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Sharing Practice

It’s My World

Over the span of the Learning Programmes, 8 years, the Sidney Nolan Trust has been working with children from inner city communities of Birmingham where levels of multiple deprivation are some of the highest in the country. Within the confines of their everyday lives, in which many cultural and economic pressures effect the family, children struggle to thrive emotionally and creatively.

This project centres on children and their place within their family and community. It aims to meet the need of these children and offer them opportunities to find their voice by working creatively with the whole family in the safe, relaxed and friendly environment of The Rodd, where the land and creativity intertwine and where everyday concerns and pressures are set aside. Inspired to express themselves verbally, physically and creatively our aim is that children gain a revitalised and empowered sense of themselves and their place within the family. 

The Rodd is the home of The Sidney Nolan Trust and incorporates Nolan’s last home and studio, a gallery, workshop spaces, agricultural buildings, an organic farm and woodland.

Exploring. Photo: Kate Green

Who got involved:

Partner groups: Through previous projects we have built strong relationships with partner organisations St Basils and Creative Cohesion West Midlands (CCWM). Their remits are to support young people dealing with homelessness; and to enhance cultural relations and address under-representation and accessibility for deprived communities. We worked closely with St Basils and CCWM to identify families who could benefit from taking part in the project. Partner organisations made initial contact with potential participants. We then ran a series of introductory creative workshops to get to know people, tell them about the project and invite them to workshops at The Rodd. 

Participants: Participants include first and second-generation families from Pakistan and Kashmir who have largely lost their connection to the land; young women with babies and toddlers who are homeless and living in temporary accommodation at projects run by St Basils; and families newly arrived from Somalia, Bengal and Romania. 18 young people have taken part from St Basils with 14 children aged from 5 weeks to 2 years old; and 25 adults (around 15 families) from Creative Cohesion West Midlands with 34 children aged from 2 – 16 years old. In total there have been over 90 participants and this has included children with physical disabilities and learning difficulties. Some participants took part in 2 or 3 workshops. 

Creative Professionals: Three artists with previous strong workshop experience and a participatory led approach devised and facilitated creative activities. Each was supported by an assistant artist for whom the project offered career development opportunities.

Our approach:

Participant centred activities:
We invited participants to engage in a range of activities at their own pace and level; they were encouraged to take the lead in activities and share their experiences with the group. Cooking and eating together was a crucially important activity too which allowed participants to take the lead, which they did with great generosity.

Collaborating to support partner organisations: The workshops and visits to the Rodd enabled partner organisations to work to their own remits in supporting participants with emotional and practical issues.   

Research: Research into the impact of the project on participants has taken an holistic and informal approach and has also involved staff and artists (and the bus driver!). Privacy around some of the participants’ names and personal circumstances have remained confidential to maintain their privacy.

Our Venues: In March and April introductory workshops took place in the participants communities in Birmingham: in two St Basils projects - in Hall Green and Acocks Green and at The Saltley Women’s Enterprise Centre. Subsequently, over the spring and summer months, each group has taken part in four day-long workshops at The Rodd  (about 60 miles from Birmingham). 

Cooking outdoors. Photo: Kate Green

Planning and preliminary work: Planning began in November to devise a model for the project; initial meetings with our project partners, commissioning artists and a researcher. In February we all came together to meet, discuss our roles and the projects aims in an informal day at The Rodd. (All those involved experienced the ethos of The Rodd – helping to clear paths in the woodland for the workshops and having a go at a workshop activity). Project partners made contact with potential participants, telling them about the project and inviting them to introductory workshops. They assessed the level of staffing they required and liaised with the Trust on logistics for the workshops. 

The Trust’s director and I worked with the researcher to develop a brief and methodology of working (this is the first time that the Trust had commissioned a piece of research). The researcher liaised with partner groups and artists and attending initial sessions. I worked with the artists, assistant artist and project partners delivering introductory workshops to make links and encourage participants to visit The Rodd for further workshops.

