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2010-07-23-Big-Society

When Cameron unveiled his Big Society idea in 2010 I thought it at best a vacuous PR stunt; an extension of the Putin-style photos of ‘friendly Dave in shorts cycling to work because he cares about the environment’. I’m only now beginning to grasp how much I underestimated the Machiavellian skills of the top tier and to see how this cleverly cynical ideology of free labour painted as community spirit is starting to permeate the consciousness of British society.

Spurred by a recent arts project part-funded by my local council, a movement has begun to grow in my declining home town. Dartford Arts Network, a dynamic creative forum for people wanting to get involved in local art projects, is now beginning to take off independently, a community reaction to the ‘cultural desert’ status of the town. Although the catalyst for the creation of this group, that piece of funding was the first nod to the arts I’ve seen bestowed by our council for a very long time, if ever. Let’s not forget that thanks to recent government policy hundreds of towns who were committed to the arts have found their essential funding budgets indiscriminately slashed; the arts predictably facing the chop first and considered dispensable, inconsequential, despite the fact that study upon study has shown engagement with the arts to be quantifiably beneficial to the wellbeing of both the individual and the community as a whole. An active attack from government in relation to arts and community has repeatedly stirred people across the country to take matters into their own hands; street parties, community events; art exhibitions. The ‘blitz spirit!’ the Daily Mail would cry, ‘we’re all in it together!’ But this sweetly served dose of fantasy leaves behind a decidedly unpalatable aftertaste.

There are tell-tale signs that the Big Society spoon-feeding is hitting the spot; in people’s comments stating that we don’t really need the council for this or that anymore as we can just do it ourselves, in the simpering and transparent mandate from above ‘Oh, but you do it so much better than we would’, in Poundland back to work schemes and Free Schools. Through a cleverly constructed confusion between community contribution and free labour, the proletariat are in danger of buying into the idea that it is up to us, not the state, to facilitate these aspects of our lives. As Unison said in 2010 “The government is simply washing its hands of providing decent public services and using volunteers as a cut-price alternative.”

It’s crucial that we as a community, as a country, insist on more. Not token gestures, but a sustained policy for the funding and promotion of the arts in the future remit of both the government and each local council. We cannot, and should not, do it all on our own. Communities must use these local arts initiatives to focus budget-makers on the impact it has on the high street and to evidence how they should be an influential part of town planning. Instead of endless private flats or more generic chain store retail, why not encourage independent designers and incorporate creative spaces? The arts are not a luxury for the rich or a pastime for the middle-class, but a rightful resource for all and integral to the very fabric of our daily life. Along with the rest of our valuable public services, fight for them before they disappear for good and whatever you do, don’t allow the bigwigs to pass the buck.

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Moses Wonders - Michael Lee, Art Psychotherapist

Moses Wonders – Michael Lee, Art Psychotherapist

‘Research in the field confirms that the creative process involved in artistic self-expression helps people to resolve conflicts, develop inter-personal skills, manage behaviour, reduce stress and increase self-esteem.’

Cate Smail – Art Psychotherapist & Director ArtTherapy4All

All of us could do with a little more art in our lives. In actual fact, at some point we have more than likely all taken part in and drawn some benefit from art therapy. Misconceptions about the practice abound, but its simplest definition is really just personal expression through the production of art. Anyone who has ever stood back, looked at a piece of art they have produced and seen in it recognisable symbols (yes, even phallic ones in year 10) or ended up laughing hysterically as a result of an artistic experience, has engaged with the basic principles of art therapy; self-expression and self analysis. Of course, art therapy in practice is far more complex than this and requires the comprehensive skill and experience of trained practitioners. The application of psychoanalytic and therapeutic art sessions is akin to that of a doctor, or teacher and is essentially a combination of both; involving delicate and painstakingly cultivated patient and tutor relationships. A classic recurring myth I have come across is that art therapy is used primarily for prisoners or victims of abuse. Although these are often the most common uses to be portrayed as examples of art therapy, this generalisation excludes the massive proportion of patients who take part in the process for a whole variety of other reasons.

