Making Right- Art and Occupational Justice

Christine and I settled into our seats, the recording light went on and as I leaned into the mic to ask my first question Christine turned the tables.  “Actually, I’d like to ask you how you first got involved in START.”

START in the Cultural Democracy project

We were there to have a chat about ‘Cultural Democracy’ for a documentary and were both representing START, a charity in Salford, England, that uses creative arts to enable recovery in mental health. I was a staff member and Christine was a freelance tutor, having been a volunteer and a participant at START. Christine was right – we were there to discuss cultural democracy – and yet I had assumed I should ask the first question, when it’s really about having a conversation between equals. Cultural Democracy is not a new concept and it aligns well withOccupational Justice. It focuses on creativity as a right: that all citizens should have access to doing and making. Central to cultural democracy is that culture is broader than the ‘official’ version hanging in the national galleries. Everyone is creative and is so in a multitude of ways: gardening, cooking, DIY, knitting, mending, etc.  Often, people can feel alienated from the art world. I’ve had many a conversation with new members at START who feel fearful that they haven’t picked up a pencil since school yet can build a beautiful bench or sew a bag in 30 mins. Recognising the creativity, skill and talent in that bench or bag expands the art world into something more inclusive and fosters a sense of belonging.  

START, alongside similar arts organisations across the world (including Creativity Works, who was the guest in December’s Do What You Love podcast), provide a space for people to bring their own creativity, to express themselves in a safe social environment, and to reach their potential. Including doing, being, belonging, and becoming. Providing a range of creative arts activities is key: ensuring the activities are relevant whilst also inspiring curiosity. As OTs we know an activity needs to hold meaning for someone for it to enhance wellbeing. Providing a range of creative arts enables people to choose something that speaks to them and allows them to express themselves in the visual language they prefer. 

I witnessed this in the sessions we facilitated in homeless shelters and refugee charities. Participants came with great creative skills honed from a range of experiences in their previous countries – making and repairing clothes, being an architect, or signwriter. The sessions developed according to participants’ interests and talents. Sometimes using them a different way:  the textile group used their practical – and amazing – sewing skills to create a collaborative quilt,  the ceramic workers used styles of mark making from their own cultures, and the signwriter loved the calligraphy sessions. This led to a sharing of expertise between everyone at that trestle table in the community hall, a flattening of the hierarchy that provided an equal space for all forms of craft and art. It is important here to note that there is a potential “dark side” to people’s creative experiences. That people who have produced art may feel alienated from it if they aren’t able to do their preferred artform in the same way, e.g. after an injury, or no longer have access to practising it – such as the architect.  I always think of the gentleman in the Care of the Elderly ward who declined the movement session because he used to dance competitively with his wife and now, his balance was limited, and his wife was in another ward downstairs. Sometimes participating can highlight a painful absence. It’s also worth mentioning that making isn’t always health-promoting, especially if it becomes all-consuming. That aside though, I’ve overwhelmingly had the privilege of seeing the positive transformation that participation in creative activities can bring about.  

Involvement of participants is crucial for creating accessible opportunities – from designing sessions together, as above, to participants having the opportunity to become volunteers and  artist tutors who then teach some of the creative sessions. START’s arts on prescription programme creates pathways into further opportunity in the local area which not only transforms individual lives, but also enables social transformation. 

During COVID, everyday creativity seems to have become more visible. People have discovered old and new interests, many of them creative. In the UK, Grayson’s Art Club was very popular and focused on active participation from members of the public, celebrities, and professional artists: giving equal weighting to each during the programme. All have been exhibited at Manchester Art Gallery (installed but sadly not opened due to Manchester having experienced increased restrictions) and the ‘Exhibited Artists’ signage lists everyone in equal, alphabetical order. It has celebrated and recognised the artworks made by people who are not usually in the spotlight. The work has been diverse and has been made for a variety of reasons. All of which can boost our wellbeing: to feel connected to places we couldn’t go, to play, to see things differently, to learn, to give something back, to celebrate people we admire, and to express ourselves.   

Making and creating can help us connect – with each other, the world around us and with ourselves. It’s as essential to us as eating and sleeping; after all, we’ve been making marks since someone in a cave put their hand on the wall and sprayed paint around it. We should all have the right to make art.

Author: Rachel Jones, Occupational Therapist

START website: www.startinspiringminds.org.uk

Cultural Democracy film: https://youtu.be/A1kCZImD1Jk

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