Connecting with Nolans’ work: We involved participants with our current exhibition of Nolan’s spray painted portraits. These works are large, highly colourful and were created with great immediacy. Participants have enjoyed engaging with the works and the artefacts on display that relate to his work at The Rodd. For many it was their first visit to a gallery, having not experienced modern art before. They enjoyed discussing the work and its themes. They were interested in Nolan’s studio and in learning about how he worked.

Creative Mediums: We chose photography and clay as highly accessible mediums which would allow for creative inclusivity and exploration. Our approach with workshop participants has been to encourage involvement with creative processes rather than specific outcomes. This approach has enabled participants to connect to their creativity and the natural surroundings in a profound way. We explored themes of identity, family and cultural heritage.

We decided to focus on photography as it can be such a participatory activity. Photographer Kate Green showed participants how they can use cameras phones, improving their skills and with the advantages of direct access to social media. All enjoyed the chance to discover creative approaches to photography and the excitement of exploring the natural world through the lens. Assistant artist Nushin Hussain has worked closely with participants creating a photographic record of the workshops which will form the basis of a photobook at the end of the project.

In other sessions potter Tony Hall and creative practitioner Emma Bowen introduced mums and dads to the uses and tactile qualities of clay. This medium proved very successful as a way to enable parents to involve their babies and toddlers with creativity. Playing with large balls of clay, water and clay slip for printing and drawing were the standout messy highlights of the sessions! Participants also had the option to work in a variety of other ways that were made available as ‘offshoots’ to the main workshop: drawing, painting; printing and poetry. In this way everyone had the opportunity to explore and make discoveries at their own pace and were supported in their response to thr activity they were most engaged with.

Creative Outcomes: St Basil’s staff felt that parents would like to make keep sakes and we’ve been able to facilitate this. Participants threw pots and carved slip painted tiles with baby’s names and dates of birth, with Mums and Dad’s names, hand decorated and featuring baby hand and foot prints. Plaster of Paris relief moulds were very poignant. Parents loved making colourful spin paintings with their children too.

Women and children with Creative Cohesion really connected with working in clay- making pots and ornaments that connected them back to creative work and education they’d done in Pakistan. They also produced poetry in Urdu – a spontaneous activity that reflected on cultural connections to their homeland and parallels with the landscape at The Rodd. The men taking part tried their hand at painting and drawing – which they had not done before. A print workshop also inspired many of the participants and lots of prints were created in a very short time! Some of these creative outcomes will form an exhibition of participants work at our project symposium on 19 October.

Involvement of partner organisations: Partner organisations played critical roles in the project – without which the Trust would have been unable to reach and engage participants. Both St Basils and Creative Cohesion West Midlands made important commitments of time, professional expertise and a crucial connection to participants. Whilst project funding covered the cost of transport, creative activities, materials and refreshments match funding was provided by both organisations representing staff time required to coordinate the project with participants – promoting workshops, recruiting participants, relevant safeguarding and admin and accompanying participates to the workshops.

Partner groups have been highly instrumental in sharing with the Trust the daily challenges faced by participants, highlighting the importance of uninterrupted family time combined with creative opportunities. Alongside the workshop programme they have done specific and relevant work with participants that reflect the aims of their organisations including family and community cohesion, championing the voice of children and improving life skills and employment opportunities.

Our researcher Karamat brought an important addition to our understanding of the impact of the project on families from Pakistan and Kashmir. With his own cultural connection to Pakistan he came with a wide contextual understanding and was able to connect closely to participants’ experiences.

Looking forward: We’ll be following up with some of the participants to find out about the longer term impact of taking part in the project and to involve participants in the symposium by sharing their experiences and the changes they’ve noticed to their attitudes and aspirations. We’ll be discussing future projects with both St Basils and Creative Cohesion West Midlands and funders in order to build on the important relationships we have fostered.

The symposium on 19 October will share our research on the projects’ impact with the arts, education sectors and with local authorities regionally. Importantly we’ll be inviting some of our participants to share their perspectives too. Our research document will be available to download (contact kate@sidneynolantrust.org).

