Guest Post: Helen Duff

I’m on my way to deliver a series of workshops for the Attenborough Arts Centre as
their first family inclusion associate artist. I’m energised by the training I’ve done as
part of Jo Grace’s Ambitious and Inclusive Sensory Storytelling workshop and excited by the chance to make artist Aaron Williamson’s retrospective at the AAC even more accessible. Conducting the workshop in the main gallery space with children who
have complex needs, PMLD and / or are on the autism spectrum, will be a learning
experience for all of us!

Deliberately confrontational and controversial, Williamson uses a range of mediums –
from photography to performance, video and live interventions – to explore, exploit
and “confuse the normative world’s secure notions of what disabled people represent”. It’s a show full of humour, self awareness and invention, and as a professional clown, I immediately recognised Williamson as a kindred spirit.

At her best, the clown creates an empathetic connection with the audience, looking
them straight in the eye and honestly admitting her humanity, whilst highlighting the
inherent, absurd humour in everyday acts. Play is the clown’s most important
principle. Everything can be a game, and approaching even the most serious issues
with a playful touch, we learn more about ourselves and each other than might be
possible in the heavy, worthy world of “The Arts”.

Williamson assumes the stance of cheeky outsider with idiosyncratic relish. In the
short film Beatles Mania, he and a group of deaf artists stand on stage, dressed in
immediately recognisable 60s suits. Paul McCartney wigs on the wonk, they scream
their hearts out at a silent audience; upending the expectation that the screaming of
a crowd should only go one way. Starry Walker and The Stall of warm Handshakes sees Williamson shaking hands with a variety of strangers on the street, the photographs using CGI technology to merge the artist’s face with the people he encounters. It calls to mind a clown, peering out into the vast audience of a big top, mirroring the astonished faces he finds looking back, quickly switching to someone else as soon as his victim clocks they’re being copied. In a black and white video, Williamson cuts a classic, Heathcliff figure, standing on the edge of a cliff, contemplating the rugged landscape, his long, dark cloak flapping in the wind. Slowly, with great gravitas (the clown knows the power of a good entrance) Williamson turns to camera. A close up reveals he’s foaming at the mouth. Watching my participants fascination with this video, their attention captivated by the mix of majesty, surprise, and something inexpressible, spoke volumes.

In his introduction to the exhibition, Williamson states “there are so many more seams to unearth in language. The words themselves, the modes of saying, are as significant as meaning. I am looking for a more physical currency of accord”. During my workshop I will spend time waking up the participants’ bodies – with dancing and mime to spark the skin and fire up the imagination – waking the participants up to the expressive potential of their physical form. Getting care givers, parents and siblings in on this act is key; as Williamson shows throughout his exhibition, an audience must recognise your status as a maker of meaning, before your voice can be heard. Artists cannot exist in a vacuum, and I hope that the game of making an entrance, breaking through a grand curtain, will help the children to perceive themselves as artists, a world of different ways they might express their imaginations unfurling onto the stage.

The sensory story I will tell at the end of the workshop, inspired by the figure of Parachute Suzan, a paraplegic explorer featured in Williamson’s inspiration archive,
will combine classic narrative techniques with smells, textures, spiralling “jet engines”
and waves of explosive foam. I’ve really enjoyed piecing together my plunder from a
scrap store in South West London, creating a narrative that will activate and engage the senses to which each participant is most attuned. This story can be shared with families and care givers so that they might tell it again; all the materials are recycled household items and the repetition of the tale will only enhance its sensory impact, especially for participants who find surprises jarring. In this way, I hope the legacy of Williamson’s exhibition will live on in the children’s minds, as well as the physical memory of our session, and the positive feelings induced by some Very Important Play.

Guest Post: Helen Duff

“In thinking about the feeling of mindfulness we recognise a stillness or a steadiness to the being. Someone whose attention is on the present – but that attention is jumping around – does not feel this stillness. In providing a sensory object that entrances we give someone the opportunity to both be in the moment and to feel that stillness and steadiness we associate with mindful practice. We called this sensory mindfulness sensory-being”

Last Thursday, myself and Hannah Pillai from the AAC Learning Team attended The Sensory Projects’ Ambitious and Inclusive Sensory Storytelling workshop, led by pioneer and all round powerhouse, Joanna Grace. In a room filled to bursting with neon, squidgy, spiky objects (all sourced from pound stores and local scrap shops, Jo was quick to reassure us!) we learned how to make stories that engaged on several sensory levels; exploring the myriad ways in which narrative helps create, craft and communicate ones sense of self.

