Arts Wellbeing Workshop: Experience Feature

The atmosphere as soon as I arrive greets everyone with relaxing ambient music, and a wholesome demeanour. The modern Church hall is colourfully lit with tinted sunlight, streaming in from the south through the large stained glass window. Our motherly leader of the group introduced herself with great enthusiasm, before carefully explaining the task at hand. A diverse range of Bethnal Green’s local community arrived just for the occasion. The Arts Wellbeing Workshop was in full swing, and so we set to work. Those jars weren’t going to paint themselves, after all. The Bethnal Green Mission Church had entrusted this task like a mission to us all, should we choose to accept it.

After a solid 15 years since I last painted anything, I certainly had my doubts that what I made would be any good. My newfound compatriots felt my background as a musician would help get my creation off the ground, but memories of my last attempts at painting flooded my mind and sapped any optimism I had left. And there really wasn’t a lot left. Indeed, it brought me back to a time when I thought you had to be good at something for it to be worth doing at all. But our comrades in arms exchanged words of encouragement, as different coloured paints travelled their way from table to table, soon to become incarnated through the cathartic rush of the creative process. I learned once again that, it’s the process that counts, not the result.

Heather, excitable mother hen of the nest, has been the leader of community events like these at the Church since August last year. She hosts gardening and yoga sessions regularly at the Church as well, and sees these activities as the “three pinnacles to mental wellbeing”. She says “the issue is that they’re so expensive”, when the average price for one of these sessions in the local area is £12. That’s why the church offers these events free of charge, with a recommended donation of £6.

“The whole point of these is that they’re kept at a level so that anyone can attend, all the time. And that they come away with a sense of friendship and community, but also a sense of pride and achievement for what they’ve done in the time”.

The ONS reported that only around 20% of people say community is an important factor in their personal well-being [ONS], but the Mental Health Foundation say a sense of community can lower rates of mental illness in whole neighbourhoods [Mental Health Foundation].

I felt this as a sense of unwillingness to admit how important community is to oneself in Sasha, originally from France. She initially wanted to come “just ’cause I wanted to learn how to do stained glass”. But with a newfound goal in sight, inspired by our suggestions, she calmly focusses on her jar. It’s all that stands between her and her home-made Yankee candle, to set the mood for a relaxing bubble bath later on. Her design takes the shape of a minimalistic dandelion in bloom, swaying in the open breeze.

Siri, “like the iPhone”, is new to the local community. Arrived from Sweden just last week, she needed something to do on her impromptu day off work. She poignantly asked, “Where would you go if you don’t know anyone?”.

Her jar is shaking as she carefully grips its edges; the thought of messing up influencing her deliberate and thoughtful stance. She says she thinks that “when you try to make something nice and pretty, it gets a bit stressful”. But her design turns out well; an abstract assortment of stacked rooms, adorned with wreaths of flowers and a very relaxed looking cat. Heather offers some creative direction on her design, celebrating her success with her, and taking the edge off her nerves in the process. Siri lets a relieved smile slip out as she carefully examines her work with subtle approval.

The Church is home to the Annie MacPherson Home of Industry Charity, named after the 19th century Scottish Evangelical Quaker. Their modern day mission remains parallel to hers, working to help the local community with social, spiritual, and personal transformation. They’re an independent church that is open and inviting to same sex marriages.

I could feel everyone connecting over the art they were crafting, along with the creative and interpersonal growth this event was nurturing. By the time we were packing our creations away, everyone had come up with something completely different. Each unique inspiration had born a unique piece of art, one that truly belonged to its proud new owner. A sensation many believe to be locked away for only the greatest painters, or most popular musicians, can now be had for the low-low price of offering your time, company, and maybe a small donation.

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