Many people use art as therapy without attending any kind of session and often without even realising they are doing so, myself included. I recently came across an old sketchbook containing drawings from a particularly difficult period in my life. Suggestive symbols of my mental state immediately jumped out at me. At the time they were produced, most likely nonchalantly scribbled whilst waiting for a train, I certainly don’t remember seeing anything insightful in them at all. But years later, now removed from the emotional state I was then caught up in, the subconscious expression of these feelings in artistic form are crystal clear to even the untrained eye. Those who choose or need to use structured sessions require the guidance and support of a therapist or the insight of a psychoanalyst to help them to identify or make sense of the problems they may be having. Subconscious symbolism is not always as easy to spot as mine was, classic mechanisms such as size (eg. tiny child/huge adult) or colour (eg. heavy black scribbles) are just the tip of a visual iceberg, with each person interpreting the world around them differently. Thus the same symbol in one work could have an entirely alternate association in another. There is no definitive language of symbols. The skill of an art therapist lies firstly in their encouragement to ensure the student engages with the process; secondly in their gentle suggestion of certain techniques/subjects they think might be appropriate for each individual client; and thirdly in their ability to both analyse pieces themselves and to guide the artist to interpret the symbolism behind their own works.

‘It is used with the young and the old, the well and the unwell’

Melanie Stevenson – Art Therapist & Director at ArtTherapy4all

At the Art + Healing exhibition preview last Thursday, showing at Street Gallery in University College London Hospital, I was pleased to see the eclectic mix of patients represented in the huge variety of stories behind the works. I have always believed passionately that art production can benefit every ailment; mental or physical, extreme or seemingly trivial, as well as being useful and enjoyable for those with no obvious problems at all. The Change was created by a patient who was having sessions to help her to deal with going through the menopause; another through a painful divorce, as in Absence and Detachment 1: Where He Lay. Some had been through particularly traumatic experiences; abuse/torture/loss of a loved one, other contributors were art therapists trying to explore their emotional artistic expression, or former patients inspired by their experience to take up art therapy training themselves. The work speaks for itself. Benefiting from the directness of expressive practice it is both fascinating and intensely personal. Not necessarily a stream of consciousness as you may expect, the sudden, passionate expulsion of repressed feeling (although of course some are), but often intricately constructed or crafted, hours of dedication and difficult work coming together to create a resulting piece of art which have, in some cases, literally saved lives.

‘Without Combat Stress and Art Therapy I do not think that I would still be alive today’

Richard Kidgell, Artist, Art therapy client (Combat Stress Veteran)

Art + Healing is on until 5th June at Street Gallery at University College London Hospital opposite Warren Street tube station. The exhibition is supported by a number of organisations including ArtTherapy4All, The Art Therapy Agency, London Art Therapy Centre and University College London Hospital and Arts Centre.

See the website for more details

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Notebooks – Saveria Cristofari, School Counsellor

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A Piece of Me Still Remains – Amanda Trought, Artist

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The Weathered Tree – Hilary Forbes, Art Therapist

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The Change – Anonymous, Art Therapy Client (private practice)

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Absence & Detachment 1: Where He Lay – Anonymous, Artist, Art Therapy Client

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Goldfish Bowl Girl – Anon, Art Therapy Client at The Open Art Studio (Freedom from Torture)

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My Love – Angela Morris, Art Therapy Client

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‘Synapses’ A response to diminishing interiors – Melanie Stevenson, Art Therapist (Dementia) and Artist

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A Girl in a Bad Place – Harlie Tree, Artist and Art Therapy Client

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Lost But Never Forgotten – Melanie Stevenson, Glass Artist and Art Therapist

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Untitled – James Walters, Artist

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Cars, Lorries and Buses – Leonard, Patient, UCH

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It’s OK to be me – Peter Kimble, Art Therapy Client

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Mess – Julie Dixon, Art Therapist

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Clean New Blood – Kayleigh Orr, Art Therapist (in Palliative Care)

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‘Missing’ – Rob Cracknell, Artist

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13 – Anonymous, Art Therapy Client

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Care and Neglect – Helen Omand, Artist and Art Psychotherapist

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Hole In My Soul – Anonymous, Art Therapy Client

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Absence & Detachment 2: What about the children? – Anonymous, Artist, Art Therapy Client

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Can you guess what Bill Nighy, One Direction and Bill Gates have in common? Actually, that’s a pretty eclectic grouping so if you don’t know already you probably won’t succeed in guessing. They are in fact all high-profile supporters of the new IF campaign, involving over 100 UK non-government organisations and civil society groups, and spearheaded by Concern Worldwide UK. Launched last Wednesday evening to a huge and dedicated crowd in the seemingly sub-zero temperatures at Somerset House Courtyard, the opening night used spectacular projections to get its message across. This puts me in the happy position of being able to talk about a fantastic charity initiative as well as show you some interesting photos from the night. Bonus.

