For just over 5 years, as part of my work as a freelance artist, I have been taking art and craft activities to cancer patients and their families in local hospitals. I was the newby, the project itself has been running for 20 years. Covid 19 put a stop to our work in hospitals in 2020 and though we tried hard as a team of trustees, counsellors and artists, it has proved impossible to develop suitable methods to meet our objective of providing emotional support through creativity. So I thought I would share the highlights of the time I have spent working for this amazing project. Firstly, I’ll look at some of the bigger projects I have worked on for Room for You and then I’ll write about some of the ‘Take Home’ projects I delivered with patients and their families.
At St Bede’s Palliative Care Unit, I often made large scale pieces for display around the building, encouraging those who were able to help with the design and construction of the art work. Often this meant working with family members as patients were so very poorly, or sometimes staff would have the opportunity to add some colour or stitch to pieces. The triptych shown here expresses the philosophy of care for the unit and also includes a quote from the founder of the hospice movement, Dame Cicely Saunders. I took my CAD machine in to the unit and this meant that people could choose the colour, press a button and stitch a word.
This project led onto my designing a cover for the little books we gave to patients to record their ‘Thoughts and Feelings’ the textile design was scanned and then printed as postcards which were stuck onto the cover of the notebooks.
My next piece was a special donations box, embroidered with flowers.
The flower theme continued in four panels made for the Quiet Room, in the unit, where patients, family or staff could sit and gather their thoughts.
To make these pieces, I asked participants to silk paint some of the flowers, birds and insects and these were then collaged on to the panels. Most of the flora and fauna are symbolic, or have links to the treatment of cancer patients.
The staff at the hospice worked really hard to fundraise for special furniture in this room to make it a calm and nurturing space for those going through grief and heart ache.
It was enlightening to work in the Palliative Care Unit. The staff were simply amazing; calm, caring and positive although they too sometimes needed to use the Quiet Room. The patients and their families were in such a desperate part of their lives but the care they received helped them to manage this time. I hope that the art work we did there gave them comfort, solice and strength. I know there was conversation, story telling and laughter amongst the paints and projects. I hope the pieces we made together will continue to bring colour, calm and conversation to the unit.
Meanwhile, over in the chemotherapy ward in Newcastle, there were different challenges to work with -patients fixed up to chemo machines that would bleep and fetch nurses running if arms moved too much, work spaces limited as staff obviously needed to get to patients, some people being treated in beds. All sorts of physical and practical limitations to consider.
I did notice that patients and carers would sometimes bring their own knitting or crochet with them and that led to he Wise Birds Wise Words project. Room for You provided patterns and materials for knitting or crocheting little owls…once completed these wise birds carried messenger bags with words written by patients, carers and staff to encourage those going through cancer treatment. The birds were perched on papier mache branches and could be seen through the window by those in the treatment bays. Lots of people got involved, if they were not able to make an owl, they could write a message to include in the little bags.When the time came to take the display down, the owls took flight and settled on the noticeboard by the Nurses Station, so I think they were appreciated!
In Sunderland, we worked with patients having treatment for cancer and other life limiting illnesses, bringing along projects for participants to take away and also projects to decorate the treatment spaces. This silk painted pond was inspired by the Winter Garden in Sunderland. We took the silk frame and paints to patients so that they could add colour to the piece. Silk painting was a good medium to use, no large arm movements necessary and we could either leave the patient to work quietly or sit and work alongside them, chatting as we painted.
Needlefelting was another good technique to use, again, a small work station could be set up on a lap tray and the repetitive action of stabbing the fibres could be relaxing, or stress relieving! The local Souter light house was recreated in needlefelt and framed to go on the wall in one of the treatment bays. The act of needle felting – stabbing the fibres into the backing fabric – helps release tension and is an easy technique to learn; just keep that needle nice and straight and keep an eye on your fingers to avoid unprescribed acupuncture!
