Workshops in Austria

The facilitators & their training

Four experienced artists from the KUNSTLABOR Graz worked together with six colleagues who were interested in work in the field over a period of seven months. The KUNSTLABOR Graz core team, Edith Draxl, Madeleine Lissy and Andrea Fischer came up with the concept, the working and project structure. Madeleine and Andrea took on the artistic conception and realisation in terms of content. Edith was an observing participant as project coordinator and with a migrant role moving between the different workshop units in the retirement homes.

handmade Wellbeing graz
Training of artists. Photo: uniT

The multi-disciplinary artist team was composed mostly of people who wished to gain their first work experience in the field: Barbara Schmid/ceramist, Andreas Brandner/architect, Jenny Brandner/textile artist, Andrea Markart/illustrator, Kristina Stocker/visual artist, Anne Steinkellner/in training, Sylvia Murynowicz/film maker in training.

We decided to work together with a group of “young elderly persons”, people aged between 65 and 70. They were the “experts” with whom we discussed the experience as we developed new and innovative working methods focused on the issues of handicraft, trying out craft techniques for older people and for helping inexperienced colleagues to fit into the situation. The experts observed the working methods of us artists in the care homes, to provide us with feedback, to expand the horizons of our work with their experience, to provide impulses in every imaginable direction and also to personally approach the “handmade wellbeing” issue on an artistic footing.

The artists and experts met regularly every two weeks for 3 hours from March 2016. First, the project was presented and then each person was asked to tell a short story on the subject of handicrafts. Here are a few of the memories from the participants:

I hated the handicraft lessons at school.
I now do line dance, embroider pullovers basically Hippie kitsch.
I find the drawings of Joan Miro wonderful. And I would like to make something using wire and plastic. I knitted a blanket once for someone who was pregnant, even without wire it was so hard when it was finished it was like a board.
My mother was forever looking at the “inside” of how things are done. I was a great doll’s dressmaker. Bringing the cloth into shape… this was a real and challenging task, I learned to sew, my mother was very strict with me… she would ask me – what are you doing with it there? Later I went to proper sewing courses and my mother could relax… I now knew how the INSIDE had to look.
I started with sheepskin suede. That was in the 1970s. It was only available in brown and beige at that time. Then I had to go to Paris. Everything there was in COLOUR! Wonderful. This was something entirely new in Graz. I have always swum a little against the stream, with things like the music of the 70s.
As a child I knitted a scarf while I was in hospital. It got narrower towards the bottom. Finally it was only like this (she measures out about 10 cm with her hands).

Tying in with all of this was important, because we assumed that the participants in the homes will have similar experiences. Further discussions covered:

  • An exchange of knowledge and ideas about aesthetics and art: wishes, ideas, favourite art installations, inspirations, travel photos, gallery and museum visits. Pictures were copied from books as inspiration material and magazines were presented. The group discussed: what is a good installation? What art do you find moving?
  • Exchanges of personal experience with the very elderly. What questions, fears and issues arise? Personal dislikes, experiences of dealing with the very elderly and their limitations, reservations and plans were discussed.
  • The question of what influence artistic creative activities, for example with the hands, have on wellbeing? What experiences has each one had and what experiences have we from KUNSTLABOR had.
  • The presentation of the “KUNSTLABOR Graz Principles” in the work done with the very elderly. These principles were generated from the experience we have had to date in working with this group (continuous projects have been running ever since 2005). This established the basis for artistic work in the homes.

Ideas were developed and materials and techniques were tried out in the context of their suitability for use in work with the very elderly. Inputs came from all the group members, and work was brought along for example that had been done with clay, weaving techniques, colour printing techniques, knitting and also cooking and baking experiments.

After this preparation, we began work in the homes. We wanted to take the experts with us to the home on a voluntary basis and involve them deeply in the work. This only functioned to a limited extent. There was a lack of willingness on the part of the experts to commit themselves to any greater extent with the wishes and needs of the residents. The experts wanted instead to do something for themselves and use the opportunity of getting support from the artists. The basic attitude was one of: “It’s me that is going to do something!”  This was very similar to the attitude of the older participants in the care homes.

handmade Wellbeing graz
Different materials and techniques were tested in care homes. Photo: uniT

The work in the homes was accompanied by a feedback meeting and an intensive exchange of views and experience among the artists.  The question here was what it means to empower the very elderly in own activities and to function as an impulse provider for them, to orientate oneself on the strengths of the participants and give them good coaching in terms of handicraft and creative processes and provide guidance without having to resort to an all too rigid programme. How is it possible to provide the very elderly an opportunity to experience “flow” in the work, i.e. to find freedom of action in what they are doing? How can projects develop in such a way that they are also able to stand up to objective scrutiny from the outside without being dismissed as “nice playing around”.

