In this her third blog artist Jen Hesnan reflects on her experience of working with Galway Autism Partnership discussing the development of her youth arts practice.
Jen, how would you describe the Exhibition Awesome project and your role within it, as you see it?
Exhibition Awesome was created as part of NYCI’s Artist in Youth Work Residency scheme during 2013. I was resident artist with Galway Autism Partnership which gave me the opportunity to work with young people on the autistic spectrum, to explore their special interests and to develop their artistic skills working through digital media. The project culminated in an exhibition of work which was exhibited in several local Galway venues including The Galway Art Centre, The Shed, The Westside Library and NUIG Quadrangle Gallery.
At the beginning of the residency I initially just observed Galway Autism Partnership’s youth work practice; taking time to just be in the setting enabled me to become more aware of the young people’s needs. As I observed, I began to realise that I had to tailor the programme specifically to the needs of each individual young person within the group. I had the idea that technology would be a common interest for participants, so that was my starting point.
At GAP we tried to involve each individual in the planned youth arts project through their own special interest- eg. video editing, design etc. while the common theme was digital media. We felt that because creative practice is now such a part of many people’s everyday lives via the programmes available on devices such as smart phones and tablets, it was a good starting point.
In fact the word ‘Art’ wasn’t even mentioned until a positive relationship had been established between the participants and the artist. For me the most important part was building friendships and creating a safe positive atmosphere for the young people. Once the groundwork had been laid we could then engage in a process of collective responsibility for the work and process that was taking place.
You’ve had a two year period of working with Galway Autism Partnership. Can you describe how you feel your practice has evolved over this time?
As my practice develops, I am increasingly aware that tolerance and acceptance is so important in this work and definitely the more engagement that I have with participants the more I learn. I am also more inclined to listen and engage the young people in more individual conversations first rather than have what might be described as a ‘classroom’ atmosphere.
I’ve also learnt in my work with GAP that it’s extremely important to check in with parents as the creative process is developing with young people as they can give you valuable feedback along the way. When meeting the parents, I wanted the presentation that I gave to be creative so that they would have a sense of, the type of work that their children might be engaging with. I made a giant book and presented a visual plan to them. It went really well, I think it both reassured them about the process and made them really excited that this was an opportunity that their children could engage with.
Are there any methodologies that you use or questions that you might ask yourself that you feel assist you in developing your practice?
For me documenting and creating a video production for projects is core for reflection and development of both the programmes that I am working on and my own professional practice. No matter what art form I am using during the workshop, I will always have some video production activity happening in the background. This also allows for another point of engagement in case a young person doesn’t feel comfortable with partaking in a visual art or musical activity. There is always a way that every participant can be included and feel welcome.
Also I create workshop plans, evaluations, logic models; writing them up and keeping them safe is hugely important for me. This means they can be utilised and adapted into the future.
It’s clear that the Exhibition Awesome project went really well, but there must have been some challenges along the way. Can you describe them?
Within the process I had to micro-manage a number of different arts projects because I was responding to the particular needs of the group of young people I was working with in GAP. As each participant had an individual plan devised for them, it could be challenging at times just ensuring that the programme was meeting the needs of each participant.
Also it can be challenging when communicating with parents, funders and organisations to explain that substantial outcomes can take time. So much of this work is about building friendships and creating a positive atmosphere that it’s usually only in the final phase of the process that actual making takes place. Sometimes it is helpful to realise that the process can be the outcome when the art forms are utilised as tools for engagement. Using art forms such as video production and photography as an intrinsic part of the project can really help to paint this picture for those on the outside, not to mention functioning as a tool for reflection for those who were inside the arts process.
Content and views expressed by our guest bloggers in residence does not necessarily reflect the views of NYCI.
Next week in her fourth and final bog Jen will discuss the potential benefits for youth work organisations in making links with the wider creative community.
John McArdle is a primary teacher, actor, former director of The Young Abbey, Hennessy award winner for short stories and winner of a European filmscript award. Among his works for young people are children’s stories, children’s radio, stage plays for Team Theatre in Education, The Ark, National Youth Theatre and The Peacock Theatre. Director of the performance module director on the Dramatherapy M.A in N.U.I. Maynooth, and Educational drama principal tutor of Queen’s University outreach M.A for Monaghan Education Centre, John is an acknowledged expert in educational drama and was the consultant to the primary schools drama curriculum and has written the pamphlet “Flying On Both Wings” for Abbey Outreach. Between 2005 and 2010 he was Artistic Director of Iontas Theatre, Castleblayney which ran an outreach youth programme.