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Volcano Days in the Writing Room by Sylvia Cullen

Date posted: 5 May 2021

Image shown: Publications & CD by KTAC Writers Group, edited by Sylvia Cullen.

Writer Sylvia Cullen was awarded an artsandhealth.ie artist bursary in 2020 to reflect on her 14-year creative writing residency at Killagoley Training & Activation Centre (KTAC) in Enniscorthy, a training centre for adults with mental health conditions. Developing an artistic relationship with participants over this many years, a rarity in arts and health practice, has led to compelling insights and a rich body of artistic work, now captured in Sylvia’s audio reflection, Volcano Days in the Writing Room.

The main focus of Sylvia Cullen’s arts and health practice has been facilitating the KTAC creative writing residency from 2006 until 2019. Participants came from Wexford Mental Health Adult Services and were part of the Arts Ability programme, funded by the HSE, the Arts Council and Wexford County Council. Sylvia’s approach is participant-led, providing opportunities to explore various aspects of the writing process and encouraging people along their own individual artistic journey at their own pace.

KTAC is attached to the former psychiatric hospital, St Senan’s. The residency took place during extraordinary changes in the mental health system including the closure of the hospital. In Sylvia’s words, this audio reflection is the ‘untold story of how, despite all the pressures of mental illness, creativity flourished and thrived in the shadow of what used to be called “the Asylum”.’

The Roundy Moon by Anon [extract]

One time I looked through binoculars, up at the roundy moon.
I have a terrible fear of going up in the heavens to see it.
If I crashed or anything, you wouldn’t know where you’d end up.
Maybe in the sea or somewhere on earth.
They say that if you come short of air up there, you’d die.
I’d love it, because it’d be so quiet, just because it’s different.
There’s no houses up on the moon. No animals.
No motor cars or anything like that.
Only flat holes. White or grey colours.

For this reflection, Sylvia concentrates on two strands of her residency: From the Hill of the Wild Berries, the first collection of new writing produced by the KTAC Group and edited by Sylvia, and the journey that some of the participant-writers made in reading their work publicly, which encompassed diverse settings from Wexford Opera House to live local radio.

Following the publication of From the Hill of the Wild Berries, I noticed a sea change taking place within one of my groups. Having previously tackled fairly run-of- the-mill themes such as smoking, sport, schooldays and so on, now the subject matter for their writing was becoming noticeably more personal and more challenging.

Some chose to write about family members, for example a great grandmother who had reared the writer’s father, or a grandfather who had convinced the writer’s mother that he (the writer) would one day be able to walk, despite the doctor’s prognosis to the contrary. Other group members chose to write pieces about death, insomnia, or experiencing a blackout. All of this came about organically. Sometimes a theme was inspired by a poem we were reading; other times the writers just volunteered the subject matter themselves.’

A text-based version of Sylvia’s reflection is available for people with hearing impairments. Please contact Emma at info@artsandhealth.ie if you would like a digital copy.

The artsandhealth.ie 2020 artist bursary was awarded to artists working in arts and health contexts to reflect on their practice. The bursary is funded by the HSE and the Arts Council.

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