Launched this year, the Blue Skies exhibition was the result of a project which gathered together women in recovery from abuse for a series of weekly sessions. The aim was for them to explore a new identity – that of artistic creator.

Lynette Shanbury, Executive Director of participatory arts company Spare Tyre, and Anat Toffell from Solace Women’s Aid were behind Blue Skies. Toffell runs the Women’s Resilience Awareness Project (WRAP), which endeavours to support women experiencing domestic and sexual abuse through myriad groups and workshops. Spare Tyre have recently received a £70,000 award from the Heritage Lottery Fund to support their work in bringing communities together to make art.

Shanbury emphasises the need to create an environment in which participants could comfortably create; anonymity was obviously crucial for the women to feel as much freedom as possible. “As with all our projects we begin by creating a safe space,” she says. “We like changing the atmosphere of the place where we’re working – using music and putting inspiring images up on the walls.”

The group were initially provided with art materials and a blank page. They were encouraged to simply make marks on the page and see what image formed. Artworks were discussed within the group and each week, new and sometimes surprising developments emerged as new materials were added to their artistic arsenal. Though at times, members chose not to share their work because it provoked too much pain, one participant stressed that “ultimately, connecting with a sense of choice is what is so hugely important for those whose choices have been taken away in the past.”

I felt these exercises were very powerful in helping us women who had been through traumatic experiences to start seeing the possibilities available to us in a new light. Not only could we express ourselves in a way that was quite free and spontaneous, but we could then be deliberate and intentional about how we chose to develop and frame these expressions – A Blue Skies Artist

Contributors initially felt the weight of what “art” should be, but these notions were gradually eroded. Shanbury recalls their “mixed feelings” at first and showing them that “art wasn’t just what you did at school but something that was very personal, flexible and responsive to each individual.”

The works on display at the exhibition are varied: a chimney-top view shimmers from within a blurred window frame, while another photo shows two zips locked together by a love-heart padlock. Several works portray nature, depicting glimpses of sky, a closely scrutinised branch of blossom, and in one striking image, a hand-drawn scene of monkeys is juxtaposed with a photograph of the treetops touching a blue sky.

There is a sense of many artists aspiring towards a feeling of freedom, reaching out of the cityscape into the calm beauty of the natural world. Toffell emphasises this relationship between art and the personal: “One of the impacts of abuse is that it attacks women’s very sense of self, of who they are… The creative art workshops really help women to explore their feelings and take back their lives.”

Creativity offers a unique opportunity for healing for survivors of abuse. It affords a freedom which allows women to express themselves, to be heard in a way they may never have been heard before. To explore a part of themselves which has been shut down – WRAP service user

The unique ability of creativity to transform and inspire is evidently effective to those living with the impact of severe trauma. Encapsulating the role art can play in recovery, Toffell speaks of her wide-ranging experience in this field. She mentions a “hugely popular” course she coordinated on Feminist Art, intending “to show how these dynamics of abuse actually are produced by a misogynistic and patriarchal society and need to be understood and framed as such.”

Solace Women’s Aid are running a whole variety of creative groups this Spring, from an eleven-week filmmaking course in partnership with the organisation See Change Films, to a puppet-making course with the Little Angel Theatre. Such projects are clearly an enormous contribution to women’s journeys to recovery. Shanbury is emphatic: “There is absolutely no doubt that the arts can offer a therapeutic route for people to express a range of emotions, particularly where words fail or are too traumatic.”

The artworks were displayed without artist titles or blurbs, which Shanbury argues was to ensure that the viewer didn’t “get bogged down by the back-story of these women’s lives… We wanted to change people’s perspectives of how they viewed women who’ve experienced violence.” As one participant put it: “People who have experienced violence often alternate between seeing themselves either as victims or survivors. In this group, we could begin to see ourselves as both of these but also as creators.” She emphasised that the warmth and respect of professionals and participants alike, helping her to rebuild and heal: “all of these together made it possible for us to start creating a different picture of ourselves and of the wider world.”

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Miranda Bain

Written by Miranda Bain

Miranda is a recent graduate in History of Art and finds the world so generally interesting she is finding it tricky to specialise. She has been helping the founding phase of the Women’s Equality Party and has just started working for a human rights organisation.

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Artwork from the Blue Skies exhibition, courtesy of the organisers.