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Interview: Sarah Jay – Arts for Health

Sarah Jay manages the Arts for Health programme for Blackpool Council. We caught up with Sarah Jay to find out more about what Arts for Health is about:

Clancy Mason: Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and your background?  

Sarah Jay: I always loved being creative. I studied Fine Art and then had the opportunity to do an MA, but I didn’t want to be an artist at that point in my life.  I was really interested in art as therapy and how creativity influenced people. To cut a long story short I found a balance between being an artist myself and working with people to inspire them to use creativity to influence their well-being, which was the perfect balance for me. I recently started a Integrative Psychotherapy post-graduate course and it’s amazing! I’m finding the things I’m learning are helping me in my role as the Arts for Health Manager.

CM: Tell us about your role as Arts for Health Manager?

SJ: I organise and develop the Arts for Health programme. I employ artists who are passionate about what they do and I love working with artists who inspire me and seeing the affect they have on a group or individual. I work closely with different partners including the Wellness Service, Adult Learning, Social Inclusion Officers, and Public Health to name a few.

Smart Arts visit Hargreaves Foundry as part of the Harbour time capsure project.
Smart Arts visit Hargreaves Foundry as part of the Harbour time capsule project.

My favourite part of running the Arts for Health course is that I feel really privileged to share the sometimes hugely meaningful journeys some group members go on. It never fails to touch me how a small thing such as creativity combined with attending a regular group can lift people.

CM: So what is Arts for Health? When did it all start and what does it look like today?

SJ: It started seven years ago with an Art on Prescription initiative from the government with funding from Arts Council England.  I came into post and then Arts for Health began!

Arts for Health is a creative programme where people can join if they’re feeling vulnerable and in need of support. Different courses offer slightly different things, so for those people who want to be active we work closely with the Wellness Service to offer a Creativity and Walking group to give people the opportunity to walk and then try something creative. At the moment we’re doing basket weaving, which is proving really popular. For those who want to learn something new we work with the Wellness Service to offer a Creativity and Mind group: at the moment we’re working on a textile project and learning meditation.

We have a more instructive drawing and painting group, Creative Pathways working in partnership with Adult Learning for group members who want to learn how to draw. Back on Track is run by different artists who offer participants the opportunity to be free with their creativity. Artists do share their skills, but ultimately it’s about group members finding their own way and hopefully taking pleasure in their creativity- even if they might not think of themselves as creative. New Horizons is a new course that’s about to start in December and something Arts for Health has recently developed with Adult Learning, which is all about helping people to move towards volunteering or employment opportunities and supporting them with their physical and mental well-being.

Arts for Health has a young people’s strand too, which aims to embed Arts Award in different organisations. I am about to work with UR Potential and I am currently working with Highfield High School which, as a result of Arts for Health work, has a support worker leading a Bronze Arts Award.

Smart Art Blackpool has recently developed into a charitable trust with five trustees, who all received training through Arts for Health to enable them to run their own group. This group is supported by Arts for Health and is somewhere various Arts for Health group members can progress onto if they wish continue.

CM: I know working with a range of professional artists is important to you. How does a participant benefit from this experience?

SJ: Working with artists is really important and a vital part of the Arts for Health experience. To work with a broad variety of artists is crucial and offers group members a richer experience by enabling them to try lots of new things. The majority of people I see get so much from this experience. I think it goes back to school for some people when we’re told how to draw things and things are valued as good or bad. I think the Arts for Health experience of working with different artists gives people the freedom to express themselves: nobody is going to say something is wrong and you’ll just be given encouragement and support.

This freedom has an enormously positive effect for some people and re-ignites their creativity. I had a participant recently who took me aside and told me she had always wanted to write, but at school she felt she wasn’t very good, but working with the poet Philip Davenport on the Back on Track course had ‘sparked’ something and made her feel free to write and express herself. I could see how much this meant to this lady it had come as such a surprise to her. She told me she didn’t even realise she would be working with a poet. There are so many stories like this and that’s what I find most rewarding; watching people, I think, ‘find themselves’. When I first meet them they sometimes openly express how lost and lonely they feel and to watching the changes as they progress is really wonderful.

Everyone’s experience will obviously be different and for some people it’s the creativity and for some it’s the benefits of having a routine, a friendly place to go, the reward of seeing their artwork exhibited, friendships and a social life that they take from their Arts for Health experience.

CM: Can you talk us thought what a typical course might look like? What might a participant do?

SJ: Hmmm… I’m not sure there is a typical Arts for Health course! At the moment the Back on Track course is working with printmaker and bookmaker Gemma Lacey and poet Philip Davenport. The two Back on Track groups are making work for the new Harbour building, which is the Mental Health Centre being built near the motorway. This is a really special opportunity for those group members to permanently display their work in one of the main public corridors in the building. This course is probably the most experimental one that Arts for Health has ever done.  Group members have been experimenting by making marks in different ways and even using music to inspire this, as well as creating poetry with Philip. The project is inspired by Matisse’s later work.

Work from the Back on Track project, inspired by Mattise.
Work from the Back on Track project, inspired by Matisse.

An Arts for Health course will usually involve learning something new which could range from different printmaking techniques or textile techniques to ceramics just to name a few things. Group members will have the opportunity to take that piece of work home or exhibit it. Some of our group members have had their work made into a book, seen their work on a quilt and now the current Back on Track is the first group to have their work permanently installed in the new mental health centre.

CM:  How does an individual get onto a course?

SJ: Mainly people are referred by a mental health professional, but sometimes group members self refer and actually this is happening more frequently than it used to. If anyone wanted to join they could contact me directly. We can chat about what course might suit them best and arrange to meet up and they can register with Arts for Health. I’ll direct them to a group as soon as possible, so if people are ready to start they often start a course one week after talking to me.

CM: Do you have a favourite success story?

SJ: I have so many stories that I love for different reasons…the setting up of Smart Arts Blackpool is probably my favourite at the moment as it represents so many positive  journeys. Most of the group members, if not all, have made a massive journey to be in that group and it really shows. The atmosphere in the group is so lovely and the work they are producing is brilliant. They are involved with two commissions with the Harbour building; a time capsule piece, which will be made of cast iron, and creating artwork for the Dementia Suite.

CM: What are your future plans for Arts for Health?

My immediate plans are to develop the marketing material and the ‘Out There’ events which happen in the library and are about bringing different services together so people can see what’s available to them in Blackpool. In the future I would really like to have an Art Therapy strand to Arts for Health, so when people come to me who don’t want to be part of a big group, there is the option of one to one sessions and a smaller more specialist group available to them. I would also like to work closely with Fulfilling Lives, I know they have lots of volunteering opportunities and an exciting programme that is about to launch.

You can find out more about Arts for Health and follow their journey via their blog.

You can contact Sarah Jay at  [email protected] or on 01253 478033.

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