This was my first time meeting the 'Explore Your Storyteller' participants and it's safe to say that we were all in the same boat. We were all feeling shy and didn't know what to expect.
It is always incredibly difficult to know where to begin, especially with something as broad as visual arts. How can you know what everyone will like, find exciting or have a feel for without knowing anything about them? So I took on this first workshop as means of discovering more about the participants and not to put too much pressure on them to bring out masterpieces.
When planning the workshops, we agreed to just keep it simple and do an exercise with good old pens, paper and colours. This can feel very frustrating with the vast scope of alternatives, but this initial arts sessions was more about getting to know the women and seeing what they like and pens and paper is really the place to start for all art and design. Art veterans like Sally, I feared, would find the session very simple- probably even stifling. Where as others could find it very alien and daunting.
It was important to me that the women had fun in this session. Not all of them are going to be visual artists in this project. Some will turn out to be performers, some know that their talent lies in music, some will come out a writer. What is important, is that participants do not feel like they can't be artists, simply because we all grow up with the very one-dimensional idea of what art is in our mind.
Quite a few of the participants informed me after the warm up that they'd never done any kind of art before. Often people tell you this, but they are just thinking in the context of drawing, painting and so on but we all grow up trained with that, as my grandma always said, art is just a painting or drawing, on a square or rectangle, on a wall.
Even arts education has this very traditional perspective up to a point. I myself remember years of being told how big our borders should be, how thick your shading should be, life drawing is done like this not that, you should make your work look exactly like this artist etc. When I went on to study art at university level, I still thought those would be the expectations, maybe even on a stricter scale. One of our first tasks was to create a map of the campus. I set about trying desperately to make an accurate map before one of the tutors stopped me and said, hang on, you're just doing a normal map. Why do you think maps have to be like this? Maps can be anything you like! And suddenly I learnt that here, it was about basically creating art that bent all those expectations and that the traditional way of looking at art was frowned up- why it took the education system nineteen years to inform me of this, I have no idea.
When working with people who have never done a drawing before, I try to invoke that mind set I was in that first day in art school and remember how I felt. It was a shock to my system, and as a life-long creative person it felt quite embarrassing (despite being inspiring) that I hadn't thought this way before, that I'd been working in the boundaries of a status quo all this time. With that in mind, I decided that it is best to work in small steps. Out of context and with no build up, being told art is literally anything and everything you want it to be and damn tradition can make people shrink back and feel overwhelmed rather than feel liberating, no matter your age or background.
Back with an earlier Sheba Arts project - Explore Your Drama, we used one particular ice-breaker exercise that not only helped everyone to remember names but also provided inspiration for the ongoing work in 'Dance Away The Spiders'. For our first task we replicated this by simply showing our name through imagery.
For some of the women, this drew a blank, or very basic images like love hearts. Seeing this, I engaged the women in conversation and asked them, how does this word relate to them? 'Loving', how are you a 'loving' person? What do you do that shows love? So the women began to make their imagery more personal, showing friends, acts of kindness, things that they love, showed colours that they resonated with or simply love of colours, love of landscape and open spaces, and so instead of it being a blank meaning, it became a portrait of their personality. A story of themselves.
In the end I found however that some of the women were simply not confident with the task basically because they had never done it before. This was repeated to me many times before, 'I've never done this! I've never done this!' Rather than celebrate how they had succeeded in their task however, some seemed a little dismissive of their accomplishments- a very familiar feeling for anyone I think who has ever taken on visual arts, whether a professional or someone who has never picked up a pencil to draw in their lives.
Encouragement was tantamount. Though some of the participants were not impressed with their accomplishments it was important to really draw their attention to what worked in their drawings. We would pause and all discuss and give feedback, help inspire the participants and push them to be more confident with their simple piece of paper, fill the space, use the colour, don't hold back!
Sally, as predicted, went a whole other way and not only found the session maybe a little limiting, but started drawing before we'd even done the warm up and did her own piece not really related to the task specifically, but demonstrating her capacity for creative thinking and brilliant knack for illustrating emotions and presented a visual rendering of her own story.
Although I found this first session a little rushed and narrow in terms of the medium and initially struggled to bring everyone out of their shell in this workshop, it provided a better insight into the participants and was certainly a learning experience on my part.
We nonetheless accomplished our task and soon, everyone was making conversation and having fun- and even if they were struggling with their piece, they were still laughing.
Guest post by Sophia Gardiner
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Explore Your Storyteller
Explore Your Storyteller is a series of creative workshops taking place in Leigh, Wigan and Bolton working with women from refugee and asylum seeker backgrounds and is supported by the Lottery Community Fund.