Category Archives: Music & arts

12 days of Christmas, Social Issue-style

Season’s greetings from The Social Issue – to mark the jollities, here’s a snapshot of some of the upbeat posts and pictures about people, projects and places featured over the last 12 months. This festive pick is by no means the best of the bunch – the inspiring stories below are included as they’re accompanied by some interestin and images and almost fit with a festive carol, if you allow for a little the poetic and numerical licence…

Very huge thanks to the Social Issue’s small band of regular and guest bloggers, all contributors, supporters, readers and everyone who’s got in touch with story ideas and feedback. See you in January.

On the first day of Christmas, the blogosphere brought to me:

A tiger in an art show

Batik Tiger created by a student at specialist autism college, Beechwood

Two JCBs

The Miller Road project, Banbury, where agencies are tackling youth housing and training. Pic: John Alexander

Three fab grans

Hermi, 85: “I don’t really feel like an older woman.”

Four working teens

From antisocial behaviour to force for social good; Buzz Bikes, Wales.

Five(ish) eco tips

Eco hero Phil uses a “smart plug” to monitor domestic energy use

Six(ty) volunteers

Young volunteer with City Corps, Rodney WIlliams

Seven(teen) pairs of wellies

Abandoned festival rubbish, Wales, gets recycled for the homeless, pic credit: Graham Williams

Eight(een-years-old and over) people campaigning

Participants in the Homeless Games, Liverpool

1950s hall revamping

"The kid who talked of burning down the place is now volunteering to paint it."

10 lads a leaping

11-year-olds integrating

Children's al fresco activiites at the Big Life group summer scheme

12(+) painters painting

View from the Southbank of Tower Bridge, Aaron Pilgrim, CoolTan Arts

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

Pictures of mental health

In a Room, by William Ball

The painting here, depicting the torment of a lost past and an unknown future, is among the intriguing works in a new exhibition opening in London today which focuses on mental health. The arts event by charity CoolTan Arts, an organistion run for and by people with experience of mental health issues that I’ve blogged about before, includes collage, painting, sculpture to batik and drawing.

William Ball, the artist behind the piece above, In a Room, says his use of black and yellow reflects concepts of death and danger. Another of Ball’s pieces, Through a Window, meanwhile, represents the optimism and growth he found at CoolTan; it is no coincidence that the artist also cares for the garden at the arts charity.

Ball has been a CoolTan regular since 2003 after a mental health crisis sparked by his mother’s death a few years previously, redundancy and relationship breakdown. “My future looked very bleak, at 51-years-old my life seemed as if it was over.” Almost sectioned and prescribed “heavy medication”, Ball was introduced to CoolTan Arts by a friend: “The people were warm and supportive. I soon visited regularly and enjoyed being part of it.”

The artist’s story is testament to the charity’s work which aims to change perceptions of mental ill health. The organisation, based in Southwark, south London, believes that mental wellbeing is enhanced by creativity.

Here are a few of the other pieces on show until November 30th at Carnegie Library in Herne Hill, south London.

Geometric Patterns, Marjorie McLean
View from the Southbank of Tower Bridge, Aaron Pilgrim
Untitled, Graham Newton
Through a Window, William Ball

The free exhibition opens today at a Library, 188 Herne Hill Road, SE24 0AG, and runs until November 30. For information call 0207 701 2696 or email:

Autism and theatre: good work waiting in the wings

We need more of this: young audiences enjoy accessible and inclusive performance at London's Unicorn Theatre. Pic: Alastair Muir

Anger, frustration, embarrassment, guilt and despair. Depending on what unfolds on the stage, the range of emotions you experience at the theatre can be extraordinary. But what if those emotions are triggered not by the actors, but by a fellow audience member, or a member of the theatre’s staff?

This can be the fate awaiting theatre-goers with a learning disability or those who have the temerity to attend a show with someone who happens to have a learning disability, as the father of autistic 12-year-old Gregor Morris found to his disgust earlier this year.

I had an unpleasant experience when I took my sister to a West End musical, although our shoddy treatment was at the hands of small-minded fellow punters, not any members of staff.

Something similar happened when four-year-old James Geater from West Sussex went to the Theatre Royal Drury Lane in London in August. As James’ mother Karen said at the time, James is part of society and children and adults are losing out through no fault of their own – and Gregor’s and James’ stories are only those that have been reported.