The IF campaign seeks to get back to basics, and basic is truly what it is. Food. Nourishment. The right of each person on this planet to be able to know that they will not starve to death. A shockingly large number of people do not have this ‘ luxury’. Allow me to throw some disgraceful statistics your way: 2 million children die on this planet every year from malnutrition. One child would be criminal, but 2 million is unthinkable. And yet we must think. We must think a lot. Force yourself to confront this reality rather than to glaze over, thinking there’s nothing you can do. There is most certainly something you can do. The premise of the IF campaign is that if there is enough food on the planet to feed everyone then everyone must be fed, and we can do it. It’s do-able.

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This isn’t just wishful thinking, although that’s what many governments might have you believe, but no. The plans and ideas put forward by this campaign have been intensely researched; they’ve been lived and breathed and their results seen first hand by campaigners. 1 – Give enough aid to help the farmers help themselves and to increase agricultural infrastructure. 2 – Stop big companies dodging tax in poor countries. This in particular riles me, as we see it happen over and over again and it is the core of greed by which this planet is now in such dire straits. Big business = profit at the expense of everything else. Developing countries lose in tax avoidance 3 times what they receive in overseas aid. 3 – Stop poor farmers being forced illegally from their land and use crops to feed people, not to fuel cars for the richest. Finally, essentially; 4. Ensure that governments and large corporations are transparent and honesty about the situation and what they are (or aren’t) doing to change it. Frustratingly, at the moment the UK has a prime minister whose priorities lie in protecting business and profit. All the more reason we have to push even harder and campaign even louder, to make it clear the public won’t be fooled into believing false or minimal action. This Prime Minister, David Cameron, will be chairing the G8 Summit in Ireland in June. This is our big chance; to push Cameron to speak the obvious, to give him the courage to stand up to other world leaders who refuse to act. To do this we need to show him the whole country is in support of this and won’t be ignored about these issues.

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The irony of our western obsession with dieting leaves a bad taste in the mouth when seen in the context of 870 million people a year who go hungry. Whilst we are spending millions on books, DVDs, weight-loss programmes and gastric bands, nearly 13% of the whole human race are struggling to eat enough to stay alive. Most of this is luck. We happened to be born into a country which has little or no natural disasters, a country where the weather is mild and varied, a wealthy and influential country which (although often morally reprehensible), pledges to provide for its citizens. As with most issues of this scale, there is no quick fix; no magic wand to return us to the natural equilibrium. Saying that, although these issues are deeply complicated and bound with red tape at every turn, the heart of the issue is simple. Someone will have to lose. This is a fact which huge capitalist countries do not accept. Big businesses (who hold power over the governments) currently make money on the fact that these poor countries are losing; even Western traders profit from this in a disgraceful system of exploitation.

For them to begin to gain in prosperity, these businesses will have to pay tax; they will have to accept that bio-fuel development will slow down; they, in effect, will have to give something back. Naturally they will refuse. But if all other members, even if all Western members of the G8, would stand firm, resist the refusal of these governments, they would not be able to withstand the pressure. Rather than splintering off and playing Risk-style games of one-upmanship the G8 need to stand together, to form a true 21st Century agreement, to show that human beings have evolved; that we are better than our chequered history suggests. This is what we have to lobby to David Cameron. We have to make him see that this is not a choice, but an absolute necessity.

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The situation needs to be worked back. Rather than starting at the beginning and becoming bogged down with why it cant work, we need to make a statement, or a number of statements. Not goals but promises. Not false promises but factual, binding, legal promises. From these promises we need to see how to implement the statements. This can be done, if only the G8 leaders would truly commit to making these changes.

