Over the past year, artists in residence on the Cloudlands project have been meeting teenagers in hospital, equipped with bags full of arts materials and individually-wrapped boxes. Teenagers choose one of the colourful boxes, inside of which they might find, for example, a burnt map or a bird x-ray or a paper staircase. These objects help to inspire creative conversations and wherever the teenager’s imagination leads, the artist is ready to improvise with arts supplies, hospital furniture and imaging technology. However, the journey for the artists – alighting on a conservational box as a creative tool – begins at a much earlier stage in the development of the project.
The creative impetus for Cloudlands and key aspects of its development, as with all of our projects, did not happen in isolation but arose out of learnings from a previous Helium artist in residency, the Puppet Portal Project (2009-2010). This project was aimed at children and while younger adolescents did engage with the puppet-making and performance aspects, there was a growing awareness that future projects should investigate artistic resources for teenagers.
The voices of teenagers themselves were central to the development phase of Cloudlands, which is a 3-year residency project. Invited to take part in consultation sessions with artists, the teenagers illuminated how their experiences of hospital could be improved through creative means and the tools they would find useful in developing collaborative work with others. It was clear that technology played a large part in their lives and that firewalls restricting access to web content, particularly social media sites, made being in hospital an even more challenging experience. From the outset, trialling new technology, developing and refining online resources, and working with creative technologists have been key drivers in the evolution of the project. Year 1 was focused on developing an online platform where teenagers could connect with their peers in participating hospitals and in Year 2 we are launching a public online gallery space to display some of the artwork created.
Going back to the conversational box, award-winning UK artist and director Mark Storor was engaged as Cloudlands artist mentor and facilitated a series of pre-project development days for the artists. During one of these sessions, artist Eszter Némethi told of a conversation with a teenage boy during her time working on the Puppet Portal Project. He said he had made 17 jewellery boxes out of wooden lollypop sticks while in hospital and even though he didn’t particularly like them it was the only thing to do to stave off the boredom. From this story, the conversational box took flight. Now, at the beginning of Cloudlands Year 2, the artists have long gone beyond working solely with boxes as a genesis for ideas and stories, and Mark is there to embolden them and push artistic boundaries during their artist development sessions.
And so beyond the box seemed a very apt name for our first exhibition in November 2013. The exhibition title, chosen by curator Kay Fitzpatrick, was also a metaphor for transporting Cloudlands beyond the confines of the hospital setting. Indeed, a key question that arose from the outcomes of the Puppet Portal Project was how to make art created in hospitals public, to make the invisible visible. The Cloudlands artists in residence created artwork in response to their experience of the project but the exhibition also included a display area showcasing some of the work made by the teenagers in collaboration with the artists. beyond the box was not only an important step forward in making our arts and health practice with young people visible but also, with Cloudlands, in challenging the boundaries of what our artistic processes and outcomes could be.
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