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Symposium:  A Vision for the Arts & Healing

Transcript of Peter Watkin’s Talk “A Vision for the Arts and Healing”

Please sit quietly while you wait for the session to start.  I’d like you to take an A4 sheet notice its proportions, its boundaries, its whiteness, its emptiness; all that it offers to the imagination.

Now allow your mind/ your imagination to conjure up an image of your own creativity. Ask yourself if I could represent my creativity in some way what would it look like? Don’t try think it out too much just accept what comes into your mind when you ask yourself that question. It might be images, it might be words, take a few minutes to allow something to come to you, then draw or write or shape/sculpt (using the A4 sheet) your image. There are crayons / felt tips on the table.  Do this as freely as you can, don’t be concerned about it being a ‘good’ drawing.     

What I want to do in this session is to try & explore a little what we are doing at Inside Out – what this work is really about, work we’ve been doing for the last 16 years, and to then finally to say a little my own vision for Arts & Mental Health & more specifically for Inside Out Community as we go forward.

At Inside Out our invitation – and it is always an invitation, is to join us in an exploration of your own creativity, whether you think you are creative or not. To do that through participating week on week (regularity is important to outcome) in a workshop programme involving different art forms. We believe that learning about our creativity, how it expresses itself and grows, will lead to the development of a more creative life that can be healing; that can help heal the wounds & sorrows of life and allow us to be in the world in positive ways. That’s a big claim but that’s what we believe and have witnessed in the changes that have taken place in the lives of people who have joined the programme over the years.

From our early days we have had as our motto we believe in the power of the creative process to strengthen the spirit.  We want people to feel inspired through the process of making art, but not just in making art but in their lives generally. To feel somehow that through the flow of creative energy life can be lived more fully & boldly.

Our aspiration is to create a culture at Inside Out where creativity can flourish. To this end our culture has three foundational values: empathic encounter; creative engagement & personal (& creative) validation. It is these ways of relating that help a safe space to develop in which people can be (more of) themselves and explore & express their creativity. There is always risk taking involved in being ourselves and in being creative too, so we need to feel safe.

Two great quotes:

Take a risk, launch yourself and discover you have wings. Maya Angelou  

If I discover I can dance I will dance the more, and the more my life will become a dance. Merce Cunningham

You could paraphrase dance as song, writing, or art.

The invitation is to something else too – it is to become part of a creative community. We believe that being part of this community can be nourishing & sustaining creatively & emotionally. Although a lot of art making is a solitary occupation you find most artists have someone or some others with whom they share their artistic journey & who contribute to their individual creative development. Inside Out is or aspires to be a creative community that people may feel strongly or loosely affiliated too & while the healing mainly comes about through the process of making of art, it is not all about the art, being part of a creative community can be therapeutic too. We all have strong needs for belonging & for meaning in our lives – an artistic community can offer both.

Our young adult group is called Making Your Mark – in reality every  group we run could be called Making your Mark – we all have a strong need to ‘make our mark’ in this one life, one way or another & that can be through the creative act. Think of the cave handprints of Neolithic man which say boldly ‘I was here’.

Ask yourself:

  1. What helps/ encourages/ supports my creativity & what discourages, hinders my creativity.
  1. In what ways are the arts important to my well -being/ to living well, either as an active creator/participant in the arts and/or as a passive ‘enjoyer’ of the arts?

A vision for the future

I started my working life in mental health care in the 1960’s. It was a time of radical social change in psychiatry. Mental Hospitals as they were then called were moving from being closed, total institutions providing custodial care, to places of healing through what was called social therapy. The most developed manifestation of this was the therapeutic community. Therapy was by the hospital/ward community; people participated in their own treatment & the treatment of others through formal & informal groups. Help in the understanding and resolution of mental health issues/ personal distress came from the community as a whole (it was beginning of the term expert by experience). Staff – nurses, doctors, occupational therapists, were part of the community in which there was a flattening of the hierarchical pyramid in a real attempt to share power, decision making and expertise. The culture – rather than being oppressive, created a social environment in which people felt empowered.

My vision for arts & mental health or shall we use the broader term arts and wellbeing is for Inside Out Community to encompass the philosophy of the therapeutic community putting making art is at its centre. Does such a concept exist in the arts for health arena? Yes it does. There is an organisation called Studio Upstairs which is based in London (Hackney) & Bristol. What they have is a studio base where artists -& I’m using that term inclusively, so there is a real blurring of roles & status between a professional resident artists & the participant artist – both use the studio to work & develop creatively. Participant artists book session space once or twice a week (max 8 people per session) What is explicit is that they come to work creatively – with some support from the resident artists, volunteer & other participants, as a way of exploring not only their creativity but also to discover how the arts can work for them in relation to their emotional well-being. They work on personal projects, there is no set theme or art form prescribed, but there can be inspirational guidance & technical support.  What they learn is how art can be a vehicle for emotional/psychological/spiritual expression; about the way that art making speaks to them & to others; about how art making can lift us out of ourselves & return us to ourselves in a slightly changed way. That is the transcendent nature of art. Each of us has the seed of healing within in us we know what we need to be well but we’ve lost the art of listening to our deeper self, to our inner wisdom. Art helps us reconnect with that deeper wisdom. This is art at its most expressive; it is allowing ourselves the freedom to paint what we need to paint, write what we need to write.  The important thing is that the image is out there & it communicates something at what ever level that might be, just as the image of your own creativity created at the beginning of the session is out there and if it is significant will call to you.

At Studio Upstairs people work together for a session then come together for tea & reflection on a morning’s work – that is the part of there community rules. This is not an analysis of images people create, it’s more a personal reflection, a reflection of what resonances an image or colour has for everyone there (or a song, or a piece of writing). Sometimes a lot is said sometimes nothing much is said.

Over the years there have been many anecdotal healing statements made by people who have been part of Inside Out:

I’ve found my energy here I’d lost it I had no energy for life but I’ve found it here in the art. I feel more alive somehow

I haven’t smiled for a long time, not really, not a smile that goes all the way through me (After a singing session)

Often I feel like shit inside but then I paint something like this that comes from the Inside of me, so I can’t be all bad can I.

I realise that what I write helps me make sense of what is confusing about life.  

Beyond that participating artists are explicitly part of a dispersed community of artists who meet through shared workshops & talks, through shared exhibitions & through online forums & newsletters.

There are elements of all this in Inside Out as it is today, a creative community whose vision is providing opportunities for healing through art. If we were able to move further towards being a therapeutic arts community we would maximise opportunities for living well through the arts.

Copyright \Peter N. Watkins 2019

To contact Peter regarding this transcript email peter.n.watkins@gmail.com





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