A special exhibition for National Recovery Month is highlighting the power of art as a vital recovery tool, says Kenn Taylor.
Emilie was a drug and alcohol worker in Sheffield for 11 years before training as an art therapist, and this is her third collaboration with Project 6.
The project is now the subject of an exhibition in Sheffield during National Recovery Month. The aim is to highlight the importance of place, community and belonging and encourage people to reflect ‘on how our personal journeys are part of the fabric of the city’.
Moments of change
I met up with six of those 11 collaborators – Sam, Ben, Ruth, Matt, Lee and Dave – along with Emilie and Christopher, who details the concept at the heart of the project: ‘We wanted to map and tell the stories of people’s journeys and moments of great change in their lives through the languages of imagery, colour and craft. Inspired by the symbolism from Sheffield’s past, we settled on pilgrim flasks and banners as the artefacts to hold and tell these stories.’
I ask the group what they thought of these themes when they were presented with them. ‘We were going in blind,’ says Lee. ‘But I like history and the references were medieval, so I was quite happy with that. The broader context of us all going on a pilgrimage, that’s what we’ve done through this process.’
‘When we presented it, I did sense some hesitation, understandably so, but everyone got on board,’ says Christopher. ‘Dealing with hard things in your life, if you can abstract them a bit, I think it helps. Embedding our stories into craft I feel is one of the most ancient and effective ways of making sense of the world.’
They met every Friday over 14 weeks, beginning each session talking about whatever came up for them, then drawing and printing in response. ‘The most evocative part, drawing something every week, from our thoughts and feelings, opened up something new,’ says Lee. ‘That really connected us, was the glue that tied us in.’
After talking and drawing, they moved to creating objects. For the first seven weeks, they crafted the clay pilgrim flasks. For the remaining seven, they dyed and sewed large cloth pennants. ‘Making the drawings and letting what was under the surface speak could be emotionally deep and very heavy,’ says Emilie. ‘Moving into material processes offered a way to sit with the weight of feeling in the room. Craft holds space. There were times, I remember dyeing the fabric after very difficult conversations, the mood transformed into all of us having an absolute riot.’
Locations around the city that had significant meanings to individual group members became a focus as the project developed. They decided to dedicate one session to visiting places they’d each chosen. After arriving, they’d share what it meant to them and this was audio recorded. Later, footage was taken of the places and merged with the audio to create a film which forms part of the project. It’s clear this revisitation of locations which held strong and sometimes painful memories had a significant impact on them. ‘My place was the Millennium Gallery,’ says Ruth. ‘I went in again recently. It’s almost like it’s been exorcised from me, through this process. I used to only associate it with bad things, but it’s very different now for me.’ Dave agrees, ‘Like the park, I have found peace with it now. I go and sit at the bridge and listen to the running water. It’s that journey.’
I ask about the images they chose for their flasks and banners. ‘I drew a wheelie bin full of empty wine bottles,’ Ruth explains. ‘I never realised how much stress that would cause me during my addiction. I like to listen now when they empty my bin, it’s not the nosiest, not the heaviest on the street anymore. This has aided my healing, to me forgiving myself.’
‘The symbols on my flask, I initially described them very matter of factly, they’re just magnifying glasses with eyes,’ adds Ben. ‘Then someone said they’re quite surreal. And then I talked about how at the time I was under so much scrutiny with psychiatrists, and it links to being under that lens, stigmatised by society.’
Images from the exhibition will also be displayed on billboards across Sheffield, which Emilie links back to the original concept. ‘Pennants would have once hung from Sheffield Castle ramparts, welcoming travellers home,’ she says. ‘The flags of journeys travelled today will hang across the city on advertising hoardings.’
‘For me what’s important about the banners being detached from the exhibition,’ says Lee, ‘is if someone is driving past, they’ll be like “what’s that?”. It will reach a far bigger audience.’ The billboards will also feature QR codes, to encourage people to find out more. ‘They’ll go on a journey with us – there’s a lot more to say,’ he concludes.
I ask the group what difference they think the project has made to them. ‘I’ve grown and made myself well through this process,’ Ben says. ‘Of course it’s been alongside therapy and other things I engage with, but this has helped no end.’
‘I have a friend who has been supportive through my recovery,’ Ruth says, ‘but doesn’t get it, me taking part in a project like this. Why would she. I didn’t get it either, before I came. It’s made me braver, to try new things. My confidence has grown.’
Formally trained artists and those not formally trained coming together to share time, skills, knowledge and experiences to create something in collaboration, has a long tradition. It’s given many different names – social practice, community – but the kernel is how it can carve a new space for all of those involved. Exploring and exposing parts of your inner self through making art can be a challenging process, and this can contribute to personal development and healing. But in creating these works around their experiences of recovery, the group have also opened up new channels for others engaging with the artworks to reflect on their own lives.
‘I’ve got hardened to the prejudice and the stigma – I can play out how it is going to go,’ says Lee. ‘It doesn’t define me as a person.’ Those dealing with addiction, like many with less power in society, so often have their stories defined by others. Having access to your own forms of creative expression, being encouraged and given a platform for them, is essential in people being able to turn that around and speak directly of their own experiences to others. Doing this is a reclaiming of power. And it is partially because of how powerful this can be, that such access to creative expression is frequently denied and discouraged in people, one way or another.
The more you get used to expressing yourself, the more comfortable it can feel. Earlier steps though require bravery and often support. I ask the group if they plan to carry on their creativity after Landmark. There is a chorus of agreement. Two members of the group have recently enrolled in degrees, influenced by taking part in the project.
‘It’s reawakened in me a passion I have always had for art,’ Ben says enthusiastically. ‘I will definitely be continuing the journey.’ Lee agrees. ‘I’ve started to write poems again and I have carried that on. It’s a nice creative process for me and I don’t think I would have done that if it wasn’t for this project.’
Dave sums up. ‘We’re waiting for the next one,’ he says.
Landmark exhibition runs until 1 October at Persistence Works Gallery, Sheffield S1 2BS
Kenn Taylor is a writer and creative producer