From a young age, we hear stories that help us to understand who we are. Family regale us with childish slip ups that, several decades later, still raise a smile. Photos spark memories of a scrap of soft muslin we couldn’t leave the house without, and our excitement at the prospect of new tea towels suddenly makes sense! Bodies bare scars that have faded beyond recognition, the once livid pain sucked away by time, leaving only the understanding that you were as foolhardy and ambitious in your early years (in my case, trying to break into a model railway, chin first) as you remain to this day.

Without these stories, passed on by friends and family, reinforced by visual queues, triggered by sounds, smells, tastes and textures, we miss out on building blocks that are fundamental to forming a coherent identity. With the Sensory Beings project, Jo hopes to give children with autism and / or profound and multiple learning difficulties, the opportunity to engage with narratives that appeal to the full spectrum of our senses (Jo expands the standard 5 to include our vestibular system and proprioception), seeing themselves at the centre of the story and building an increased level of engagement through repetition and recognition.

The neon, squidgy, spiky objects were key to understanding the different ways we might tell a story. Neurotypical people place a great emphasis on speech and the written word as our primary means of communication. By waking up our full sensory realm, Jo opened our eyes – and more importantly, ears, noses, fingers and tongues – to the multiple ways we communicate meaning. After a fascinating morning unpacking what makes an engaging sensory story, hearing anecdotes from Jo’s rich experience in the field, and learning first hand how the addition of movement to a song or story supports memory, we were hit by the inevitable post lunch slump. What better way to tackle the afternoon dip than by getting up on our feet, sniffing the floorboards, running our palms over windowsills, and, for the more adventurous amongst us, sticking our tongues into soap bubbles? By engaging the full spectrum of our senses, we observed how our attention intensified. Adding an element of story in here – for example, brushing the skin of your arm with a coarse brush as you describe walking through a forest thick with branches, only enhanced your experience of the narrative.

The advantages of engaging a student’s concentration are numerous. By targeting one sense, in the example given with the brush above, proprioception, you might calm the participant’s nervous system. This in turn allows other senses, perhaps the visual or auditory faculties, to increase in receptivity. Jo highlighted how often, children who’ve experienced trauma or early age medical intervention, struggle to ‘identify their edges’. Hence why anchoring them in the body with repetitive, gently stimulating touch, helps to ground their other senses, too. Of course the level of touch is completely individual to each participant; what might be a relaxing pressure to one person, could be painfully irritating to another. Being reminded of this variation felt strangely freeing, as I realised that finding these things out is an endless process of discovery and discussion!

On another level, we learned how sensory stories can support identity building for participants who particularly resonate with one sense. Hearing a story that takes you to the top of a mountain, with the clear, cold air bought to life by a sniff of a fresh mint shower gel, might help you understand how much you like bright, zesty smells. This allows you to start building your own sensory box or bag, gradually developing a sense of your favourite things and facilitating the means by which you can communicate your preferences to new people. The capacity to indicate what you do and don’t like is essential when it comes to personal expression and freedom of choice. Helping students to tell stories allows them to self advocate later in life, actively shaping their care.

It’s all about finding out what works best for each participant, repeating the story in exactly the same way each time, allowing your audience to get comfortable, build an awareness of what’s happening, and, progressively, anticipate what’s going to happen next. I welcomed the clarity of Jo’s method, as she stressed the importance of consistency, combining a no-pressure approach that sets clear boundaries but doesn’t get flustered when / if these instructions aren’t followed. More details on how to share a sensory story depending on the different needs of your participant can be found in this free to download resource on Jo’s website . It was encouraging for me to hear that my instinctive, open, go with the flow attitude was spot on. At the same time, there was a huge amount for me to reflect on, as my residency as Family Inclusion Associate Artist at AAC will only allow me to conduct two workshops, and building a consistent approach, as well as a continuous relationship with the participants, will be impossible within those parameters. Still, I am excited to pass on my learning to the learning team at AAC, exploring how everything I absorbed at the Storytelling Workshop can support their work going forwards. I know for certain that it will continue to inform the way I approach telling stories, and engaging the senses, in my own work. Whether that be performing a solo show, sharing an anecdote with a friend, or reliving a memory about soft muslin, the sensory realm available to me as a storyteller is far wider than I ever realised.


Sensory Atelier Symposium

Sensory Atelier (002)

Join us as we present the outcomes of our collaborative kinaesthetic and multi-sensory artist residencies that support children’s connections with the world through art.

