01 May Interview: ArtatWork during lockdown
To say this is an unusual time is an understatement. COVID-19 and the UK lockdown have had far reaching effects across every industry. The art sector is no different.
The participatory arts sector is reliant on sharing spaces and time together for artistic and personal wellbeing. So what happens when you can’t meet face to face? I have watched the ArtatWork Facebook page with fascination over the past few weeks. They have kept up their project work and I wanted to get in contact with them to find out how.
Tell me about ArtatWork and describe the work you normally do.
We usually run workshops and longer-term funded projects to promote arts and wellbeing projects in the community. We work with families, young people, people with learning difficulties and dementia but predominantly with women with mental health issues. It’s about bringing people together to get creative, share experiences and have fun. We tend to combine arts with walking, heritage or nature as we find that it increases wellbeing even more.
How are you currently delivering your work?
We are using Zoom to continue our currents arts, nature and walking project funded by The National Lottery Community Fund. We also use WhatsApp to keep up this engagement throughout the week with up to 25 women. We share the weeks challenge on both platforms as not everyone is comfortable using Zoom. I do love seeing everyone’ face pop up one by one on a Tuesday morning as they are such good fun and you get to know people after working with them closely for so long. We also try and attend online events together as a group such as The National’s Freida Kahlo ballet and The Assembly House’s online art programme. We also finished the second half of the Arts and Wellbeing training we were delivering with ArtPocket via Zoom.
How did you approach planning sessions?
We realised very early on (from doing family quiz nights!) that structure was important in Zoom meetings with lots of people so we follow a schedule. We do lots of different activities and make sure everyone is included. We generally mute people when one person is speaking but also have some ‘free’ chatting time to as this is such an integral part of the group dynamic. The muting is important as many women struggle with too much noise/sensory information at once. It also means that the person talking to feels listened to, so important in these times. We tried using ‘break out’ rooms but the women didn’t like it as it made them feel anxious that people were having separate conversations so I wouldn’t recommend that. Zoom is good as people can choose to show their face on video or not, they can also use the chatbox instead of talking too which is essential for us as one of our women is mute and usually types to speak anyway. We decided to keep the group closed to existing participants as adding more people would make the current group feel unsafe as well as having it’s own safeguarding issues. It is very important in planning sessions that you don’t put too much pressure on people as they will react very differently to the lockdown. I believe previous trauma can intensify this experience and the expectation that they should be super creative during this time isn’t helpful. Just getting through and surviving this is a big enough challenge. We set creative challenges for the week but break them down into stages that can be done independently. For example going for a walk (outside, around the home or in the garden)and taking photos with a colour in mind could be the first step and people could leave it there.
When did you decide you were going to continue your delivery from a distance?
We decided from the beginning to continue this group as it is really important for the women involved. Mental health issues are difficult enough during normal times but can be hugely exaggerated during this period , for example OCD, anxiety and depression. We went to a visit to the Sainsbury Centre on our last session together instead of meeting in a fairly small room to reduce risk and to gather inspiration for the time ahead.
How are you finding working as a team/with outside facilitators at this time?
I do miss working face to face with Melanie,Janine and our volunteers as it is more fun and communication is easier but we are managing well. We used to have our meetings whilst walking or in the gym and that’s hard to replace virtually!
Have you found any positives from working this way?
We have also had artists come in each week to share their practice with the group which has been really inspiring. It is also pushing us to find more creative ways of working and to develop our practice because of the limitations. Having more time, in general, has been good for this. I am also finding that developing the sessions is good for my own wellbeing because it encourages me to be more mindful during my own walks rather than seeing them as just exercise. I think I have also been more open with the group when I am having a challenging day because this is tough for everyone and by not sharing that experience you run the risk of ‘othering’ people. It has really made me reevaluate the traditional participant/facilitator relationship and how we can really help people in these challenging times whilst maintaining some necessary boundaries.
What are the difficulties?
Keeping an organisation running without getting paid and the impact that can have on your own wellbeing! We are running our organisation voluntarily as we have missed out on so much paid events work.
Do you have any advice for other organisations looking for a way to connect with their participants in this way?
Just to adapt it to their participant’s needs and to keep checking in to how it feels. It’s not a perfect way to interact but you need to make the best of it.
Do you have anything you would like to add?
Looking after your own wellbeing is really important when you are looking after others. This is true now more than ever. For me that means walking everyday, eating well, finding time to be creative, getting out in my garden and being more compassionate with myself.
Here is what the lovely Alison says about the Zoom group which is sums it up nicely. ‘Zoom has allowed me touch with whom I call my ‘second family’. We can laugh, cry and create, having everyone’s face appear is so much better than a phone call, also it is wonderful we have a piece of homework each week if we choose to do it and also the extra of seeing other artists we would not get to see if the group was on’.
It is so fascinating to hear about how people are continuing their work during their time. Thank you so much to Holly and Melanie for talking to me and sharing some photos of the work their participants have created during their sessions.
Website – https://www.artatwork.co.uk/
Facebook – https://www.facebook.com/ArtatWorkNorwich
If you are continuing your work at this time and need support then please do get in contact.