The aim of The Chair Project was to tackle fear and stigma associated with poor mental health. Stigma can be one of the biggest barriers to recovery. The participants of The Chair Project know this from first hand experience. Their objective with the project was to dispel negativity and biased attitudes by confronting the public with their collection of vibrant and enticing chairs. TASK hoped to get conversations started regarding mental ill health and recovery in the streets of Kilkenny.
The idea for the project was to explore students’ personal feelings and experiences and see how we could extend these discussions to a wider audience, keeping in mind the aim of dispelling fear and stigma in society. It was important with this project to give the students a voice and to validate their experiences.
The students all searched for old chairs, some salvaged from as near as the local landfill, some as far as Dublin. Each chair had its own history already and was carefully fixed, primed and prepared before being given a new lease of life. This in itself was a very intensive and enjoyable part of the project, as participants got to know their chairs very well, while sanding, fixing and preparing them.
Prior to the creative process of working on the chair, a lot of discussion and brainstorming happened within the group. As participants came up with ideas for their chairs, the design process started, looking at materials that would relate well. We also had to keep in mind that the chairs were going to be displayed outdoors for 10 days.
The chairs were worked on in our workshop – a very safe and open environment. The project took seven months to complete; students worked individually or as part of small teams to complete their chairs. Personal stories emerged and a great sense of ownership developed as The Chair Project came together because of the personal nature of the project.
There was a lot of experimenting and exploration of materials. One participant who created the ‘Chaos Chair’ actually took out the seat, and, in its place, put a beautifully mangled, chaotic mixed media piece, incorporating vibrant materials, wire, and beads, all stressed and tied together to give a tangled effect. The back spindles of the chair was used as a loom, with everyday materials woven tightly through; these materials included cleaning cloths, pyjamas, sack cloth and old woollen jumpers.
One chair had a participant’s favourite quote: ‘When you’re going through hell, keep going’ (Winston Churchill). The quote was burned onto the seat of the chair using a pyrography pen. Finally the whole chair was blow-torched to make it look like it really had been to hell and back. We didn’t know if the chair could take such pressure, and we were surprised when it did survive. There were plenty of chairs that were treated in a similar experimental fashion; the element of surprise was great and all of our chairs proved to be resilient to their treatments and recovered well.
The chairs were exhibited outside Kilkenny Courthouse for the duration of the 2012 Kilkenny Arts Festival (10-18 August 2012). The setting was very important in that it gave The Chair Project a sense of empowerment and protection. Approximately 5,000 people viewed the exhibition. The public opened up about their own experiences or family members’ experiences. Both young and old could relate to the chairs, some of which were very interactive. We invited the public to add their own contribution to some blank chairs, which were filled with good wishes and messages of hope.
We had a huge response both locally and nationally to our honest and heartfelt project. We were invited to exhibit some of the chairs for PARK(ing) Day at St. Stephen’s Green, Dublin, in September 2012, sponsored by See Change. We were also invited to exhibit the project at the 2012 National Samaritans Conference.
TASK Creative Arts Facilitator Una Lennon wrote up a personal evaluation giving an overall sense of the project. A copy was sent to the library at the Waterford Healing Arts Trust (WHAT).
The participants gained so much from the project in terms of staying true to the message that they wanted to convey in their work: that everyone’s efforts are different and that no two minds think alike on an emotional or creative level. The main outcome was that the participants learned that their thinking processes and personal experiences could be validated through creative expression.
The impact on participants was extremely positive. Their increased confidence in seeing themselves as people and not just as ‘patients’ was one such impact. The group was much more open to discussion about their personal experiences of poor health (i.e. depression, anxiety). On a more practical level, we have continued to collect old chairs and small pieces of furniture to upcycle in our latest project, ‘The Recovery Project.’
‘I would like to think that after the project some participants realised that their illness was just a part of who they are and not all of who they are.’ – Una Lennon, TASK Creative Arts Facilitator
‘It gave my confidence a great boost, to know I was able to talk to people about the chairs and what they were about.’ – Michael
‘What I got out of the exhibition was the feedback from people, that they themselves, or someone close to them, suffers from some mental health illness, and the chairs reminded them of this. The chairs prompted people to ask questions.‘ – Paul
Documentation and Dissemination
Some of the participants have been given a chance to speak publicly about the project and their own experience of mental ill health. This has been empowering for participants and confidence levels were increased as well as self-esteem.
In January 2013, the Chair Project was awarded the AONTAS Adult Education Award for Leinster. Participants got to display their project and explain their work which was very rewarding as the work reflected such personal stories.