Our time at Bridge College came to an end today – seven workshops with a delightful group of learning disabled young people during which we used cameras, made models out of junk and brought them to life via stop motion animation. Today we had a celebratory event with snacks, during which we looked at the group’s work and some of them had a go and making photos in a pop up studio. I brought my little photo printer so they got to take copies home.
This project came about through the A New Exchange programme I’ve been involved in via the Turnpike Gallery in Leigh, which built on the Making of Us project last year. A year ago my project was also within the same parent organisation as Bridge College, a local social care and education charity called The Together Trust. Last year I was at a school for young people with complex emotional difficulties, Ashcroft School. The young people and teachers there were all great but our experience was challenging because the environment was pretty volatile and I felt a bit out of my depth and not always fully supported by school staff – I think they were just busy reacting to the daily dramas which are going on in a setting like that. I learned loads but it wasn’t an experience I would describe as enjoyable – and for a while it put me off pursuing work with young people.
I still applied for A New Exchange though as it seemed to present an opportunity to perhaps overcome some of these complicated feelings. This time my experience was very different – our new setting had a much more relaxed atmosphere and the staff were extremely supportive. No doubt all the experience of the past year also helped – I now know to ask for feedback and to be prepared but not to over-plan and try to control everything. I’m happy to have gained some experience of trying to make my sessions accessible to all. I’m happy to be moving on but feel really fortunate to have had this opportunity.
We’re now almost halfway through our A New Exchange project at Bridge College, Manchester.
We’ve done three workshops out of a total of seven (the last will be a celebration event though). I was apprehensive about this project before it began because I have no experience working with participants with learning or communication needs and didn’t know how I’d cope in a group with a range of need.
Our group of eight young people is quite varied – there are people who are non verbal, people who are quite chatty and a diverse range of support needs. I knew I’d be well supported by staff at the college and would learn loads but there was still some fear of the unknown.
However it has been a much gentler experience than I expected – group members are really good fun and the support staff have been great. So far we’ve done a ‘getting to know each other’ session, a session on photography and a session on junk modelling led by my artist partner Hattie. Shen kicked that off asking people to draw pictures based on a series of prompts – these then fed into what people created. That was a great touch which I’m going to try to remember – sometimes the blank space can be overwhelming.
Gaining feedback from a group where not everyone speaks is obviously challenging but we are trying to leave enough space within our sessions to gauge what is popular. Also we’ve learned that where participants are not really up for getting involved in activity it’s useful to give them a job – handing out items for example or asking them to photograph the session.
We’re a fortnight into the new year and I’m a bit all over the place – involved in various new projects and not really knowing if I’m coming or going (as is often the case, I think this is the curse of the freelancer). I have two main projects going on currently, which are taking up most of my headspace (well, one much more than the other).
This week we started some workshops at Bridge College, which works with young people aged 18-25 with learning and/or physical disabilities, as part of A New Exchange, an artist development project I’m fortunate to be part of at the moment. My artist partner Hattie and I are running seven sessions with a group of eight young people – this is a new demographic for both of us but the staff at Bridge College are super supportive and open to our ideas. This week was a ‘getting to know’ you session with various drawing exercises and some polaroid photography and next week we are concentrating entirely on photography, but we plan to bring other elements into the sessions after that as Hattie works largely in sculpture. I really want to learn about other art practices and how to integrate that into my own projects. Our group is quite mixed in terms of needs – some members a very able to verbalise what they like or don’t like, while other participants struggle more with communication or have other kinds of needs. We want to make the sessions as collaborative and responsive as possible so need to develop ways to gauge what they want to do as the project unfolds – we need to find approaches which meet everyone’s needs and don’t allow some voices to dominate.
I’m also plugging away with my Open Eye Gallery Reflections commission, for which I’m working with members of the Traveller community in Cheshire West. This is the project which is taking up a lot of head space because I care so much about getting the ethics and approach right and how to juggle the various stories which may emerge. One of these is promising to be quite challenging if it ends up happening as the person has very strong opinions about a lot of subjects which are diametrically opposed to my own. This is going to be an interesting challenge – how to weave in that person’s viewpoint and narrative in a way which works for the wider project and makes him feel heard and respected. This residency has to go at its own pace – people are not always available or easy to pin down, and I just have to keep putting in the time. I am finding with these commissions that there are often artificial and unrealistic timelines put onto them by commissioners but am starting to develop the confidence to ignore these as far as possible and work at my own pace, and at the pace which the project demands.
So far I have a small list of people who I have met or spoken to – some are physically vulnerable due to age or illness, so I have decided to focus on them for now when they are able and not try to spin too many plates at once (although I don’t want other people to forget who I am so need to keep calling in to them now and then). I have also started doing some one-to-one sessions with a young girl at a primary school in Ellesmere Port, it’s not something I would have sought out but it presented itself as an opportunity so I went for it. Today was my second session with her – I’m just doing loads of different photography activities with her and seeing what comes out of it. Today I gave her a film camera to take home. For me this is all about throwing metaphorical mud at a wall and seeng what sticks. I’m not sure what her bit will say about Covid times but I suppose we’re still living through this so I’m sure something will emerge. And children’s voices are so important and often go unheard.