Image shown: Sticks conversation

Marielle MacLeman

Addressing the imagined participants of an Arts and Health workshop, Marielle MacLeman draws from her experiences of working as an artist in palliative and chronic healthcare settings to reflect upon the values that underpin her responsive approach to person-centred arts participation. Listen to Marielle reading her perspective here.

We are not just ‘passing time’. This is valuing time passed, taking time, and creating times.

This is a conversation. It might involve objects and mark making and it won’t always involve words.
Sometimes all we’ll do is talk. It will challenge expectations. And it will challenge me.
For this is an open conversation. Practiced and prepared but without direction.
It is an exploration of shifting destinations. We are seasoned travellers and newcomers at once.
I’ll take note and take notes so that we can trace where we have been, where to return to, and where not to go again.

We are not just ‘passing time’. This is valuing time passed, taking time, and creating times.
Our conversation continues outside of our time together so that your daughter can say that your garden has never looked so good. That you and your garden have flourished.
If you are not interested in my tools, I will be interested in your tools. I am for our tools.
I am a catalyst for you to take what is already yours for the taking.
A quiet megaphone for your knowledge. Your passions and voice, still heard.

Our conversation might have started long before you ever knew we were having a conversation.
Those fleeting exchanges in the corridor that I hoped might lead somewhere.
Your ongoing dialogue with those who think they don’t play a part. Your cautious observations.
This was our rehearsal and, interrupted, it broke into song or was silenced in an instant. By the chatter that invited our eyes to meet. By the dignity stolen, so that you could no longer look me in the eye. By the well-meaning bluster that sent you back undercover.
We are all participants. Our interactions, our reactions, our action or inaction all shape what can be.

I’ll learn to read your cues and listen to what is not said. I’ll learn when what you do say is not what you mean.
And our conversation will involve others so that it can be of greater meaning to you.
I’ll understand your deafening silence.
I’ll know to only talk to the hand you can move.
I’ll talk to you before others – before fatigue sets in.
And I’ll not be speechless when no one tells me of your illiteracy and its conversation with the gaping hole in your throat.
Our conversation will involve others so that they can engage with you on another level. So you know that they see you as more than tissue and cells.

I am for our kind of conversation being as routine as their treatments.
For continually questioning what I do but for the value of our language being unquestioned.
So that the gatekeepers let me in and let us escape on unrestricted journeys of the imagination.
For education so that the roads you and I took to be here now had been shorter. So that you never lost your love of play and were not blocked by inhibition. I am for more play and less negotiation.
For the infrastructure to support safe passage on our supervised breakouts from your clinical sentence.

I am a place maker. I settle in where there is no place for me. I’ll manage my non-belonging to hold a safe space for you to belong, where you can teach me what it truly is to have a sense of place.
If human being is placed being1, I believe that our conversation can humanise this place for everyone. That it can create peace within a din and find common ground where before there was silence.

A curious thing, to be an untangler of boundaries yet draw my own – hoping you’ll never notice the disparities in what we share. Your trust is our navigator and I am its invisible guardian. Through me you tell them things you never shared before. The choices you make in my presence mean their first memories are not of your last days. How intimately I know every brushmark that sits framed, with pride, watching over you at your farewell parade. I was not there. But I will forever think of you when the daffodils bloom and when the Mayfly hatch.

A hopscotcher of personal-professional courts, my inner-workings are spot lit without a dedicated art space and referral pathway. I am the engineer of an elaborate grooming process of planned chances so that your first marks feel intuitive and natural. I am responsive, not impulsive – receptive, not reductive. Travelling light in clinical terrain, I may of course have to prepare five potential roads for us to go down, knowing that what you say might take us scrambling up a sixth.

I am a scholar of tipping points and contradictions. I am a slow dancer but can foxtrot on demand – demanding integration but insisting on autonomy.
I am for flexibility but not for precarity. I am curious to explore the limits of materials so I am resourceful. But I am against having to be resourceful.
I celebrate the quality that project funding affords. It attracts and encourages even the most reticent. But this is a process, and I am for the sustainable, for protecting the process from the parameters of funding. I value a disconnect between our conversations, and conversations about funding our conversations.

This conversation is about more than you and your marks on paper. It’s the new detail in the same landscapes you’ve been looking at for years. The compositions that you frame on your long journeys to treatment. The colours of previous escapades that you fondly recreate.

As you find these new ways of seeing others will see you differently too. Seeing you for what you can do now, not what you can do no more.
What you saw as some welcome absentmindedness is now the most precious thing your daughter owns. Remembering who you became, not what became of you.
Little wonder, I suppose, that some question our dialogue when so much of what I trade in is not seen, but felt.
I value the ephemeral and if the value of our conversation is not always measurable, it is palpable.

Marielle MacLeman is a Galway-based visual artist working across drawing, object-making and site-specific installation. She has worked widely in participative arts and health contexts including the development of long-term programmes for palliative care and haemodialysis, and public art commissions spanning community nursing, paediatric, and neonatal contexts. She has written and designed for publications including The Pattern of a Bird (2008), The Magician and the Swallow’s Tale (2013), and The Music of What Happens (2014). Her projects have been supported by The Scottish Arts Council, Glasgow City Council, The Arts Council of Ireland, and Galway City Council.


 1 “On Human Being as Placed Being”, Journal of Environmental and Architectural Phenomenology, vol. 25, no. 3. 2014


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