Friday 25 November 2011

The therapeutic powers of felting: patients at Penn Hospital make artworks for The Joy of Making exhibition

A's impressive felted mat

I get a buzz out of working with all types of people but I have to say that working in situations where you feel that you are making a positive contribution to people’s lives is absolutely the most rewarding.

In the past I have worked with young people in various mental health wards at Birmingham Children’s Hospital, I have led a few sessions at adult day centres for people suffering from mental well being issues and in October this year I had a fantastic day working with participants from Borderland Voices and ReThink in the very scenic Staffordshire Peak Parkland. That was a very uplifting day. 

I passionately believe that there are lots of therapeutic benefits of taking part in a creative activity. I have chosen to use the wet felt making technique for my outreach activities because I can see how fantastic a process it is for helping people to calm down, relax, reconnect with their senses and discover their own creative capabilities
It is a process that I have a lot of experience in (having first learnt felting back in 1997) and over the years I have got better and better at devising projects suitable for and of interest to people of all ages and abilities.

It is great to be invited to lead sessions even if they are only a few hours long but it is even better when I am able to be involved in a project that develops over several weeks. That way I get the chance to build up relationships and I am also able to see the growth in people’s confidence and abilities. It is so rewarding! 

Wolverhampton Art Gallery and Wolverhampton Arts and Heritage Service recently gave me such an opportunity; I was the artist invited to lead seven weekly sessions with patients at Penn Hospital, Wolverhampton.

Each week I arrived at the hospital and the occupational therapists and technicians, Amy, Karen, Claire and Sherry made me very welcome. I ran through what I was planning to do in the session and gave them a quick demo before they went onto the ward to encourage patients to come to the art room. This was also a chance to review how the participants had felt about the previous week’s session. 

Each week was different depending on which patients came. No one was forced to come rather they were given the chance to try something new.

At some sessions there was only two patients and at others there was six but usually there were about four. Patients suffered from a range of mental wellbeing issues including varying levels of dementia, anxiety attacks, recovering from strokes and depression. (There may be other issues that I am not aware of.) I’m not all that good at guessing how old people are and really I try to ignore ages but I think that hte patients who took part ranged from their early 60’s to early 80’s.

A was one great  'joiner in', she came to every session but as she has impaired memory she couldn’t actually remember what she had done in the previous weeks. However, it was obvious that her body had some sort of memory; I often say how felting is best learnt by doing and it was obvious that A’s body remembered how to handle the wool fibres and tuft out wool to make the flat felt for the mats and flowers that we made.

In the 6th week she rediscovered her ability to plait and got very busy plaiting lengths of the fluffy merino wool tops. This was a perfect opportunity to talk about memories of hairstyles in our childhood. She had always wanted long hair and my mum wasn’t the best at making my plaits the same thickness!

A’s independence grew noticeably over the weeks. At first she was assisted by one of the nursing staff, then she quickly showed her individuality by deciding on colours and was happy to continue even when there was no one by her side. I was really pleased when she made some design decisions including leaving her flowers with solid petals rather than cutting them and when she made her plait and stitched it in a diagonal across her mat. We also discovered how good she was at sewing too!

V has had a serious stroke but despite having one hand in a plastic splint and needing her oxygen tank she was a very enthusiastic participant. She was delighted with her multi coloured felted balls and took one home to show her grand children. V quickly revealed her personality and her enthusiasm for colour. She was interested in the results that other patients achieved and developed her own style. 
V's stripey felted mat with flowers and leaves 

Each week I would remind everyone about The Joy of Making exhibition at Wolverhampton Art Gallery and how we were working towards making our own artworks which would also be included in the exhibition. At the beginning of the project I had worried that this might be  a bit intimidating for the group but actually I think they were more bemused by the idea that they might be able to make art that would be worthy of exhibiting. 

They had already been on a trip to the art gallery, met the exhibition curator and been shown some of the items which would be in the exhibition. The occupational therapy team felt that the Polish Paper cuts would be especially inspirational to their patients. 

I was really happy about this as unbeknownst to them two of my own treasured items are Polish paper cut cards that my grandmother (Nan) gave me when I was six years old. So not only was I happy to dig out my cards and take them to the sessions but it also brought back memories of my Nan. She has been very inspirational in my life and I often explain in my Frillip Moolog blog how I draw on memories of times spent with her when creating my own Frillip Moolog sculptures.
One of my own Polish paper cut cards given to me by my grandmother 

N chose the the colours for this felted brooch from another of my cards. His wife was delighted when he gave her the brooch.

The first few sessions were about finding out what we could make using the wet felting technique. Even I was impressed with what we managed to achieve in the first session. 
And it was good to have  a finished piece that could be taken round the ward to show everyone and to act as encouragement for others to take part. 

The mat that we made in the first session. Everyone in the group contributed to it.

