Person-Centred Creativity: A Learning Curve

Stackpole PCC 2007

by Nick Clements, Katja Stiller, Alex Bowen and Rhys Hughes
Valley and Vale Community Arts
October 2005

The Background

Community Arts has evolved in the last thirty years. We are now working in some very extreme situations with an increasing number of challenging participants, and this has often resulted in the burnout of good Community Arts practitioners.

Looking for models of support to avoid this scenario and funded by the Arts Council of Wales, Katja Stiller (an experienced Community Artist) and Rhys Hughes (an experienced Counsellor/Supervisor), researched the usefulness of interpersonal skills for Community Artists. Their report ‘Making Risk Work’ (*i), published in 2004, recommended that artists working in the area of social exclusion need non-managerial supervision, space for reflection, ‘principles of good practice’ guidelines and training in interpersonal skills. Following this initial research, in January 2005 the Arts Council of Wales offered to fund a pilot course for Community Artists in ‘Person-Centred Creativity’, to be run by Valley and Vale Community Arts. The core project development and delivery team (see above) were selected because of our previous experience of running Community Arts training projects, writings on the theory of Community Arts including ‘Creative Collaboration’ (Nick Clements *ii), Community Arts project management, and Counselling knowledge. Together we wanted to test whether Person Centered Creativity would be beneficial to other practitioners.

The diversity of backgrounds, levels of expertise and experiences, and the range of previous careers that Community Artists bring to the job are bewildering.  Most of us start off as enthusiastic amateurs who have an arts skill but not a great deal of experience of working with groups. As we develop and grow we become busy, gain employment, and the demand for our time and workshops (hopefully) increases. At this point in our careers we need to continue to learn, and we believe that this is where Person-Centred Creativity becomes important:

Working with young people who had been severely traumatised, I felt it wasn’t enough to show them how to produce a video. I needed help to offer individuals a safe and creative process where they have the opportunity to reflect and express themselves.”

Community Artists are frequently so busy rushing from workshop to workshop, that we have little time for personal development or reflection to develop our awareness and understanding of why we do things, and, more importantly, how we are doing them.

In the pilot training course we worked with a group of experienced practitioners from Valley and Vale Community Arts exploring these issues for a 10-month period using a Person-Centred Creativity approach:

The workshops were based around our personal awareness rather than our specific artistic work, which was a new experience for me and some parts of the weekend were very challenging.”

“I found the sessions fun, nerve-racking, interesting, uncomfortable and tiring.”

The Principles

The ethos and values of Person-Centred Creativity are based on a belief in creativity as a powerful tool for individual and social change. The theoretical aspects of the work used Carl Rogers”Person-Centred’ (*iii) counselling techniques as the foundation, particularly for building an understanding of the importance of the following in the creative process: Empathy, genuineness and unconditional positive regard; interpersonal skills, listening skills, and the ability to work with people in different situations; self-awareness boundaries, triggers, prejudices and how to deal with them; creating safe environments for the participants, where they feel respected and can be open.

We believe that a commitment to strive to work ethically will improve the services for the participants, and allow opportunities for the development of both parties to take place. As part of our research into Person-Centred Creativity we worked with experienced Community Artists to write down a set of shared principles, and this is a summary:

Integrity – a commitment to conducting your work in an open, honest, fair and accountable manner
Creativity – a commitment to the people and the process you are working with
Respect – promoting an environment which respects the rights of all participants in Community Arts work
Awareness – creating and maintaining clear boundaries in order to protect self and others.

We have found that many host organisations working with social exclusion agendas (eg. Prisons, Pupil Referral Units, Youth Offending Teams, Mental Health Services, etc) already have their own established values and cultures. If we do not define our own values and principles, this can have a negative effect upon the management and success of our Community Arts projects because we find ourselves trying to work within a different culture, with partners who have different agendas from ours. We can reduce these confusions through clear negotiating and contracting, bringing our values and culture to the contracting process.

I was working with this group of extremely challenging young people. In one session I had a breakthrough with one particularly angry boy. He acted out what goes on in a bully’s head. The teacher walked in and shouted at him for using foul language…”

The Practice

All Community Artists work with others through creativity, and almost invariably this involves fun, play and experimentation. There are limitations in terms of funding and time, but the combination of these factors will create a process, which will in turn evolve into a product.

