By James Winnett
The Erskine art residency feels to me like a series of chapters. Originally a three-year project, it was suspended and then extended due to the pandemic, but my time was also divided across Erskine’s three main care homes in Glasgow, Edinburgh and Erskine itself.
The different creative approaches I developed also feel like chapters, where prominent themes emerged around connections with nature, journeys and storytelling.
Laid across it all are memories of laughter from the residents and the moments of creative discovery we shared, and the supportive and often light-hearted interactions with staff, for whom I gained an incredible respect.
At the start, we took seemingly small practical measures to mark our ‘creative space’. We wore brown ‘makers’ aprons to distinguish us from care staff and spread a bright yellow tablecloth where we gathered. But within a few weeks I saw how different everyone’s experience of living with dementia was, and how widely I would adjust my own communication in response to individual needs.
This person-centred approach became a hallmark of the whole project – recognising the unique opportunity provided by such a long residency to offer this depth of engagement. Subtly re-framing things, for example, could encourage engagement: asking someone if they could ‘help me’ became an invitation to be active and useful rather than simply a recipient. I was finding out that these were people with a lifetime of skills and experience – we had so much to learn from each other.
These moments spent working side by side, often without words, gave me a glimpse of the power and intrinsic value of embedding creativity in all our lives – the creative act being one of the defining characteristics of being human after all. I soon realised that my time was the most valuable thing I could offer someone – to listen to their worries or hear their stories, but also time to come back the next day and the next week – to build something together.
These conversations, often supported by staff insights, forged a path of creative experimentation where neither the artist nor resident necessarily knew the ultimate destination. A walk in the woods with a resident named May led to us gathering branches which we later turned into stringed bows. The next week we made larger versions with guitar strings and gourds, creating harps inspired by traditional Southern African instruments. After an impromptu mini ‘gig’ the following week we later returned to the woods, creating a tree harp that could be heard only when you pressed your ear to the trunk, the pitch changing as it flexed in the wind.
This project changed me as an artist. I’ve recognised that when working so closely with other people you can’t help but bring your whole self to those moments. Although the focus of an engagement might appear to be the creative task at hand, it is as much a vehicle through which these personal connections can flourish.
It has reaffirmed the intrinsic value of a having a diversity of ages of people in my life. It’s also made me question where such moments of inter-generational connection can occur; particularly in a world that feels increasingly departmentalised. How might care homes, the creative ageing sector and artists themselves take an active stance in supporting such moments of dialogue, visibility and connection?
Celebrating playful exploration
By Gill White
We drew on the adventurous spirit of residents across Erskine’s care homes to design a programme of workshops that valued the benefits of being active outdoors, exploring green spaces and engaging creatively with the natural world.
Purpose-built ‘art adventure’ sheds embedded a dedicated space within the natural environment of each Erskine home, and these really helped to nurture residents’ confidence to make and explore their creativity. It was wonderful to spend time with each resident, to learn about their lives and adapt each workshop to their interests. We created a relaxed, fun environment to learn new processes and embrace the explorative, unpredictable nature of creativity.
I enjoyed designing fun opportunities for staff and residents to collaborate artistically. We had a fantastic day out exploring Edinburgh’s Botanical Gardens, where residents and staff worked in pairs to photograph and capture botanical compositions using circular viewfinders.
The results were exhibited in two adjacent glass houses in the Erskine care home gardens and included printing each resident’s photographs as self-adhesive vinyl prints. One print showcased their botanical photography, the other featured documentation of our creative process. The botanical photographs were also printed on cotton tote bags with a portrait of the resident on the back with a short explanation. Each bag contained postcards of the images and a mini viewfinder to encourage visitors to capture their own compositions. I love the idea of care home residents’ creativity leading and inspiring all ages in the local community.
For our first joyful exhibition of residents’ art in the woodlands of the Erskine estate, we included playful interactive elements. We had poetry stanzas in stone embedded in the landscape to larger-than-life photographs, mounted on wooden A frame boards.
All of this eventually led to our final group exhibition – The Art Adventure Trail. This is a permanent woodland sculpture trail intended as a place where residents, staff and locals can meet, be active and explore different artworks set within the natural landscape. The sculptures I co-created with residents used a variety of techniques: etching colourful acrylic, carving wood and storytelling and give visitors the opportunity to add to and reassemble each sculpture narrative. The Art Adventure Trail is ever evolving, adopted and cared for by everyone.
Many of our sculptures playfully explore time and light, using coloured acrylic and natural sunlight as projections. Initially inside the home we projected the coloured light onto white walls and created story narratives. And now they are placed in their woodland setting, their appearance changes and evolves depending on the weather and what time of day you visit.
All the co-created sculptures on the trail feature interpretation boards sharing our creative process, further ideas to explore, and suggestions on how to interact with the sculpture. The aim is to make the trail and its outdoor environment a daily or weekly routine for residents, relatives and staff and all ages of the local community.
It was wonderful to meet like-minded people visiting the art trail enjoying the social, physical and health benefits of experiencing art in green spaces. What makes it joyful is the way it nurtures and celebrates creativity as we age, each co-created sculpture made by Erskine residents for the wider community to enjoy – designed to be playful, intergenerational, and inclusive for everyone.
I had lots of fun exploring and collaborating with everyone and found my time spent with Luminate, Erskine residents, relatives, and staff a very happy and rewarding experience both personally and creatively.