In this blog post we share learning from research into a collaborative community-based project led by Prism Arts, a charity with the vision of ‘Art without Barriers’. Their mission is to deliver arts programmes that empower people with disabilities to drive their own creative journey and develop as artists, leaders and advocates for change. Picture of Me was an eight-week programme of activities for learning-disabled and autistic young people (participant-artists) from across Cumbria. The research was a partnership between Tracy, a researcher then based at the University of Cumbria (now at Plymouth Marjon University), and Jane, an artist at Prism Arts. Following Prism Arts’ successful funding application to Arts Council England, Picture of Me launched in spring 2021. In a series of hands-on workshops, participant-artists worked with specialist-artists to explore their sense of self through one of three strands, each having a specific art form: dance & film, street art or storytelling.
Figure 1: Picture of Me workshop participants
The first workshop in each strand began with getting to know each other through the particular art form:
Making time to understand how we work … how each other works … to draw out the best from each individual … in order to draw out their story … in the way that they want it to be drawn out… (Susie, Specialist-Artist, Dance and film)
Then, the specialist-artists initiated a series of skills-based activities, beginning with a prompt:
- Dance and film – personal objects brought in by individual participants.
- Street art – well-known artworks chosen by individual participants.
- Storytelling – handling Roman objects within a local museum to evoke memories and imagination.
For each strand, initial half-day workshops focused on developing skills in the art form, while building content and developing story. These were followed by full-day workshops that allowed time to craft stories.
Story crafting is an inclusive approach devised by Tracy, developed in partnership with Jane, and in collaboration with the specialist-artists to evaluate Picture of Me. Our story crafting process had four stages:
- Building skills and confidence through participant-led beginnings.
- Developing story – asking: ‘What is the story we are telling?’
- Crafting story – asking: ‘How do we tell that story?’
- Transforming story through sharing with others, including peer group and public events – asking: ‘Whose story is it? Who has access to another’s stories?’
In project team meetings, we contemplated authorship, reminding ourselves to be mindful of supporting rather than directing activities. This is not always easy and takes conscious effort, especially with less confident participant-artists.
The story crafting process was designed to enable participants to have agency and ownership of the content and performance – rather than being directed to deliver a previously planned concept or production. (Stefan, Specialist-Artist, Storytelling)
We incorporated story crafting into every stage, from project conception to dissemination. This involved delivery team members engaging in individual and collaborative reflective practice, both ‘in action’ during sessions and ‘on action’ after sessions, drawing on discussions, notes and observations, which we captured on a shared Padlet. Tracy undertook participant observations within all three strands and participated in session evaluations. In this way, sharing of practice, research and learning wove across the strands, providing a cohesive, reflexive and creative approach.
‘Sharing of practice, research and learning wove across the three strands, providing a cohesive, reflexive and creative approach.’
The research served a number of purposes: for participant-artists, aiding reflection to support their progression and development, celebrating their achievements; for Tracy, applying theoretical learning from doctoral study, further developed through academic practice, in a community setting, with new collaborators. She questioned whether her story crafting ideas would work with learning disabled and/or autistic people and if they could be explained in an everyday, inclusive way. Jane thought Prism Arts’ participant-led, participant-owned and participant-authored practice was inherently inclusive. She questioned whether this could be articulated as a way of working that is recognisably a Prism Arts’ approach so that people knew what to expect.
The impact of Picture of Me continues: we have contributed to an academic paper (under review) where we argue for more relational ethics-in-the-moment approaches, which embrace the nuances of collaborative, participatory research. We have contributed to an online seminar and facilitated a workshop at BERA Conference 2023. At Prism Arts, story crafting is being used and adapted within sessions to ensure work is driven by the voices of participants, and has been integrated into their evaluation model. Many of the Picture of Me participant-artists now attend regular sessions – the introduction to Prism Arts’ way of working through Picture of Me gave them confidence to come into sessions and to have a sense of their creative voice. Tracy has joined them and is now a trustee at Prism Arts.