The symposium will present the findings of the two year Test and Explore Paul Hamlyn Funded research project, Unlocking the World Through Art: A Sensory Atelier. Attenborough Arts Centre partnered with two SEN schools, Ellesmere College and Ashmount School to address the physical and curricular barriers to the arts and learning.

The project created a space and process for children with a spectrum of learning difficulties, communication disorders and disabilities within the classroom and at Attenborough Arts Centre.

This is a dynamic and creative approach for delivering the changing curriculum through the arts referencing the Reggio Emilia Atelier method and developing new ways of measuring learning and engagement for children with SEND.

Spaces are limited.
Please book your free space by calling 0116 252 2455

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Visit us
Attenborough Arts Centre
University of Leicester
Lancaster Road

FREE evening (after 6pm) and weekend parking in the Medical Sciences car park next to Attenborough Arts Centre.

Contact us:
Box office: 0116 252 2455

Opening hours: Monday – Friday, 9am – 7pm

Box office: Monday – Friday, 9.30am – 7pm. Open later during performances and classes.
Gallery: Monday – Saturday, 10am – 5pm and Sunday, 12 noon – 4pm.
Arts Bar Cafe: Open daily (later during performances and classes).
Balcony Gallery: Monday – Friday, 9.30am – 7pm and Saturday, 10am – 5pm and Sunday, 12 noon – 4pm

Children’s exhibition: Unlocking The World – A Sensory Atelier

Exhibition at the Attenborough Arts Centre 27 – 28 May 2017 


Hannah Pillai who is the learning Assistant for the Attenborough Arts Centre tells us more about the exhibition: 

We were delighted to include the beautiful  art work created by children and young   people from Ellesmere College and Ashmount School in our exhibition Seeing Blue.

To celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Attenborough Arts centre and in response to the Night in the museum Ryan Gander curates the arts council collection the centre had the pleasure of hosting a children’s art exhibition Seeing Blue which formed part of a weekend of activities for the Spark Arts Festival 2017.

Seeing Blue celebrates the talent of children and young people who regularly use the centre. Curated by the AAC Young Ambassadors, the exhibition showcased performances, photographs, video, drawing and creative responses inspired by the Night in the Museum: Ryan Gander Curates the Arts Council collection, focusing particularly on the theme of Blue. The exhibition aims to give the same platform to children and young people as the masters of modern art that they are responding to with their work.

The children and young people from Ellesmere college and Ashmount school created the work during their visit to the centre to see the Night In The Museum exhibition. Inspired by what they saw they created large collaborative artworks. Starting with creating sculptures with their bodies they then drew around themselves creating large silhouettes which they decorated using a variety of materials, exploring different mark making and collage techniques. It was lovely to see the work professionally installed and for the young people to have the chance to exhibit their work in a real art gallery.

Taking centre stage at the exhibition the artworks had lots of lovely comments from visitors:


“I really love the scale they make such an impact”

“Beautiful patterns I love the layers, so imaginative”

“It’s nice to see large scale work!”




I was a real pleasure for me to see the process the young people went through, from gallery visit, to workshop to the final exhibition for the public to see.

Making the work 

Children from Ellesmere college and Ashmount school creating the artwork during their visit to the Attenborough Centre. For more images click here 

Next Artist in Residence Appointed

We are thrilled to announce the next Artist in Residence Sian Watson Taylor has been appointed to deliver residences across both schools.  Students from both schools came together to be part of the selection process and were unanimous in selecting Sian to be thier chosen Artist in Residence.

One student said:

“That was Awesome”

Sian says:

“For me this is the start of an exciting voyage, where the children and young people are in control of the ship, are the power behind the waves and are the winds that set the course. Using the arts in all its different forms, from visual to performance and movement to sound and storytelling we can explore how to celebrate the ideas, emotions and learning of the children and young people, to surprise and engage but also create some that can be shared; experiencing the wonder of all the languages of art and the unexpected destinations they can take us.

We are very excited to see the wonderful journeys that will set sail next term. We warmly invite all those interested to come see first hand what they  create  in The Sensory Journeys Exhibition in our gallery in January 2018


Artist in Residence

We have two great Artist in Residency opportunities coming up.

Through a programme of creative inventions and workshops, the artist in residence will support and develop Ashmount School and Ellesmere College as active cultural spaces to explore, learn and play.

The job pack can be found here:arist-in-resdidence-send-job-pack

Please read the job pack and then send your completed applications to Manya Benenson at The application deadline is 7 April. We look forward to hearing from you!