The launch night of this campaign was, although cold, visually stunning. A mix of speakers in the courtyard, including actor Bill Nighy and Olympic swimmer Mark Foster, combined with the beautiful impact of dazzling light-show projections to give a very clear and important message. GET INVOLVED.

You can get involved in the campaign HERE

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(c) Artist work created at Crisis at Christmas (name not displayed  for anonymity)

(c) Artist work created at Crisis at Christmas (name not displayed for anonymity)

I am a Christmas person. Always have been. In my family the Christmas traditions are set in stone. There is defensive finger-wagging if anyone is disparaging about our excessively tacky tree (with its 20 layers of rainbow tinsel and small, unidentifiable trinkets made by me at nursery, including devilish-looking angels which surely can now no longer be classed as decoration – oh, but they are) yet bemoan those who choose a fake one. “But that’s what it’s all about! The smell of pine needles on Christmas morning!”. Saying this, I do find that by around the 2nd Jan (and also intermittently throughout the period) I begin to get quite sick of the overwhelming tidal wave of food and drink. The complete and total excess. ‘But it’s Christmas‘ I hear you whine (lest the advertisers allow us to forget). Indeed. As if we save ourselves the rest of the year, living frugally for 11 months only to reward ourselves with two weeks of drinking wine like water and stuffing as many quality streets into our mouths as possible before the nephew nabs all the good ones. On the contrary, many of us do this continuously throughout the year too, which is why it’s so important to give something at Christmas that isn’t just about money, or self-indulgence.

Crisis is a UK charity which supports homeless people, helping them throughout the year at its Skylight centres and the seasonal week of one-off centres around the capital called Crisis at Christmas. I remember hearing about this as a child and subsequently being desperate to join in, the whole concept a fascination to my naive innocence.  I envisaged the scene as an outdoor soup kitchen, as in American films set in New York. Smoky breath and drunken old men hunched in long coats. Finally signing up 5 years ago as a general volunteer at a day centre, the reality was dramatically different. One particular meeting will forever stick in my mind. On my second day at the Stratford Centre (the area rather less plush before Westfield or the Olympic Village) a middle-aged, yet rather dashing, tall man in a sharp suit walked into the centre, clutching briefcase firmly in hand. Looking as if he had meant to step into a bank and had somehow been incorrectly teleported, I assumed he was a volunteer arriving straight from work in the city. Later, whilst chatting, it transpired that he was in fact a guest. Having lost his job and been left by his wife (who kept the house) he found himself with nowhere to sleep at Christmas. He told me he had access only to the clothes on his back, hence the suit, and at my query about friends or family he replied he had a son but as the relationship was strained and not close, he couldn’t face explaining his position for fear of humiliation. Sadly this is not an exceptional story. Despite our often stereotypical beliefs, the causes of homelessness are rarely as cut and dried as we may think. Most of the people I have met at Crisis are more exceptional than those I meet on a daily basis; a civil engineer, a Russian historian, a horse racer and many others. Some have introduced me to books and music I would never have known existed. They have, in fact, enriched my life in many ways.

Arts and Crafts room at Crisis Bermondsey Day Centre

Arts and Crafts room at Crisis Bermondsey Day Centre

Being very familiar with the setup of general volunteering and the running of the centre at Bermondsey, I decided that this year I would be a little braver and sign up to lead a workshop in the arts and crafts room. As is my nature, I fussed and worried for weeks in advance, researching my topic and collecting items (art made from found materials), only to arrive and realise I had yet again underestimated the guests. They knew perfectly well what they were doing, most of them a lot better than me in fact, and although they were interested in my prints and ideas, the majority tucked straight in. My first day was on the 27th so there were some pieces which had been started but were incomplete. My shift was lucky enough to see the culmination of one talented guest’s stunning existentialist collage, and to get the full commentary on the detailed narrative behind it straight from the mouth of the artist himself. The work is a series of separate comments, bound by an overarching theme and brought together in a visual climax by a biblical Steve Jobs in the foreground. The message tackles the shift from traditional media to modern technology, how it is happening and what it means. Dali takes centre-left stage amidst a cacophony of contemporary motivational words signalling the push for moving forwards at breakneck speed into the new technological era. Where surrealism isn’t just for the few but daily viewing for everyone. Where montages of household pets and human objects fill every virtual wall. Where books make the leap from one world to another, (like Alice falling down the rabbit hole) via the e-book revolution. It is an astounding piece of insightful and intelligent creativity, undoubtedly worthy of gallery space.

