Making of Us film

A short film made during the Making of Us development programme, which I was part of at the Turnpike Gallery in Leigh. Artist Jamie-Lee Wainman and I led eight socially engaged workshops with neurodiverse young people at Ashcroft School in Cheadle, as part of this 2022 programme.

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Making of Us reflections – session #8

Today was our eighth and final session at Ashcroft School for the Making of Us. I was looking forward to the end of this project – not because I haven’t enjoyed it but because I’m happy to be moving forwards and building on everything I’ve learned. I applied for the Making of Us pretty blindly, it has to be said – I saw the opportunity advertised and didn’t think too deeply about what it could all mean for me. I was looking for new challenges and directions at the time, as I was looking to move on from journalism, and this presented itself, so it all happened quite organically. A lot of things have happened quite serendipitously during my career, this one included. I’ve learned loads, and a lot of what I learned I couldn’t have foreseen – which I suppose is the best kind of learning. I’ve learned I enjoy collaboration and I’ve learned to let go as a facilitator and to try new activities that are also unknown to me. Previously I probably would have felt I need to have expertise in something before passing it on to a group.

As I’ve previously expressed on here, we’ve had quite a few ups and downs and twists and turns during the lifetime of this project, as to be expected. We’ve had to navigate our relationship with the partner setting, including learning to be quite firm about our needs where necessary. I’ve personally had to learn a lot from the young people about their needs, which are variable within the group and across the sessions themselves. Today we repeated our cyanotype session, which we did a few weeks ago and which proved quite successful then.

There’s something about this process which suited the group – I think because you see a result quite fast and there are lots of different steps. This time we had three young people in our session, two of whom were present last time. They went straight into it like a couple of pros, and focused really well for the entirety of the session. The third young person also got very into it once her initial mood had dissipated. The group made cards/images for people the love, since today is Valentines Day. We couldn’t really have asked for it to go any better and I think we left the space feeling quite positive.

Invisible Manchester workshop

Last week I ran a short creative workshop at Invisible Manchester, a social enterprise which works with people who have experienced homelessness and trains them up to be tour guides. They’re a lovely group, really friendly – I’ve now met most of the participants several times through attending their meetings, and joining one of their walks.

This was an initial workshop, really designed to get to know them a little and see if they might like to work with me on a photography project in due course. We did some introductions, looked at some photos and did a little blind drawing exercise which involved them lying with their eyes closed and drawing a self-portrait (eyes still closed). We then talked about their level of experience with photography and what kind of things they might like to do. Several of the group have done creative projects involving cameras before – one has even been involved in an exhibition. So expectations are high!

It’s nice to be starting something new, it’ll be interesting to see where this goes. My next session isn’t until April but  hopefully we’ll do something more regularly after that.

Making of Us reflections – sessions #7

It was our penultimate session at Ashcroft School for the Making of Us this week. The workshop had its high points but didn’t entirely go as planned. Only two of our five young people were present – one appears to have dropped out altogether, another was meant to be there but has other things going on which are putting her in the wrong headspace, and the fifth person had gone home ill. Not the greatest of starts, compounded by their lack of enthusiasm for some of what we were proposing… it can often feel like pushing a boulder up a rock during these sessions, but it didn’t really get to us this time. We get it now.

We started with a game – Pictionary cards – where you use cards to mime out a word and other people guess. The two participants were very reluctant to get involved but with a bit of pushing from their teachers, they eventually got into it and even helped act out one or two words. Turning it into a competition involving a timer seemed to help with this – this was an inspired bit of knowledge from Jamie, my partner facilitator, who herself has ADHD so understands some of the young people’s issues. She says introducing competition to things helps to get her attention fixed on a task. Good tip.

The creative exercise this week involved Tengrams – making images using pre-cut coloured shapes, in this case different kinds of triangles. The aim was to build on last week’s cyanotype session, which saw us make a backdrop of the sea. We wanted to make images of fish and other sea creatures – the triangle idea came from school, which has recently covered triangles in maths. This exercise, it has to be said, didn’t really light anyone’s fire. The two young people were much more restless than the previous week – they both had to go for a little walk during the session (this is written into lots of people’s education plans at the school but it was significant that it wasn’t necessary during the cyanotype workshop, as they were so engaged in what they were doing). Both participant fed back afterwards that they found this activity boring – and one, who has sensory needs, really didn’t like using the glue due to it being sticky.

