REGULAR readers will know that some time ago I was researching assisted studios, after spending time working on a programme for adults with learning difficulties. Some of the team working on it thought that what was required was an assisted studio concept locally.
We came across painters who lived in assisted living that had no space to develop their talent, and if they tried they would be told they were too messy. My own father in the last year of his life lived in a closed care community, in the final stages of dementia, unable to speak. He still got lots of contentment from creating collages or images in part of his room. As a lifelong artist this was an essential part of his daily life. Yet sometimes you would return to find a care worker had 'cleaned up his mess'. Workers who I have a lot of respect for because of the tasks they need to perform on a daily basis just did not recognise an artist when they saw one.
During lockdown we set up an exhibition in www.pssquared.org – a mock-up of an assisted studio with work collected from artists we had come across. We researched different models that exist in Ireland and the UK and further afield. Some are funded through Health Trusts, others through a combination of funding – some have a mental health and assisted studio combination. Others focus on disabilities only. Visual art is magic – if you can help someone with this talent or interest they will never be alone in their life. The idea is that not only do we think that this is an equality issue but the art that individuals make is of worth in its own right. Creativity opens doors and opportunities.
So with support from CastleCourt, Belfast City Council and Paragon Studios, we have set up the first assisted studio pilot. It's in CastleCourt, running until June. In unit 59 on the second floor we have set up in record time, from cleaning the toilets to building the studio units, recruiting and settling in the artists. We know in terms of talent this is the tip of the iceberg. On a daily basis we have people coming to us who would benefit from such a facility and it's heartening to be in the centre of the city and talking to those who are interested.
In the same day I've spoken to a girl of eight stopping by who loves to go to An Chultúrlann for exhibitions and a man in his fifties who is part of a bowling club which has set up a night for members of Mencap to play bowls. Initially I mistakenly took him to be Scottish, only to find out that his Ulster Scots ancestry was alive and well and he was in fact from Ballymena. He talked of how much joy there can be in working with adults with disabilities, and I had to agree with him.
We hope that the pilot develops a model that could be sustainable over a longer period of time. My vision would be that every town in the region would have such a space and that people with disabilities could have their creative needs taken seriously; that those with mental health issues could also benefit from being supported – much like Project Ability does in Scotland. For now we have stretched our small budget to be open 10am to 2pm Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. There is room for interested parties to use some space for temporary, complementary artistic activities.
We will be opening for a number of events, including participating in the NI Mental Health Festival, and are delighted to have been invited to exhibit in the Belfast School of Art in June. We hope that at the end of our run we will have raised awareness of this vital gap in provision and that those participating and the artistic worth of their output will be honoured.
This project is supported by Belfast City Council through an Artist Studios and Maker Spaces organisational grant.
PS² is supported by the National Lottery through the Arts Council of Northern Ireland.
Many Thanks to CastleCourt for their support. Anyone interested in this project in any way can go to Pssquared.org