Playaway multidisciplinary art workshops, The PACE Centre

Following our successful Creating music through technology project funded by the Sobell Foundation in partnership with Decibels last month, Eloise Garland and I were invited back to The PACE Centre for more fun last week!

This time round, we were contracted to run six 90-minute sessions as part of Playaway, a non-profit charity which runs a two-week specialist holiday playscheme for disabled school-age children every summer.

Our brief was more flexible. We no longer had an obligation to work with the Subpac vest, and Playaway asked us to use their theme this year, which was Space. The sessions needed to be self-contained, as we were working with a different group every day. We took advantage of this by playing around with the layered structure of the workshops as we went along.

Otherwise, the aim remained the same: to explore emotions, personality traits and moods through music, and then feed the new appreciation into visual art.

Given the theme, Space Oddity was a natural choice for the visual art segment. It was released 50 years ago – in the same year as the first moon landings – and to make it even more special, there was even a cover from a real-life astronaut. It had a pleasant ambience that I believed the children would take to.

Again, I had to show them first how it would be done! In the photo below, I’m actually painting a tiny figure disappearing into the Milky Way while the video is playing.

Because I knew the song quite well, I was able to disperse with the Subpac and properly get into my stride. In other sessions I’ve also painted a lone astronaut floating in space towards the Moon, and a metallic comet hurtling through the sky!

Next, the children discussed imagined characteristics of certain planets with Eloise – Mars, Jupiter, Neptune – and created short, basic compositions with various instruments based on each, led by Eloise on the violin.

Thus primed, the children were able to return to Space Oddity with a newly enlightened perspective and paint more imaginatively and freely while, again, Chris Hadfield did his acoustic guitar riff on the big screen.

The results were astonishing in their variety and confidence! The children clearly showed an aptitude for independent thinking and for owning their feelings.

Sadly, I’m not able to join Eloise in the second week of Playaway due to a prior commitment. I’m certain though that my replacement, illustrator Tim Reedy, is more than capable of generating his own cosmic fun with the children – and I look forward to seeing them all again very soon.

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Creating music through technology at PACE

Over two weeks in May 2019, the deaf musician Eloise Garland and I ran afternoon workshop sessions at the PACE Centre in Aylesbury. They involved primary schoolchildren at Philip Green House, Coventon Road, Aylesbury, and their secondary counterparts at the Bradbury Campus, 156 Wendover Road, Aylesbury.

The workshops were an opportunity to promote Subpac technology in a specialist educational setting, and built on previous collaborative work on a Decibels and Audiovisability Creating Music through Technology R&D project, funded by the Sobell Foundation and Arts Council England (ACE).

This revolved round Laurentia Tan, a medal-winning deaf Para-dressage rider, and her access to music in international competitive dressage – which made Decibels and Audiovisability, a multi-disciplinary creative initiative with music and deaf people at its core, ideal partners.

The Creating Music through Technology project aimed to raise the profile of both Laurentia and Subpac (vibrotactile) technology via film, music, journalism, and visual art made by deaf people. Taking this work to schools like PACE, which is aimed at children with motor disabilities like Laurentia, was therefore a natural next step.

With both sets of children, the workshops took two parts. The first part was a 45-minute school assembly, with a short film of the R&D being shown on a large screen and a briefing of the project. This was followed by a demonstration in which Eloise approached each of the children with the Subpac vest for them to feel – 15 children in the primary school assembly, 10 in the secondary – before I took up the mantle to do a live drawing of a horse with it on, allowing the musical vibrations to influence my mark-making.

The second part was a 30-minute repeat of said demonstration the following week, before the children went back into their group classrooms. Each group – there were three in Primary, and rather fewer in Secondary, allowing more scope for flexibility – had three 20-minute activities each.

The first group discussed the assembly with their conductors (teachers) and LSAs (1:1 learning support assistants); the second group explored feelings in music with Eloise; and the third group, with me, had a go at painting or drawing with the Subpac vest on. (I decided to let them choose their own art materials by way of adapting to their individual disabilities – cerebral palsy is a wide-ranging umbrella term.) When they had finished one 20-minute activity, Eloise, I, and designated staff then swapped places.

The results were very exciting. The children had clearly made mental notes of my live drawing, and created their own movement paintings. Some even managed to evoke the sense of a galloping horse in their abstract marks. You could actually see their confidence growing as they went on – I got the sense they felt empowered by the vibrotactile qualities of the vest. You can see in the below selected images how they responded to my original live drawing (bottom).

I have been an artist and writer for over twenty years, often collaborating with other deaf and disabled artists: most notably as Founder Director of Salon, a grant-funded Deaf contemporary visual arts project that ran for five years. Yet that was the first time I had facilitated, or co-facilitated, an art workshop with disabled children specifically, and as a parent of a disabled child, it meant so much to me: my own daughter is a PACE student. I felt this was crucial to the development of the children’s independent, critical thinking – creativity is after all key to advances in technology, science, and the humanities.

Eloise was very popular in her music activity, getting the children to suggest emotions which she conveyed briefly on her violin. This gave the children much pleasure and incentivised them to ask for more. It didn’t matter whether it preceded or followed the visual art activity – far more important was how their juxtaposition fuelled the children’s imaginations on a multi-dimensional level.

I’m not just saying that! The staff themselves were very moved by the workshops, and I’m pleased to share their thoughts here:

“Very interactive and creative work shown to the children. Allowing the children to explore with different instruments, music, etc.”

“Really interesting and innovative workshop. The music and emotions part was particularly useful for our children who are learning to recognise their own emotions.”

“Innovative, opens the door and gives lots of opportunity for people to live normal lives and access sports and dance.”

“Exceptional piece of equipment presented in an easy to understand way.”

At the time of writing, Eloise and I are preparing to run similar 90-minute workshops at PACE this summer. Although these will be paid by a different charity – and the illustrator Tim Reedy will be replacing me for half the sessions – they are no doubt inspired by the wonderful time we had together, and I am grateful to the Sobell Foundation, Decibels and Audiovisability for helping implement the project.