The final activity was a little game (chin chin, involving thumbs), which went a bit better. The person who came last won this time around, which was good. Overall it was a bit of a mixed bag as a session – there were moments where they engaged and others where they didn’t. Next week we’re back to cyanotype, since they enjoyed it so much last time. I’m glad to be reaching the end of these sessions and to move onto something new but I’ve gained so much more than I expected to during this process. I knew I’d benefit from the experience planning and delivering workshops but I’ve also learned I love collaborating with other artists, I’ve learned how to set boundaries with partners and speak up when required and I’ve learned to be less controlling and more responsive to what groups are into. I’m very grateful to have had this opportunity at this stage in my work.

 

Making of Us reflections – session #6

Today we delivered our sixth of eight workshops at Ashcroft School in Cheadle, as part of our involvement in the Making of Us, a professional development programme for socially engaged artists. We decided to experiment with cyanotype – something I’ve dabbled with a few times this year but never leading a group (other than my own kids). Cyanotype can be quite an open thing so in discussion with the school, we decided to theme our session around the idea of making a cross section of the sea. We made six A4 panels – with the three students who were present today each working together with an adult. The aim was to all create something which could then be put together into a bigger piece – so working both collaboratively and individually. This approach seems to work quite well with the participants.

We started our project with five young people but this is a challenging group for a variety of reasons and the numbers have waxed and waned throughout. Some pupils have been absent some weeks, while others have walked out partway through our sessions or simply refused to walk in at the start. Today I thought a few were about to bolt as I was explaining how cyanotype works – it’s quite dry and a bit much to take in – but we pulled it back when we did a demonstration sheet. From that point it seemed to get easier – one group member, who finds it difficult to sit and focus for long periods of time, managed to stay present and engaged for 80 minutes, which is quite an achievement. Pre-planning what we wanted to make on regular paper was a great idea, as we could then simply transfer the constituent parts to the cyanotype sheet before getting the UV torches out.  We both came away from the session feeling very positive and excited for how we can build on this over the coming two sessions.

Making of Us reflections – session #5

A lot has happened in two weeks on the Making of Us project we are running at the Together Trust.

This is a challenging environment and there have been times when we as artists have felt quite out of our depth and unsure of how best to offer the young people in our group an experience that is interesting and engaging. In our last session, a fortnight ago, we tried to use reflective exercises to discern what they wanted to do more of but the results were so varied between the group (and those present so few in number) that for me at least this only muddied the water more, and left me feeling quite deflated. Someone wanted to do more collaging for example, while others definitely didn’t.

While being participant-led is obviously something worthy to aim for, the reality can be messy when those participants have very different opinions, likes and dislikes.

We communicated to the school that we would benefit from more support and they have risen to the challenge – yesterday’s session felt much better all round. We have started sending them visual guides to what our next session will entail and communication in both directions has been strengthened. We had a face-to-face debrief after our session yesterday, which was really valuable – this is the first time we’ve done that (we’ve previously asked for feedback by email) but it was definitely much better. Now to plan our next few sessions – we have three left, Covid-permitting.

Our session yesterday involved lots of games – the name game (famous person name on your forehead) and a game where you guess how many thumbs people will hold up. The creative activity was led by Jamie, we wrote down feelings and worries from our heads on post-it notes and then scribbled them up and tore or shredded the paper. Then wrote things on blue paper towels and, once outside, wet these and threw them at a coloured target Jamie had made. We attracted a lot of attention from other students at the school – which we had been warned about by staff – and not all our three participants fully engaged. One got very into it but the two girls had one try, missed the target and wouldn’t do it again.

