A research project with artist Elizabeth Cooke supported by Suffolk County Council
This research built on a project that we had initiated at St Peters Residential Home. Our work in that setting was supported and guided by occupational therapist Gill Bosely.
We caught up with Gill in her new role at Oasis Day Club, Suffolk Age UK, looking to build on our learning from St Peters and continue an artistic inquiry into how art experiences, particularly art production, might have the potential to help us maintain and gain agency as we age. Gill was keen to explore mosaic making as a technique after seeing the way that the residents at St Peters had engaged with the process.
The members of Oasis Day Club live independently, mostly in their own homes and attend the club due to social isolation and mental or physical health needs. Over a week 60 people attend both day clubs, they are looking for social interaction, cognitive stimulation and support in maintaining their independence.
Through consultation with staff and members, we developed a programme of activities that would allow us to simultaneously follow an open ended, artistic inquiry while seeking social and well-being outcomes. Reflecting on our work at St Peters House we recognised that there would be fluidity between aesthetic and social outcomes. Rather than over concern ourselves with defining outcomes at the start and risk limiting the scope and imagination of the work, we took a decision to get started with some art-making and see what could be learnt through the process. This was a successful methodology for us, the slow material exploration allowed a conversation to start which led to ideas for a group artwork.
Although our starting point was to bring people together to make art as a group, the project soon became about the individuals within the collaborative process. We first started to recognise people through the colours they wore, then the materials they selected leading into their individual styles of making. The members enjoyed these alternative ways of knowing and recognition, they particularly identified each other’s hands in the exhibition photos.
Despite best intentions we sometimes fell into the trap of viewing the members collectively as a group of older people. In particular we were surprised at their enthusiasm for tough physical work, the grouting process with hands submerged in black cement was a moment of real joy. The segregation that older people experience can reinforce this type of group stereotyping.
On the other hand the physical constraints of the members were often apparent. Lack of mobility restricted choice and failing eyesight and arthritic hands informed the method of production. Might these constraints lead to new ways of making?
We entered into this collaboration asking whether art making was a way of gaining or maintaining agency as we age. As we reviewed the experience at Age UK we discussed how we increasingly aligned agency with identity in this context. We have recently come across Jane Kroger’s ideas about maintenance and revision of identity in late adulthood and intend to read her publication in greater depth as a potential theoretical framework for our future work.
New ways of being together emerged. We no longer felt that we always had to take the role of facilitators: as long as we were open about it, we felt it was acceptable to take the artistic lead at times and follow our own line of enquiry. Based on our experiences at St Peters we understood that the authorship might be transferred backwards and forwards during the process. We were transparent about our intentions but sometimes lacked a vocabulary to communicate our approach to the members: how do we present our role and how do people react to this?
Although these questions of authorship and terms of the collaboration are often fretted over and analysed by artists they are not generally considered important by other people until something goes wrong. It would be interesting in future to have a writer with us to create a joint vocabulary for the process. This could lead to new ways of understanding and evaluating the experience, perhaps picking up on anecdotal moments of change on an individual or group level.
The artwork we contributed to the exhibition was mindful of the context of a caring setting. We avoided patronising, voyeuristic work but at the same time we possibly sidestepped provocation and controversy. The exhibition was ready for installation when we received the news of the closure of the centre and we asked ourselves how our frustration with the decision might have changed our artwork. If we’d known about the closure from the outset would we have worked with the members to make art that allowed them to voice their discontent?
The collective artwork made by the members drew on the everyday environment of the centre bringing together individual and group perspectives on why the day club was important to them. The everyday context was identified as a potential space for critical reflection in the project at St Peter’s and we wondered if, after gaining the trust of this group, we could have extended this idea to make art with them that started a critical engagement with issues that affect them. On the other hand, isn’t this approach rather heavy-handed, perhaps any criticality should emerge through art made in response to the process which will then raise questions for a wider audience?
The need to seek critical engagement possibly stems from the uncertainty over how a project of this type will be critiqued. Will it be judged as social care, activism or art or potentially all three. We loosely identified our artistic line of enquiry at the outset while also being aware of our accountability to our funders who were looking for socially beneficial outcomes. The members and staff were probably looking for outcomes that sat somewhere between the two. We were aware that by using traditional art making techniques within the process we were introducing a tension as to where the artistic content might lay. We ended up leaving that question open for the audience to consider. The exhibition did not assign authorship to the component parts: instead it listed the names of everyone involved. As we continue this artistic enquiry we understand that art can be made and critiqued in a multitude of ways. The most powerful art often comes from unexpected sources and we hope to be able to continue our work with this same open-ended approach.