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Claire Flahavan works as an art therapist in St Louise’s Unit at Children’s Health Ireland (CHI) Crumlin. St Louise’s Unit provides an assessment and therapy service for young people who have experienced sexual abuse or sexual assault. Here, Claire reflects on her experience of Sidestep, an Arts in Health project for staff within the Unit at the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic. Sidestep was facilitated by artist Emma Finucane, who has been collaborating with the Unit to mark the future transition of the service to a new location within CHI at Tallaght. The project culminated in the publication of a book.

A view from within: An Arts in Health project for hospital staff during Covid-19

In 2018, I visited a land-art installation by artist James Turrell in West Cork. His ‘Sky Garden’ at Liss Ard Estate is a giant earth-and-stone crater, embedded in the undulating landscape of the estate grounds. The visitor is invited to step into a dark subterranean passage that journeys through the built-up outer structure of the crater. A steep set of steps then leads up, up and finally out of the passage – blinking – into the light, and into the capacious, oval-shaped bowl of the installation’s interior. Very little sound penetrates from outside, and the shaping of the crater is such that it frames a perfect view of sky, without impingement. A stone plinth at the centre offers a resting place from which to observe the cloudscape overhead, contained by the crater’s edge. One has an impression of a world emptied out – silenced, and of an altered sense of physical space and place.

A year after my visit to the Sky Garden, our Arts in Health project at St Louise’s began with discussions around space and place in late 2019, in the context of planning for our future move to a new ‘home’ in Tallaght. We found ourselves thinking about the meaning of the physical space of the Unit, and the ways in which it provides a certain stable consistency for clients and staff alike. An essential kind of ‘holding’ is provided by the familiar environment, encompassing everything from the reception to the waiting areas, and the walk along the corridors to and from the therapy rooms. Turrell’s Sky Garden came to mind for me during these early conversations about ‘the move’: that sense of journeying through an uncertain passage between one space and another, to emerge into something new and surprising.

We hoped to collectively mark this important transition for the service via a series of creative interventions for service users and staff, facilitated by artist Emma Finucane. With the onset of Covid-19 however, and the introduction of a national lockdown and social distancing, our everyday sense of space and place became profoundly disrupted, in a most unexpected way. Due to restrictions on face-to-face contact, much of our clinical work was decanted temporarily out of the hospital into our home environments. Significant shifts in practice were required, as we adjusted to supporting families remotely, against a societal backdrop of uncertainty and anxiety. There was a sense of dislocation as we found ourselves navigating team meetings and therapeutic work online. We were acutely conscious too of the demands of lockdown on families attending us, and referrals to the service subsequently surged over the course of the pandemic.

Given the limitations on direct contact with service users, we shifted the focus of our Arts in Health project to the idea of a ‘virtual creative space’ for interested staff members. It was hoped that this might support staff (to support others), during this unprecedented period of professional and personal strain. I wondered if we could find our way into a different kind of conversation about the impact of Covid-19, mediated through images and image-making rather than words. As a group of clinicians working in the area of child sexual abuse and assault, we are immersed daily in the endeavour to language what is often difficult and painful to name or speak aloud. What would it be like for us to shift mode, into a different way of communicating or ‘being with’?


Emerging: James Turrell’s ‘Sky Garden’ at Liss Ard Estate. Image credit: Claire Flahavan.

Over a four-month period, the Sidestep group moved into a unique virtual space together, a space shaped sensitively and with care by artist Emma Finucane. Staff were individually supported to find a direction for image-making, and then came together for periodic online meetings, to share work in progress. These meetings became a focus for conversation, reflection and togetherness during the first extended period of national lockdown: a time when our streets emptied out, our days were vacated of all but the most necessary contacts, and time seemed to stretch and flow strangely. The Sidestep meetings became a fixed and steady point in otherwise featureless weeks, and it was a joy to see our online ‘classroom’ space become populated with images.

The work that emerged captured many facets of life within this altered time: quietly observed moments in nature and cityscapes, family projects, and the endeavour to sustain therapeutic relationships within a changed work context. The following images caught the imagination of the group and were subsequently published as a book:

skies heavy with clouds – ominous and filled with portent at a time of global crisis

moments of light and shade, music and movement harvested during a period of ‘cocooning’, flickering in a cinematic interweave

reflections in water – still, mysterious and jewel-green like a Patrick Kavanagh poem

a handmade book to house and hold stories as fragile as moth-wings

the creation of a garden across lockdown: the labour of clearing back, careful tending, and subsequent ‘greening over’ of meticulously prepared ground… a space for gatherings after the pandemic

a sculptural representation of working from home, conjured from paper mache – the domestic touched by the incursion of what is ordinarily contained at work

painted floral forms – bold concentrations of energy lifted from the lacunae of a work diary

a delicate sculpture spun from gold mesh: container, nest, amulet

playful collage: full of the texture of woodland walks, a backdrop to working from home 

cherry-blossoms – briefly, fleetingly gorgeous then dispersing in a haze of drifting pinks

the staircase in St Louise’s: strangely silent and unpeopled during the early weeks of the pandemic

The group took risks in sharing their work, revealing personal process and metaphor. In doing so a sense of trust and connection was slowly fostered amidst the fragmentation of working remotely. This provided much-needed ballast amidst the demands of responding organisationally and clinically to Covid, so as to meet the needs of our clients. Emma’s gentle facilitation framed and contained the making process, and I thought again of Turrell’s land-art: that sense of stepping into a space that affords a quiet, ‘other’ perspective of the world.

Poet Ocean Vuong speaks to the power and validity of art, even at times of crisis, describing it as a form of ‘concentrated architecture… just wide enough to hold the weight of living’. The images generated by the Sidestep group represent just this kind of architecture: an architecture that offers views from within an altered landscape, a ‘Sky Garden’ of another kind, that encircles and holds the felt experience of working and living through Covid-19.

Reference

Vuong, O. (2014) The weight of our living: on hope, fire escapes, and visible desperation. The Rumpus Newletter. Available at: https://therumpus.net/2014/08/the-weight-of-our-living-on-hope-fire-escapes-and-visible-desperation/ (accessed October 2020).

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Acknowledgements

The Sidestep project was made possible through generous funding from the Children’s Health Foundation and an anonymous donor, to both of whom we are extremely grateful. Sincere thanks to artist Emma Finucane, to Mary Grehan (Arts in Heath Curator, CHI) for her advice, energy and assistance, to Dr Aoife Twohig (Clinical Director, St Louise’s Unit) who set the project in motion and to Dr Antonia O’Keeffe for completing an evaluation.

Biography

Claire has a background in medicine, and worked as a psychiatrist across a range of settings for over 10 years. She has had a long-standing personal interest in art and image-making, and completed an MA in Art Therapy at Crawford College in 2013. Claire subsequently made a decision to work full-time as a therapist, and now holds posts at CHI at Crumlin and at the National Maternity Hospital, Dublin.


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Threshold: James Turrell's ‘Sky Garden’ at Liss Ard Estate. Image credit: Claire Flahavan.

I wondered if we could find our way into a different kind of conversation about the impact of Covid-19, mediated through images and image-making rather than words.


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