In 2019, the Tate Modern (London) hosted a mid-career exhibition of Olafur Eliasson’s work ‘In Real Life’. In keeping with Eliasson’s endeavour to place the visitor experience at the heart of his practice, the gallery was filled with large-scale installations that alternately entranced and confounded the senses. One of these installations, ‘Your Blind Passenger’, consisted of a 39-metre tunnel filled with thick, coloured fog that precluded vision for more than a step or two at a time, creating an acute sense of disorientation. Shadowy outlines of fellow-travellers surfaced periodically and then disappeared into the mist. On my visit to the gallery, I recall having to navigate the space with care, sometimes with the aid of fingertips brushing against walls to restore a sense of direction. Such experiences are difficult to translate into words: the challenge of stepping into a world in which an embodied awareness of space, proximity, and distance from others becomes paramount.
One year later, this curated experience in the gallery resurfaced in my mind, as an almost prescient mirror onto the changed landscape of the COVID-19 pandemic, a period characterised by uncertainty, social distancing and an altered sense of time. This was the backdrop to the ‘Stepping Stones’ Arts in Health project at The Alders Unit – Children’s Health Ireland (formerly St Louise’s Unit), a therapeutic service for children and adolescents affected by sexual abuse or sexual assault.
The project was developed jointly between staff at the Unit and the Arts in Health team at Children’s Health Ireland (CHI), to mark the relocation of the service from Crumlin Children’s Hospital to a new purpose-built Unit at CHI-Tallaght. At the outset of the project (prior even to the pandemic), it was recognised that for young service users and their families, the move to a new location and setting might create uncertainty or a sense of disruption within their therapeutic work. The ‘Stepping Stones’ project was conceived as a means of including young people in preparations for the move, with the specific aim of co-designing and creating artwork for waiting areas within the new space.
The project evolved at a particularly challenging period within the Unit’s history, in terms of the uncertainties that come with any major organisational change, but set too against the wider backdrop of the pandemic. At the heart of the project was a collaboration between artist Emma Finucane and myself (art therapist at The Alders), generously supported by the CHI Arts in Health team and the wider staff group within the Unit.
The initial plan for the project centred on developing a series of print-making workshops for adolescent service users. With the onset of COVID-19 in 2020 however, it was necessary to radically re-vision these arrangements, due to limitations on face-to-face contact. The emphasis of the project shifted temporarily to shaping a ‘virtual creative space’ for staff members, as a response to the unique pressures generated by the pandemic (captured in a previous Perspective piece here and evaluated by Flahavan et al., 2023).
As COVID restrictions continued, groupwork in person remained an impossibility, and a series of online group sessions for older adolescents was developed instead, co-facilitated by Emma and I. These sessions were used as a research process, generating discussion about creating artworks for the new Unit, and hearing from the young people themselves about what felt important to them, in terms of creating welcoming waiting spaces. Themes here included the need for colour, texture, and distraction within the artworks, given the nature of the difficult therapeutic work undertaken by these young people.
Ideas also surfaced around the importance of ‘bringing the outdoors into the waiting room’ through the incorporation of imagery from nature, given that the space lacks windows and views of the outside world. These conversations evoked for me the need for artworks that soothe a traumatised nervous system, thus making the physical environment of the Unit itself part of the therapeutic landscape that is offered.
When restrictions eased, it was finally possible to bring the group together in person, for a day of print-making workshops on the grounds of IMMA. These workshops built on the ideas generated in the research process and yielded a set of beautiful botanical prints, which have transformed the waiting area of the new Unit into a ‘green space’. Emma subsequently designed a large-scale digital collage as a response to her discussions with young service users, inspired by their suggestions around an artwork that creates ‘a window into an imaginary world’. The incorporation of intricate detail within the collage, alongside calming imagery from nature (and a few unexpected surprises!) provide an absorbing experience for both children and teenagers alike.
There has traditionally been a clear demarcation between the terrain of arts in health practice, where the emphasis is on the creative experience within healthcare settings (without specific clinical aims) and that of art therapy, where the image-making process is used in service of clinical outcomes. In an Irish context, this has typically led to practitioners within these two fields working very separately, and at times perhaps with an eye to our differences, rather than the potential to work in mutually supportive ways. The Stepping Stones initiative presents a novel example of these two areas of practice coming together in a fruitful way, where both artist and art therapist brought specific expertise.
The project was rooted firmly in an arts in health framework from the outset (with an emphasis on the creative process and experience), but it was recognised too that there needed to be a particular kind of therapeutic holding for participants. This included a requirement for safety within sensitive group conversations around what it is like to attend a service like The Alders in difficult contexts, and the ways in which the physical environment of the Unit might mitigate this experience. The art therapist’s role was to provide robust containment here for the young people involved, supporting them into and out of the group process as required. The artist in turn brought a fresh perspective to these discussions and her rich repertoire of ideas and resources provided novel ‘jumping off points’ that grounded the group in different conversations to those that ordinarily unfold in therapy.
This kind of joint working requires mutual respect for what each can bring to the partnership, time at the outset to build trust, as well as a commitment to honest dialogue and review. In the ever-shifting landscape of the pandemic, additional reserves of patience, humour and the ability to flexibly adapt and evolve were essential to surviving the experience of becoming ‘passengers’ in the Eliasson-like metaphorical fog wrought by COVID.
Eliasson offered respite too in his 2019 exhibition, from experiences of sensory overwhelm. His installation ‘Beauty’, in which light was projected through falling droplets of water, created the effect of a shimmering, rainbow-filled mist of rain. Here, something as ordinary as water became spell-bindingly beautiful, a reminder of the calming impact of nature brought indoors. We are grateful to the young participants in Stepping Stones, for their insistence that we bring ‘the outdoors’ into our Unit in this way, and for the exquisite botanical artworks they have gifted to future service users, a beautiful metaphor for post-traumatic growth and healing.
This Perspective was informed by a series of conversations with Emma Finucane over the course of the Stepping Stones project, and I am deeply grateful for our collaboration which has felt transformative in many ways. Many thanks to Mary Grehan, Fiona Smith and Orla Butler from the CHI Arts in Health team and the staff at The Alders Unit for their unwavering support over the duration of Stepping Stones. The project was made possible by generous funding from the Children’s Health Foundation and an anonymous donor.
Flahavan, C., O’Keeffe, A., Finucane, E., Grehan, M. and Twohig, A. (2023) ‘An anchor in a stormy sea’: An arts in health project for healthcare staff during COVID-19 Journal of Applied Arts & health 14(2) 187 –205. https://doi.org/10.1386/jaah_00136_1
Claire Flahavan originally trained in medicine and subsequently in psychiatry, working across a range of mental health services for over 10 years. She completed an MA in Art Therapy at Crawford College (Ireland) in 2013, and now works full time as a therapist. She also holds the position of Senior Art Therapist at The Alders Unit (Children’s Health Ireland), a service for young people who have experienced sexual abuse or sexual assault. She also works with the Fetal Medicine Team at the National Maternity Hospital (Ireland), supporting women and couples navigating complex pregnancies. Outside of her clinical practice, Claire enjoys working in mixed media to create hand-stitched books and objects.