Some Community Artists prefer a more directive approach and might not encourage individuals to explore their lives in a creative way, choosing instead to focus on the art form itself and artwork created. Community Artists will frequently create change within the individual participants, but they may not feel it is their responsibility to bring it consciously to the process. “My job is to provide creative opportunities, not to do social work.”

Person-Centred Community Artists are actually seeking to facilitate change within the participants’ lives.  This is a conscious decision and is consciously developed throughout the creative process. For this approach, Person-Centred Community Arts practitioners must have ongoing supervision and training. Person-Centred Creativity emphasises the relationship between the facilitator and the individuals, and prioritises the process over the end product.

Person-Centred Creativity is about listening to and learning about the reality of the participants, creating a safe environment, challenging and supporting the individuals or group involved. Often the participants we work with find themselves marginalised or excluded for a range of reasons and carry negative labels in the eyes of society such as ‘non-achiever’, ‘homeless’, ‘young offender’, ‘mentally ill’, ‘unemployed’, ‘drug user’. It is important for them to meet adults who don’t judge them. In order for any real creative expression to take place, facilitators need to accept individuals for who they are and to treat them as equals.

To share the responsibility of the success of the project, ground rules need to be set up in the beginning to state the expectations of the participants as well as the practitioner and to make the workshop as safe and as productive as possible. This contracting with groups at the start of a project, as well as keeping to the boundaries, is fundamental in order to establish and maintain an atmosphere of trust.

A lot of what goes on between the facilitator and the participants has nothing to do with the individuals but with what and who the person reminds us of. Often participants transfer feelings from previous relationships onto the facilitator. Also the feelings the facilitator experiences towards a participant can be linked to experiences in the past. Understanding triggers, transference and counter transference, will help the practitioner deal much more effectively and safely with many difficult situations. Working with people in this context can often be emotionally demanding: “I remember driving from a workshop crying. I shared this with the team or line management, and it was questioned if the project was too much for me and should be stopped. That never seemed an option, and conversations like this, however well intended, did not help me. I needed and still do need to understand why some things affect me more than others, to learn more skills, in order to move forward and deal with these challenges of the job.”

The educational and supportive role of a non-managerial supervisor is important to this work and concentrates on creating a safe supervision environment where the practitioner can reflect on their work, receive feedback and guidance, review their abilities and find greater understanding about their work. The aim of these supportive sessions is to protect both the practitioner and the participants in often challenging work and to help the facilitators find ways of offering the best possible process. We used this in our pilot course in Person-Centred Creativity, and for many of the Community Artists, it was the first time they had experienced this:

“For me, supervision has been really beneficial in helping me address issues arising out of workshops and to help me consider my options in difficult situations.”

“I think I am becoming more focused in my goals and motivating myself towards them.”

“I may have been doing all these things before embarking on the Person-Centred Creativity training, however I feel that I am now more aware of them and I understand more clearly the need to constantly reflect and evaluate them within my work.”

“I felt it clarified my role as a Community Artist and raised my awareness of the methods used.”

The Future

In order to facilitate others and show empathy to participants there is a need for the practitioner to be facilitated and supported, to make sense of what is being heard, to challenge our own biases, to realise our developmental needs, to improve the creative process and to learn from the different relationships with the participants. Many other professions working in the field of social exclusion already have such support mechanisms in place, and we feel that the Community Arts sector needs to learn from them. Without time for reflection, the support of non-managerial supervision and ongoing training and professional development, Community Artists may stagnate, feel isolated, leave the sector completely, or burn out.

Following our research into a Person-Centred approach to Community Arts, running the pilot course certainly stretched us and enabled us to come to a better understanding of the principles and theories involved. We are absolutely certain that it was of great value to all those who participated, and we would really like to see this model used and developed further by Community Artists in the future.

*(i)  “Making Risk Work” – Person-Centred Community Arts  – A Report’ available from Valley and Vale Community Arts, Sardis Media Centre, Heol Dewi Saint, Betws, CF32 8SU.

*(ii)  ‘Creative Collaboration’ by Nick Clements – available from Sound of the Heart Publishers, Cilgraig, Capel Dewi, Llandysul, Ceredigion SA44 4PP, or from Valley and Vale Community Arts.

*(iii)  ‘A Way of Being’ by Carl Rogers   – available from the Houghton Mifflin Company.