The Art Warriors (2022)

A therapeutic and expressive arts project commissioned and funded by the Nelson Trust with support from Psychologist Dr Rachel Taylor from the University of South Wales

During a 3-month period, I worked with a small group of women involved with the criminal justice system and their key workers, at the Nelson Trust’s newly opened women’s centre in Cardiff. The Nelson Trust is an organisation that believes that everyone has the capacity to overcome addiction and trauma, to put their past behind them and to enjoy lifelong recovery. The aim of the project was to identify what was needed in terms of care, support, and encouragement, for women to feel safe and connected when engaging with the trust’s services.

As a group, we set up an experimental space in the centre’s ‘activity room’ where we could use our creativity to work with our hands, think through ideas, explore feelings, and question EVERTHING. Our work centred around a group agreement which not only articulated our ambitions for what we hoped to achieve in the space but how we would function within it. We took a reflexive, process-led approach and immersed ourselves in messy and playful printmaking sessions. We let go of the need to create finished artworks (although we did this too) or to receive validation from an audience. We rapidly made the shift from people taking part in an art project with defined roles (artist facilitator, support workers and participants) to a more democratic arts collective. We cemented our group identity by naming ourselves ‘The Art Warriors.’

Throughout the project I was grateful of the support of Dr Rachel Taylor, the project’s critical friend. Rachel and I met at regular intervals to discuss my field notes, observations, and reflections. We used self-determination theory as a way of understanding what was happening in the group, recognising that each member was valuing opportunities for to develop autonomy, competence, and relatedness.
As a collective, we captured the insights that emerged from the Art Warriors’ project in a co-authored manifesto where we offer 9 suggestions to cultivate creative spaces that promote self-determination. We see the Manifesto as an invitation to anyone working in support services to reflect on how those being helped and those doing the helping can work together to grow their capabilities. We hope that it will function as a flexible framework to support relational ways of working both at the Nelson Trust and beyond.

Partners in the project have also co-authored an academic paper entitled “Fostering Self-Determination through Social Arts Practice: The Case of the Art Warriors.” It maps the suggestions made in the Art Warriors’ manifesto against self-determination theory, highlighting both connections and considerations for future implementation. We hope to be able to extend the impact of the Art Warriors’ project by creating a “how to guide” for participatory artists interested in embedding self-determination theory into their practice.

The manifesto can be downloaded here and the academic paper here – I welcome feedback on both, please get in touch if you have a comment to share or question to ask.

You can view a slideshow of images from this project here.