As for the family of Gregor Morris, they took their campaign to the internet, and now they have more than 4,100 supporters on Facebook. Earlier this week, their awareness-raising drive, backed by the National Autistic Society, culminated in a major event at London’s Unicorn Theatre. The day-long forum, Autism and Theatre: An Industry Inspiration Day, brought together theatre staff and autism experts.

It was apt that the Unicorn hosted the day; it specialises in theatre for children and young people and has long been an inclusive and accessible arts venue with autism friendly performances.

Suspended from a hanging chair with an arial performer at Unicorn's recent Something in the Air show. Pic: Alastair Muir

The event was a partnership between the Ambassador Theatre Group (the largest owner of theatres in the UK – making great amends as owners of the theatre Gregor Morris was ejected from), the Unicorn Theatre, National Autistic Society, Action for Children’s Arts, Theatrical Management Association and the Society of London Theatre.

The hope, say organisers is that the event will create “long-lasting cultural change” and help spread the word about existing access work in the theatre industry. They hope to spark similar awareness days regionally and lead to better interaction between local venues and families affected by autism.

I wasn’t at the event but apparently around 200 theatre industry types attended to learn more about autism, hear from the families affected by access and inclusion issues and discuss best practice. Actor Jane Asher, president of the National Autistic Society spoke about the fact that simple adjustments in theatres could boost access while training staff can also make a huge difference.

There are, of course, various initiatives to make the arts more accessible, the Autism Friendly Films project is just one. The Unicorn Theatre has pioneered sign-interpreted and autism-friendly screenings and performances.

Awestruck and at ease, watching at the Unicorn Theatre. Pic: Alastair Muir

Unicorn staff get autism awareness training and performances feature smaller audience sizes and a chill-out room with activities for anyone who needs some time out. A “familiarisation visit” is available the night before a show, to reduce anxiety and stress for first-time theatre-goers (this, I think, is utter genuis – and so simple and inexpensive for other venues to adopt) and the theatre has a dedicated access manager. This weekend sees the latest access-friendly show, Billy the Kid and the venue is also hosting the Art for Autism exhibition that I’ve blogged about before.

While the mind boggles as to why this kind of large-scale theatre industry event hasn’t happened before and why it took pressure from a parent campaigner to mount, it’s better late than never. The great practice and partnership that exists needs to be widely shared, so the work of the most accessible and inclusive venues trickles down regionally and locally, reaching beyond the big towns and cities that boast the biggest venues.

If the theatre sector debate translates into visible action, people with learning disabilities and their families can see shows they love without paying through the nose for a half empty box, going out of their way to attend midweek matinees which tend to be less busy and therefore often less stressful or – worst of all – having to leave before the end, either by request or because they feel unwelcome.

And more accessibility combined with a welcoming and understanding attitude should make commerical sense in theatreland. The economy might be suffering but the Society of London theatre estimates that box office takings totalled half a billion pounds last year, so there’s a bums on seats reason to attract more and younger theatre-goers into the auditorium (staff just have to be prepared for the bums to defy convention and to wriggle on and off seats during the performance).

I’m eager to see how this week’s event is followed up although I wonder if the organisers missed a trick when they tagged the day only on autism. While those with autistic spectrum conditions can require very specialised care and a unique, tailor-made approach, I’d hope that theatres can appreciate the needs of all of those with special needs, many of whom don’t necessarily have a label for what makes them different.

It’s a niggling point however, and if the event fires debate and pushes theatreland to develop a more consistent approach to its treatment of all audience members, then what matter? It’s worth noting that event co-chairman Jonathan Meth, a theatre consultant, arts tutor at Goldsmiths, University of London, and parent trustee at Ambitious About Autism, acknowledged the need to broaden the debate’s remit, saying after the event: “While the day was focussed on those with autistic spectrum conditions, we hope it was both an inspiring and practical day for all those who want to make the experience of different people coming into their theatres an excellent one.”

The other side of the theatre access and inclusion coin involves seeing more actors of all abilities onto the stage. A combination of user-friendly theatres and more integrated performances would support the kind of cultural shift discussed at the Unicorn earlier this week. How can people who behave, sound or move differently or don’t look quite like “us” be fully welcome in an audience that has never had the chance to see them perform?

