I was awarded the Artist in the Community Scheme Bursary Award 2018: Collaborative Arts in Health Contexts at a critical point in an Arts and Health practice of 16 years – half spent in palliative care and the latter half crouched at patient bedsides in the acute public hospital. The priorities of the organisations and individuals I had worked with seldom predetermined collaboration but, in favouring longer-term projects, collaborations with patients and healthcare professionals had evolved naturally, manifesting multifariously with my role as collaborator downplayed. The confidential nature of the work and the particular circumstances of those I engaged with, under the auspices of patient-centred participative programmes with wellbeing goals, negated such terms but, in practice, I had been using collaborative approaches increasingly. I wanted to think through how future invitations to collaborate might play out, addressing the complexities of collaboration in the acute hospital setting against the wider challenges of Arts and Health practice.
A second strand of enquiry sought to explore how ideas of place underpinned much of the work – of particular note in the public hospital where my own non-belonging was acutely felt and everyone I worked with was displaced. Recognising that my place-based conversations with patients were now influencing what happened in my studio, the bursary presented an opportunity to assimilate distinct areas of my practice. This was important because my work in healthcare settings was necessarily invisible and, as a visual artist, this constituted a problematic void when I was starting to get fatigued by the endemic issues of continuous yet precarious practice in health contexts. The period of reflection and research I proposed therefore aimed to inform the direction of my Arts and Health practice and its place within my wider practice at a pivotal time.
I explored questions of place in relation to collaborative arts and the acute hospital through desk-based research and a process of engagement with the hospital community. Previous open calls to participate in comparable artist-led research had yielded little uptake from staff and I was conscious that conversations around place, and its associations with home, might stir vulnerabilities for patients. I therefore worked within existing relationships and arts programming at Galway University Hospitals through Saolta Arts. The most fertile exchange was an extended dialogue with artist Deirdre O’Mahony as she prepared for her commissioned artwork for Galway 2020 European Capital of Culture. Desk-based research introduced texts from human geography. This took in Yi-Fu Tuan’s work on topophilia, Doreen Massey’s concept of a ‘progressive sense of place’ and Robert Sack’s metaphor of ‘thick and thin places’.
The majority of my bursary period was given to reflective practice, initially working introspectively. I knew that writing in a vacuum would limit the breadth and depth of reflection and that a supportive framework of peers would afford a thorough interrogation of experiences, unearthing some that had been lost to time and considering perspectives I had overlooked. Having joined a collective formed following discussions at the national Arts and Health networking event Check Up Check in 2018 (Waterford Healing Arts Trust), the bursary supported my participation in a residency at West Cork Arts Centre in 2019. Predating the pandemic and the ease with which we now engage in online dialogue, the residency provided in-person time with West Cork-based artists Charlotte Donovan and Sarah Ruttle and Glasgow-based artist Kirsty Stansfield to develop discussion points and a reading list for our ongoing exchange, which had to this point been limited via correspondence. Our residency dialogue unfolded around a process of making, both in the studio and in Charlotte’s kitchen, baking for an open studio event, a prerequisite of the residency and intended to open our discussion out to others.
A series of one-to-one conversations with Glasgow-based artist Steven Anderson proved invaluable. Sharing experience in working freelance for, but not within institutions, often in self-initiated projects and straddling both artist and arts co-ordinator roles, our discussions were an in-depth exploration of topics including boundaries, controlling an environment, vouching for others, as well as candid reflections on failings and regrets. Our time together introduced me to key texts from other disciplines, offering fresh yet pertinent perspectives on my bursary themes. These include the insights of choreographer Liz Lerman, the Deep Listening theories of composer Pauline Oliveros, and the Viewpoints improvisation techniques developed by Mary Overlie.
Whilst the period of reflection primarily drew from my own experiences, concurrent projects with Saolta Arts allowed me to learn from working alongside artists with different artforms and approaches. Although this was not part of my bursary proposal, it contributed to an expanded understanding of methodologies for engaging hospital communities and the merits and challenges particular to each.
The opportunity to allocate time for honest reflective dialogue with trusted peers proved paramount. In the years preceding this, unless providing support or mentoring for other artists, I had largely worked in isolation and found that opportunities to make meaningful connections with peers at major sectoral events were often tempered by a loop of frustratingly reductive or promotional presentations. Being able to talk frankly and fully with experienced practitioners about the complex relational and environmental issues inherent in the work formed a reaffirming sounding board at a time when my resilience was waning. Whilst I had generally benefited from working with established, supportive organisations that built advisory multidisciplinary expertise into projects, the bursary highlighted the need for me to allocate peer-to-peer reflective practice, distinct from mentoring, within the budgets of future projects.
From the outset, I was careful to avoid the trap of turning a period of reflection and learning into a project with tangible outputs, concluded and shared prematurely. Instead, I developed a body of notes and ideas within the bursary period, to be finessed for appropriate formats and audiences as they transpired. The more I wrote and understood about my practice, the more I realised that my stories were intertwined with those of others and that how, and how much of, what was disclosed required careful curation.
My conversations with Steven Anderson led us to develop content for a workshop exploring trust and risk, and my reflective notes from the bursary period proved important groundwork for subsequent dialogue as part of To Care, a programme developed by Workhouse Union and VISUAL. This included participating in a series of discussions around ethics in collaborative arts practice led by Dr Alastair Roy, and an active seminar at VISUAL in July 2022. In addition, a commissioned material response to this dialogue resulted in a number of textile and sculptural works made using processes associated with the labour of care. Under the mentorship of writer Nathan O’Donnell, I am currently considering how forms of experimental publishing might combine documentation of these processes and creative reflective writing resulting from the bursary.
Ultimately, the bursary allowed me to reframe and reconcile issues that had arisen in my practice and to make necessary adjustments to the way I work, even to the way I will approach future bursaries. For example, though it allowed me to relinquish other commitments for reflective practice, the usual shifting timelines of Arts and Health projects meant that my calendar was full and I had not factored in the time necessary to switch headspaces. With the passage of time in mind, the effects of this bursary remain palpable and are becoming visible.