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.
Last year I was part of a CPD programme for socially engaged artists called The Making of Us, which was a brilliant experience because it gave me lots of useful tools and put me in a setting with another artist to run a live project with young people. My partner (Jamie-Lee Wainman) and I worked in a special school and faced lots of challenges which taught us lots of useful things to take forwards in our work. Since then I’ve run two independent projects which involved facilitating workshops – this is something I was terrified of a year ago so it’s definitely a huge amount of progress.
I’m lucky to be one of three prior Making of Us artists to have been selected to take part in another project which aims to build on the last. A New Exchange is slightly different in structure – it involves three of my MoU cohort and three new artists. We will be paired up and once again will be running real projects with young people in partner settings. There is a strong emphasis on peer support and knowledge exchange and the whole thing is really exciting to be part of. Once again it’s taking place at the Turnpike Gallery in Leigh, and it’s being run by FS Creative, who also ran the Making of Us.
So far we’ve had two sessions and last week we held a peer exchange workshop where the three returning artists each ran a mini workshop which aimed to prompt conversation between the group. Jamie ran a Lego Serious Play session where we created structures which represented aspects of ourselves in five minutes and then talked other people through our designs. I did something on photo elicitation and using photos as conversation starters. And Andee ran some drawing exercises which aimed to loosen us up and stop us being so precious about the final product. All very useful and the other people’s sessions gave me some ideas for future sessions.
The next stage of the programme will see us being put into pairs and start thinking about our projects, which will kick off after Christmas.
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.
Film supplied by
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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.
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.
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.
Yesterday’s third session of the Making of Us was another thought-provoking one. The highlight was a few hours spent with Simon Ruding, director of TIPP, which started life as a participatory theatre organisation but now works across the arts. Most of their participants have lived experience of the criminal justice system or engage in behaviour which puts them at risk of criminalisation. They work in prisons and with probation teams, in youth justice settings and the like. Early on, Simon commented that when he hears groups being described as being “unreachable” he becomes determined to put the work in and engage with them. This resonated with me, as I’m similarly attracted to working in this space.
Simon’s session was focused on dealing with challenging behaviours, but what he did was help us look at the issue from a different perspective. Namely trying to recognise that participant behaviour which we may struggle with is coming from a logical place when viewed from their perspective. What I came away with is the need for radical acceptance of whatever those people are experiencing and the fact that the only factor we can change within this situation is our own response to whatever they do or say. “Changing the schema” as Simon put it (ie the pattern or expected response). It’s going to come down to developing a thick skin and developing some techniques and approaches which may help in tense or challenging situations.
The CPD sessions that we’re currently taking part of are building up to the 10 participant artists being put in pairs to plan and run a series of co-designed workshops. These will involve participants who are young adults with additional needs of various kinds, and will be run with partner organisations.
I have some anxiety around the idea of facilitating workshops but actually I realised in yesterday’s session that this is very much tied to my rather controlling nature and leaving things to chance and depending on other people – plus the fear of the unknown. I think a lot of my personal anxiety comes from my own insecurities about my right to be in this space and to even call myself an artist (this is something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately – I have a lot of baggage around that word because I’m untrained). But I know intellectually that this really makes very little sense – I’ve talked about my own work a lot and am very confident doing so in public. What was reassuring in a perverse way was that many of my concerns are shared by other participants – including those who already do some facilitation. Even Simon said he still has some anxieties around running sessions, despite having done it for 25 years.
I need to give this more thought so I can process some of these feelings and try to unpick them further…..