Leisa Gray, Community Development Manager for Manchester Art Gallery writes…
Say it with was an arts and well-being course with the theme of Flowers. It ran for 12 weekly sessions and involved participants from Start Manchester (part of Manchester Mental Health and Social Care Trust) and Out in the City (an LGBT support group for older adults run by Age Concern).
Paintings and ceramic tiles from Manchester Art Gallery’s collection were used for inspiration and the group took part in 2 sessions at Manchester Museum’s Herbarium, where they looked at botanical specimens and spoke with the Curator of Botany about the medicinal properties of flowers.
Whilst at the Herbarium people worked with a visual artist, who led them in drawing and painting activities, using the collections as the basis for still life studies. They also worked with a poet who helped people write their own poems in response to collections, using a variety of poetry techniques, one of which involved using botany books at the Herbarium to “steal” bits of text and then re-work it.
The Occupational Therapist from Start was involved and led participants in “mindfulness” exercises that helped them to really look at plants and flowers. I think this practice relates well to museum and gallery collections which can draw people in to focus on one object or exhibit. Practising noticing or “seeing the world anew” is something that is recognised as beneficial to mental wellbeing (is listed as one of the NEF’s 5 ways to wellbeing) and I think those of us working with collections could make more of this idea when working with health partners.
There was a lot packed in to Say it with, which at times was challenging for participants and facilitators, but overall the diversity of techniques, plus the different venues seemed to contribute to people’s overall experience and enjoyment of it. Participants loved visiting the Herbarium and talked about it with a sense of privilege as though they were being given access to a secret world.
The decision to create a mixed group of mental health service users and non-mental health service users was a deliberate attempt to offer an art course that was also a social opportunity, particularly for those who might feel anxious in social situations. Start feel this approach can help their students move from the healthcare setting towards mainstream opportunities and overcome fears around meeting and interacting with new people. For the Gallery working in this way represented an opportunity to offer an in-depth learning experience to a wider audience.
Everyone made a ceramic plaque featuring an impressed flower image alongside a poem about that flower. These artworks directly referenced the pressed pages of botanical specimens that people had seen at the Herbarium. They were displayed as one installation at the gallery. Working towards a display of work helped unite the group and for some it created a “positive pressure”. Those involved gained an understanding of the artistic process, seeing ideas explored, developed and captured as a tangible finished product. This helped people develop skills, but also gave insight into the idea that working at something, stage by stage, makes transformation possible. This understanding is in itself a skill that can be made use of in other areas of life.
The Warwick – Edinburgh Mental Well-being Scale (WEMWBS)6, which is used for assessing positive mental health was used at the start and at the end of the course. 10 out of 12 participants completed both and comparing their average scores showed a 16% improvement in well-being.
Say it with left participants feeling they had achieved something positive and had been invested in. It helped them feel more at home in the gallery, gave them a range of transferable skills and expanded their social horizons. It encouraged people to connect with others, keep learning and take notice of the world around them. It provides a positive example of how culture and creativity can enrich lives; help people feel good and less socially marginalised.
“I felt energised by being in good company.”
“My confidence and self esteem have improved and I’m proud of what we’ve done.”
“I now can appreciate a little more how intricate the process of getting to a finished product is. I hadn’t realised how much patience I possessed!”
“We’ve been given some extraordinary opportunities to experiment with a wide range of techniques and ideas.”
“I know I look at plants differently now.”
“I intend to do more creative writing and visit more art venues and look at art in a different way.”
– participant comments