From March to May I had the pleasure of working with an adult community mental health group; our aim to explore the natural world using creative expression.
A bit of context
Once a week for 6 weeks we gathered together for a day of mindful, creative engagement with nature in a social group. My hope was to enable participants to increase their conscious awareness of the nature that might be around them where they live and to discover the joy that little bits of nature can offer. I was also keen to offer locations that people could confidently get to in their own time beyond the program. As a practitioner I identify with the broad field of Bush and Adventure Therapy (as it is known in Australia – see www.aabat.org.au. ). This program was not strictly ‘bush’ in that we worked in urban parks and gardens and some bush areas; it is not considered adventure by many people’s definition but for people with a mental illness an adventure may be just leaving home for the day. The program was therapeutic in its broadest possible definition and that is with the inference of creating wellbeing; in this case that was achieved through participants:
being in nature; being in a social environment; engaging in creative expression
It was not designed to work through participant’s ‘stuff’ but rather the activities were sequenced around three themes that I have developed and use in most of my programs.
To ‘see nature’; to ‘see self in nature’ and To ‘see nature in wellbeing’
Each week different activities were introduced to address the themes. So here’s how it went.
“Texture through a window
There’s more to nature than anyone can know
Where the train was we were there
Edwarde’s Park with the weather fair”
(A participant’s reflection -verse 1)
We were blessed with a gorgeous sunny day at Edwardes Park Lake and we met each other for the first time. The theme for the day was ‘seeing nature’ and to do this we were focusing on the activity of ‘seeing’ through touching. After a few ‘get to know you games’, a cup of tea and a chat we set off on a short mindful walk with a purpose…to feel everything and anything (within reason), finding as many different textures as possible including spiders webs, stones, bark, flowers, feathers…. we collected some of these things for later. Part way round the walk I handed out some frames made of paper with a square cut out the middle for participants to place over the top of different natural surfaces and to observe them inside the frame. This is very effective in seeing textures that you would otherwise not notice. We then created ‘pictures’ inside the frames with natural found objects using the natural surfaces as the canvas. This could have gone on for the rest of the day, there was alot of enthusiastic creating but finally we left our ephemeral creations to blend back into the surrounds. Sadly I forgot to get photos of this activity which on reflection turned out to be a favourite of the group.
When we got back 2 hours of intensive art making began using paints, modelling paste, texture mediums and our found objects to experiment with and create a collage or painting that was inspired by the textures they had found. One participant churned out picture after picture: big paper, small paper, black paper; paint, glue, painted blue tac; natural objects bottle tops, bread ties…you name it. another participant was very considered in her approach wanting to recreate and/or integrate a piece of soft beautiful paper bark that she was particularly enamored with.
After lunch we began what was to become a weekly ritual and the key component of experiential learning and that is to reflect upon our day through a chat as a group. This could include sharing insight about the art making if participants wished. All but one was very enthusiastic about sharing, his comfort level to do this was not reached until week 5; but for those that did as they spoke I wrote down a few key words that they said an invited them to name their work using (or inspired by) the key words that were written.
“The sun is glistening in the air
A BBQ at Bundoora without a care
Oriental cliffs that week
Which evolved from a rubbing technique”
(A participant’s reflection -verse 2)
We welcomed 2 more participants to the group and spent our day at Bundoora Park. Again the weather was beautiful making it very conducive to more fossicking but this time for patterns and shapes in nature. We set off with magnifying glasses and pastels to make rubs. Funnily enough our walks often didn’t get very far; once we tuned into the details in nature, there was soooo much to see. That day as an act of sharing and gratitude and as a way to build connections within the group, we randomly swapped a piece of art work.
Autumn and we’re in a room
The weather bodes impending doom
But we slowly paint and nest
And no one seems to be distressed
(A participant’s reflection -verse 3)
Today saw us head to the Plenty Valley Gorge area only this time the cool Autumn weather had caught up on us. In anticipation of this wet day we were lucky enough to be rescued by the Plenty Valley Arts Group who occupy Le Page homestead. They graciously allowed us to use their beautiful premises. We had planned to ‘see nature’ through sound today but two things changed our mind. We were awe struck by the amazingly beautiful Autumn leaves all around the homestead grounds; this in combination with the weather inspired us to change our creative lens. We focussed on ‘seeing self in nature’ we discussed the way animals and plants change their behaviour in Autumn and reflected on how we change our behaviours ourselves when the cold weather sets in. To reflect on this further, half the group built Autumn nests representing their homely retreat in cold times. One group member wrote about his journey with mindfulness.
The Autumn colours really inspired the work this week as did a massive tree with the most amazing bark. When the rain stopped we managed to make it outside for a walk and some fun incorporating a couple of games to help us focus in nature more closely. Some participants also chose to complete their nests by hanging them in trees in the garden outside.
“Snapshot game we start to play
Which warms our minds up for the day
The human camera is an amazing thing
Enough to make the senses ring”
(A participant’s reflection -verse 4)
Back at Le Page – more rainy weather! Only we did get some breaks this week which allowed us to start with some sound mapping outside. We then took the outdoors in with some sounds scape and considered what we valued about the natural world in a discussion about sustainability – ‘Seeing self in nature’ and ‘seeing nature in wellbeing’. It was really heartening to hear one participant in particular telling the group how she had been doing art work at home using the techniques she had learnt. She also said she was going out side more for walks and really noticing textures, sites and smells more than she had before. Another participant really tuned into the mindful aspect of this program; this was something he was practicing and he realised that engaging with nature was another way to calm his mind.
Cicada guts are flying around
And towards Emily they are bound
It’s a beautiful day under the tree
Enough to inspire poetry
(A participant’s reflection -verse 5)
Having now decided that they were enjoying the program so much we decided to add on an extra day. Given the lovely hospitality of the Plenty Valley Arts Centre at Le Page we decided to finish our last two days there. This week however, we had some nice weather back and so we went up above the Homestead to the Red gum Picnic area with sweeping views and fields of Kangaroos. This was the perfect day to GO BIG. Starting with a short walk, we found a rock each to sit and be inspired by a story about Jackson Pollock. We quietly admired the view up and out and then found ourselves a table and some ground space to break out the BIG PAPER. The task today was to paint or draw BIG; a chance to let loose with abandon and without care for what it looked like. . because then were going to cut it up and stick pieces back together in a new creation! This was a very fun day, lots of laughs, lots of paint, lots of paint flicking, cutting creating. This was challenging for one participant in particular who was a perfectionist and very considered in the way she approached her creating. Once she had the flick technique right however, she was loving it! Once cut up the reconstructing allowed her to work in the way that she is familiar with and with so many pieces to play with, she took this home to reconstruct; and boy did she reconstruct….14 new pieces!!
The final day comes and we’re having soup again
Which seems so fitting in the rain
But then the sun comes and all is fine
I hope you like this poem of mine.
(A participant’s reflection -verse 6)
The final day was a day to look back on everything we had done; the feeling, listening, seeing, thinking, touching, walking, painting, rubbing, stamping, constructing, cutting, relaxing, eating and smiling. The group unanimously agreed that 4 more weeks would be enough, 6 wasn’t quite! All loved being out in nature in particular and the enjoyed the way the program focused their attention in a mindful way on the beauty and detail in nature. One participant really found his stride for his writing today; we sat together as companions, he described more about mindfulness to me and I wrote down the key words he said and gave them back. He then put the words together in a multi-verse poem. We did the same for the program reflection. After chatting about our 6 weeks together, he constructed verses out of the words that were said. This was such a fitting way to sum it all up and capture the time that we had spent exploring nature through creativity expression.