My second lockdown artist interview is with Rachel Parker. Rachel has a background in participatory arts work which began with a role in a Theatre in Education company in Ellesmere Port at the end of the 1990s. Since then she’s worked in a variety of contexts as a freelance arts worker, as well as in posts in health and local authority settings, including roles as Arts into Health Officer and PSHE lead for Walsall Council’s Creative Development Team. She is currently in the final stages of a Masters degree in Art Therapy.
Can you tell me about your art practice and how you got involved in art therapy?
My degree was in theatre design and as part of that my specialism was in Theatre in Education work. That was my first insight into community focused arts work, since then my career path has been varied and interesting including freelance work and full time jobs.
I worked for a Theatre in Education Company in Ellesmere Port as a youth arts designer, working alongside a music worker and a drama worker to engage young people in all aspects of theatre production.
In 2000 I joined what was then, the Community Arts Team at Walsall Council, as ‘Arts into PSHE (Personal, Social and Health Education) co-ordinator’ which was about health education in schools, a partnership between schools across the Borough, the Primary Care Trust and Walsall Council. It was a unique role and part of a specialised community arts team who brought together artists and communities to deliver health outcomes across a breadth of themes. Specialist arts officers worked across sectors, using the arts to break down barriers and create tailor made projects using creative processes. Importance was placed on consultation and evaluation, an approach with everybody involved, using creativity from the start.
After 5 years the team became Walsall Creative Development Team and I had a new role as Arts into Health Officer. During my time at Walsall I worked in a wide variety of settings and communities including; schools, GP surgeries, hospices and community groups on a wide range of health themes, and working with other artists, across art forms. At the end of 2016 the team disbanded due to cuts in local authority funding. I had just embarked upon an Masters in Art Therapy. I was interested in specialising even more in the therapeutic benefits of art and art making as well as drawing upon my own personal experience of using art in a therapeutic way. It felt like a natural progression although it was also a new path.
Can you say a bit more about how creative processes can benefit people’s mental health?
Looking back on the work I’ve been involved in and my studies now, I see it as a continuum. Engaging in the arts, whether it’s painting, drawing, music or another art form, can help an individual’s mental health and wellbeing by enabling creativity, personal reflection and ‘being in the moment’.
In the context of arts and health projects it can be used to explore health themes through a creative project, either working one to one or with groups.
At the art therapy and art psychotherapy, therapeutic end, it’s about creating a safe space to explore and use the art making for self expression. For some people it can be difficult to put their feelings into words so art making such as drawing, painting or collage can be helpful as the main form of communication. You are often working one to one, or in small groups, with very clear boundaries.
What does an MA in Art Therapy entail?
I’m studying at the University of Chester, I’m taking it over 3 years part time and will be qualified hopefully by the end of this year. Initially there’s an Art Therapy Foundation taster that’s recommended prior to applying. The course includes theoretical studies, experiential group work, a placement, clinical supervision and personal therapy.
Students are required to do 120 days of placement as part of the course, I’m three quarters of the way through. I’ve completed all of the written work element. Once qualified the next step will be to register with the HCPC (Health Care Professions Council) affiliation. After qualifying, I’d like to find a job within an organisation as an art therapist, I’d love to be working in a hospice again. However, I’m aware that in the current climate I might have to balance my time in a combination of different roles.
Is there anything you’ve been doing creatively that’s helped you during lockdown?
Initially I think lockdown felt like it was a shock to the system, there was a sense of uncertainty and I felt unsettled. I had been in the last 4 months of a placement for my art therapy course , which was put in hold. All of the things that were part of my daily routine, such as travelling into a University and working on placement came to a sudden stop and I had no choice about it . Initially I found it hard to think about doing something creatively. The first thing I did was pick some wild flowers out of the garden and I did some very small and detailed drawings in my sketchbook which is not my usual style.
I was quite surprised, but that felt like what I needed to do at that moment, to focus on something really detailed and specific, maybe that calmed me – that sense of focusing and connecting with nature helped. In all of the uncertainty, nature is something that continues. Being allowed to do our one walk a day was a solace and finding new routes where I live. Allowing myself time and quietness to settle and take in what’s around. As I settled into lock down, I allowed myself to be inspired by and connect with the nature around me. There’s been parts that have been difficult.
I’m interested in seeing how my own art work has changed during lockdown, I started out with something very detailed and more recently become more expressive, taking photographs to use as a starting point and working on a bigger scale. It’s been good to embrace this enforced time to be creative.
You’ve been taking part in some online art classes?
Yes, recently I’ve been doing some online life drawing. Along with my brother and his family we’ve been collectively taking part in classes with over 40 other people from all over the world . I’ve found I’ve had to embrace technology more, in an amazing way. I haven’t done life drawing for 22 years, it’s been really interesting and enjoyable to step back into this, in the virtual world.
And you’ve been sharing some of your work on social media?
Sharing art work on Instagram has been my first step. I’ve been inspired by what other people are doing, and it helps with making those connections.
The Culture, Health and Wellbeing Alliance is a national organisation that shares information and resources about the impact that creative or cultural activity can have on wellbeing.
Since local authority support for Walsall Creative Development Team ceased in 2016 it’s members have continued to develop participatory arts work. Previous Creative Development Team Manager Deb Slade, has set up Creative Factory CIC which delivers exciting and dynamic arts and heritage projects and events with local communities in the West Midlands celebrating local diversity and culture. Another previous team manager Glen Buglass is continuing community development work, which currently includes ‘Tales of Mossley’ the creation of a radio play about life on Mossley estate in Walsall.
Many thanks to Rachel for talking about her work and experiences in lockdown and to Arts Council England and National Lottery players for enabling me to sustain my practice during this time.