The art of stimulating conversations

Categories: Community Engagement.

East Lancashire Hospice wanted to identify a sustainable way to stimulate conversations about illness, death and bereavement in a positive, gentle way.  Through our fundraising team we became aware of an opportunity to bid for a secondment for a member of staff from John Lewis via their Golden Jubilee Project. We were delighted when Allyson Lynch came to join our team as Project Lead. Allyson works at Hebert Parkinson, a local company who are part of the John Lewis family, and she brought her considerable project management and communication skills to the project.

The plan

Following a period of research, Allyson discovered that the arts have a proven track record of stimulating discussion regarding taboo topics in a safe way. We decided to target an audience of young people, to influence a new generation for open discussions of illness, death and bereavement.

What we did

Initially we contacted local colleges, universities and youth groups asking them if their art students would like to participate in the project. Most colleges declined as students had already chosen topics for their final exam pieces.  Fortunately two local colleges agreed to meet with a view to considering participation.

We met with tutors and outlined our proposals. Despite some initial anxiety, the tutors of two local colleges agreed to take part. Darwen Aldridge Community Academy agreed to a group of students completing the project as part of pastoral support sessions, and St Mary’s College in Blackburn agreed to support a group of drama students participating in the project.

Both groups were provided with a resource pack and a workshop that covered:

  • The aims of the project
  • Exploration of the impact of a death denying culture
  • Consideration of how the Arts open up discussions about taboo topics

St Mary’s Students used drama as a vehicle for stimulating conversations, and Darwen Aldridge Community Academy students focused on producing sculpture, photography and paintings.

The Project Lead secured donations of art supplies from SAMS, a local social enterprise that makes art materials accessible by working with companies to recycle and reuse items. Each college received a gift box of supplies for the project.

Students and tutors were asked to produce their art for exhibitions held during Dying Matters Week.  The whole community were invited to attend these events through various marketing initiatives.

The impact

The impact of this project has been amazing on many different levels.  

  • Transformation in attitudes regarding talking about illness, death and bereavement and planning for the future
  • Establishment of a partnership working with Herbert Parkinson and John Lewis that has led to cross -fertilization of skills and mutual staff development
  • Established partnership working with local colleges resulting in links for fundraising, education and volunteering
  • Established partnership with a local art supplier who also agreed to provide supplies for the provision of therapeutic art and craft activities at the hospice
  • Engagement with young people and their families who initially had limited awareness of the hospice and the work we do
  • Production of awesome art work – paintings, photography, sculpture, poetry, song and drama that provoked open, meaningful and positive conversations, some of which have been donated to the hospice for permanent display
  • A DVD of the dramatization of  Connie’s Story, a work focusing on a mother and daughters’  experience of dementia that has been donated by the college so it can be used in education provided by the hospice
  • Promotion of confidence and learning in the students’ participation 

The impact on students and attendees to the exhibitions was evaluated with questionnaires. One student commented:

 “I have previously found talking about death to be unpleasant and have tried to avoid it as much as I can. This event has allowed me to see the positive.”

Another student performed a monologue around the day his mother died. He performed this in front of an audience for the first time, on his eighteenth birthday. His father and grandparents were in the audience, and they had never seen him perform. The impact was profound on all the audience members but especially on the student’s family, who expressed their thanks for the opportunity to share this special event.

A tutor said:

“Participating in the project promoted discussion about death and dying, but also about family and mortality. Some students also took the opportunity to open up about loss and grief that they had personally experienced. We were also able to challenge some of the taboos and I feel that some students that previously felt uncomfortable discussing death had become more open and less frightened about the prospect of dying.”

An attendee said:

“Anybody who has not seen tonight’s performances has truly missed out. What a unique way of raising awareness of a difficult subject.”

We are launching the project for 2017-18 this autumn with a view to increasing participation and holding bigger exhibitions during Dying Matters Week 2018.

Image: Student artwork. “In the days preceding her passing, my mum told me she would send me feathers to tell me she is there. That is the inspiration for my piece. She was truly an angel.”

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