Celebrating Excellence in Creative Arts

Continuing a series of features celebrating 2022’s winners, CMM sought further insight into the motivations of the Creative Arts Award recipient, Where the Arts Belong, from Belong and Bluecoat. In this edition, Alan Dunn, an artist who creates artwork for the programme using sound and digital images, shares his experience of its lasting impact on residents.

Belong and Bluecoat wowed the judges with its infectious positivity, enthusiasm and strong links to the community. Where the Arts Belong has successfully harnessed the power of the arts to empower and reintegrate previously isolated individuals, especially people living with dementia.

Beginnings

We began with a series of residencies in Belong Village Crewe in early 2019, placing five artists within the village to develop a programme of experimental interactions. A big strength of this approach was its simultaneous multi-disciplinary nature.

At any moment in the village, artist Brigitte Jurack could be sitting silently with residents, their families and our Belong colleagues making shared Palissy plates in clay by observing some of the strong-smelling crabs brought in by Brigitte, while Mary Prestidge and Philip Jeck work with slow movement and looped sounds and Roger Hill explores different time slots (e.g. evenings in the villages) to develop storytelling artefacts.

This model of different presences enabled me as one of the artists to operate a little more reactively to begin with, spending informal time in Crewe, chatting or joining in quizzes and dominos, gradually allowing ideas to form and be informed by the stories of those we met. I work primarily with sound recording and became interested in activities for which the act of remembering or forgetting becomes irrelevant. I am very much inspired by David Clegg’s ‘Trebus Project’ and the LP created with the help of people living with dementia.

Lockdown

As COVID-19 hit the care sector hard, we were truly humbled by Belong’s ongoing commitment to the project, and we adapted quickly to devise and deliver two online strands called ‘Belong At Home’ and ‘We Belong Together’. The former worked with one colleague at a time in a resident’s own home and the latter helped to broadcast us into villages using Zoom to work with bubbles of household tenants – those living within the village but with a degree of independence.

The We Belong Together phase emerged from a short notice request from the Department of Culture, Media and Sport to devise urgent activity to combat loneliness and isolation during the height of lockdown. Turning again to storytelling, mosaics, ceramics and sound, we were able to adjust our approaches, partly informed by our own experiences of shifting to online teaching at Manchester School of Art (Jurack) and Leeds Beckett University (myself).

Before each phase, we undertook dementia awareness training and reciprocated by designing some arts awareness training for Belong as well as developing publications and toolkits based on our learning. During this training, we got to know some of our incredible Belong colleagues and experience first-hand the pressures they are under but also the genuine bonds they form with residents. One of the most pleasing feedback comments has been that some of our creative sessions opened up new talents and traits within residents that gave greater insight into how to maintain their quality of life.

New voices

My own experience of We Belong Together is genuinely staggering. Working every week with groups who are encountering isolation in their villages, we set up a sort of orchestra that used only household items and the occasional purchase (metal dog bowls and megaphones) to create soundscapes that take us away from the here and now.

We chat about sound and silence (we watch John Cage and Vegetable Orchestra videos), how we hear and how to help those who struggle to hear. The hard surfaces of large rooms, the poor speakers on the Facebook portals, the occasional delay in transmissions and the social distancing are all challenges but ones we turn on their heads into positives.

At times, we begin with tongue twisters to get everyone making sounds and enjoying language and the breaking down of communication. Weak internet connection at times leads to misheard words, greatly adding to the enjoyment. One group decided to create a noisy train journey in sound, travelling all the way from Macclesfield or Warrington to Venice for an ice cream (cue an impromptu rendition of ‘Just One Cornetto’) and another group chose the beach as their soundtrack theme.

Before long, their room was decked out in inflatable sharks, seashells, sun cream and even our colleagues wore bikinis (over their uniforms). Sat at the table, they helped us create quite left-field soundtracks of donkey noises, ice cream vans, rollercoaster screams and possibly the best tongue-twister any of has ever heard, ‘Yacht sails flapping gently in the warm air!’

The serious side to this, as evidenced by Brigitte bringing in the fresh seafood to model from, is to trigger all the senses, including smell, as part of the creative process. Some of these moments, from Belong at Home, are captured on the ‘Conversations LP’ I compile – moments of humanity, hilarity and communication across divides but somehow very natural. As artists, we also want to develop through such projects and, for me, it has been the very simple decision to, for the very first time, leave my own voice in the three-way recordings between myself, a colleague from Belong and a resident.

Futures

We commenced Where the Arts Belong wishing to make contemporary art much more central to future Belong villages, similar to how Brian Eno describes sound more like an aroma in a space rather than a timetabled activity. We are introducing arts awareness training for new staff and are planning to purchase improved hardware that will, for example, make the viewing and listening to online sessions or digital art much more pleasurable for those with sensory challenges.

We also wish to showcase our findings and artefacts in professional and policy-changing contexts and the ‘Making Sense (Of It All)’ exhibition at the Bluecoat (March-June 2022) is an excellent example of opening up our research to the wider public, to be followed by a national symposium later this year.

Alongside anecdotal and exhibited evidence, our project is being evaluated and monitored by Liverpool John Moores University, particularly in relation to DEMQOL (quality-of-life assessment in dementia), the large data collected by our Belong colleagues on customised hand-held devices and for Arts Council England using the ‘most significant change’ method of evaluation.

In summary, we cannot underestimate the fact that both management and our on-the-ground Belong colleagues stuck with us throughout COVID-19. In fact, our collaboration takes on an even more valuable quality in relation to a world that no longer makes sense. The creation of mosaics by hand, stories from our senses, tongue twisters and recordings from what is close at hand becomes a form of social prescribing as we all try to cling on to a future.


Alan Dunn is an artist contributing to Where the Arts Belong, by Belong and Bluecoat. Email: alandunn44@gmail.com Twitter: @alandunn67


@3rdSectorCare and #3rdSectorCareAwards

The Markel UK 3rd Sector Care Awards is run specifically for the voluntary care and support sector. Visit www.3rdsectorcareawards.co.uk to view the 2022 event winners and find out more about next year’s event. Sponsorship opportunities are available.

With thanks to our sponsors: National Care Forum, Learning Disability England, The Care Provider Alliance, Association of Mental Health Providears and VODG.

The Creative Arts Award was kindly sponsored by Five on a Bike.

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