Monday 27 April 2020

Culture is a Human Right!

The Arts for Health Partnership Programme, West Cork was first initiated in 2002 by Justine Foster, Programme Manager at West Cork Arts Centre, together with Pat O’Mahony and Shirley O’Shea from the Southern Health Board (HSE) as a pilot project to improve the quality of people's lives in community hospitals. Due to its huge success, it is now operating in eleven healthcare settings all over West Cork in rural Ireland and is also supported by Cork Education and Training Board and Cork County Council. The programme is offered to over 700 older people who reside in community hospitals or attend one of the day care facilities in the area. The main idea, bringing arts and culture to those who are usually deprived of it, is at the heart of the programme. After all, “arts and culture are a human right” says Justine Foster “as everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts” referring to Article 27 of the UN Declaration of Human Rights . A team of professional artists, including visual artists, musicians, poets, deliver the programme, collaborating closely with the healthcare professionals who work in the hospitals and day care centers. Together they are successfully facing the challenge of finding a balance between hospital regulations and creativity. 

In a weekly Podcast, presenter Liz Clark, a musician on the Programme, talks about her role in the programme, the challenges the artists, partners and staff face in delivering the programme, and the benefits and outcomes of the programme for the people who participate. One issue that becomes apparent in the conversations, is the importance of social contact and the time needed to build relationships with the people taking part. Every participant has a unique history and different personal challenges to face. Working together therefore needs trust and reciprocal respect. Only then is the goal of meaningful creative engagement and the opportunity to access lifelong learning achievable. 

But what happens if social contact is not possible any longer? Due to the COVID-19 Pandemic, hospitals are closed to all but essential staff. The daycare centres cannot open at all. Not many of us can imagine what this must mean to older people dependent on the healthcare settings. While most people today have access to the internet, can use video calls to talk to family members or stay in contact via social media, some older people do not have these options and are now facing a time of isolation and loneliness, particularly with poor and unreliable  broadband infrastructure in some parts of rural West Cork. 

The current situation requires a lot of creativity and rethinking by the artists to keep the programme going - and how important that is need hardly be said. Of the first streamed session in Schull Community Hospital Roisin Walsh, Clinical Nurse Manager said, “It was fantastic, enjoyed by one and all including myself. Very hard but you (Liz) make it look easy.” While Liz Clark is able to live stream her music sessions to a small group of residents on a large drop down screen, with residents watching meters apart, creating this much needed celebratory occasion is not always possible. Visual artist Sarah Ruttle describes her approach in facing this challenge, “Similar to the long-distance relationships and communication shared between families who have been separated by long distance of land or sea, the creative exchange, relationship and conversation built through the Arts for Health programme can continue, although in a different way. The significant challenge our healthcare staff and older people are facing at this moment are beyond our understanding. If our work of creative engagement can bring a glimpse of light to those we normally work with in our Community Hospital then it is incredibly important to me to do what I can.”

The artists too are mindful of not bringing an extra workload to the hospital staff and management are taking an extremely well planned approach to the new level of infection control measures put in place. Sarah Ruttle is currently developing a new five week project to connect with the participants of the programme, without being there in person. Along with a series of pre recorded conversational workshops, Sarah is preparing packages for posting to be shared with residents isolating in their rooms, who know Sarah and are missing the sessions. “I count it a privilege to continue to share in a conversation with these participants and committed healthcare staff, for now, at our social distance”, Sarah tells me.  

Like Sarah, the other artists of the Arts for Health programme are developing their own creative solutions to overcome spatial and social distance. One big project that has been rethought in order to enable its delivery despite the COVID-19 regulations was initiated by Tess Leak and Sharon Wooley. They created a postal project called Museum of Song. What was originally planned as an on-site project, inspired by Drimoleague Singing Festival, is now taking place via social media and traditional mail. Sharon and Tess are now sending packages filled with poetry and songs to participants at St. Joseph’s Unit, Bantry General Hospital and Dunmanway, Schull and Skibbereen Community Hospitals and with villagers from Drimoleague.

The participants are encouraged to respond to themes offered by the artists in their parcel. The first theme was ‘The Songs of Our Mothers and Fathers’. Tess and Sharon are eagerly awaiting creative feedback from the participants, which will then be presented on the Arts for Health website. “this project is working out really well, it seems to move to fit each person's ability, a particular skill of Tess...Beauty and culture and connection awaits inside with poems, songs, pictures, beautifully presented with things to open admire and read…. This has created many hours of pondering and discussion in St.Josephs.” describes Sarah Cairns, Activity Director, St. Joseph’s Care of the Elderly Unit, Bantry General Hospital. Awaiting a lift in restrictions is a live outdoor singing performance by Camilla Greshiel hoped to take place in week five of the project, inspired by the singers on the balcony in Italy.

