Updated: Nov 5
Love Arts Conversation, 23rd October 2020
Some personal reflections by Tom Bailey
Over the last few months we’ve had to get used to a different way of talking to people. I’d never heard of Zoom in February. By March I was an expert. Initially I was amazed at how easy it was. I could have a conversation with someone face-to-face and it was pretty much like them being in the room. Except it isn’t really, is it? There’s a short time delay. You have to look at your own face for ages. In real life, meeting someone can be energising and exciting. So why, after a Zoom meeting, do I so often feel exhausted? And why, in big meetings of over 20 people, do I sometimes feel disconnected, useless and overwhelmed?
All this was in my mind when trying to host a Love Arts Conversation. We’ve done these before. The idea came from being at boring conferences when all you heard was speakers and there was no time to talk. The Love Arts Conversation was a way to bring people together in space where everyone’s voice was equally important. Could we do it on Zoom? Could we make sure people left feeling positive or inspired? Well, we could try.
We wanted to have a conversation about artists and mental health in Leeds. By “artists” I mean anyone with a creative bent. Musicians, sculptors, dancers, writers, photographers. How are we coping? What do we need? Can we support each other? Is there something different about being an artist or creative person? We did have speakers, though the word “speakers” is a grandiose term and I don’t particularly like it. I wanted to hear from some interesting people who cared about the mental health of the people they work with and could offer an alternative to what so often happens in the arts. The purpose of these “speakers” was to get our brains whirring. To get us thinking about things we could do in our own lives to help ourselves and others. Maybe to see other perspectives and to challenge us. All in order that when we split into smaller conversations that we’d have something to say.
Each person who spoke had a short time to tell us something about their attitude to mental health and creativity. I won’t attempt to summarise each exhaustively. But here are some of the things that spoke to me.
Alice Bradshaw from Dwell Time talked about how the artists she works with are, like all of us, coping with the trauma of the experiences of the last few months. She’s been reading The Body Keeps The Score by Bessel van der Kolk. This book looks really interesting – it’s about how trauma can affect us physiologically as well as psychologically. Alice used the phrase “lost for words” that sum up how some people are feeling at the moment. As if words can’t express what they’re going through. And that we’re all missing real human social interaction. Which relates to what I was saying earlier about the difficulties of Zoom communication (Zoomunication?).
Gemma Carlier from Aire Place Studios reminded me that often we find that helping others to be creative helps us too. She got involved with Aire Place when she saw a plea for help on Facebook from Sarah. There’s something about that honesty, that vulnerability that made me think. So often we try to project an image of efficiency and indestructability. But when we’re honest and open and ask for help, others are able to make things better. Aire Place offers a “space to be”. That’s important. I suppose it’s what this Conversation Event is all about. Gemma ended by saying that it’s not enough to talk; we’ve got to take action! I could sense the anger in Gemma’s voice as she said this. Anger with the government, with a system that doesn’t value people, that doesn’t seem to value the arts. I think we’re all angry. Action – not words. I’ll come back to this later.
Alice Gilmour (who runs the excellent Arts Together) offered a very different perspective. She works for Opera North, which exists in a very different realm to Aire Place Studios. It’s a large, well-funded organisation. Alice spoke about how some workers felt to be furloughed. We derive such meaning from our work, our jobs. Jobs in the arts are scarce and involve long, unsociable hours and not being able to work meant some people felt a loss of identity and purpose. It was heartening to hear that some teams in Opera North were supporting each other with groups, virtual coffee breaks and 1:1 chats. Also heartening was Alice’s determination to learn the ukulele online! She recommended something similar to all of us.
Lydia Catterall is a freelance… well, I’m not sure what! On her website she describes herself as “an artist, collaborator, listener, researcher and connector”. All I know is that after a half hour talking to her to prepare for this event I felt uplifted, challenged, hopeful and positive. Lydia writes short pieces about being an artist or creative person; she read one of these pieces for us. “Seeing & Saying”, which is basically about how we could start recognising the great things people do – and start telling them. You can read it here. I like the term “analysis paralysis”. We spend so long trying to work out what the right thing to do is – and we end up doing nothing. I’ve had this when someone close to me was grieving. What do I say? Should I send a card? Would that be crass? What about if they think I’m being intrusive? Etc etc etc. Silly isn’t it? I love Lydia’s idea that we can “spend five minutes of yours letting someone know why they amaze you.”
Once there are more than about 8 people on a Zoom call there is very little chance of having an actual conversation. One where everyone gets a chance to speak and we don’t just hear the loudest voices. I write as someone with one of the loudest voices. So it was essential that we split into Breakout Rooms of about 5 or 6 people. I’d recruited some Love Arts stalwarts to help “facilitate” conversations (facilitate is another terrible word that I don’t like). For some reason in video calls I feel a little stilted and it’s hard to know who’s meant to speak next. So Sandy, Emma, Gill and Geraldine were on hand to make sure these conversations were ok and that people felt supported to speak if they wanted to.
And then… well I don’t know. I stayed in the main space. In case people wanted to change groups, wanted to ask a question, had any problems, or just wanted time out. So I missed all the talking. Hey ho. But we did hear from each group a flavour of what people talked about. Here are some of the things people said:
“We keep going by being in nature, tai chi, cycling, walking, spending time with kids outside.”
“We need a variety of ways to connect.”
“We had a good old chat about how difficult it all is.”
“I’m worried about if I’m doing enough.”
“It’s ok to feel overwhelmed.”
“Having a routine is useful.”
“Physical contact hard if you’re a hugger.”
“We need to keep talking but we can experience “zoom burn”
“There’s a shortage of paid work. It’s hard to keep going”
“We need to be compassionate and be kind to ourselves.”
“Creative people are adaptive and improvisational.”
“It’s so wonderful to get out in nature – it does wonders for our mental health.”
A Space to Be and a Space to Do.
These conversations were intended to be just that: conversations. They weren’t supposed to lead anywhere. Nobody went away with a list of actions. We didn’t have flipcharts. These reflections aren’t minutes. There is a value in just talking. Working things out with other people. This is something we’re all missing face-to-face. This event was just a hint towards helping us all talk through issues and ideas. Like Aire Place Studios, there’s a value in providing a Space to Be.
However. This really isn’t enough is it? What about doing something? Making change? Campaigning! Not just faffing about chatting. What do we do with that anger I mentioned earlier? How can we help the arts world in Leeds really be supportive of mental health? Love Arts needs to provide this Space to Do – to make change and to make a difference.
I hope this Conversation event worked. Some people may have been frustrated that we didn’t make particular progress on making change. Others may have felt they didn’t get enough time to talk. Zoom is brilliant, but it’s also dreadful. We’re all doing our best but nothing beats a face-to-face chat.
What next then? There’s definitely a value in Love Arts providing Space to Be. I’d like to have more of these Conversation events, where people can meet and share. Take stock and support each other. But there’s also a need to do something, to have a Space to Do. This could be in the same event or we could have two. We’ll work it out together.
Words words words
At the end I asked people to share a few words that summed things up. This reflection ends with those words. In the meantime, thanks for reading. Do get in touch if you’d like to talk more!
Ride a bicycle
Collectivism and understanding
Meeting new people
THANK GOD FOR ARTISTS