“Not Drama Again" - Impressions of a an Arts and Photography Residency working with disability
Updated: Oct 31, 2020
The Combined Arts Residencies project (C.A.R.D) was launched by Don McClure through the New Arts Work based at Nottinghamshire County Council's Leisure Services. The project was also supported by East Midlands Shape and H.A.R.T.S. and brought together artists from different disciplines, working together with groups of people with special needs in adult education centres in Nottinghamshire. I was commissioned by Nottingham County Council to accompany and document the project and to prepare several exhibitions throughout the city during 1990-1991. You can see more photographs of this and other similar projects here.
The C.A.R.D project has several unique features. These include providing a training opportunity for experienced artists in a way which will allow them to apply their skills, to make contact with the students at the centre, to prepare future training as a follow-up to the initial work shown here and to allow the opportunity for the project to evolve according to the emerging perceptions and needs of the people involved.
Unlike other residencies at Adult Education Centres which are normally not able to maintain contact with the students once the residency is over, the C.A.R.D project aims to maintain the contact through the return of the three artists-in-training of the team.
During all stages of the residency, the artists-in-training worked alongside the three other artists, learning to apply their own special skills in an appropriate way to the needs of the students. This bringing together of the various skills, which included dance, drama, visual art and music, created a unique learning opportunity for all the participants in the project.
One of the exhibitions showed the first stage of the project which took place at the Barncroft Adult Education centre in Bramcote during December 1990 and January 1991. The residency continued in January and February, when work was done at the Red Oaks centre and at the Bonington gallery with people from High Pavement centre.
Photography has a significant part in the way disabled people are oppressed and deprived of rights in this society. Negative images of disability abound in the media. They range from the extreme example of the American photographer Diana Arbus who portrayed disabled people as freaks, to the pity-arousing and guilt-evoking images used by charities to raise money. Both examples reflect and encourage negative images of people with disabilities.
The kind of training most photographers receive encourages them to remain detached and aloof from the people or activity they document. They are told that only in such a way will they be able to get "good" images. What is meant by "good" images is often images which are disturbing to the viewer and compromising to the people photographed. Most photographers seem to be happy doing that. They create a barrier between them and who they are photographing and remain emotionally distant.
As a non-disabled artist working with people with disabilities I was even more in danger of using my craft as a distance between me and the group. The only way of attempting to overcome these difficulties was for me to build some trust between me and the group. By working from within the group, without always being only concerned with taking photographs, some of the tension that surrounds the appearence of the intrusive photographer was beginning to ease off.
Here are some of the reflections of some of the artists and participants in the project.
In a group session, VISUAL ART on its own can be quite stark. But it works much better when it is combined with music, drama and movement in a project where a theme can be developed using different media.
Having the opportunity of leading a session helped me develop confidence to improvise within a planned theme in order to maintain harmony and work out the students' needs as well as my own.
When I was experimenting with communication without all the senses functioning, it was amazing to learn that whilst working in pairs someone without sights had to be more assertive than someone without speech in order to complete a task.
I always find it difficult to approach a residency or the start of a new situation in working with special needs groups. Inevitably the doubt hangs in my mind of what can be achieved in a very limited time scale. There is a danger that expectations can be raised by an intensive period of ARTS ACTIVITIES that can not be sustained during the normal running of a centre and thatthe activity could be disruptive to the security of a regular timetable. Week long residencies are difficult for this reason. There is only just enough tine to begin to get to know the groups you are working with and it is often necessary to use preconceived work plans and methods that may or may not be a appropriate to the group.
However, fundamentally I believe in the work I do because of the tremendous potential benefit that arts activity can bring. Perhaps the most important aspect of this work is to bring some new ideas and input for the staff and workers at centres like Barncroft. This isn't a case of saying I or we know better, indeed the workers at a centre know more about the needs and abilities of the students than a freelance artist coming in for a day or a week could possibly find out. It is the freshness of the artist to the situation, the ability to respond to individuals in a new way, one not predetermined by patterns or rituals of communication as well as any specific art skills and technique that can, when successful, not only provide the students with a rich and meaningful experience, but also perhaps give small pointers and new insights to the staff as to ways of working and means of communicating.
During the past three years of working together and separately with young people in Nottinghamshire, we (as part of Risk DANCE Company) have been concerned that the value of dance as a creative and preforming art, and its potential as a means of expression, communication and enjoyment can go unrecognised. Consequently many young people have little or no access to dance. We are committed to working with youngsters in their schools, or youth/community groups with the aim of promoting and encouraging a positive attitude towards dance.
Through working on the CARD project, I have become more aware of the provision of the arts for people with special needs/learning difficulties and have realised how similar the situation is in terms of artistic provision for these people as for young people.
Our work is a response to the growing awareness of the need for INTEGRATION in our diverse society. In an atmosphere of energy and imagination, we respond to ideas from the group itself, helping the group to shape and create its own work.
Success in achieving this becomes the platform from which individuals can take risks. Discovering beauty and enrichment in finding access to a world that they would not normally experience.
