I was given to mould the curriculum around the children’s and my interests. I also had a great job share, Jon Clayton (he’s now the artist in residence at Kelsall) with whom I kicked around new ideas and developed a rich, broad and balanced offering for our classes over five years. An Artsmark Gold school four times in a row and a centre of best practice. Things were great. My superb supportive mentor and headteacher, Steve, decided to hang up his leadership boots and passed the baton on to me. It’s in great hands he said when he left. And it was. Some minor changes. A few tweaks here and there. I felt I was in a great creative place and I was leading the school well.
I was in a band, singing songs I liked with a great group of lads. Photography was another creative outlet. I did art in school but rarely at home for my own enjoyment. In my mind I had probably reached creative peak! If there is such a thing? Well, there isn’t! There really isn’t.
In the past three years on the SLiCE programme I have produced more art, made more connections and thought more about creativity and arts in education than in my 10 previous years. And this all stemmed from one fortuitous visit.
2.1 The Visit
It was at the end of the Summer term of 2016. A few weeks earlier I had received an e-mail from someone called Jude at Curious Minds about something called SLiCE. I have to admit that I’d not heard of Curious Minds, let alone the acronym SLiCE (Specialist Leader in Cultural Education). I was intrigued. Firstly, the Curious Minds piqued my interest. Surely we should all be curious about something or other. And. Secondly, what was this SLiCE thingy?
A meeting was arranged.
Jude Bird arrived at my office door.
I’d done a bit of research on Curious Minds by that time and gave Jude the school tour. I’ll show her how arty and creative a mind I have! We had a good chat and Jude explained the SLiCE programme. I more or less signed up on the dotted line there and then. It enabled me to move beyond the school walls and to work a little differently, whilst involving children and staff at my school in a creative project. Again, right up my street.
Entitlement – Procreate Digital iPad – 2019 (Thriving Child in the North Conference)
I didn’t know it then, but Jude was to become my mentor, encourager, challenger and sounding board (she still is – encouraging me to get this written!) By carefully cajoling me out of my comfort zone and into new experiences, she expertly led me through process of the SLiCE programme. A guide on the side, allowing the series of events that followed to flow naturally without interference. Knowing that out of the process new learning and insights would bubble up to the surface. Insights that would shape and move my thinking on. Thinking that would would ultimately have an impact on myself and others that I connected with.
I owe a great deal to Jude for the numerous ways in which she has helped shape my leadership, values and art today.
For the BOTHERDNESS she shows.
Like Mrs Ward – my Y6 teacher at Primary, like the art lecturer at Chester University, like Amanda and Steve – heads I have had the pleasure to work for. All bothered. All caring. All kind.
I guess thats what I have started to try to synthesise down into a coherent and simple idea. What is it that makes us feel mentally well and inspired to be ourselves – to share our creative ideas with the world?
CONNECTIONS. That’s the one singular thing that links all of this (no pun intended!). Sure, it’s probably way more complicated than that and there is a plethora of rich research and data out there to actually back this up.
But, in simple terms – how we connect to each other is our ART.
Which, as I dart of in an uncontrolled tangent, leads me nicely on to the first year of SLiCE and the connections that started to be tentatively made. Remind me to plan this writing thing out next time. The only thing holding this together is my timeline! If time was irrelevant you could just be reading a hodge podge of my wanderings with little coherence. I could mention the time that I met the Fonz (him of Happy Days- google it!) at an Education Conference as an aside as that just popped into my head. Henry Winkler (the Fonz) had just….. see, it just happened – meandering around more than a very meandering river – sorry – back to the SLiCE work.
2.2 Values (not British) – SLiCE Year 1
I’m struggling to start this section! I don’t want to get bogged down with the detail of the whole year as this was covered in my first year research paper. I do, however, want to unpick some of my key learning and how this impacted on the following years.
My understanding of a SLiCE at the outset was to link with one or more cultural organisations and to answer a broad research question – can ‘Arts and Culture support the teaching and learning of British Values?’ in the this cases. Our cultural partnership was with Storyhouse in Chester and we all went straight into project mode.
A super production involving three schools was developed and performed at The Storyhouse. On reflection, this could have easily have been done without the partnership and I really didn’t get the true meaning of the title. I think the L in SLiCE is the key here. I was project managing rather than leading – which is fine. But, it led to a superficial and shallow relationship being built with the cultural organisation. I didn’t get under its skin enough to understand it more. I didn’t develop many new skills and I was too cautious and wary of pushing or questioning more. Something that I would develop more the following year.