I’ve blogged before about the great work of Heart n Soul, for example. On a more general disability arts tip, I’ve also just been reading about the work of another group, Accentuate, supporting projects encompassing the arts, culture and sport to change the way disabled people are viewed, the project is hooked on the Paralympic Games.

When I heard about the Autism and Theatre event, I was reminded of the innovative work of Speakeasy Theatre Company, which aims to integrate actors and audiences of all abilities. The simple words of artistic director Andy Reeves on a recent piece of work could be a motto for the companies that run theatres: “Our goal is for everyone – disabled, non-disabled, young, old – to come out with a smile on the outside and a warm feeling inside.”

A well-known playwright once compared life to a play. If all the world was a stage, movement between the two might be more fluid, giving us a better chance of reflecting society’s many facets on the stage and in the auditorium.

* The Facebook campaign and debate sparked by Gregor’s experience is at

* All images of Something in the Air at the Unicorn Theatre, London, by Alastair Muir

* Click here for information about the Unicorn’s current accessible performance, Billy the Kid and here for information on the Art for Autism event.

High society (and celbritocracy) backs big society

It was a sight that would have warmed the cockles of David Cameron’s heart. As soul singer Heather Small and ex-England footballer Sol Campbell mingled with guests at London’s Saatchi Gallery last week, they were showing just the kind of commitment to local philanthropy that the Prime Minister is hoping to encourage.

Small and Campbell were among 400 guests at an event organised by the Kensington and Chelsea Foundation to bring wealthy donors together with the charities they support. Since it was launched three years ago, the foundation has raised £500,000 for local charities in the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, a borough with some of the widest contrasts between rich and poor in the UK. Life expectancy is nearly 11 years lower in the most deprived parts of the borough than the richest, for example (the borough motto is “Quam Bonum in Unum Habitare”, translating roughly as “how good it is to dwell in unity”).

The widely differing circumstances of the borough’s residents were very much on display at the fundraising night, thanks to an exhibition of inspiring photos by members of the Chelsea Estates Youth Project, set up to help marginalised young people. The We are Photo Girls exhibition showcased the work of young people who learned to run their own fashion shoots through the project.

Image from the Chelsea Estates Youth Project, showcased at the Royal Borough philanthropic event

The foundation’s role, explains director Jeremy Raphaely, is to match wealthy donors with charities which are really making a difference on their doorstep. “I have lived in this borough for 40 years and it struck me as odd that charities were getting funding from the local authority, the PCT, the lottery or grant-giving trusts but had no connection with local residents,” he says. “And local residents had very little idea that they were there, let alone any connection with them. But once you introduce them, you get a very positive response.We help donors to focus on areas that interest them, whether it’s youth, education or older people, environment or the arts. We can make a very direct connection between the charities and local donors and their involvement can really make a difference to people’s lives.”

Another image from the Chelsea Estates Youth Project

The foundation’s approach is one that chimes with the government’s push to encourage the UK’s highest earners to give more. The potential is certainly there. The independent Philanthropy Review Board, set up by Cameron last year, says those earning more than £200,000 a year give on average £2 to charity for every £1,000 they earn – compared with £90 for every £1,000 among similar high earners in the US. A culture shift encouraging people to give more – and making it easier for them to do so – could bring in an extra £2 billion for charities by 2015, the review suggested. And it’s the local approach such as that in Kensington and Chelsea that may well have the most success.

As a report by Coutts bank this week points out, almost four in five philanthropists support local charities. Marcelle Speller, one of the stars of TV’s Secret Millionaires, sums up the appeal from the donor’s perspective, writing in the report: “Local philanthropy gives me a sense of community, of belonging, and it recharges me. You can see that you are giving effectively, and have the most joyous, enriching experiences.”

So will a reinvigorated philanthropic community be able take the strain as public funding is cut? Certainly Jeremy Raphaely believes that it’s the tough economic environment that’s helping to encourage some donors to reach for their chequebook, rather than necessarily a real sense of heeding David Cameron’s Big Soceity rallying call. “I don’t know how much people are moved by a slogan like the Big Society – people are even sceptical,” he says. “But they realise charities in general are having a rough time. Funding is being cut back but the causes are as big and as critical as they ever were.”

