300 service users participated in this project along with 25 volunteer artists, a writer, a curator, a designer and a project manager.
The primary aim of this project was to highlight the daily experiences of services users to the general public, visitors and staff of the hospital.
The objectives were
- To begin with a creative writing course and end with an art exhibition.
- To ensure the ‘voice’ of service users would predominate throughout the exhibition.
- To create a site-specific exhibition focusing on underused areas of the hospital.
- To encourage people in the hospital to engage with art in unexpected ways.
- To use materials in the artworks commonly found in a hospital which reflect the environment and resonate with service users.
The primary concept was to explore the personal experiences of service users attending the hospital and to give them a voice and means of expression through the process of creative writing. Writer Nicole Rourke facilitated creative writing sessions with participants over a nine month period.
Each week the sessions were publicised in all wards by way of posters and through word of mouth. The latter method was a more successful approach when informing the services users.
All services users had the choice to submit their written work at the end of each individual session for an artist to interpret for the final exhibition. All works used, including those of the artists and volunteers remained anonymous.
The aim of each creative writing session was to create an atmosphere which encouraged and facilitated participants to express themselves and find their voice through the written word.
Nicole mainly used a free writing technique where she provided a choice of beginnings/ first lines which were open enough to allow the participants to interpret as they wished and steer the piece in the direction they wanted to go. Music, pictures and objects were also used as writing prompts. Sometimes participants would write their own personal experiences, other times the pieces would be complete fiction and often it was a mixture of the two.
After each writing exercise, Nicole would leave time for sharing of pieces for whoever wished to read. For many this sharing became an integral part of the process.
Freedom to express without censorship or judgement, both on paper and through the sharing of stories was always at the core of each session.
Nicole was very involved in giving advice /feedback on editing if a participant wished to expand or rework a piece of writing.
Many participants attended the sessions for the duration of their stay at the hospital so there was a strong core group. Due to their commitment and regular attendance, the approach changed as participants could take on more challenging exercises. Also the sharing aspect became hugely important as many participants saw it as a strong part of their recovery.
Examples of engagement with the process:
1. A participant who was experiencing the emergence of childhood abuse memories had lost the ability to speak. She discovered a flare for poetry in the workshops and this became her way of communicating with her therapist.
2. A songwriter in the group was encouraged to bring his guitar to the workshops which introduced a musical element. One of his original songs became part of the exhibition.
Created in a safe and protected environment over months of workshops, a large number of written works were submitted for selection. The project team which included Nicole, Oonagh Young (curator) and Sinead Moloney (project manager) made their selection of work to be included in the exhibition depending on a number of variables. These included potential for visualisation, relevance of work for the intended audience, length and suitability for exhibition. The design of the exhibition began to take shape at this stage also, about five months into the project.
Oonagh had no direct contact with service users but worked directly with artists and volunteers on the project to produce the finished works. She is also a graphic designer so her experience with text based ephemera was invaluable in the design and production of certain works. She continued to meet with the project manager, Sinead Moloney, the Artist in the Community, Nicole Rourke and several of the artists on a fortnightly basis for four months prior to the exhibition opening. Oonagh would continually work with Nicole to ensure that the words or edited versions of the written pieces were being visualised in an empathetic way maintaining the integrity of the original message whilst recontextualising it within a new framework. Oonagh also engaged with artists from outside the organisation via social network sites, Skype and e-mail. Some works were submitted digitally while other artworks were made on site by volunteer artists and the project team.
A site specific exhibition of contemporary artwork based on the creative writing of service users was held throughout the public areas of the ground floor of the hospital in May-June 2011.
The exhibition launch, which was covered by the press, focused on the inclusion of participants, with live performances and musician Christy Moore as guest of honour.
A Spears of Daylight publication was published in 2012 featuring photographs of the installed artworks and the poems, short stories, lyrics and aphorisms that inspired them with short essays from project partners.
The project was evaluated on an on-going basis after each session through the completion of feedback forms by participants. Nicole kept a personal journal which included a record of the sessions, participant’s comments (anonymously) and her own thoughts and reflections. The project team had regular meetings throughout the project for ongoing feedback, evaluation and support.
The challenge for the workshop participants was to actively submit a piece for selection and allow it to be interpreted and presented publicly. All were pleased with the outcome and felt a great sense of pride. For example, a young man seeing a video of his original song made by an artist was encouraged to apply to study music in college.
Much of the staff and service users had very positive feedback and enjoyed interacting with the art on a daily basis. Other staff members found some of the pieces very challenging.
For Nicole, the project was inspiring as well as, at times, overwhelming. One of the greatest difficulties she faced was the selection process because of the large quantity of the work submitted combined with the very high quality of the writing.
Documentation and Dissemination
Before the exhibition ended, Sinead Moloney commissioned a professional photographer to document all the works in the project as many were made and installed directly onto walls etc and would be destroyed when taking everything down. Sinead and Oonagh decided to approach the hospital about the possibility of producing a book which would include most of the poems that did not appear, in their entirety, in the original exhibition.
The feedback from the service users and visitors to the staff of St. Patrick’s Mental Health Services was so positive that the hospital agreed and commissioned a publication as a way of archiving the art work, promoting the project to the general public and to celebrate the project’s achievements. The Spears of Daylight publication has been the main source of documentation of this project and can be downloaded here.
The publication is available in hard copy by contacting email@example.com.
The publication has been promoted by St. Patrick’s Mental Health Services CEO Paul Gilligan at health conferences and meetings. The project is also available to view on www.stpatricks.ie
Following on from this project the project manager Sinead Moloney has been invited to discuss the project in national universities and colleges around Ireland.
Writer Nicole Rourke and curator Oonagh Young were invited onto a discussion panel at Create’s 10 year anniversary celebration of the Artist in the Community scheme in 2012 to discuss the project.
St. Patrick’s Hospital Foundation
Oonagh Young Gallery