If you make something creative with your hands, it could help free your mind from everyday stresses. That’s Sue Gibson’s experience. As a former professional artist, the Shaftesbury-based social worker says that she understands the connection between arts and wellbeing.
Since April, Sue has hosted the twice-monthly Making Space sessions – an arts workshop where she encourages people to relax, have fun and ‘leave stress at the door’.
“I have an arts degree and I worked for six years as an artist taking commissions,” Sue explained. “I was living in London and I got involved with MIND, the mental health charity. I was running creative projects with rough sleepers and that developed my interest in mental health and social work. I went on to train as a social worker and I have been doing that for twenty years – six years in Shaftesbury.”
Sue wasn’t able to host the art sessions as part of her full-time job but now she is working part-time, she’s found the time to start the group. “I am able to voluntarily put some energy into something that I feel really passionate about,” Sue said. “What is important to me is the process, not the product. It’s about having an hour-and-a-half of leaving your problems at the door and just trying something new, and pushing yourself a little bit. You won’t necessarily come away with something that you can take home and hang on the wall or give to someone as a present. Making Space is about making time for yourself. It’s also making connections with other people.”
At each meeting, Sue arranges a project using a featured artistic technique for the group to tackle, if they wish. Previous sessions have included mosaic making and tie-dye. But Sue says she’s altered her approach since the workshops started in April.
“At first I thought that I would always have two or three activities but what I have realised is that people stay within their comfort zone. The empty table will be any activity which appears challenging,” Sue said. “Now I just have one activity but there’s always a table with a library of arts and crafts books. If somebody just wants to come and have a cup of tea and sit and look at the books then that is fine. People can walk in and do whatever they want to do. It is a space for them. They can bring their own crochet or their own activities but I do have a planned activity.”
Anyone will artistic abilities can help lead a session and share their skills. “It’s about learning from each other as well,” said Sue. “We all have strengths to bring along to the group activities.”
Sue says it doesn’t matter whether your finished work would be considered a wonderful piece of art. She doesn’t want anyone to feel fearful that they won’t be good enough or that someone else will be better. It’s the experience that brings the benefits.
“I really value how creativity, of any sort, can be beneficial for your well-being. If you are having a stressful day, and you do something with a bit of colour or texture, it just takes you away from the tough things that may be going on in your life. I think it also develops your curiosity. You look at the world in a different way,” added Sue. “It’s about reconnecting with the inner child. I think that adult life can lock the inner child in a little cupboard and it rarely comes out to play. I just think it’s really good for us.”
Some of the sessions involve experimenting with artists’ materials. “Just playing with the colours and discovering what happens if you add more water to it or if you use wet paper and put your ink on it. It’s just that curiosity thing.”
A recent Making Space meeting involved a guided visualisation. Sue asked the group members to close their eyes and pretend that they were going on a walk. She described what the walkers could see or experience. Afterwards, everyone recreated what that had imagined in their drawings.
“There are endless thoughts running through our heads. We are really good at getting hold of those negative thoughts and making them bigger and bigger. Guided visualisation is about trying to allow those thoughts to drift by. I walked people through a garden and it was up to the individuals to choose what they saw, what they heard and what they smelled. And then they could decide on the textures and the colours. It’s a way of relaxing but having someone lead your thinking to a degree. It is your own creativity and life experience which takes you on your own journey.”
Sue is hosting Making Space in her own time. But she says that she identified the need for these creative sessions from working with local people in her paid employment with the County Council. “I do encourage people who have experienced of any sort of level of mental health difficulties, anxiety or depression to come along. It’s just a group for anybody who wants to have a go at doing something creative or doing something they haven’t tried before.”
She says it’s important to offer these workshops locally, too. “It’s good to have this resource in the town where you don’t need to look at the bus timetable and realise you are going to have to get there an hour-and-a-half earlier, because that’s the way the buses run.”
Sue has received a Shaftesbury Town Council Grant of £250 for her materials and she’s keen to hear from anyone who can donate arts supplies. “I have been seeking donations of used materials. I am really keen on that idea – recycling and making something different out of something else. I’ve used paper from the Blackmore Vale (magazine) and bed sheets from Stalbridge Linen. Somebody donated a sewing machine that they weren’t using anymore. When people sort out their stuff they often realise that they have cupboards of arts and craft materials that are just not being used,” she said.
The sessions are held in the Shaftesbury Town Band Hall at Barton Hill. “It’s just a lovely space. It’s a good size. Outside you have got a little park so if people want to go out and do some work they can. And there’s parking right next door, so it’s brilliant,” Sue said.
Making Space takes place on the first and third Monday of every month between 10.30am until 12 midday. Sue says that the group is open anybody and the current participants’ ages range from 20 years of age up to people in their early 80s. “Just enjoy the fun of it,” smiled Sue.