The Big Society may now be a discredited brand, notable by its absence from the debate at this week’s Conservative conference. But for people like Raphaely, who says “we like to think we had the idea before David Cameron did”, the driving impulse behind it remains. “We do all have a community responsibility. It’s not just the homeless or the disabled – it’s our homeless and our disabled. We are trying to nurture that personal feeling of involvement and commitment.”

Local boys (and girls) done good

Kayla: 'I want to make it a better Hackney for when my child grows up'

The contrast with the grainy images of missile-hurling, pickpocketing young “hoodies” from the summer riots could not be greater. These stunningly shot and beautifully-lit portraits showcase East London’s young creative talent and form part of a new exhibition opening on Thursday.

Sienna, 18, artist and social entrepreneur
Lydia, 15, photographer

A group of young people have produced and are promoting the exhibition, FYI: Focused Young Individuals, in collaboration with award-winning photographer Agenda, youth-led social enterprise YH! World, communications social enterprise Poached Creative (which I’ve been involved with as a trainer) and Hackney Young Photographers.

Mark, 21, musician

The project focuses on young people from diverse backgrounds, each involved in some sort of creative enterprise, to highlight local talent.

Jenkins, 18, "creative all-rounder"

As Kayla, who has blogged on this site before, explains in the story that accompanies her image (the first one featured in this post): “People feel like, because you live in Hackney you’re destined for doom, but I love the people, it’s just so diverse. I do think there is stuff to be proud of..This next year for me is about really getting stuck in media – giving young people a chance to experience media how I have, and giving them the opportunity to express themselves within media. I want to help as many young people as possible, and create a pathway for the next generation. I’m having a baby this year so my child’s gonna be in the next generation in Hackney, and I want to make it a better Hackney for when my child grows up.”

You can read more each young person’s story here by clicking on their name.

Kojo, 18, artist and entertainer

Youth-led charity Art Against Knives (AAK), which began in reaction to the unprovoked stabbing of art student Oliver Hemsley, is curating and promoting the exhibition. AAK aims to reduce the causes of knife crime through youth-led arts initiatives providing an alternative to violent gang culture. The hope with the FYI show is to connect creative industry and Hackney’s young talent, giving the young people’s work a platform in the East End’s thriving art scene.

A week-long exhibition will be at The Rebel Dining Society’s 30 Vyner Street HQ, E2 9DQ from 6 – 13 October. Site-specific displays based on the FYI exhibition open for a month on the 6 October. Admission is free.

* For more photography from Agenda, see the website

Care issues take centre stage

I featured a bold production about special needs at north London’s New End Theatre on this blog recently, and now the same venue is presenting another performance focusing on challenging issues (all pics by Francis Loney).

Where’s Your Mama Gone? is a play about fostering, the vulnerability of children in care and the impact of the care system on the lives of the young. The show ran in Leeds before moving to London. The siblings in the play are in care in West Yorkshire after losing their mother to a serial killer – playwright Brian Daniels was a trainee teacher in the city in 1970s Yorkshire when Peter Sutcliffe was at large and he has drawn on the experience in his writing. Daniels was inspired by Richard McCann’s novel, Just a Boy; McCann’s mother Wilma was Yorkshire Ripper Peter Sutcliffe’s first recorded murder victim in 1975.

The theatre in Hampstead, London, has made over a hundred free tickets available to disadvantaged children in the area for the drama which also highlights issues around such as alcoholism, drug use and questions of identity and heritage.

Daniels wanted to explore issues of care in Camden, home to the New End, Hampstead, whre only 59% of children in care passed a GCSE subject in 2009, compared with 78% nationally. Local foster children also had the highest rate of substance abuse in inner London, with almost one in five reported as having a problem with alcohol or drugs.

The playwright says: “The play was written to offer hope to young people living in care and to draw attention to the vast difficulties they face. Many of the youngsters that we have invited down will not have had the chance to experience live theatre and I urge other venues to set aside some tickets as well.”

The theatre is also launching a drive to attract wider audiences, including a pioneering “pay what you can” optional pricing system will operate for the entire run of the play. The suggested ticket price is £15, but theatregoers will be free to choose how much they pay at the box office in an effort to attract audiences that would otherwise not attend.

