Art in Action: Painting a Picture of Life in Direct Provision

Léargas Communications Officer Niamh McClelland recently chatted with The Glucksman Senior Curator, Tadhg Crowley, and 3rd year University College Cork student, Mair Kelly, who is also ex-officio of the UCC Fáilte Refugees Society. Together, they discuss their European Solidarity Corps project, Art in Action, which focused on providing creative outlets for children living in Drishane Castle Direct Provision Accommodation Centre. Reflecting on the impact the project has had on the children, the young people involved in the initiative and the wider student body, Tadhg and Mair shed light on the importance of giving a voice to a community hiding in plain sight.

If you need an insight into the value of European Solidarity Corps projects like Art in Action, you need look no further than Mair Kelly's recollection of a brief but poignant exchange she observed while working with young children in a migrant centre. 

"There was a guy drilling, putting up a picture in the hallway," she recalls. "One kid got really upset and freaked out a bit. We were comforting him, and this young guy comes over and goes to the kid: ‘Oh, don’t worry, my mum said we never have to worry about anything here'."

This short but significant exchange perfectly illustrates the crux of Art in Action's mission; acknowledge the sense of fear, validate the sense of hope and provide a safe and encouraging space to do both through the creation of art.

"It’s very important that we provide that visibility to this community, and a voice for these young people so they have an opportunity to share what they experienced prior to coming to Ireland and what they are experiencing now, and they can have this opportunity through the artwork they create," explains Tadhg, The Glucksman's Senior Curator.

So, how did it all come to be? How did The Glucksman and Fáilte Refugee Society join forces to give a voice to children and young people in Direct Provision? And, perhaps most importantly, how did they know that Art in Action would have such an exceptionally positive influence on those involved?

Focus, Funding and Fáilte Refugees

The Glucksman have worked with children and young people living in Direct Provision since 2015. What initially started as a relatively informal endeavour quickly gained momentum when the team saw the transformative power of the creative pursuit. After extending their run of art workshops, they knew they had hit upon a truly impactful activity, and had no intention of bringing their efforts to an end.

"We made a decision at that point that we would commit to these children, and continually offer these opportunities regardless," Tadhg tells us. "We’d find the funding somewhere and we would ensure that these [workshops] were happening, so it’s grown from that moment to now be a year-long programme, with specific focus on teenagers and with specific focus on younger children, and integration workshops."

Crystal, Age - 16                                                                             Same Storm, Different Boats

Meanwhile, having been heavily involved in work with Direct Provision since secondary school, Mair joined STAR - which subsequently became known as UCC Fáilte Refugees Society - upon entering UCC and became their first-year representative.

"I don’t think they anticipated just how enthusiastic I was," she laughed. "Because I’d been involved prior to UCC with my local Direct Provision in Clonakilty, so I had found out about Direct Provision when I was in TY."

While aware of The Glucksman Art Projects in her first year, Mair was unable to attend due to work commitments, but the Cork student, who subsequently became the chairperson of Fáilte Refugees, was hugely invigorated at the prospect of collaborating with The Glucksman in her second year. 

"I met up with Tadhg because Tadhg approached and said 'We want to do this project and apply for funding', and I was like 'Yes! Yes! This sounds great!' So that’s how I got involved with the [Art in Action] project."

"I think the [UCC] students were getting a lot from [Glucksman Art Projects], so what we decided to do was actually involve them more in the process, in terms of the design and delivery of the workshops." Tadhg elaborates. "We wanted the students of the society to come on board with us from the beginning and to develop a project together, so they would have that opportunity to build connections with the young people."

Clare Keogh 3                                                                                          Art in Action

Creativity in a Time of COVID

Art in Action began in February 2020, and 'took off to a flying start', with workshops taking place in The Glucksman up until early March. And then, like almost everything else around the world, progress ground to a sudden halt. This was particularly hard for the team as offering children and young people a space outside the Direct Provision centre has always been key to their work - something which simply could not be facilitated in a COVID compliant landscape.

"If families are living under constant threat of getting a letter that you're going back to the place you fled from, that is a huge burden to be living with and certainly there is no doubt that the children feel that burden. Also, a sense of - across that whole centre beyond the family unit -  there is that overall sense of lethargy, anxiety and stress."

But it isn't simply about removing the children from a stressful space, it's about introducing them and familiarising them with a space associated with hope - a space which many go on to occupy in their own right.

"It’s not just the museum we’re bringing these children into, we’re bringing them into a university. And what we’ve seen over the years with our programme, kids havgone through the children’s workshops, to teenager workshops to now being students of the university, so that’s huge," Tadhg explains. "That growth with us, that growth in  confidence and actually feeling part of a place is really important."

While acknowledging that the atmosphere inside the centres wasn't conducive to creative expression, but having few other safe alternatives, the team knew they had to dig deep in order to fulfil their objectives, and made the decision to send supplies to the centres in a bid to bridge the gap.

Art in Action PR                                                                                        Art in Action

Drawing on a particular memory he had of a young boy he worked with in 2015, who received a Christmas present of a sketch book and colouring pencils from The Glucksman, Tadhg remembers: "He said it was the best Christmas present he got. He spent his entire Christmas break drawing. Its only simple materials, [but] it meant so much."

"So, I suppose that’s what our goal was with sending the supplies out to the centre," he continues. "While we were enabling, maybe not all the children in the same way we could have done on site, but we were enabling some of them to be creative, to find ways, to find outlets, maybe even document their experience as they were living through the pandemic."