Lots of projects were created for the Radiotherapy Unit at the Northern Centre for Cancer Care. Here we worked in the waiting area, with patients and their families, providing a creative activity and a listening ear for people undergoing radiotherapy treatments. The nature of the treatment means that patients attend regularly for several weeks, so often people would be able to help create larger installations. The waiting area has large glass windows looking over an enclosed courtyard. The perfect spot to display silk paintings as the natural light would shine through them and enhance the colours.
One of the biggest projects was to commemorate the centenary of the end of the First World War in 2018. I designed and prepared a silk panel featuring the dates and a soldier in a trench. Each Wednesday afternoon I would set out the panel and ask people to help paint in the colours. To complete the installation I asked people to make red poppies to surround the panel. Initially I left a simple knitting pattern, yarns and needles. This project really touched a chord with people – lots balls of red yarn were donated and each Wednesday we would arrive to find bags of completed poppies that people had made either on the journey to the hospital or on days when we were not in. My one pattern grew and eventual there were a dozen different styles of poppies. All of them were stitched on to black netting and the silk panel was added to the centre of the piece. The hardest job was actually hanging it all – it was very heavy but luckily the radiotherapy engineers had some very strong velcro tape, and tall step ladders, that we used to fix up the display.
Annual events such as Christmas, Valentine’s Day and Easter also provided inspiration for the windows. Using simple craft techniques such as pompom making opened up conversations as people remembered their childhood pasttimes. New style pompom makers made the task much simpler and quicker than in the days of using cardboard milk bottle tops.
As people would often donate yarn to the project we would find creative ways to use it and put across our message that being creative and sharing your thoughts can help. I made bobbins for knitting – similar to ‘Knitting Nancy’ or ‘French Knitting’ kits using cardboard tubes and hairgrips. Patients began to knit long strings in different colours and talked bout what we used to use this knitting for – stiching into rounds to make coasters and mats, very long scarves for fashion dolls, book marks for grandparents…We decided to make them in to words! So we asked people in the waiting room to think of words or sentences to encourage people as the went through their treatment programme. My long suffering counselling colleague became adept at threading wire through the knitting and then we shaped the words and phrases before hanging them in the window spaces.
Another project seems to have pre- empted the NHS rainbows that have appeared all over the country to show the nation’s support for the huge effort put in by all the doctors, nurses and support staff during the current pandemic. We made a silk painted rainbow, emerging from pompom clouds, with needle fleted rainbow raindrops, and stitched with messages of hope and thanks from patients and their families.
Another creative process that always brought patients together to talk, take part and reminisce was proggy or hooky rug making. One of the first methods used by Room for You artists and one that I was familiar with through my work in primary schools. The craft is traditional in the North East, patients would tell us of childhood when they had to cut strips from old woollen clothes for their families to hook into rugs. The cycle of use took new rugs to be (very heavy) bed covers, then to use on the floor and, when too dirty to have in the house, they would line the leek trench on the allotment with them – ultimate recycling!
The radiotherapy waiting area has several large metal columns along the corridor. Initially these were ‘yarn bombed’ but I thought that there was scope for an ongoing project to cover them with proggy rug panels. Using old wooden picture frames as the support, I stretched hessian and drew on designs. We would start the panels in our Wednesday afternoon sessions and then leave them out for patients to continue throughout the week.
For one panel, I drew the 20th century artist, Frida Kahlo. She suffered terrible health problems in her life but continued to find release through her art, so I thought she would be a good role model for the radiotherapy patients. We made several of these proggy panels and then I stitched them together around the columns.
The final large scale project I undertook was for the Palliative Care Unit. As they remodelled their entrance, I was asked to make a panel to cover a window space into the office. We decided to use quotes from Dame Cicely Saunders and involved the patients by asking them to add colour to butterflies and flowers. This meant that it was easy for people to work on the art project whilst sitlling in their beds.
I will miss having this opportunity to share my creativity and to encourage others to use theirs. I hope that some of the projects we have done will continue to make people smile and that the skills and ideas we have passed on might have helped people fill the hours of lockdown with a little bit of positivity.