(c) Artist work created at Crisis at Christmas (name not displayed for anonymity)

(c) Artist work created at Crisis at Christmas (name not displayed for anonymity)

A now part-time Trotter with one hell of a life story took his beautiful t-shirt painting to its second stage and laughed incredulously when I told him it is a rare talent to be able to capture such movement in paint, particularly when taken purely from memory. Meanwhile, an elderly Italian churned out beautiful watercolors at the drop of a hat, taking around 15mins to produce each of these stunning landscapes, whilst an oil painter wowed us with colourful pieces layered so deeply you could see the time invested seeping through its surface. Perhaps my favourite though, was the middle-eastern man boldly and confidently tackling a large-scale symbolic depiction of the Syrian bloodshed. As he worked he told me, rather bitterly, how he felt patronised by many people who think they are helping. Having been to art college and gained an MA in fine art, he neither needs nor deserves any condescension. His completed piece on the 29th was both a moving and brutal work; 10 feet of stiff, glued, Syrian newspapers splashed with bloody red ink and paint and left to drip down its length. Freedom is never free, he told me. Spoken from experience.

(c) Artist work created at Crisis at Christmas (name not displayed  for anonymity)

(c) Artist work created at Crisis at Christmas (name not displayed for anonymity)

(c) Artist work created at Crisis at Christmas (name not displayed for anonymity)

(c) Artist work created at Crisis at Christmas (name not displayed for anonymity)

(c) Artist work created at Crisis at Christmas (name not displayed  for anonymity)

(c) Artist work created at Crisis at Christmas (name not displayed for anonymity)

(c) Artist work created at Crisis at Christmas (name not displayed for anonymity)

(c) Artist work created at Crisis at Christmas (name not displayed for anonymity)

To find out more about Crisis and to watch the video of guest feedback from 2012 click HERE

Escape(ism) – HM Prison Send

Art therapy. What comes to mind? Mentally ill patients scribbling dark images a la horror films, or prisoners passing the time locked away from the world. You’re not entirely wrong, but aside from the cliches, you’re missing a major element of art therapy. It’s benefit reaches far beyond the niche sections of society. Just as each and every person could profit emotionally from a session with a psychotherapist (everybody’s childhood fucked them up), so could we all gain insight into our subconscious selves through the medium of art creation. Not purely a method of analysis, it also provides an escape, a focus on positivity. A means to feel achievement. ‘Free’, this year’s exhibition at the Southbank Centre by the Koestler Trust, demonstrates just how powerfully art can change people, their lives and often the lives of those surrounding them.

The Koestler Trust celebrates its 50th year in 2012, and has been curated this time by Sarah Lucas. With its first show in 1962 at Foyles bookshop the charity became a pioneer of what is still often ironically classed as ‘outsider art’. Some prisoners have access to art classes and facilities, usually as a result of collected privileges. Some acquire materials and produce works In their cells, with prison officers often the ones to spot the pieces and suggest they submit. Over 8000 pieces are received by the trust each year to be exhibited in the Koestler exhibition and entered for the awards which tie in with it. Of these, 190 were chosen this year. 190 pieces of work which hold so much soul and story that you leave the exhibition emotionally exhausted, opinionally reformatted and valuably educated.

The Pain I Cause – Anon, HM Prison Full Sutton

For many, especially those who have no experience of ‘outsider art’, the show will hold surprises. Talent they thought wouldn’t be present, or insight they didn’t believe existed. This did not surprise me. Since exploring art therapy, art by the mentally ill and prisoner art in my university dissertation I was already privy to the infinite talent in these spheres (as well as being fully aware that artistic soul transcends all social stigma or circumstance). What did surprise me, as it does every time I come into contact with these works, is the way in which whole sections of our society are lost. Dismissed. If you fit into a category, particularly a negative one, you are defined by it. Each and every one of us perpetuates this judgmental fallacy in some way, bred by aeons of societal divide. Government and the media goad us to fear each other, to be angry at one another. Focusing on benefit scammers, squatters; all a deliberate (and seemingly successful) attempt to divide us into manageable groups. United we are powerful, divided we are childish fists pounding on an iron fortress. It all stems, as do many ills, from a lack of understanding. Speaking about ‘prisoners’ will conjure images of aggressive murderers, violent rapists, paedophiles etc. But take one person. Give them their individuality back. Hear their story, their thoughts and feelings. Really listen, without defensively turning away and I believe those generalised judgements would fall away. Sadly most people don’t get to have contact with people classed as ‘outsiders’ and therefore can’t develop a framework for discovering how and why people make the mistakes they do.

