It’s our 25th Birthday today!

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25years ago bonfire night was a complete washout, a bit like today really just for a different reason. It had been raining for days and on November 5th 1995 bonfires had to be cancelled as the ground was drenched and fireworks gone soggy. So a bunch of people who attended a life drawing class at Holyhead Studios went to the Windmill Pub in Spon Street instead and in front of a roaring fire we put the world to right.

The next day I was definitely not in fine fettle. Strong coffee in hand I was puzzling over the remnants of a couple of beer mats and what on earth the bits I could decipher meant. I could just about make out – art – mental illness – like-minded – self-help – bridge gap – same boat – voice – NOT moan+groan – which was twice underlined and obviously important.

Whilst I was trying to make sense of ”art’ and ‘boat’ in the same sentence the phone rang and a very enthusiastic voice boomed: “So what’s the next step!”

At the time I was working as community artist and project development worker for Arts Exchange and I was given 6 months to help kickstart an art group for adults with a mental illness to bring like-minded people together to help each other bridge the gap from being dependent on mental health services to anchoring in the community, a group with a positive vibe and where professionals and users work together as equals.

25 years ago people with a mental illness were treated very differently by the medical profession as well as society. A diagnosis then was a life sentencing to being ‘managed’ through medication, being treated as useless and incapable of taking responsibility for self or others, a shame to family and burden to society. The first bunch of people who set up Arty-Folks were looking to belong to a community, to regain dignity and self-respect through art, to gain hope for a better future and a meaningful life, but also to raise the dialogue and challenge the stigma held in the wider community about mental illness that was even more devastating than the diagnosis itself.

On 25th April 1996 we started the first workshop with a small grant form Coventry Health Promotion. Thanks to the support of many good people we have not stopped running a weekly workshop since, not even through lockdown. I would in particular like to thank Lizzy Alageswaran, Manager at Arts Exchange who could see the potential for social good from the first scribbles on a beer mat. We are indebted to Stephen Hill at Coventry Mind and to Chris Lyle, Art Therapist at the Caludon Centre for their expertise that helped to steer the group through the first stages of development.

After 25 years of more ups and downs and twists and turns we are still in essence empowering our members on their recovery journey through art and peer support. From that informal self-help group at start Arty-Folks is now a well run charity supported by a highly skilled and committed Board of Trustees but our ethos since the first scribbles on a beer mat has remained unchanged. Our members are the beating heart of Arty-Folks and will always, then as much as now, set the pace and aspiration for the future.

Truthfully, I had never expected Arty-Folks as a project to last beyond the first pilot study. We’re still here because by then it was just too good to quit. I’m glad I was wrong because after 25 years of working for Arty-Folks it has never stopped challenging me to grow, to be authentic, to think outside the box, to trust the future come what may. I am so grateful I was helped along my way by amazing members and colleagues who gave me the benefit of the doubt when needed and steered me patiently through my scatty antics.

Thank you Arty-Folks for 25 incredible years!


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