We delegated a clear specific role to the young participants in our team so that they would not find themselves left to work in a dissociated context. It was important that the task they faced would be both manageable and attainable. The roles of the interviewers and film makers were very well suited for this. We created small teams, each supported and accompanied by an experienced artist. We also decided to use a different form of documentation: a single artist concentrated on keeping the artistic diary.

An intensive workshop was held and a studio week with experts and artists at the Theater am Lend was also organised in August 2016. We trained at least ten artists.

Care settings

KUNSTLABOR Graz worked with different teams in three different houses.

Residential Care Home Eggenberg is privately managed and caters chiefly for older people requiring care. Eggenberg retirement and care home offers a large room for group activities and is set amidst a lovely park with old trees in which in-house residents love to spend their time. There are 162 resident, who all need support, but in very different ways. Some of them are living with dementia, some use wheelchairs, some have issues related to heart and blood circulation, etc. Some of them are very mobile, others are not able to leave the bed. We worked there with interested residents for 1 to 1 ½ hours per week from May to October 2016 with a group of about 8 to 10 residents aged between 83 and 98. We worked as an artistic team in twos or threes, accompanied and assisted by the in-house occupational therapist. The residents were used to working together in groups that were normally supervised by an occupational therapist. Depending on the weather, we conducted our activities in the garden or in the group activity room.

Residential Care Home St. Peter was a similar care facility of Caritas in an other part of Graz. We worked there between March and October 2016. Most of the 142 residents are dependent on care. We met once a week with a selected group of interested residents. There was a core group of 3 men, but we had always “visitors” around us. The manager of the facility, Mag. Pechmann-Ulrich, was very sympathetic towards our cause and allowed us to work freely and unobstructed. We have worked here before and the manager was already looking forward to our new project. Our meetings mostly took place on Mondays from 10 am to 12 pm noon, because it was a time of the day where no other activities were offered and which did not interfere with meal times. The meetings were held in the foyer, which was very bright and spacious. When the weather was fine and warm, it was also possible to work outside, which was even more pleasant and convenient.

Kumberg assisted living home “Haus der Freunde” offers assisted living for 24 persons. The residents are all still very mobile and have virtually no care needs. Contact with the home was arranged for us by someone who lives in Kumberg and knows the work of KUNSTLABOR Graz. The people in the home were immediately very enthusiastic and open-minded about the project. The home provided support for the planning and the scheduling of the workshop meetings, access was open up to the biographies of the residents.

The workshops were run by a team of at least four people. The group had 10 members and met between March and October at fortnightly intervals in sessions of 2 to 4 hours held in the home common room, which has an area of about 50 square metres. The home manager was always present during the workshops, which was not always very helpful because as a result it was not always easy to find out what the group’s wishes were.

The members were intellectually fully fit and knew precisely what they did and did not want. But they were also very worried about not being able to perform very well, or that they might no longer be able to do so, they felt it was shameful not to be perfect. They were not used to experimenting. Only about four of the members were still able to do work requiring fine motor skills. They all had some challenges with concentration and hearing. Most of the participants wanted to crochet or knit and above all they wanted to work alone. This wish affected the way they worked and the techniques they used.

Workshop themes
A curtain and a lampshade made of strips of fabric in Eggenberg Residential Care Home

We wanted to start with a simple method to get an idea of the possibilities and abilities of the participants. The idea was to tie a curtain made of strips of fabric onto a metal rod. We had cut the required strips from pieces of old fabric and limited them to three colours so that the participants could match them together as they wished. The reason for limiting the choice of colours was to ensure there would be an aesthetic composition throughout and recyclable fabrics were used in order to save resources and money, although it meant that the team had to invest more time in preparation.