Outcomes: Learning has been extensive, and we are still reflecting on its breadth and impact. Participants tell us that they have learnt many practical skills involved in pottery, photography, drawing, painting and printing workshops. They have learned about wildlife, organic farming methods and changes in the seasons. Parents have been able to give their children the freedom to roam and play in ways that rarely happen in their city live; children have learned to become more resilient to new encounters learning that mud can be rubbed off, gates can be climbed without fear of falling and that a nettle sting soon fades. Participants have been able to take creative risks and make their own creative decisions. Their connection with creativity and the natural world has deepened and so too their experience of encountering art work. Very importantly and heartening for us participants have told us they’ve learned to value themselves and their families in new, more positive ways. For some participants the experience has signalled a turning point in their lives

As staff and partners, we’ve learnt to allow time to acknowledge and respond to the expectations, needs and limitations of ourselves and partner groups; to have open and honest discussions in order to reach positive resolutions to problems; and to pool our skills and resources to achieve the project’s aims. We have also learnt that a co-produced project produces far more relevant and rewarding outcomes due to its considered and evolving nature; when forward planning keep workshop ideas simple and versatile. The team of creative practitioners have built on their already fluid, responsive and participant led approach to focus on broad beneficial outcomes.  

Specific learning benefits and outcomes:
• Participants with their origins in Pakistan and Kashmir have, by spending time in our peaceful rural location, have reconnected to their homelands and traditions;
• Parents have learnt to empower their children creatively by appreciating the social and personal value of creativity;
• Children have experienced the excitement and personal reward of connecting to their creative selves and to nature.
• Parents have learnt through the actions of their children and have said how their lives have taken on new value.
• Children have greatly enjoyed the freedom to play and create in wide open spaces that are safe, welcoming and inspiring.
• For mums from St Basils with very young babies making the decision to come to The Rodd proved to be a major benefit to their self-confidence - a two hour journey to unfamiliar surroundings and new people is a huge undertaking for these women. Time to bond with their babies in a new environment – where the babies could get messy, spend time outside and in nature, try new foods, go to others for cuddles, were new and valuable experiences for the mums. In addition, all that they have learned contributes to their life skills course which St Basils offer to all its young people.
• Children with autism and other learning difficulties have particularly benefitted from the freedom here and our inclusive approach to activities.

(Left to right) New experiences. Photo: Nushin Hussain / In the gallery. Photo: Kate Green / Spin Painting. Photo: Tottie Aarvold

Organisational flexibility or change: our approach has always been one of flexibility towards group activities and workshops but this project has caused the Trust to focus on the type of activity, how it’s delivered and how we engage with participants to make workshop content accessible, relevant, and rewarding to families who have had little or no exposure to art, artists, creative workshops and processes OR to the British countryside and its way of life. In these respects it has been a significant journey for all concerned.

In order to work meaningfully with these marginalised groups we have learnt to make a lot of time to listen; to reflect and shape our workshops sensitively. We have also developed our ability to respond to the inclinations and interests of the participants, allowing them to share their discovery of new talents and skills or maybe even their re-discovery of old ones. In doing so all can use creativity to develop their voice, and to share with others their thoughts, ideas, aspirations and sense of identity. The response to this process by the participants is one of warm appreciation and of being wholly welcomed and not judged.

The challenge for the Trust is to collaborate with other organisations to embed these ideas into our practice and to convince potential funders of the value of outcomes that sometimes cannot be predicted but that can be so much more influential because of the element of personal discovery. Hopefully we can work to bring about positive change in all of our daily lives.

Monitoring / evaluation process: for the first time the Trust has commissioned a piece of research which will measure the impact of our work. Our researcher Karamat Iqbal of the Forward Partnership  took part in four of the workshops, informally interviewing participants and speaking to staff and artists involved outside of the workshops too. The research will result in a report and will shape the focus of the symposium event in October but has also helped during the project as additional feedback and evaluation. Our own evaluation has included verbal and written feedback from participants partner  staff and artist during the sessions; follow up conversations between partner organisations and participants where key facts have been shared; a photographic record of the project will also contribute to our evaluation. Regular reports are sent to our funders the Ragdoll Foundation.

Kate Morgan-Clare
Learning Programmer Co-ordinator
Sidney Nolan Trust


Further details of the It's My World project symposium available here

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