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In 2013, we at Artsolute, a non-profit organisation from Singapore with several years’ experience in community development in Southeast Asia, began to facilitate art workshops at the National University Hospital. Because art allows people to express themselves in their own way at their own pace, we believed that conducting art workshops at the wards would administer a sense of comfort and companionship to relieve patients of the pain and loneliness they sometimes might feel. Thanks to a grant from the National Youth Council, we proceeded to invite young volunteers and professional artists to join us in this project we called “Artwards”.
We wanted the art sessions to achieve the following: provide a recreational atmosphere at the wards, offer patients the opportunity to regain their autonomy in a creative space, and introduce the arts as a possible means of recovery to the hospital’s staff. These, we hoped, would turn around the longstanding concept of a ward being a place of sickness to the concept of it being a place of recovery. So between October 2013 and January 2014, we introduced fifty volunteers and artists to four different wards to engage patients through painting and drawing, storytelling, playback theatre, movement and dance as a means for patients to discover their capacities for creating things, recollect their past, or share what they hoped to achieve. We did this for more than thirty sessions, clocking approximately a hundred hours and reaching out to approximately four hundred patients.
Our efforts proved to be successful in many ways. We discovered how meaningful the artworks could be and what this showed us about humanity and empathy. First of all, the opportunity for human interaction was well received by the patients. Not everyone was in the condition to accept us of course, nor was the conditions and circumstances always favourable for the art workshops. But as long as one patient took interest in our activities, the others in the ward, along with the patients’ visitors, grew interested in the resultant ideas, experience, or process, and started to take part as well.
Secondly, many participants were willing to share their personal views, ideas, and experiences through the artworks or conversation during and after the sessions. This included memories of their past, their likes and dislikes, what they felt about our project, the reasons for their stay at the hospital, or what they hoped for in the foreseeable future. What was also surprising was how patients and their caregivers were willing to receive our recommendations of how art was beneficial to them within such a short time, regardless of how sceptical they were of our process at first.
Thirdly, many of our volunteers were recharged and inspired by the experience of collaborating with the patients. Some volunteers began to see patients as equals, for they were contributing and volunteering for our project just as much as we were volunteering our time and services at the wards. Some volunteers felt that they learned more about the reasons and functions of art and performance, such as how stories, personal communication, and their artistic crafts related to one another. The overall effect was that the art workshops provided a window to the wide range of views and experiences of patients not dissimilar to what the volunteers could personally go through, and created an empathetic experience that would prove useful to motivating and inspiring our art and volunteering practices.
The methodology we employed at Artwards was of what we call the Hoping Hands model. This is to understand the conditions and circumstances of the persons and environment we hoped to reach out to, and then generate the objectives, pedagogy, and programmes suited for them and our teams. We observed that the patients’ stays were relatively short term, of a wide age range, and of diverse cultural backgrounds. It was therefore important that the workshops required little verbal instruction, yet allowed for a high level of expressivity on the patients’ parts. Based on the daily routines and environment of the wards, we also established that the workshops should provide patients the ability to make their own choices as a form of relief.
One other important component of our Hoping Hands model is to establish relationships. There were various ways of doing this to match the various barriers to achieving this. For the visual art workshops, we sometimes used certain Myer-Briggs personality markers to help identify the best ways participants could create their artworks and how the volunteers should approach them. For the playback theatre, dance movement, and storytelling sessions, we reduced the use of words and increased the use of abstractions and music to help cut across the various languages patients communicated with within each session.
The result of these efforts was the variety of artworks and experiences our volunteers and participants produced. The vibrancy and variety of what we achieved also seemed to provoke empathy from the public, resulting in further support for us to pursue and promote the Artwards project. We believe that with the appropriate structures, we would be able to provide medical researchers with sufficient qualitative and quantitative material to help present a relationship between doctor-patient communications and medical treatment. We also believe that this would help the general public, our society, view the hospital in a more positive light as a place of holistic recuperation.
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