Arts and health practice often involves engaging with people who are far from home and familiar spaces: encounters by the hospital bedside, in a communal room with others we have never have met, or increasingly in the virtual realm where we try to read each other across a screen of faces. How does an artist create a sense of space and place, of warmth and trust, in unfamiliar territory? How might objects and materials foster a sense of intimacy and connection? These lines of inquiry shape Ciara Harrison’s reflection on her participatory practice, funded by the artsandhealth.ie 2021 artist bursary.
Visual artist Ciara Harrison has been working in the area of participatory arts and health since 2017, when she was awarded an artist residency with Waterford Healing Arts Trust at University Hospital Waterford. She engaged with short-term and long-stay patients in the hospital as well as healthcare staff and the wider hospital community. The residency gave Ciara the opportunity to develop skills in participation, facilitation, partnership building, outreach, access and reflection within an arts and health context, together with a greater understanding of the nuances and complexities of working creatively in a healthcare setting.
Since her residency, Ciara has collaborated with children, young adults, older people and vulnerable adults in different settings and with a variety of organisations including Helium Arts, Age & Opportunity and Children’s Health Ireland. She is interested in creating encounters where tea, biscuits, play, craft and other domestic processes act as prompts for collaborative curiosity, conversations and exchanges of ideas.
The healthcare setting contains all sorts of variables and unknowns, elements outside of an artist’s or a participant’s control. How do an artist and participant enter this unfamiliar space and create parity, trust, warmth, curiosity, conversation? Drawing on over four years of practice employing collaborative and participative methodologies, Material Language is a beautifully crafted visual essay charting the complexities and nuances of fostering safe spaces with participants.
The visual examples from Ciara’s participatory projects and accompanying handwritten notes build an intimate narrative: the drawing of a long-stay hospital patient is embroidered by Ciara on calico fabric as they converse and listen to music, that same work inspiring another patient to create a needle work of their own; fabric flowers created by hospital workers, patients and the local community are distributed on food trays by catering staff who become in the process their temporary custodians. These are careful encounters, this is art as a caring practice.
Objects and personal affects become anchoring tools, begetting stories, the sharing of memories, the making of new connections. They serve as vehicles for negotiating, materialising and navigating relationships. They are re-invigorated with fresh meaning and sometimes lead to a new piece of art, but always they are residues of a shared experience.
Ciara sees her role as ‘[facilitating] space or a framework for others to occupy; to withdraw from the balance of power.’ She invites us to think about how participatory experiences are shaped by their environment, about how we make with others and what this act of communal making means.
View Ciara’s reflection here: https://www.artsandhealth.ie/assets/uploads/2022/04/Material-Language-by-Ciara-Harrison.pdf
The artsandhealth.ie artist bursary 2021 was awarded to artists working in participatory arts and health contexts to reflect on their practice. The bursary was funded by the HSE and the Arts Council.