The power of choice

Residency: Sian Watson-Taylor at The Beacon

By Sian Watson-Taylor

The Beacon is a CAMHS Inpatient Unit at Leicester Children’s Hospital School providing care for young people aged 12 – 18 years. Young people are admitted either in a state of crisis, or when their circumstances and presentation becomes complex and an assessment is needed. I have had the joy, and it truly is a joy of being Artist in Residence for about a year, visiting The Beacon every Friday afternoon.

                          Choice is top of the list, empowerment is crucial!

I arrive at The Beacon every week with a battered old purple paint splatted suitcase full of materials, some flowers to say hello, an idea, a smile and a welcome. Every week the young people are invited into the classroom, they choose whether to engage or not. They can drop in and out of the 90-minute session as they wish. It’s important that the young person is there for their own right. They may only be in the room for 30 minutes or stay the whole afternoon, it is their choice and that is okay.

Choice may have been elusive for some of them at different points in their lives and now they are within inpatient care, they may experience a regimented day, with medication, compulsory meetings with people, a pattern to follow, a structure that is there to help healing, protection, and well-being, but one that is imposed.

One of the most essential elements of how I engage with people is the idea of choice: that choice, curiosity, understanding, creativity, and knowledge can lead to a positive and empowering environment, which leads to an individual or a community that champions the importance of open dialogue and nurtures the empowerment of young people, to value the process as a product itself.

The Arts help echo this in how it encourages the processes of thinking and learning, to explore different viewpoints and to extend the wonderful feeling of curiosity and creativity.  I want to create a space that allows choice, one that prompts well-being and supports positive connections of trust with one another, a space that doesn’t just demand participation by ‘doing’ but also allows participation by just being in the space as a spectator.

Having a safe space is fundamental. From being present in the space and sharing that room with others, positive healing may follow on, the start of a conversations. Because of this, space we are in is not just a ‘classroom’ it becomes the atelier, a creative safe space, where exploring materials, individually or collaboratively can allow a moment of learning about themselves to happen, how they start to decide how they relate to each other, the staff and also how they react and engage to, a stranger coming into that space.

With the sessions I try to create an experience where there is the potential to take the materials in any direction, to think big or allow the individual to guide and shape the session. There are restrictions, to ensure the materials cannot be used in a way that could cause harm, some fundamental tools, like scissors or tape, anything sharp or has elements which could be easily taken out of the classroom and into the ward or room cannot be used. I thought this restriction may be a challenge, it might hinder the ideas I had but this wasn’t the case. In fact it allowed me to think outside the box, to not run a session with an idea I had used before. It made the session authentic and truly process ran.

The sessions touched upon so many different ‘languages’ of art. From creating sensory potions and lights to exploring how colours change with movement. We thought about smells, touch and sounds, the creativity you can see, and creativity feel.

We create large costumes of folded papers, sculptures that could be worn, we played and talked and we explored. There were Drawing machines that recorded voices as they danced around the room. We created large clay to collaborative UV printed installations. Work that could be made individually then brought together to create large collaborate piece, a shared piece, and united piece. We explored how to make a moving animated world inside a snow globe, invented comical characters and animals.

We were messy, we were calm, we were artists both loud and quiet.

The room was not a place for doubt, it was a place of invention, creation and empowerment.

We have a gallery spot mat, at the end of every session we take a moment to respect the making that has happened in the session. Every creative decision is celebrated, an exhibition of what has happened, a moment and place to respect the process and the connection that Art can make. Because Art is a beautiful tool for agency in the mental health of young people, helping you to find your place in the world and a friend in times of change; when the things that are happening to you can make you feel a powerless.

I never tell them what we’re going to make, as in what the finished product will be – I don’t present something they have to recreate, no pre-made examples, no right way – so they shouldn’t be feeling the stress of possible failure. Instead, I bring an idea and the ingredients – the work will evolve as they evolve. I have always been excited about how art is an information carrier and how this can be shared in all the different creative languages, be it in the form of storytelling, performance, sound, visual art; the notion of exploration, the communication of ideas and feelings being at the forefront.

I think that the key to developing creativity is celebrating the different ‘languages’ and ‘voices’ of everyone, to allow the exploration of an ideas, feelings and conversation both in a loud and exciting way but also in the quiet and thoughtful moments that happen around the creativity and often after the sessions have ended.  I find it so essential to be aware of the importance to young people to have that feeling of being valued.

Why look after yourself, if your core feeling is that you are not worth looking after?

This terrible seed of self doubt that can start by the smallest or largest of things  and if left unattended can grow and misshape a young person.  That is why these loud and quiet moments of creativity and ownership that happen in the sessions at the Beacon are so important.

They allow the young people to step into a space where there is no such thing as failure, there is just process and that creative action of choosing to make something, explore the potential of a materials or just tip toe in for a moment, can help stop the negative seed and start a new positive to begin. That is why the process is the product in our sessions. It is why a young person was heard to say ‘I didn’t doubt myself once during that session’. It is why health carers like to join in.

My ‘glow moments’ come when young people and the amazing team of nurses, sharing the afternoons of creatively. The room fills with a sense of  trust, community and connection. Everybody is engaged in the act of making something, everyone is equal and everyone is belonged. Because everyone, including the staff need to feel that their own well being is being nurtured and for their relationships with the young people and each other feels authentic and honest. This sound so positive, and it is! The experience I have had and hope to keep having, is one that empowers me.

However I would be a fool to think that this one afternoon tick the box for all the young people at the Beacon, for some, when everything is in flux, introducing someone or something new, must feel especially unsettling for young people experiencing moments of displacement. So, take  a deep breath, because  on a Friday afternoon at the Beacon we have the choice to create or just stay and sit or we have the choice to leave.

All theses choices are equal and respected decisions, I wanted to create an afternoon that is not heavy with expectations to join in and make something but that help to reinforce that  the classroom atelier is a place of excitement, ownership, creativity, agency and calm.

Feeling safe and having choice is one of the most important components of being human.

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