In the second week we made small multi-coloured felted balls and some beads. L not only made some beads but also spent some time arranging them around one of the felted pieces that Karen (one of the OTs) had made in the previous week. I was really interested to see how absorbed she got in this activity (she was singing as she did it) and also that she didn’t feel constrained to arrange the beads in an obvious flower pattern however there is  some symmetry to her arrangement.

The felted beads arranged by L. 

In the third week I took in some of my big stones from my garden. In the past children have made felted purses by wrapping the stone in wool and felting it. This time we felted the fibres over it, cut it to get the stone out and then continued shaping by felting around a tin of beans. I was inspired by the baskets that the exhibition curator had selected to be included in The Joy of Making.
I was delighted with the vessels and the results are pretty impressive but the patients later said that they found it a bit too hard. I can see that the stones are a bit heavy and really if a project is too awkward to handle and can’t be done without help then really that isn’t empowering the participant. I felt that the felted vessels would look good in an exhibition but the patients are much more likely to feel proud of the items that they have good memories of making. 

Good Arts and Health Projects should be about empowering the patients and increasing their sense of wellbeing.

So we all concluded that concentrating on making flat felted items was the best way forward.

The first week that we made felted mats with felted fringing was the only week that a lady called J took park. She amazed the OT team by staying engaged in the activity for much longer than usual. She really enjoyed the sensory experience of working with the soapy water and rubbing the wool fibres. Claire who was assisting her was fantastic at taking time to ensure that she had the chance to choose her own colours. J also took care over the placing of the turquoise mohair knitting yarn to make her pattern.
In the sessions there was often laughter and so when J stood up to dance this was a lovely sign of a happy person who felt relaxed and comfortable.

As the weeks went on the staff were getting more and more enthusiastic themselves. I was pleased that Claire took some notes about the various stages in the felting process and she and Amy both took photos too. These were photos of the patients being engrossed while handling the wool fibres and in the felting process and there are a fair number of smiley photos too. 

Half way through M’s first session I looked over and realised that she was very definitely smiling. It was her first time in one of the art and craft therapy sessions. She made 3 felted flowers and the next week made a blue mat to place them on. She was someone who could at times seem quite bewildered but over the course of the three sessions that she attended she did come out of herself and expressed opinions on lots of things. The colours that she chose, where to place the flowers that she had made, which buttons to use. 
M's lovely blue mat. She left one of her three flowers off as she wasn't happy enough with some of its petals.
In the sixth session we had Emma and Diane visit us from Blakenhall Resource Centre in Wolverhampton. They run art sessions there and were interested to see how felting might be a good activity to run with their participants. I was delighted when M and Diane were sitting side by side. M was able to show Diane how to make  a piece of flat felt . and they worked together on a new piece which will very likely become the base for another wall hanging that can be displayed in the hospital. 

So at the final session I laid out all the mats and everyone could see just how far they had progressed and they were proud of their achievements. They have made work which is worthy of being included in an exhibition in a prestigious public art gallery.

A continued to impress us with her plaiting abilities, M made a piece of felt that will very likely form the base of a for another wall hanging that can be displayed in the hospital and V went freestyle.
She started laying out colours to make a felted Jamacian flag but then she let her creativity loose and it evolved into this really free and energetic felted picture. Maybe she felt it was her last week of felting with me there and wanted to push herself to create something extra special. I know that she was tired when she arrived so I was so impressed that she worked so independently and also this is quite a large piece of felt to make (with only one hand that she could get wet!). 
So not only had she leant a new skill but she really was using her artistic eye to make a very personal piece of art.
It was sad to say goodbye to the group at the end of my seventh session but I am sure that they will come to the celebration event at Wolverhampton Art Gallery when The Joy of Making opens in February 2012.

All of the participants have a lot to be proud of and I am sure that they will bring family members along too. It will be a lovely way of celebrating the achievements of these patients and also I know that Amy and the Occupational Therapy team will continue to develop their felting skills so that by February everyone may even arrive at the gallery wearing some felted bead bracelets and with felted bags or spectacle cases too!

Here are some of the comments that were noted throughout the felt making sessions from patients:
“It feels great, smashing”
“It feels nice”
“It feels smooth”
“a bit wet”
“The green & yellow look lovely”
“It’s lovely and soft”
“I’m making a nest here”
“Give the sheep a hair cut”
“They’re brave sheep am”
“Reminds me of the leather making”
“I crafted it”
“My hands are all slippy”
“It makes me more sociable”
“Oh that’s lovely, I like that”
“Mine looks like a dragon”
“Pink is my colour”
“It made me laugh, I have loved watching you”
“Call this a wage!”
And a final piece of synchronicity for me; I have just discovered that my talented friend Helen Snell has been selected to make a specially commissioned installation for The Joy of Making exhibition. Also taking inspiration from the Polish papercut art in the gallery’s  collection she will create her own 3D interpretation of the story of The Joy of Making. 

‘The Joy of Making’ at Wolverhampton Art Gallery.  The exhibition runs 11 February to 14 April 2012.