Isabel Jones and Peter Byworth
Music and Drama
The visit by the Arts Group to the SPECIAL NEEDS UNIT was successful in that it initiated responses physically, verbally, emotionally and intellectually amongst the students and the staff.
These responses reveals to the centre staff team the level on understanding that the Arts Group had achieved with the people they had worked with. It was felt that they enhanced positive responses through individual or group based activities where the students could contribute on a very personal level.
It was this reaction which was most revealing to the centre staff and afforded the opportunity to carry on the learning experience of those sessions.
The Arts Team had no pre-conceived ideas about students ability, students reaction, student interest and the like. Instead, they concentrated on individual creative impulses and took some students beyond their current awareness. This in turn was a stimulus for the centre staff and caused them to reappraise other areas of input to students in their group.
Opportunities to have access to a resource such as this Arts Group could be valued as avenues for personal development amongst staff and students.
However as a cautionary note we feel that opportunities for learning must take place on both sides in order to meet the needs of everyone concerned. We work with a very specialist field which contains the needs for confidentiality, respect, choice, age appropriate approaches, trust and self advocacy. This needs to be understood.
Special Needs Team
Barncroft Adult Education Centre
Sheila - I was a snake. I went to sleep.
Barry - I was a dog. I was on my hands and knees, walking around. I was licking the fly and swallowing it.
Melvin - I was the monkey. I was climbing the trees, I went to sleep.
Carole - I was the cheeta. I was sitting on him ( Peter, the polar bear). Right at the end I was sleeping on one another. We were hungry so we started eating the polar bear.
Paul - I was the Loch Ness Monster. I did the bull, a gorilla.
Christine - The cat, who drinks the milk, cat went to sleep. Meow meow. I was up and down. Starting up like a tree. Moved like the lizard. Drank milk like a cat.
Students, Barncroft Adult Education Centre
On the first day of the CARD residency the nominated groups gathered in the art room and chairs were arranged in a circle. The residency people mingled and started an introduction session, focusing on the rhythm of hand clapping, foot stomping etc. As the session progressed, the use of musical instruments were introduced.
The students were encouraged to think and speak up as well as taking turns. However, despite the team teaching approach, I felt that many students were ignored. This is hard to avoid unless those teaching are prepared to come in, introduce themselves and explain what they want of the students prior to the actual activity. I also felt that the size of the group was slightly ambitious. Students with slow attention spans, behaviour problems or who suffer from shyness were not catered for as well as those confident and more able individuals.
A story was started and the students were asked to make sounds to represent things being discussed. A number of the students appeared lost, having to rely entirely on imagination.
We were told later that the arts residency people felt the room has proved unsuitable because of disturbances. We were asked to assemble in the gym. This caused its own problems, mainly anxiety at an unexplained change in the timetable, venue etc without consulting the students or telling them until the last moment.
In the gym, the story continued on the whole. It went well, although I felt that much of the language and expressions used to convey the story could have been more adult and with the content of the story itself. As the other days progressed we continued with the story and unltimately turning it into physical activities and a presentation as well as through the visual medium of paint etc.
Many of the students worked well and consistently on this activity, perhaps explained by the students' familiarity with the materials and task. I felt the whole experience would have been more successful for both the students and the residency group had they discussed their aims and objectives with the instructors involved so that they could have been furnished with relevant information concerning the stidents likes, dislikes, anxieties, capabilities, responsbilities etc.
Barncroft Day Centre
The observations that follow are reflected through the eyes of a sight impaired person. Those eyes are mine. As a result of this experience these eyes of mine have been opened dramatically to many issues. Considering that we were given such a short amount of time to prepare for this project, I feel that all parties concerned were generally given adequate consideration.
I felt the essence of what was being taught was the expression and communication between people of different abilities. During the sessions, there were many occasions when I observed and experienced some unique moments of shared communications.
We worked through a multi media approach, including voice work, eye contact, touch, movement and stillness, perception of vibrations and rhythms, the use of fabric, paper, paint, photographs and natural elements such as leaves and contours. Through these media I feel that a rich and varied source for inspiration was provided.
Artist in Training
Many many thanks to all the great people at the Barncroft Day Centre for being so enthusiastic and ready for participate and learn, to the Mansfield Community Arts Centre (H.A.R.T.S) for contributing to the project and hosting this exhibition in March 1991, to East Midland Arts, East Midland SHAPE and New Arts Work- Nottinghamshire County Council for their financial support, to Troy Smith for coordinating the project, to Don McClure from for being the Daddy of the whole thing, to Liz Yeates for her invaluable support, to Clifford Laycock, to Pat Hughes for her participation and support, and to Caroline Robertson-Ritchie and Adrian Holme for their help.
Many special thanks to Peter Byworth, Isabel Jones, Helen Simmons, Ray Lee, Oksana Tyminska and Nuria Capdevila, the wonderful people who are the C.A.R.D team and who have done so many wonders in facilitating so many growing experiences for so many individuals!