One visit to the Koestler exhibition, or an art therapy group for the mentally ill and judgements seem irrelevant. The work speaks for itself. Often sad, always a labour of emotion and sometimes stunningly technical, the pieces are jaw-droppingly beautiful. Take Mirror Included; its bold confrontation of the self. Although portraits abound in the exhibition (interesting that for people categorised as being anti-social, many focus on the depiction of others), very few are self-portraits. This is perhaps unsurprising if you consider that prison is designed to degrade and strip away self-confidence. Even if the starkly scrutinising eye required for a self-portrait is understandably hard for a prisoner to embrace, the works as a whole are often extremely self-reflective. In a refreshing contrast to those contrived artworks created by well-known artists for collectors and galleries and waiting to be critiqued by the few who believe they are the authority on ‘good art’, the pieces here are raw material. The irony is that as we cage them like animals, they can produce works which often exude more humanity than I have come across amongst those who consider themselves to be overtly ‘civilised’. Symbols of freedom abound, as do depictions of the outside world; wings, nature, home, as well as poignant representations of life on the inside.

Mirror Included – Anon, HM Prison Ford

A large proportion of the works are created from recycled products. Art materials are scarce in prison and choice is limited. Traditionally, matchsticks and soap would be popular and easy to get hold of, and is still the case. As you might expect, conditions and access are less restricted nowadays and as such inmates no longer have to use spent matches, which in different sizes would have given a very different effect to those we see nowadays. The pieces made from matchsticks in this show use brand new uniform matches, which detracts nothing from their collective beauty. The skill involved and time invested is astounding, and the medium is sometimes so well disguised it is hard to believe. In pieces such as the spectacular Violin Case and Bow, coffee is used to stain the wood to give it an aged effect, or to create patterns and tones. Among the abundance of used materials recycled to produce some of these artworks are: tree bark, newspaper, clothing, soap, string, wood, wire, metal, and books.

Violin Case and Bow – HM Prison Pentonville

Invaluable organisations such as the Koestler Trust provide a means to reconnect us to the sections of society we too often forget. But just as importantly, it allows the inmates themselves to establish a positive link with the both outside world and with the inner parts of themselves they may not have explored before. The fantastic tour guides who took us around the exhibition (I highly recommend taking the tour on a Tuesday/Thursday at 6.30pm) were a Koestler Trust worker and and ex-offender taking part in the mentoring scheme Koestler run for prisoners after release. Aside from their insightful analysis, they also explained some of the stories behind the artists themselves. Some had been able to attend the exhibition opening and those who hadn’t were astounded with the positive feedback sent in on comment cards. Some had even enrolled in art college on their release, using their portfolio built up in prison to outweight their resume. Although often tinged with sadness, the show is overwhelmingly positive and the benefits wide-reaching. The most depressing thing about it is that the genre and organisations involved with it are still not as prominent and recognised by the art world as they thoroughly deserve to be.

Dark Urban ‘Psycho Pot’ – HM Prison Pentonville

Lost in Colour – HM Young Offender Institution Thorn Cross

Stag Head – HM Prison Whatton

Ustrasana – HM Young Offender Institution Stoke Heath

Little Girl – HM Prison Kilmarnock

Telephone – HM Prison Pentonville

Fish – HM Prison Glenochil

Bright Eyes – HM Prison & Young Offender Institution Holloway

The Koestler Trust 2012 exhibition ‘Free’ is on at the Southbank Centre until 25th November 10am – 11pm. Fantastic guided tours led by ex-offender interns are available Tuesdays and Thursdays 6.30pm and Saturdays 3pm. See the website for more information.

