Claire Pajaczkowska: Compassion By Design

Tiles for interior architectural surfaces made from recycled high density polymers by people living with dementia in AHRC participatory design workshops. Credit: Julie Behseta.

Tiles for interior architectural surfaces made from recycled high density polymers by people living with dementia in AHRC participatory design workshops. Credit: Julie Behseta.

How can making art and design create better relationships inside institutions?

This research tests the idea that making art is more valuable than owning or appreciating art.

Edna (96) lives in a residential care home in Essex, with a hundred other residents and a dozen care workers. Each week she opts to join a group of residents who want to gather around the tables in the lounge in order to stitch, knit, talk and listen. Staff are welcome, if they can find time from the tasks that need to be completed. Families and visitors can join in too. Edna, like most of the residents and staff here, has never been to an art gallery or museum, but is curious to know what it means when we describe our workshops as making art and co-design. We bring offcuts and swatches of fabrics given us by manufacturers, shops and the municipal recycling centre. Families bring in materials that are familiar and personal. Individuals find their pieces of work from previous weeks and continue. Stitching seems to bring back memories. Garments that mother made are remembered and with this comes memories of childhood playtime toys, beds of the family kitchen, of setting up home in married life, of working in textiles, buying fabric at the haberdashery, knitting socks on four needles, Make Do and Mend. When we bring in catalogues of textile artists, like Louise Bourgeois, Barbara Hepworth, Tracy Emin, Grayson Perry – Outsider Art residents laugh. They call this the Workhouse and the Cheeky Girls. We show them the tiles encasing their work, made from recycled plastics from the kitchen, which make the square tiles that can be used to resurface the walls of the corridors and bathrooms in the Home. A renewed sense of purpose settles over the group’s weekly gathering as the sense of industry is part of the pleasures of the handiwork.

The tabletops are covered with pieces of cloth, threads, yarns, buttons, images, and each participant chooses the colours and materials they will work, sew, knit, fray, bind, twist, crochet , glue or stitch.

Each week brings new memories and makes links back to previous gatherings. The sense of the hands holding the materials as all work together is a bond more powerful than holding hands. The loose collectivity of individual collaboration exerts a strong gravitational pull and soon people come over to watch, to comment and to share thoughts. The quality of concentration as each pursues their own piece of work is a vivid and vibrant note of tensile strength.

How can this be recorded, noted, choreographed, documented? How then can it be evaluated? The value of this process is not only in the attention that it deflects from calling out to the doctor, nurse, care worker for something else. The value is in the quality of the attention intrinsic to this work, which enriches the moment, the day and the week. It is a culture of Insider Art.

We want to find ways of showing the value of this culture in creating a quality of attention that links our inner selves to the shared space of society. We think this quality of attention may help repair the ‘compassion deficit’ that the Francis Report noticed in the institutional care of the old and vulnerable.

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