Art Branches out to help improve health and wellbeing
Being creative makes you feel good. Artwork can absorb you and lift your mood whether you are six or 86.
So can learning to understand and connect to the natural world around you.
Drawing those two strands together is the driving force behind a new organisation working with children and adults in Suffolk and Norfolk.
Art Branches aims to improve health and wellbeing – both physical and mental – by engaging people in supported creative projects that link them to their local environment.
The name is a perfect fit with ‘branches’ indicating its far-reaching spread of projects.
In the first few months they have included working with patients in a mental health unit, introducing schoolchildren to Ice Age East Anglia and running sketchbook strolls through the countryside.
It also gives an idea of the variety of groups supported and encouraged to join in activities.
Art Branches was set up six months ago by artist Stephanie Hartick and fellow directors Sara Noonan and Deborah
The original idea was Stephanie’s, and she then searched for the right people to help make it a reality.
The skills of the three directors, all Bury St Edmunds-based, cover a wide spectrum crucial to its aims.
Between them they have experience and qualifications in occupational health, education, social care, art, landscape architecture, environmental education, regeneration and cultural initiatives and project management.
Working with vulnerable groups, especially those with learning difficulties and adults recovering from mental health issues is another key factor.
Stephanie is a former landscape architect, who became an artist, worked with special needs groups and mental health patients, and moved into education.
Deborah is an occupational therapist and artist who is currently doing an art degree. Sara has experience in economic regeneration, charity work, and the arts.
They are also looking for volunteers to assist with some future activities, and financial help to see them through their first few years.
“Art Branches is a community interest company, a not-for-profit organisation,” says Stephanie. “We are hoping local businesses will sponsor us to help with our initial projects.”
Working out the idea and bringing it to fruition took two years, and she now works on it full time.
The encouragement she needed came from the success of a one-off community venture, Landscape Patterns, which invited special needs groups into the countryside to take part in supported artwork.
Seeing the reactions of people involved in Art Branches’ work spurs her on.
Excited youngsters enjoying a walk in the countryside. Children engrossed in drawing a plant, or fascinated by a fossil.
People with learning difficulties thrilled to see their pictures exhibited. Adults who suddenly find a voice through art.
“Someone recovering from mental health issues told me she could express herself in a way she couldn’t normally do,” says Stephanie.
“It’s very satisfying and rewarding. It’s great to bring the environment together with art and people.
“We make it holistic and informal, learning in a fun way.”
Neither do they make any division between drawing and painting nature and finding out what makes it tick.
“When we do studies of plants we don’t just paint them as they are, we cut them up.
“We are moving the barrier between art and science, developing a child’s understanding and expanding their creative thinking – working across boundaries.
Boosting knowledge of the natural world is a key aim. One of the first things on the agenda is encouraging people to take a closer look at the trees they usually pass without a second glance.
They are raising money for Trees in Town, a trail around Bury St Edmunds pointing out some of its landmark specimens.
“Lots of adults, as well as children, can’t identify trees, even the more familiar ones,” says Stephanie.
“We want to publish a guide to trees in Bury, produced with local schools, containing descriptions and artwork by the children.”
Art Branches first official project is the redesign and improvement of two courtyards at Wedgwood House mental health unit in Bury – one for the psychiatric ward and the other for dementia patients.
Patients are encouraged to talk about their ideal outdoor space, help with the design, and express themselves through creative projects.
“We are passionate about this project as mental health issues and dementia can hit anyone regardless of age, education or background, at any time in their life.
“It is hoped the improvements will be beneficial to their health and recovery and somehow strengthen their links to the outside world.
“It’s interesting and rewarding to see how people respond. It’s about engaging them and encouraging them to participate.
“Some choose to just watch at first, then after half an hour may decide to join in.”
Ideas for new projects are developing all the time. “We are hoping to build it up slowly,” she says.” Maybe one day we will have our own kiln or workshop in the town. The possibilities are infinite.”
The next opportunity for children to join in an Art Branches workshop is on June 11 at West Stow Country Park.
Ice Age East Anglia covers plants, geology and climate and includes close encounters with a woolly mammoth tooth and a narrow-nosed rhinoceros pelvis, as well as Jurassic fossils.
Youngsters will be able to look at them through a digital microscope and learn to draw in an archaeological style.
The workshop is for ages six to 10, and costs £15. To reserve a space visit Art Branches Facebook page and leave a message, or phone 01284 762792.
Sketchbook strolls are open to all – a chance to walk, chat, and sketch with like-minded people. They usually take place monthly.
Beginners and experienced artists are all welcome. Sketchbooks are provided and artistic advice is available if needed.
To keep up to date with Art Branches projects visit their Facebook page. Groups which feel they could benefit can email firstname.lastname@example.org or call Stephanie on 01284 762792.