All photographs (c) KateW Photography

Human beings thrive on arts and culture.This is evidenced not only by the huge swathes of visitors to museums and art galleries every day (Tate Modern counted nearly 4,000 visitors per day for the 2011 Gaugin show), but also by the abundance of organisations and activities related to the arts. If you attempt to type in to a search engine some vague term such as ‘arts uk’, you are immediately bombarded with millions of links to the seemingly infinite facets of the arts industry; theatre, dance, fine art, to name just the most obvious. So with all this huge wealth of resources in the arts surely our kids have more than they need in the way of access to them. Not so. A recent UNICEF report showed that, unsurprisingly, ‘in the UK inequality was…seen in access to outdoor, sporting and creative activities, with poorer children spending more sedentary time in front of screens whilst the more affluent had access to a wide range of sports and other pursuits’, and a new report by the Children’s Society shows that half a million children in Britain are unhappy with their lives.

Some of this must be a direct result of the elitist tradition of arts and culture for the upper classes which still abounds in the UK, perpetuated by rising costs of attendance and lowered wages, which completely prices out a whole chunk of society who couldn’t possibly afford to spend £60 on a ticket to the Opera. And what of your average west end show? You’re still looking at around £20-30 per ticket. More affordable for the so called ‘squeezed middle’ but still out of reach for the average family, except perhaps as an irregular treat. No wonder then that cultural activities such as these are seen as being ‘for posh people’ or ‘for university bods’. Having grown up in a working class town on a council estate, these are genuine descriptions I still hear regularly from both adults and children, which is depressing in its self-defeatism. Any one of the people on that estate could enjoy a gallery or theatre show just as much as a ‘uni bod’ if they could go with an open mind and the self confidence that comes with knowing these things are there for THEM. Cultural public ownership often doesn’t feel as if it includes the working classes.

With these entitlement attitudes being cyclically ingrained in kids at home and the government demonising the working class even more than usual, through a constant barrage of recession-approved negative association (welfare – they don’t deserve it, jobs – they can’t be bothered, health – they can pay for it themselves etc.) the middle and upper classes dominate the market almost entirely. This attitude has to be changed and to do that, prices need to drop to a reasonable level, as well as provision of far more free outreach workshops which take the theatre out of the west end and encourage parents and children to get involved. It is do-able if the funding were there. It’s investment in our children, and you’d think we’d jump at the idea. But this brings us squarely to the general British attitude towards children and childhood. To be blunt we just don’t respect it. This attitude leaches into the top echelons of many arts organisations, where children appear to be an afterthought. I’m not saying people don’t care, or that they don’t do their best; in fact I’m generalising in a big way, but I’m talking more about an overarching attitude and social manner. Our modern family zeitgeist, if you like. Capitalism and major corporative influence of a level never seen before, sees us now buying into the commercialisation of our own children, then feigning ironic surprise when they riot angrily and prioritise free clothes and shoes. The arts have been proven to have a beneficial effect on cognitive development, so why are we allowing this aspect of childhood experience to be pushed aside by a Gove-led education system concerned only with academic league tables and in churning out future business graduates from business-run Academies expected to ‘save the failing system’? We need to mobilise.

Action for Children’s Arts, a lobbying and campaigning arts charity for whom I volunteer, recently sent Freedom of Information requests to 20 major arts organisations in the UK, asking them what percentage of their annual budget was spent on producing work for children. The results were shocking. Children under 12 make up 15% of the population and yet rarely more than 1% of any organisation’s budget was spent on them alone. We should, in fact, be spending more than the technical 15% on them – like I say, investing in their and our futures. But as well as not being bestowed with extra, they are refused even their fair share. 1% funding for our children is a disgracefully poor representation of our public arts industry. ACA held a conference on 19th June to discuss how we can work together to change this. The conference was insightful and full of optimism for future policy reform, both within the government itself and individual organisations such as the BBC and the Arts Council, among others. We are continuing to discuss and gather ideas, via twitter and on the website, to inform a discussion group in the pipeline, whereby we aim for the outcome of a solid action plan and potential children’s arts charter.