These projects are only a small sample of how creative work is still taking place in healthcare settings despite the restrictions caused by the global pandemic. All these creative solutions to our current situation, that we may well encounter again, gives us hope of overcoming it and emerging stronger from the crisis. To me, it is a comforting thought, that there are people like the artists from the Arts for Health programme, who do everything possible to ensure that older people are not forgotten or deprived of their human right of culture. After all, I hope to be old one day, too. Images taken from the Arts for Health Website

Monday 20 April 2020

Looking through the Eyes of a Child

A child sees and experiences the world from a different perspective. Although this idea is not new to us, comprehending it remains a challenge - and also an opportunity - in the world of art. Beginning with an exhibition by Graham Crowley in 2008, West Cork Art Centre have produced many- what they have titled as - Discovery Boxes created to accompany various exhibitions, offering children and their adult carers a playful approach to the presented artwork. (for more background information on Discovery Box, visit our website

One creator of several Discovery Boxes since the very beginning of the programme, is artist Sarah Ruttle, who has also been commissioned to create the latest box to go with Gabhann Dunne’s exhibition Committed to Falling. Over the years, Sarah has gained a lot of experience on what a child requires in order to engage with art. During the development of the concept of Discovery Box, a child psychologist was consulted in order to learn more about how young children aged between 18 months and 3 years engage in meaningful experiences. With this background knowledge, there’s still the challenge of every exhibition being completely different. Sarah Ruttle’s approach in creating the Discovery Box is to first of all get an impression on where the exhibiting artist is coming from. What are their ideas? What is their message? and how are they conveying this? 
Gabhann Dunne’s latest exhibition at West Cork Arts Centre dealt with extinct plants and birds or those which are non-native and yet naturalised here in West Cork. The paintings raise questions about how nature and all its inhabitants, humans included, face difficult times like the current climate crisis. This beautiful and complex narrative about nature and identity might be challenging for an adult to grasp on first viewing, “but how does this look through the eyes of a child?” is the question Sarah asks herself when creating the Discovery Box. Very young children do not yet comprehend the concept of identity and link it to the presented artwork, rather “they will see the colour, this impressive blue which is so striking within the exhibition. They will see all the different plants and birds in all their shapes, texture and scale,” she says. Working through these aspects of the artist's work, Sarah created a series of tactile and explorative tools for smaller children to engage with this powerful exhibition. Especially for younger children, a sensory experience is of the essence. And we all know the feeling of being in an exhibition, desperately wanting to touch the work presented. Here, Sarah came up with the idea of providing small pieces of oil painted cardboard, for all of Gabhann’s works are painted in oil. Children and their families now have the chance to literally get in touch with the medium and playfully arrange the colourful cardboard pieces, emulating or re-inventing the placement of the artwork, another key feature of this exhibition. 

Small sound boxes with pre-recorded bird songs stimulate the sense of hearing and bring wildlife into the gallery space. Bird’s masks and feathered wings encourage children to become migratory birds themselves. The wings in the box bring the artwork off the static walls, igniting the imagination and enabling children to fly around the exhibition with them, just like the bird on its own journey. 

The colour blue is repeated in a light fabric with bird-shaped holes in it. Families are encouraged to play together, floating the fabric and observing how the light forms moving shadows through the bird silhouettes. This activity connects to the theme of movement of Gabhann Dunne’s painted birds, which give the impression of being photographed in midair. 

For the smaller ones, Sarah found yet another way to engage with the exhibition, drawing attention to the colour co-ordination in a jigsaw. On a blue background colourful birds have to find their place, which gives young children and their families a chance to think about the blocks of colour in the exhibition. All these items and activities create a memorable connection to the artworks shown and the playful engagement  initiates a positive attitude towards art institutions in general.

Like other Discovery Boxes previously, this one was used outside Uillinn as part of a Curiosity Project with Playgroups all around West Cork. Taking items from the Box with them, artists Tess Leak and Sarah Ruttle visited playgroups encouraging the children to engage creatively with birds and nature and thereby get in touch with Gabhann Dunne’s artwork. ‘This part of the work is only made possible with trusted partnerships we have built over time with Cork County Childcare, ETB and HSE,’ explains Programme Manager: Education & Community, Justine Foster. ‘The partnership allows us to deliver a free to access programme that combats the recognised barriers for our rural community in accessing real life artworks and provides a valuable formative experience that reflects positively on the young children's engagement with museums and galleries for life.’

