Taking the Line for a Walk - Discovering a Creative Identity, The Learning Lab and Front Room Gallery

Joyce Armstrong  Art Psychotherapist and Group Facilitator

Aware of the need for access to meaningful art activity in an environment that was outside of statutory health institutions, the facilitator considered how she could enable people who are experiencing mental ill health, and who often feel excluded from the communities in which they live, the opportunity to become involved creatively at the very heart of our city.

Based upon the art therapy principles of a 'studio group' with the focus upon recovery and 'the healing nature of art', the aim was to facilitate the discovery a creative identity, find structure for the week and increase self esteem. This used a social inclusion model that sought to support people to feel engaged with their community and find purpose.

With an interest in the social justice movement within museums and utilising the five ways to wellbeing, it was felt that the context and location were paramount, contributing to a sense of belonging and engagement in the wider community.

Description of the arts activity

An invitation to enquire about the project was made via a flyer that was sent to statutory and nonstatutory mental health organisations. Arrangements were then made directly with potential participants for an initial meeting. This enabled the facilitator to describe the group further, seek agreement for contact details in case of concern for their health and wellbeing, and commitment to the six sessions.

The studio model utilises clear boundaries via the terms and conditions regarding the space to achieve a peaceful, creative milieu. The approach was non-judgmental, non-directive and nonthematic. The philosophy being a belief in creativity being innate, that we all have the potential to make marks and thus have an effect on the world outside of ourselves. Participants were offered a range of good quality materials and were supported by a qualified and experienced art psychotherapist who 'conducted' the sessions, assessing when input was needed or when space to follow their own direction was required. Up to four volunteers with an interest in art therapy and the creative process supported individuals, being alongside participants whilst

being artistically active themselves. This contributed to the understanding that we were all present, equally, as artists. At the close of each session people were invited to share their work and to reflect without using value judgments but with useful feedback about what interested them. Placing this within a context of contemporary and historical art offered a further framework that contributed to a sense of place in the world. Working jointly with the museum, one session offered 'handling objects' from their collection and for another we entered the public gallery and spent time choosing and reflecting on
the paintings.

Project management

As a qualified and HCPC registered art psychotherapist governed by a professional code of practice, the facilitator ensured that the standards of ethics and consent required for engaging with this potentially vulnerable group were met. The researchers addressed ethics as part of their internal application to evaluate the pilot study.

Participants were asked to contribute £5 per session towards costs. The UCL Museums Wellbeing Measure was chosen because it focused upon health rather than mental ill health. A 'post card evaluation' asked for a two sentence reflection at the end of each session and participants, facilitators and museum staff were invited to offer feedback. 'Artists statements', carers spontaneous written feedback, leaf gift tag messages and a comments book were also utilised.

Evaluation methods and findings

The MWM indicated an improvement as a group in feeling comfortable, secure and safe, whilst talking to and enjoying the company of other people. The timing of the offering of the questionnaire was important in terms of the outcomes and that there are only small gains with groups with low numbers such as ours which amounted to six participants.

The milieu had an impact upon the group feeling valued and proximity to the art gallery contributed to the self esteem of the group as a whole. There is something to be gained from structured projects as well as a need for the 'peaceful,
creative milieu' that enables participants to mindfully discover their creative process within the studio model. Working towards a joint exhibition offered purpose and actively addressed stigma and equality and diversity agendas. One visitor commented that it was good to see local artists exhibited. further reinforcing participant's identity as 'artist' and as part of the local community.

The project saw a constant commitment participants. Self esteem grew, creative identity discovered and reinforced and personal art process engaged in and reflected upon. People found a voice which was shared at the heart of our city eliciting financial, spoken and written responses from our audience The pilot project is currently being evaluated by CCCU together with Sidney De Haan and I have drafted my own, unpublished report.

Supported using public funding by the Arts Council England