2.3 Inclusion – SLiCE Year 2
The following year focused on Inclusion. I made a conscious decision that a project based approach would only be a part of the focus. What I needed to do was embed myself in the cultural organisation more frequently. Get involved with as many different arts practitioners and organisations to develop my understanding. I said YES a lot. Perhaps too much!! My diary was full to burst. I got involved with the Cheshire LCEP (Local Cultural Education Partnership); which I now chair. I worked on side projects with Storyhouse. I started to make connections with artists. I started to join dots and make links. I started to lead rather than manage. I started to advocate and champion the arts through my role as a Headteacher and personally on social media- specifically twitter. It was like lots of lightbulbs were lighting up simultaneously and connecting together in a coherent but jumbled web.
I read more widely. One book resonated more than others – ‘The Icarus Deception’ by Seth Goodin. I used some of it as the basis for the artwork on the first page.
It was the first page (I think that everyone should read this so have typed out on the next page) that really struck home and made me start to question everything I was doing. Seth talked about comfort zones and the connected economy, post the industrial economy. A world in where art is front and centre. And, an interesting take on the notion of what is art. Art as anything that connects you to the people around you and makes a difference. The art of connection ringing true as a way of enacting change and improving our own lives. As Seth asks;
Why Make Art?
Because you must. The new connected economy demands it and will reward you for nothing else.
Because you can. Art is what it is to be human.
Seth Godin – The Icarus Deception
This has become my mantra really – how art connects, how culture connects. Yes, it is true to say that it is the making or being involved in your own art, whatever that may be. It’s also about connecting with the art of others. But, moreover – on a human level, it is about the connections that we make. How we use our own art to make sense of the world around us.
At the end of the second year I delivered a talk at a Curious Minds event and it became obvious to me when writing that I had shifted significantly in my thinking. Shifted to think about making connections and through those creating opportunity for children and adults to become embroiled and involved in art and culture.
This naturally led onto year 3 of the SLiCE programme which I want to focus on more fully with examples of those connections made and how they impacted on my own and others well being. I what to explore what it is that make us, as humans tick. What makes us content with life and all that it brings? How does art – in its broadest sense support and improve our mental health own wellbeing? Ultimately it is this;
‘To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to making you something else is the greatest accomplishment’
Ralph Waldo Emerson
The Icarus Deception
Art is frightening.
Art isn’t pretty.
Art isn’t painting.
Art isn’t so thing you hang on the wall.
Art is what we do when we are truly alive.
If you’ve already decided that you’re not man artist, it’s worth considering why you made that decision and what it might take to unmake it.
If you’ve announced that you have no talent (in anything!), then you’re hiding.
Art might scare you.
Art might bust you.
But art is who we are and what we do and what we need.
An artist is someone who uses bravery, insight, creativity and boldness to challenge the status quo. And an artist takes it (all of it:the work, the process, the feedback form those we seek to connect with) personally.
Art isn’t a result; it’s a journey. The challenge of our time is to find a journey worthy of your heart and your soul.
The Icarus Deception – Seth Godin.
2.4 Wellbeing and Mental Health – SLiCE Year 3
Can engagement in Arts and Culture improve well being?
Crickey, it’s taken a deliberately long while to get to this bit! I wanted to give you the background of my journey and how I have ended up here. Wanted you to see (and I hope you did) the causal links in my journey to becoming the artist I am today. To pick up on the connections made and how the people along my life journey have influenced me through their BOTHEREDNESS. And ultimately, how this has improved my own well-being and mental health and in some ways helped others to maybe find their art and connect to the world. Especially pertinent in my role in education in a Primary & Nursery School.
2.4.1 Where to start?
An initial get together day with my cultural partners (Si at Storyhouse and Andy at The Whitworth Gallery in Manchester) and the third year was underway. As we chatted it emerged that Andy in particular wanted this year to be one for depth of discussion and evolution rather than immediately jumping on a project idea. More process over event. This suited me as I had other creative projects (legacy from the previous year) to complete and had other irons in the fire.
I’ve been thinking how to present this final chapter and how it will best demonstrate how arts and culture can impact on well-being and mental health. I’ve found I write more fluently if I give myself thinking time ahead of the writing process. Almost writing each part in my head before committing to paper. I spent some time just sitting in my garden house at the weekend, listened to Professor Yaffle (Sometimes is an ace track) and thinking about the times when I had engaged with art and culture over the past year. I listed them all and made natural connections between them. It made sense to me then through that process to write about each encounter and how it impacted on my own and others well-being. I’ll sprinkle in some super relevant research to back up my anecdotal evidence too.
2.4.2 Phizzy Chick
The start of a new academic year for school is always welcomed with the enthusiasm of a wet kipper slapped around the face repeatedly! Phrases about the passing of the six or so weeks holidays seem to have become the norm; ‘It went too quickly’, ‘We could do with another week or two’, ‘It’ll soon be Christmas!’ shared readily between colleagues. More about this mindset and how to shake it up a bit later when I look at well being through the lens of some inspirational authors and books I’ve connected with too.
