Personal stories

A portrait of an Art Room session

In January 2015 a group of five year 9 boys were referred to The Art Room due to concerns about their behaviour in class and around their school. Each Tuesday they would come for an hour, joining adults on the sofas to talk before beginning work on their art project. At the end of the session, they discussed their work over toast and fruit. This, give or take minor details, is a typical session at The Art Room.

The boys appeared to take to the sessions straight away, working diligently and carefully painting their self-portraits on clocks. There was a warm camaraderie in the group, which quickly included the adults. They offered and accepted compliments about their work, and showed care and pride in its development. But as the term progressed, the question of what it was they worked at began to change.

Opening up

Towards the middle of the first term, one boy approached me saying that he had begun to feel like talking more about how he felt. He was vague about what such talk might involve, but was reassured that this was one of the purposes of The Art Room, and anything he wanted to bring to the session would be welcome.

From then on, the atmosphere in our sessions changed. Our talks on the sofa became more in-depth, and sometimes we continued there for most of the session, if the subject under discussion felt important enough that work on the day’s art project could be temporarily delayed. We spoke about general concerns: the safety of the boys’ environment in the light of recent disturbing crimes in the area; media representation of some of the boys’ countries of origin. And we spoke about specific concerns: one boy’s memory of his life in Afghanistan and his fear for relatives still caught up in conflict there; another’s difficult relationship with his teacher and internal exclusion from his tutor group.

Asking questions

Around this time, one member of the group raised an interesting question: “Why do we come to The Art Room?” As is so often the case, he asked this in the very last minutes of the session; a clever and common tactic in which the time for potentially anxious self-reflection is minimised, but the issue raised and left for the practitioner to hold onto during the coming week. I praised the questioner for raising such an interesting subject, and invited him and the others to think about it until next time.

The initial responses (“because we are naughty”; “because we do not do well in class”) did not seem to provide the answer we were looking for, so I asked the group to think about it in a different way. I asked them “What do you get out of being here?” Their answers to this question told us more about why people come to The Art Room: “Here we can talk and people listen to us”; “we can build our confidence”; “we learn about our feelings and have interesting discussions”; “we can express how we feel in our art”.

What happens when we leave?

Towards the end of our second term together, the boys expressed concerns about leaving The Art Room. They had made the sessions into a space for reflection, for peer support, and for learning, and worried how they would manage without it. I asked them who was responsible for making the sessions into what they had become, and they were able to acknowledge that, in fact, they were. Though they painted beautifully, and created meaningful objects to keep and take home, this was the real work that they had done with us: the realisation of their own abilities, to take forward into the rest of their lives.

Will Long, former practitioner