Due to the COVID-19 Pandemic and the current closure of the art centre, the Discovery Box could not be used as long as it would normally have been. During the short period of time the box has been in action, it was a great success nevertheless.
Images by Sarah Ruttle

Monday 6 April 2020

‘Wash your hands!’ says Captain Spock

A meme of Captain Spock telling you to wash your hands, next to the Government’s yellow information sheet on COVID-19 - that is my memory of how the pandemic started to affect the people at Uillinn West Cork Arts Centre. 
At the beginning, everything continued as usual. Workshops took place, meetings were held and exhibitions opened. Of course, everyone respected the new handwashing regulations. They were a reasonable thing to do, and - with Captain Spock’s stern impression as a reminder - hard to forget. Otherwise, there was not much change to be noticed at the Uillinn. But with all this disturbing news from China and Italy flooding the media, people became more careful and  aware of the looming crisis. 

When Taoiseach, Leo Varadka announced closure of all galleries to the public, the doors of Uillinn were duly closed, this was no big surprise. However, the extent of the changes involved, hardly anyone could have imagined; beginning with the cancellation of St. Patrick’s Day parade, cancellation of all the planned public engagements, weekly workshops, Rusty Frog Youth Theatre, Arts for an Active Mind, sessions ceasing on the Arts for Health Programme with closure of Day Centres, redeployment of HSE staff. And of course the closure of the main gallery space showing the recently opened exhibition of William Bock and Gabhann Dunne and all the events associated. 

The global pandemic has hit Uillinns’ arts community right in the heart. After all, it is a place where people come together to live art in all different kinds of ways. It is an integral part of West Cork’s community. “The fact that you can drop in and see a show on the way to the supermarket in the centre of (Skibbereen) town is great. Contemporary, international and local art meets bread and butter! It is an asset to the town and really tries to get people involved.” says artist Mark Beatty. It's inconceivable that this should no longer exist for the time being. 

But there is a silver lining. Fortunately, we live in a time of technical progress, in which social media are an integral part of our everyday life. The big social media platforms have been an incredible asset, helping us all to keep in touch with friends and family. But not only that, it is also an invaluable vehicle to keep things going in the workplace, “The current situation lends itself to screens which is probably why you are writing a blog!” Mark told me, when I asked him about his view of the current situation - and he is absolutely right! But me writing this blog is not the only ball that has started to roll since the closure has been announced. The staff of West Cork Arts Centre have done everything possible to find alternative solutions for the planned programmes, leaning heavily on the opportunities of the world wide web. 

Only a few days after the lockdown, first results of the staff’s hard work could be seen online, with William Bock’s and Gabhann Dunnes’ exhibitions virtual tours, public engagement programmes are transformed into Uillinn Connect with Daily Art Activities for primary school children and parents. The Centre’s website is flourishing, inviting people to rummage and experience a somewhat different view on art. The Arts for Health Programme is undergoing major changes to maintain their creative connect with the older people in long term care, streaming, posting, pre-recording and phoning! Artists on the team; Tess Leak, Sarah Ruttle, and Liz Clark have been working together with Programme Manager, Justine Foster, to find ways to deliver arts projects to the hospitals remotely. “I am currently working with artist Sharon Whooley to create work for a 'Museum of Song Postal Project' which we hope will meaningfully engage with our participants and connect them to us and to other participants in other healthcare settings.This is a creative challenge and one that I am grateful for at present.”, I am told by Tess Leak. Especially in times of this crisis the fear of social isolation is only too present to many people in hospitals or retirement homes.  “As we adjust to isolation from our friends and families” says Sarah Ruttle, “it may only give a small glimpse of what the residents of the hospital are experiencing, so as an artist I hope to aim to reach the participants of the programme with a moment of creativity to make a small difference in their day.” 
The crisis affects us all, every part of our lives - and art can make all the difference! Lying in a hospital, it can help you get through the day. Being forced to stay at home it can be a welcome distraction from your daily routine. For the artists themselves, the situation also has a huge impact. Artist Tess Leak describes that “ this crisis will really make me think about what kind of work I want to create, to understand more deeply what the Arts can contribute to our communities and what is possible in difficult circumstances.” 
Facing all these new difficulties, the pandemic gives us the chance to appreciate the small things that we usually take for granted; reset our priorities. Suddenly, you find yourself making time for the “good stuff”, as Liz Clark puts it, such as “walks with the family, cuddling up together and watching movies. This kind of stuff I was always too busy to do, now I recognise the importance of these simple things.”
So keeping a positive attitude, appreciating the little things and contributing wherever possible, that’s what we can do right now. For everything else, only time can tell.