I keep trying to remind myself not to take these things personally when an activity or session doesn’t hit the mark with everyone involved – I am learning to lower my expectations and see it as a win if all of the young people present engage with something during our time there. They have different needs and energy levels and can be up and down at different points during our sessions, but all got involved in the game-playing part of the session. And – as our Making of Us mentor pointed out to us – having an element of choice over whether to be involved in a particular activity is an important part of this process. They can be an audience member and still be participating, but in a different way – as long as they aren’t disrupting it. It doesn’t come easily to me to think like this as I am inclined to be output-focussed but I am trying to keep this in mind.

There’s a lot to learn and think about during this practical side of the programme. About working with a partner setting and developing positive relationships; working with challenging participants; working with an artistic collaborator; about being process-driven not output-focussed; about trying new things ourselves as practitioners (stepping out of our own comfort zones just as we are asking the participants to do); about having boundaries and recognising and expressing our needs; about my own temperament and what kinds of projects and participants would and wouldn’t suit me, going forward.

 

 

 

Reflections at the halfway point – the Making of Us

 

Yesterday was session 4 out of 8 workshops we are delivering for Ashcroft School in Cheadle, as part of our involvement in the Making of Us programme. So we’re now halfway through, an apt point to do some reflection – with the young people and between ourselves as facilitators.

This session should have taken place during the last week of the Autumn term but Covid enforced a delay. I think this had an impact on how it went and where we’re at more generally. It’s now around a month since we saw the group and this was only their third day back at school. They didn’t seem enthused.

Our session was structured around reflection – casting our minds back to what we’d done in sessions 1-3 and looking forward to possible activities for the remaining four weeks. Activities so far have been a photo walk with disposable cameras, followed by collaging using the prints from those cameras. We have also done light painting and Jamie-Lee made lithophanes/3D prints out of the group’s collages – which they saw for the first time yesterday and could take home to keep.

We looked at the prints from light painting and gave out the lithophanes to the members of the group who were present (two were not there). We then played a game Jamie had come up with to make the reflective process more fun – it involved an elastic band attached to four strings. Four people had to work together to control the band and to pick up paper cups. Under the cups were post-it notes with prompts. We hoped everyone would contribute their thoughts and help us shape the rest of the project.

Of course there’s theory and there’s practice, and things do not always work out how you hope. The game was good fun and the group seemed to enjoy it. A few thoughts came out of it but it felt like getting blood out of a stone at times. Group members are not the most forthcoming with their thoughts and at times it felt like we and the teacher were in danger of putting words in their mouths, which is not what we wanted to happen. But what to do when a young person shrugs and says ‘I dunno’ to everything? It’s a really tricky one.

The energy levels in our group fluctuate quite wildly during our 90 minute sessions. Someone can start off quite engaged and apparently into it and then five minutes later they’ve left the room, never to return. Some participants stay but fold into themselves and stop engaging. They make themselves small. This is a challenge for us as facilitators – I am not someone who is very experienced (or naturally very good) with teenagers – let alone those with additional needs. It all gave me a lot of food for thought.

How to ensure we are designing our sessions in a way which works for these participants? Reflection is great and important but I came away feeling somewhat at sea, since the activities that some people had enjoyed were those which others had not enjoyed at all. Which direction to go in next?

This is all something we are now working on and we have some ideas, some of which we want to try for ourselves while we have this chance and others we are designing especially for them.

But some other points struck me as relevant. One weakness for how it went is that we’ve had a long break, worsened by Covid forcing us to postpone our last session. That has broken the flow which we’d built up so far. One participant who had got really involved in the first three sessions and seemed to get a lot out of it – particularly the last workshop on light painting – has now decided he wants to drop it altogether, which is a shame. I wonder if that would have happened if we’d managed to do one long uninterrupted block of sessions.

This is not to say it’s all negative. We have had some genuine moments where it feels like we are connecting with the young people in our group and I can see they are enjoying aspects of what we’re doing. It’s an interesting and challenging journey to walk the path of meeting their needs in a genuine way, given the limitations of the small and unpredictable spaces we are being given to work with and all the other external dramas which can be happening around us at the school.

Next week we plan to do something more active which involves an acceptable level of mess – and to introduce the incentive of earning sweets or chocolate for engaging in our sessions. Hopefully this will make it feel less like ‘school’ and more like something fun and creative that they are happy to be part of. Fingers crossed.