Where’s Your Mama Gone? runs until Sunday 28th August 2011. Tickets are available from the theatre.

Haunting, detailed and complex: winning work by autistic young artists

I recently blogged about Create! Art for Autism, a national art competition run by Beechwood College, a specialist residential college in Wales. The aim of the project was to show that art can not only encourage learning and instill lifelong skills but boost quality of life and future prospects.

The awards ceremony took place at the weekend – more than 350 entries were received from 52 different schools from all over the UK, and as far away as India and Croatia – and a couple of the very worthy winners are here:

Angel, by Sam Fitzgerlad, Create! Art for Autism winner (pic credit: Huw Evans Agency)

The Digital Category was won by Sam Fitzgerald, above. Angel, the work by the 18-year-old from St Cenydd School in Caerphilly, was praised by judges as having a haunting and metaphysical quality.

Esther Whitney, Aged 24 from Birmingham City University won the 3D Category prize for her sculpture, A Thimble Full. Esther’s work was inspired by her difficulties with social interaction, with the thimbles representing that a thimble full of relationships can be enough for young people with an autistic spectrum disorder. The award was presented by Lucinda Bredin, Editor at Bonhams Magazine and member of the judging panel, who complimented Esther and the other finalists on the “detail, depth and complexity of their work.”

A Thimble Full by Esther Whitney, winner, Create Art for Autism

The prize for the Teacher’s Choice Award was presented by Darren Jackson, Principal of Beechwood College to Alexander Fox-Robinson, aged 15 from Pembroke School, Pembroke for his pencil drawing, The Blitz, which featured in my previous blogpost on the competition.

The Blitz, by Alex Fox-Robinson

The finalists’ work is on display at The Old Library, Cardiff until Sunday August 7 and will move to London early in the autumn. For more information contact Create! Art for Autism. The amazing amount of entries to the competition shows the vital nature of platforms to showcase the talent of young people like Sam and Esther and the organisers say that next year’s competition will include even more categories.

The artists redrawing our perceptions of disability

Bengali Welcome, by David Constantine

Photographer David Constantine – he’s the creator of the arresting and uplifting image above, Bengali Welcome, above – has a theory as to why his subjects relax once they’re in front of his lens; his wheelchair breaks the ice.

Constantine’s work is being shown as part of the inaugural Bloomsbury Art Fair that opens today at the Goodenough College, Mecklenburgh Square, London. As well as works by popular artists Banksy and Damien Hirst, there are pieces for sale by new and emerging artists. The three-day charitiable event raises money for spinal injury-related charities.

Constantine, for example, began taking pictures as a teenager and sold his bike to buy his first camera. While on a working holiday in Australia in 1982 he broke his neck in a diving accident and became quadriplegic. Paralysed from the shoulders down, he gave up photography for a year. But while he wasn’t able to pick up his camera, he continued to “see” images. As he writes on his website: “During that year I realised that I was still ‘seeing’ pictures, choosing images in my head even to the point of deciding on film types and composition I would use for a particular shot. The only thing I lacked was the physical ability to use a camera. I realised that this was a ridiculous reason for giving up and all it need take was some adaptations to my camera and wheelchair to enable me to take pictures.”

Exactly a year to the day of his injury he began the process of taking pictures again. He travels with his work for Motivation, the international disability charity he co-founded, and his main subjects are people in their own environments. As he says, “the disadvantages I foresaw with my photography after becoming a wheelchair user have turned into advantages.” He has developed different skills and enhanced others: “I am so conspicuous that it has made me bolder, I am happy to go and ask someone for their picture. If I can’t communicate verbally I make it very obvious that I would like to take their picture, people make it quite clear whether they are happy for me to photograph them or not.”

Love, by Sophie Morgan

Among the participating artists is Sophie Morgan, who was runner up to Britain’s Missing Top Models. Morgan had a car accident in 2003 that left her paralysed and in a wheelchair for life. Her beautiful piece, Love, is above.

Morgan’s website declares that she is (in this order) an “Artist, Portraitist, Writer, Arts Psychoth

Art competition gives voice to youngsters struggling to be heard

Painting, by Jake Rose

Bold, intricate, colourful and thought-provoking – some of the artworks here wouldn’t look out of place in a city art gallery, but in fact these pieces are among the powerful creations produced by young people with autism and related conditions.