      

Let us not forget how many organisations there are who do provide arts services for children and work tirelessly to keep our children’s imagination filled with fun and play and wondrous things: Unicorn Theatre, Polka Theatre5x5x5=creativity and Imaginate to name but a very very few. However, children as a whole section of society are underrepresented in the arts and are too often lumped into ‘families’ groups whereby an adult event is deemed suitable for children rather than being devised with children in mind.

The number of arts facilities provided just for children does in no way represent their percentage numbers in society and this fact alone does them a great injustice. It’s about time we started making children our priority, the future of this country. It’s about time we started taking responsibility for the fact that they feel angry and undervalued and not lazily blame the parents, but blame the culture. When art becomes truly art for all, for the whole of society, we will have achieved our goal. Until then, join us in fighting for an undeniable right for our children, the right to have access to the arts.

To join Action for Children’s Arts or to find out more about what we do and how we do it, see our website www.childrensarts.org.uk

The Studio at Islington Arts Factory

Last September, after a valuable tip off from an acquaintance, I found myself at the inaugural exhibition of Artbox – a charity providing art workshops in Islington for young adults with learning difficulties. Held in the foyer of the Prince’s Foundation in Shoreditch, the evening showcased some astounding works. As I wound my way through the pulsing crowds, I absorbed the aesthetics and the range of styles and techniques being displayed and (even after promising myself this was purely window shopping), soon found 3 or 4 pieces I wanted to buy. But this was a silent auction, and the competition for each piece soon became clear, as a suited man stood territorially in front of his favourite choice proclaiming ‘none of you want this picture, I’m telling you, you don’t want it!’ After eventually finding a work for which I hadn’t already been outbid, I swiftly put my name down and ticked the box ‘would like to volunteer’. 10 months later and I’m the proud owner of a screenprint ‘Owl’ by Gary, and am a helper at the weekly workshop sessions in the Islington Arts Factory.

Students hard at work

Since working with Artbox I’ve been utterly amazed. Not just by the fabulous work being produced week in, week out, by a group of talented and previously unrecognised artists, but by the relentless hard work and dedication committed to the enterprise by Madeline and Jenny, the charity’s directors. It is astounding that small charities such as this go relatively unnoticed. As with other sectors, people generally notice the big daddies. The Oxfams and Greenpeaces are all well and good and do fantastic work, but they overshadow the little guys – fighting to be noticed, to get funding, to get support and interest, for work which makes a huge difference to people’s lives.

If you hadn’t already gathered by now, I’m a big believer in art for all and of the benefit of art to the individual as well as society as a whole. With Artbox I’ve seen first hand the effect it can have on people, particularly those with learning difficulties, as we watch their exploration, confidence and independence develop in leaps and bounds. There is understanding here, as well as respect. Madeline Alterman, the founder of Artbox, has a brother with Down’s Syndrome and has worked with people with physical and learning disabilities. She felt, rightly, that disabled people are under-represented in the art world and not viewed on an equal footing with those whom are able-bodied, which is both a shameful injustice and also a great loss to the general public. Then came a stroke of genius. Rather than merely hanging and displaying the works, how about selling them? The resulting exhibition and silent auction was a resounding success. 60% of the sale was given directly to the artist, and 40% put back into future funding for Artbox.

Madeline with a student

I started helping out just after this first exhibition and remember being told by one young man, with total belief in his eyes, that he will be a professional artist. I believe him. His work is a combination of graphic design and illustration through mixed media. It is astounding in its emphatic expression and fluid production. Artbox provides him with a space free from the bureaucratic levels and targets of traditional learning. His only target is to produce what he considers his best work.

The spirit of the charity and it’s inclusive, engaging, and sometimes very entertaining ethos (flashback to dancing wildly around the room to Michael Jackson with one of the students) was captured recently by a local school taking part in a film-making competition. They were asked to showcase a small charity doing important things and wisely chose Artbox. Thanks to their expert skills, and the photogenic nature of our students and volunteers, their film won the competition and landed Artbox with a well-deserved boost in funding, meaning more materials for the group and potentially some more sketching day trips.

The next Artbox exhibition will take place on 20th July at Mazars, Tower Bridge, with works for sale. If you would like to attend you will need to put your name on the guest list. You can do this by emailing madeline@artboxlondon.org.

If you would like to help out, get involved or donate to Artbox please visit their website www.artboxlondon.org.