Most schools have an INSET day for the first day back and as a small trust we were no different. As a collective we could have chosen to spend the day on Maths or Reading which would have been useful. Instead, we decided to give staff a day choosing two activities linked to well-being; archery, book making, altered books, cooking, bread making, yoga to name a few of the options. Serendipitous that it neatly linked to SLiCE before I knew the focus!
I chose Altered Books with an artist called Phizzy Chick (@Phizzychick on twitter) and was intrigued as to what an altered book was and what we were going to do. In essence, you take an old and unloved book and breathe a bit of life into it. I had some reservations as I love books and felt it was akin to destroying and denigrating someone’s work. But, seeing the beautiful and meaningful ways in which Georgia (Phizzy Chick) had reworked and re-imagined the books inspired me to have a go. It was about three hours and I was pleased wit the results. What struck me more was the feeling I got. It was calm and quiet and others in the room seemed to float around as to not disturb the zen like atmosphere we had created.
Page from Altered Book – based on quote from ‘Creativity’ by Darren Henley
At the end, there was a palpable difference in many. Just being present in the room and having a go with no inhibitions or limitations. No right or wrong way of going about the art, allowed everyone to participate and to feel a sense of achievement at the outcome. I got hooked on altered books and developed my own unique style. I found space and time at home to grab my book, some sharpies and creativity flowed easily. I watched less TV and it helped me to unwind. To relax and reset. It improved my well being. It still does. It’s one of the many things in my armoury of activities to keep my energy levels high and to reduce stress. I know that other colleagues who were there on that day too shared my sentiments and some like me have carried on.
The All-Party Parliamentary Group on Arts, Health and Wellbeing Inquiry Report on
Creative Health: The Arts for Health and Wellbeing July 2017 has a great info graphic highlighting the significant impact art and culture can have on our well-being.
And there it is – ‘Participatory arts activities help to alleviate anxiety, depression and stress both within and outside of work.’ Definitely one example, personally for me, that supports this claim. I would utilise my new found love of altering books to connect to others through the year via art workshops.
2.4.3 Amasing – www.amasing.org.uk
I first got involved with Amasing through school. As an outwards facing arts school, I am always on the look out for new initiatives and exciting projects for the children (and me) to get involved with. Today, I find myself as a Trustee for the Amasing Charity, supporting its work across Cheshire, Wirral and North Wales. This role would certainly not have come about was it not for my SLiCE work and connections I had made.
So, where does this fit in with well being and mental health I here you ask! Again, maybe serendipity stepped in or maybe it was just because my mind was making more connections and links? I perhaps had some influence too?
The theme for the Amasing Concerts was – you’ll never believe this – mental health and well-being! I like to think that I pushed all the jigsaw pieces into place to support my SLiCE work but it WAS just a coincidence. It was also a massive coincidence that the charities that Amasing were supporting were Dementia UK and Young Minds. This led to me having the courage to be the arts practitioner for some of the Amasing workshop days that encompass Dance, Drama, Art and obviously singing.
The first workshop was in a care home where some of the residents have onset Dementia. I took some first year BEd students from Chester University as well as pupils from St Werburgh’s and St Columbus Primary to support with the activity I had planned. It all revolved around old cigarette and tea cards (popular in when I was a lad) that I had collected over the years. The idea was to choose cards that resonated with you personally and to collage – pupils supporting the residents.
What was fascinating as I got involved but also watched from afar at times, was not actually the artwork but the human connections that were being made. Chats about past careers and remembering collecting the cards too. Memories bubbling slowly and surely to the surface. Smiles being shared as hands busily moved around sticking a doodling. There were some lovely artistic responses but the real art was in the quality and depth of connections taking place. The nurses shared at the end of the session that a few residents rarely came out of their room but when they heard it was art and youngsters coming in they forced themselves out of their comfort zone. I chatted away merrily and found an ex-teacher, nurse and ARP Warden. Did it improve their well-being? I would say so. If you measure well-being by the broadness of smile and engagement – 100%! Obviously, there is strong research evidence linked to arts an culture engagement and Dementia that supports this anecdotal example;
‘Roadblocks to verbal communication laid by dementia are bypassed through the artistic process, and individuals can express themselves through the art. Concentration and attention improves, and patients are often easier to care for even when the therapy is over.’
Cognitive Dynamics – Dr Daniel Potts 2015
I repeated the same workshop for Chester University students, at the Dementia Ward at the Countess of Chester Hospital, for children at hospital pre-operation on ward and for 60 children from 30 different schools taking part in Amasing.