Earlier this month, to mark World Autism Awareness Day, a specialist residential college in Wales launched a national art competition (the works here are from the shortlisted finalists), Create! Art for Autism, open to those aged 11 to 25 who are formally diagnosed with an autistic spectrum disorder (ASD). The aim of Beechwood College is to show that art can not only encourage learning and instill lifelong skills but boost quality of life and future prospects.

The college cares for students aged 16 and over with ASD and teaches students to articulate themselves through creative programmes including music, 2D art, 3D art, digital media and horticulture. As Beechwood principal Darren Jackson says, “art and creativity programmes can transform the lives of young people who previously struggled to make themselves heard”.

Drawing by Alex Fox-Robinson

There were more than 350 entries from 52 different schools from all over the UK with entries also sent from as far afield as India and Croatia. The judges have chosen six finalists in each category of 2D art, 3D art and digital media art, who will attend an awards ceremony at Beechwood College on July 24th. To support and recognise the work that schools undertake, both the winners and their schools will receive prizes and there is also a “teacher’s choice” allowing teachers to choose the winners.

Ceramic work by Nicola O'Leary

The judging panel includes Brendan Stuart Burns, artist lecturer at The University of Glamorgan, Lucinda Bredin, editor at Bonhams Magazine, Hugh Morgan, chief executive of Autism Cymru and Beechwood principal Darren Jackson.

Painting by Evan Findlay

The finalists’ work will be rolled out into a national art tour open to the public, first at The Old Library in Cardiff and then in London in September. Finalists and other artwork can be viewed here.

Life stories: freeing the minds of dementia sufferers

It was only a picture of a gurgling baby. But to one elderly woman with dementia, it meant the world. “She had dementia, was in a care home and was past the stage where she could really have a conversation,” says Helen Bate. “But she just fell in love with that photo. She would try and wipe the baby’s dribble off, or feed it chocolate. It’s just an image – but it had the power to really engage her and she’s been able to talk to it.”

Bate is founder and managing director of Pictures to Share, an innovative social enterprise creating picture books and other resources for people with dementia. She’s a passionate advocate of people with dementia, who she argues shouldn’t be shut off from the world of books and art just because of their condition. “People make too many assumptions about people with dementia,” she says. “There’s often a lack of imagination in their care. If someone liked looking at good painting, they are not going to lose that when they are in a care home. They may not be able to read any more but they can still enjoy looking at the pictures in our books.”

Bate was inspired to start the business after her own mother, a dementia sufferer, enjoyed looking at a scrapbook Bate’s daughter had put together. “There was nothing else out there,” she says. her first three books were published in 2006 and, thanks in part to charitable sponsorship, she has now produced a total of 11, all designed to combat the isolation and depression which can so often be associated with dementia. The organisation has diversified into producing artwork and is now working on dvds.

“If you go into some care homes, it’s almost as if they assume that because people are old and have dementia, all they want to look at on the walls is pictures of the royal family, wartime or old street scenes. It’s pigeonholing everyone into a very narrow category.” The Pictures to Share books cover everything from sport to shopping and from the world of work to travel.

There’s diversity too in the choice of images: colour and black and white photos both old and new are mixed with reproductions of paintings. The key criterion is that all of the images should be powerful and easy to understand to prompt memories, a chat or simply a smile. “Because of their dementia, certain things won’t work if they are too complex,” says Bate. “And we have to be careful about showing pictures people might get worried about. For example, with a picture of children paddling in the sea where you can’t see any adults around, people could get quite distressed because they think the children are in danger.”

I tried out three of the books with my mother, who has multiple dementia. I was unsure how she would react, but I was delighted to find that the pictures inside captured her imagination. She used to be a great traveller, so it was perhaps inevitable that the biggest hit was the travel book. Its shots of the Taj Mahal and train, plane and ship journeys, really got my mum chatting.

The feedback from other users suggests my mum’s response is not unusual. “It opens the channels of communication that are a bit stuck,” she says. “Relatives find them really useful to get a conversation going, which can be tricky for people with dementia.”

For relatives and carers perhaps the most powerful thing about the books is that they remind us all that behind every person with dementia is an individual with their own interests, likes and dislikes and their own life story. They are not all the same, so let’s free our imagination – and theirs – as we care for them.