Studios come in different varieties, shapes and forms. “Few of them are ideal spaces. Many of them are different places from the ones we once envisioned ourselves working in. They take on the characteristics of the setting and so may be tidy, professional, spacious, and well stocked, or they may be unkempt, "homey", tiny, and depleted. They may be within the structure of a safe, contained environment or they may be plopped down smack in the chaos of boundary-less lives. They may run smoothly as a well-oiled machine or they may be full of unexpected, unanticipated surprises'' (Moon,2002).
Given the context of the South African landscape and specifically the mental health space, we may find ourselves in less than ideal spaces to do community art counselling. This may include working under a tree or in a small room, working with less than ideal materials or a space where there is no door to close. Our studios are often in the middle of the chaos of life. But Moon (2002) reassures us that “a sense of ‘place’ is created not only out of the physical space and material resources but also out of our ability to make use of chance and circumstance as necessary environmental ingredients.”
Moon (2002) writes about the “spirit” of a place/space and focuses on different elements such as vitality, energy, tone and how they relate to the physicality of a space. Moon (2002) believes that the key to creating a sense of place in less than ideal spaces, one must let go of the idea of the ideal studio space of "the artist". The idea that the space is idyllic, isolated and distraction-free stops us from thinking about how to use and work with what we have at hand.
There are different aspects to creating the studio environment, from the physical space, the kinds and quality of materials, the presence of the community art counsellor as an element of the space, and philosophical underpinnings of the studio.
3.1 Re-entering the space
Community art counsellor
The purpose of the group is to provide a warm, trusting environment in which people can feel at ease in revealing personal matters. Caring and respect for other people, and for their feelings and points of view are a priority. In facilitating the members to re-enter safely, the community art counsellor can achieve this kind of caring, client-centred group which people enjoy being in (Liebmann).
Re-entering is a very important aspect of working in groups. How we enter the space, specifically if there was a break, sets the tone for the group’s continuation. Your work as a community art counsellor will mostly take place in weekly sessions of 6 to 12 weeks. But you can also potentially run monthly groups. When we re-enter the space it is important to make links to the previous week or month. This happens in the welcoming and check-in stage of a group process. By reaffirming the group’s aim, expectations and the group contract we are able to bring every group member to the same level.
An example of re-entering the space is the beginning of a new term after the school holiday break. The experiences of the group members during the break period may affect how they re-enter the space. A child who failed or experienced difficulty at the end of the term may be anxious about the beginning of the new term. This might affect his re- entering especially if the group members are in the same school or class mates.
Why is re-entering important?
Groups have a life of their own; they exist even after the official training/counselling session is over. To check in where the group members are at with regards to their individual journeys and the journey of the group is a crucial step. Remember that not all participants in groups are comfortable being in a group setting. Part of your work as a community art counsellor is to provide a safe enough container that can hold all the experiences of anxiety, excitement or even mixed feelings about this experience. Every group is also different and you will learn how to “read” a group and sense what they need. Sometimes more embodied, grounding exercises are needed to encourage your group to focus on what is happening right now and to, for now, leave their worries and concerns behind.
In our Open Studio, we also break for holidays and re-entry after the holidays alongside endings is also an important focus of our work.
The experiences of group members may bring challenges during re-entering that may influence change in your planned activities and themes.
How can the community art counsellor facilitate re-entering?
It is helpful to find group rituals that will allow for ease in re-entering. Rituals can make participants comfortable and put them at ease. For example, in the Open Studio at Lefika La Phodiso, we always use the same format: Preparing food, eating together, entering the studio, and welcome and check-in using emoji cards to facilitate this process. It is especially important in the format of Open Studio, where the participants are not consistent, to keep everything else consistent. This is part of the “holding”, containment or safe space that we are aiming to offer as community art counsellors.
It is important to note that not all groups are facilitated as the Lefika Open Studio group. Most community art counselling support groups are closed groups. The closed group may require the community art counsellor to look closely into what re-entering means for the group members. For example if the group members are school children as the community art counsellor you may speak about the re-opening of school and what feelings and emotions brings are brought by that.
Another way to facilitate re-entry is to communicate clearly and consistently with your group members. This may seem like somewhat of an administrative nightmare, but it can help greatly with the group’s cohesion.
By practising skills of empathy and listening, you will be able to make the transition into the group a smooth one.