“Finding a voice through creativity” might read like a multi layered bannered slogan on an advertising hoarding situated at the approach to an airport, a shopping centre, or, on the sponsored hi-tech image boards that surround premiership football pitches. In reality it could easily be the motto for one of the fastest developing arts projects in Northern Ireland - the Here and Now Older People’s Arts and Wellbeing Festival.
Now into the second of a three-year commitment that was preceded by a pilot year, the festival, which is organised by the charity Arts Care with the support of the Public Health Agency in conjunction with all five Health and Social Care Trusts throughout Northern Ireland, has exceeded expectations.
Already 75 organisations have already played host to 3,000 older people in a jam-packed programme of creativity workshops that have been delivered in health care and community settings by arts carers, residents and project artists. “The response has been astonishing for us,” says Arts Care CEO, Dr Jenny Elliott “The first year we had no idea how it would go until we got the feedback, which was overwhelming.”
“Some welcomed us with open arms while others were a bit reticent. However once they were coaxed out and enjoying themselves, we never looked back,” explains Amanda Turnbull, who is the administrator at Arts Care.
The remit of the Here and Now festival is to bring the arts to people aged 60 and over, especially for those living in residential care facilities. For many of them it is an opportunity to show that creativity has no age limit. Involvement in a variety of arts disciplines increases the interactivity of some older people who might not otherwise get the opportunity.
“We take the festival into all sorts of venues” says project co-ordinator Janine Walker, who, along with Rachael Kelly, physically organises the myriad of events that occur during the present three-month period. No venue is out of bounds, be it a village hall, community centre or residential care home where people can tell stories, make jewellery, paint, sculpture and even dance.
“One of the more unusual of venues was a hairdressers salon in Newtownards where the Golden Girls, a creative writing group went in and chatted with people and from that created art,” adds Walker.
“Every year the festival is able to grow stronger, building on the good feedback of the previous year. We know what we are doing, who we are trying to access and how to get the best out of our participants,” explains Jenny Elliott.
Arts Care has, what it describes as, three big outcome exhibitions in 2015. The ‘RIPE’ exhibition encourages artists, who have never done so before, to stage solo exhibitions of their work.
April’s ‘In Full Bloom’ exhibition will showcase all the work that has been created from Bangor to Belcoo during the life of the festival. And as part of its ongoing ‘Aloud, Allowed, Aloud’ project, Strabane was the venue for Arts Care’s recent 'Let the Dance Begin Again' extravaganza where the star of the Flash mob dance was 98 year old Pat Gillespie.
“He dressed in his own baseball cap and jacket and embraced the urban dance moves. Paddy was fantastic,” says Elliott, herself one of Northern Ireland’s most influential figures in dance. “The whole town, its people, the traders and council all got behind the event.”
However Pat Gillespie is by no means the oldest exponent of the creative arts. He is several years behind 104-year-old Dunmurry resident Doris McCleery, whose gift as a sculptor and a ceramicist has emerged in recent years. Her ceramic pieces and wood sculptures fashioned from bits of windfall branches and logs picked up in her garden have garnered much praise.
“What is interesting about the ‘RIPE’ exhibition is that those taking part are artists who never pushed themselves beyond a bit of dabbling,” explains Elliott. “One man, Edward Cartin, who is originally from Bellaghy did a series of painting inspired by the work of Seamus Heaney, a former patron of Arts Care. When Edward exhibited his work at Arts Care’s new gallery space, the entire collection was bought by one buyer. Edward was determined that it should be kept together and not sold as individual pieces.”
The health benefits from getting older people to engage in the arts cannot be underestimated. The artists involved in Here and Now see the differences that can be made.
“It can be comforting and heartbreaking at the same time,” says Amanda Turnbull. “The project artists that go into care facilities often engage with people who may not have any immediate family. In being able to tell their stories they feel like they do count.”
And while the Here and Now festival publicly states that its aim is for the over 60s, it is a startling reality that Arts Care has already begun to lower that age bracket.
“Our Arts Care group in Newry has engaged with a group of people in their 50s who have early onset dementia,” says Jenny Elliot. “There are lots more people living with this than is realised and we want their voice to be heard through our festival. Through Here and Now, the arts can be used by people to make sense of dementia. Arts can be the key to opening up the dialogue into something that is quite hidden,” she adds.