I’ve put a pic-collage on the next page and the one feature that stands out are the smiles on everyone faces. I’ve come to synthesise this down to the process and the outcome with a heavy lean on process. Many children and adults come with preconceptions about art (a bit like I did going into that University lecture). I can’t do it. I am not an artist. I’m no good. I’ve never been any good at ‘this sort of thing’.
But in each and every workshop I witnessed more than one example of someone, young and old slowly coming around. Through the process of watching, tentatively getting involved, to fully immersing themselves in the art – there was a step change in their attitudes. Something that happened naturally. Parents who had accompanied their children to the workshops went away, for the first time in years, with a piece of original art that they had produced, beaming with pride – their well being up levelled and improved. There was a therapeutic side to the art for patients in the children’s ward per-operation. A nervous time for parents and child became a time to share thoughts and ideas and work together on something special. It was the art but moreover the connectivity it brought and the ways in which the active, creative part of the brain engaged to release this so feel good endorphins – there is probably some fancy scientific name for it. I just call it the chance to show your humanity and art. To share your art, your ideas and thoughts with another.
Coupled with these workshops were the actual Amasing performances themselves. Hundreds of children performing (singing and dancing) on a professional stage, with professional sound, lighting and band. I had the privilege of being at all of the performances and the smiles continued, self-esteem built and well-being was certainly supported. Art and culture can and does improve mental health and well-being.
This is self-evident in all of the Amasing experiences to date and continues to build and grow year on year. Personally, it enabled me to share my art more widely and engage others in the process. This in turn supported my well-being and my desire to do more art. To connect more and to find ways to engage more children and young people in art and culture.
2.4.4 William Kentridge
You’ll remember I mentioned being partnered with The Whitworth Gallery in Manchester. This is where I’ve spent many a rainy afternoon in and amongst the gallery space just sitting and soaking in the exhibitions. That would be following meetings with Andy Vaughan – the learning manager there. Over coffee we would chat about the arts and culture in education, how galleries opened themselves up for everyone to access, how the galleries collection was curated, how we could engender a sense of fun in the galleries. All deep and interesting conversations which really pushed my thinking on. There were snippets of ideas that emerged then slowly slipped away. Others stayed and were developed further. But it was always the discussion that was the main thing. We bounced ideas of each other and this was the most valuable part of the partnership. Following one of our conversations I found myself in a quandary. Go back to school? Stay in the café and get through some e-mails. I couldn’t get on the WiFi so decided to have a walk around. I stumbled on a new exhibition by William Kentridge. It fascinated me – the processes he went through, the art itself but also how it absorbed my interest for long periods of time. Both on that first visit and subsequent visits. I sat back against a wall, got out my sketch book (something I’d not really done before) and started to respond to the installations in my own way. It linked to some of the altered book art I had already started – a seamless connection made again.
I’m a fairly laid back person but the job I do does have its stresses which can lead to me quietly feeling anxious. Those times sketching, doodling and being quiet in a space allowed me to re-balance. To re-connect with what’s important and those things that you can allow to ebb away from your mind. It might not be the same for you but it’s about finding your connections, finding your art (knitting, football, singing, cooking…) and using that to support and improve your mental health and well-being.
2.4.5 Writing for Well-being
Another discovery I made this year was writing for well-being. In short it’s a way to respond to your thoughts and feelings and the world around via writing. It was a SLiCE session that I magpied and later used with a group of students. A cathartic exercise, it always free flow of words (which I like to couple with images too). Very similar to what I am doing now! I am accustomed to responding to many, many e-mails (perhaps that’s something we all need to look at) in a short and pithy way. I’ve not sat down for ages to actually write my thoughts down. It’s hard. Really difficult. But in its own way a exercise in self-evaluation, reflection and a way to condense (though I don’t think I’ve condensed that well) my ideas into a more cohesive message.
Art is at the heart of most of the things I do. I’ve not mentioned some of the art projects I’ve been involved with but doing this has encouraged me to return to writing more – more about No Outsiders, The Anya Gallacio Garden, Fabric Lenny murals and many more.
All I really know is this.
Art connects us. It’s a human need and necessity. Each and every one of us is an artist. By doing art and connecting to art and culture we uplift our spirits. Our mental health improves. We are truly alive. Those that exude botheredness get this. We need them more than ever.
As Andy, Gav and Will (ZEST – How to Squeeze the Max out of Life) remind me – we’ve only 4000 weeks on average on this twisting planet. Time enough to find a journey worthy of your heart and soul. Thanks to SLiCE, I think I’ve found mine. I hope you find yours too.
Believe – Altered book – 2020