How does an Elevate artist make a difference?

ArtCare’s Hazel Stock observes some Elevate sessions alongside artist David Davies to find out how the programme makes a difference to participants.

Our Elevate programme has been established for many years now, with weekly artist-led sessions taking place on several different wards. Some of these sessions are one-off interactions with patients, but the Elevate artists also work with some of the hospital’s longer stay patients over several weeks. More recently, as a pilot, Elevate sessions were extended to patients in the Spinal Unit and I wanted to use this opportunity to experience first-hand some Elevate sessions. Patients often provide positive feedback to us following Elevate sessions and I wanted to find out more about the way these sessions work and to see if there was anything that family or friends could take from them to use when visiting a relative.

I joined in several sessions with experienced artist David Davies, partly observing, but mostly participating. This naturally created a different dynamic for the session, a small group rather than one-to-one, but David is well used to adapting to different situations. He often includes visiting relatives in the work. Sometimes this creates spontaneous sharing, at other times it is a little more awkward pitching the session for everyone present.

David begins by establishing a connection to the person, acknowledging them as an individual. This may be tapping into an interest, their work or where they live. It’s a hook, a starting point and it builds a rapport, gains trust and allows the person to take the lead. A patient commented that, “he really took the time and effort to learn about my personal interests.” Once some talking points have emerged David draws on his vast resource of poetry and images. Photocopies of selected pieces are handed out and everyone is gently encouraged to read sections aloud. There is something about speaking aloud in this way that creates a connection. Time is taken to share what thoughts or feelings the pieces conjure up, for example, memories of similar experiences or a conversation around the birds, animals or landscapes that a poem describes. The images give further stimulus, a visual talking point. Both art and poetry have the ability to transport us to another space. ‘Evocative’, was the word one patient used to describe the sessions.

How an individual responds to the session varies. There may be reluctance, perhaps as a result of how the person is feeling or because this is something new to them, or there may be excitement if a specific memory is triggered. David observes their reactions and can respond appropriately as the sessions develop. This means meeting the person where they are now and recognising when someone is not ready to engage on a deeper level. Having observed the one-off and pilot sessions I realised the effects of the Elevate sessions can initially be quite subtle. For example, a brighter mood when leaving a patient, an interest sparked that they might tell a nurse or relative about later in the day. However, David told me when he is able to work with individuals over 10-12 weeks he has a chance to deepen the work. He told me how he uses words or phrases picked from a box as the building blocks for expressing emotion and creating. Interactions can become more personal, with individuals sharing more of their thoughts and feelings and hidden creativity.

David describes how he approaches the sessions as ‘how can I add value or meaning to this interaction?’ It felt to me that the pilot sessions were scratching the surface, giving a flavour of what could develop. For patients who will be in hospital for many weeks this felt a missed opportunity. So, ArtCare are extending the pilot sessions in the Spinal Unit to work with patients over a longer period of time to see how they respond.

Finally, back to my reason for taking part – could there be any value for family or friends? I would suggest consciously deciding to talk about something else other than why the person is in hospital, to focus on the individual. If you can recall or find a poem or an image, a simple internet search can throw up lots of examples, you could use that as a starting point – even if you feel a bit silly initially. We rarely read aloud to each other, but it didn’t take long in the sessions to feel comfortable with it. From my experience of the Elevate sessions sharing a poem about the natural world was inspiring, thought-provoking and distracting. It reminded me of our shared humanity.

As part of our Elevate programme, we hope to be able to provide some resources for ‘starter’ conversations, including some poems from the National Poetry Library. Keep a look out for updates on our website later in the autumn.