The team also collaborated with support workers who interacted with the children in the centres, with Tadhg explaining that throughout the summer months he and his colleagues supplied them with digital resources, while encouraging the support workers to try particular techniques with specific materials.

"They were really brilliant for us because they were quite open to our ideas that we were putting to them and saying that 'Actually, we would love you to try these. Use these materials in this way here. Different techniques you can try with the kids'. In a way, they were the middle person we hadn’t expected to use, but became really integral to the actual delivery of the project."

Home is Where the Art Is

While the pandemic certainly impeded the project's initial pathways in many ways, Tadhg acknowledged that transitioning from a seminar to a webinar ultimately worked to their advantage as it facilitated a much wider audience.

The webinar, which was held to communicate the group's key message, focused on three specific areas, with input from three guest speakers, Raphael Olympio, Fionnuala O' Connell and Dr. Eileen Hogan.

Raphael detailed using music as a creative outlet during his time as a child in Direct Provision, Fionnuala outlined the transformative power of the opportunities provided by organisations who work with children in Direct Provision, and Dr. Hogan, having used The Glucksman as a case study, gave an overview of the research she conducted on the impact of art, with specific focus on confidence, relationships and the dismantling of barriers.

"Eileen speaks about one of the young people who describes The Glucksman as 'home' because actually it was much closer to a space where they felt comfortable being themselves than in the centres," Tadhg mentions.

                                                                                Art in Action webinar

Celebrating Creativity on UCC Campus

And so, amid digital exchanges, gradual re-openings and a general sense of uncertainty, Art in Action remained dedicated to their work with children and young people in Direct Provision.

Indeed, prior to the subsequent waves of the pandemic, the team anticipated holding an exhibition of the children's artwork in The Glucksman in November 2020, thereby allowing the young creatives to celebrate their achievements alongside their families.

This, however, was not to be, and a compromise saw the children's art displayed in the windows of the University College Cork Library in February 2021.

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"We thought about how we could enable the kids to still have the exhibition, to still have their voice and their creativity shared and so we began thinking about other alternatives," Tadhg told us. "The extension of the project was to facilitate these outcomes happening during UCC Refugee Week and then the outdoor exhibition was the alternative to the indoor exhibition!"

While it wasn't part of the initial plan, there's no doubt that the alternative exhibition has had a profound impact, providing the children at the heart of the project with a platform which did much to attract the attention of passersby.

"As I walk past the library that are visibly [displaying] children’s artwork, you're kind of like 'Oh, what this?' Mair tells us. "And you go closer [and] you can see and read about it and it's like 'These are kids living in Direct Provision'. But standing back, it could look like any children’s artwork, and I think that’s important because a lot of people think people in Direct Provision are these completely different people. They don't understandthey're a little bit afraid of the unknown, and you see 'these kids are the same'.

"I think it's really important to bring students [in], without even realising they’re taking it in almost," she adds. One or two people have said to me 'I saw this on the library. This is so cool. I didn’t realise this was happening!'"

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So, would it be fair to say that the efforts made by The Glucksman and UCC Fáilte Refugee in recent years has possibly inspired more students to get involved in this area? Most definitely, according to Mair. 

"A lot of people would come across this when they begin their degree and a lot of them have been in touch with me and said 'Hey, can I get involved in this stuff next year?'" she continues. "Some people realise it's happening, [they] were like me who were involved in communities back home, or people who are completely new to what's happening and they just want to do something."

"With this kind of thing, art is a common ground, 
whether or not you think you're creative or not, you can definitely pick up a piece of paper and draw something. Whether or not it’s an amazing masterpiece or just a scribble, anyone can do it. I think it’s like a bridge between people. Often it’s a way of communicating, but it's also a way of getting to know someone."

The Art of Memory Making

While there is little doubt that the third-level students involved in the 12-month project benefitted enormously from working alongside curious and creative children and the children's artwork communicated an important message which captivated the wider public, the primary focus of Art in Action, and indeed any work The Glucksman do with children in Direct Provision was - and will remain - the wellbeing, growth, and creativity of the children themselves.

Indeed, Tadhg is holding out hope that there may still be an opportunity to hold an exhibition in The Glucksman before the end of the academic year depending on the public health situation. He notes the importance of creating a memory which can be cherished by the entire family - a moment that is certain to take on even greater poignancy for migrant families.

"These aren’t just kids, who are living a normal life, just doing normal kid things. They’ve got these extra layers and weight upon them, especially for children in Direct Provision." Mair explains. "Parents can try as hard as they want to help their kids live normally, but at the same time it's impossible to actually do that. In a centre you’re picking it up anyway. These kids have had to grow up more than most kids their age." 

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And yet, in spite of what must feel like an unrelenting pressure, these children display a level of enthusiasm and exuberance as yet unmatched by other youngsters Mair has encountered.

"The kids come down on the bus. We meet them off the bus on the quay, and it’s like immediate. They kind of like fire off the bus. ‘We’re here! We’re ready!” The energy is just insane," Mair laughs. "I’ve worked with kids my whole life. I’m used to energetic kids, but these guys are a whole new level."

Through the creative outlet facilitated by Art in Action, the 'extra weight' these children carry alongside the intense energy they display is ultimately channelled in a positive manner, allowing children and young people to produce art which not only acts as a form of therapy in some cases, but reminds outsiders of their presence, their value and the importance of their unique message.


For more information on the European Solidarity Corps, please contact Suzanne or Noeleen.

Images courtesy of Tadhg Crowley

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