Photo: uniT
Collaboration: you hold the rod, I will tie the strips. Photo: uniT

The technique was no problem for most of the participants. Cloth was something the participants were familiar with, and most of them had sewn before. However, it was a new experience for most to tie strips of cloth together. At first, some people were afraid of making a mistake, but soon became more confident as they succeeded in their work. One lady thought that she would not be able to join in because her arm was hurting, but after a while she forgot her aches and pains and even worked until the end of the project. The job was done in pairs, so that one person held the rod while the other person knotted the strips and vice versa. This allowed those people to partake who were no longer able to tie the strips without help. It worked so well that we were already able to present three rods with knotted strips of fabric at the end of our first session. Also, the participants were able to get an idea of what the results could look like.

After finding out that many of the participants had knitted in the past, we decided to bring wool and knitting needles with us the next time. That prompted one lady to finger-knit one long strand per week, which she did on her own during the week.

After several work sessions, we had produced two curtains (1.5 x 2.5 m each, which we displayed as folding screens at the exhibition). Then, the question cropped up as to what we could do next. Our proposal was to repeat the technique but use a different material. This time we cut big white garbage bags into strips that would be attached to large round wooden hoops to form lampshades.

After their initial surprise, the residents got together in groups of four and started to work. The hoops were fixed to the ceiling of the group room in such a way that three to four people could work on one hoop. To our surprise, the task was done so quickly that we had trouble in providing sufficient material. Apparently, most of our elderly companions had once worked in the nearby factory so that work was a matter of course for them – and doing the job nicely kindled their enthusiasm. Each lamp they finished was acknowledged with pride, and as a consequence, the idea was born to project portrait photos onto them.

We found it intriguing that the participants themselves began to put forward suggestions as to how they wanted to design the lamps: maybe a bit smaller, in certain colours, using patterned fabric or with silk flowers in between, etc.

Handmade Wellbeing Graz
Curtains made of fabric strips. Photo: Sirpa Kokko
Handmade Wellbeing Graz
Lampshades of plastic bag strips. Photo: uniT
Textile printing a tablecloth for a large table in Eggenberg Residential Care Home

After producing two folding screens and six large lamps, and in view of the fact that the participants wanted to carry on, we decided to try a different creative technique, textile printing. The ultimate aim was to create a tablecloth for a large table.

We attached squares (25 x 25 cm) of white cotton cloth to stiff cardboard using broad adhesive tape so that each square had its own frame. There were three colours and differently sized blocks with a variety of designs (letters, numbers and simple geometrical shapes) to choose from.

After learning the technique, the participants began to experiment in groups of four, sitting around the table and stamping patterns, names and short texts onto their squares using different shapes and colours. It was interesting to see how they inspired each other while working and that they recognised their own patterns on the tablecloth they had made together. Nobody in the group was familiar with the technique, but it was accepted well and the design results were really impressive. Each single person developed their own individual style.

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Textile printing a tablecloth for a large table. Photo: Sirpa Kokko
handmade wellbeing graz
Photography from the workshops in the exhibition. Photo: uniT.

During our work at Eggenberg Retirement and Care Home, we developed a warm and friendly relationship with the residents and had lots of fun with them. Principally, it was a new experience for all participants that their work was to be shown at an exhibition. We incorporated our photographic documentation of the entire work process and records of individual statements made by elderly participants into the exhibition. After the exhibition, when we were gathered around the large table decked with the home-made tablecloth to reflect on our achievements and to raise our glasses, it was hard to have to say goodbye. “We would never have thought that we still had so much potential”, one of the ladies said. And we would never have thought that people of that age could ever become so ambitious and be so ready and willing to do something new.

Working with clay in St. Peter Residential Care Home

The first time round, we brought all the material and tools we had bought: 60 kilograms of clay in different colours – red, white and brown, wooden panels and plastic foil for covering the tables. We pushed the tables into position, covered them with the foil and prepared work places for those residents who were interested. Initially, we had invited 5 to 6 people, but not all of them managed to come. Since the material was apparently perceived as male-connoted, three men participated mainly in our regular workshops. They had very different personalities, which allowed very interesting insights into their work methods. What we considered most important of all was to provide a pleasant atmosphere for the workplace, tables, material and tools where people would enjoy working together. No subjects or themes were specified.

Photo: uniT
Working with clay. Photo: uniT

One participant was manually highly skilled and focussed on his work from the start. We admired his determination. Without having had any specific previous experience with the material, after receiving brief instructions, he started kneading his clay to form hotdog dishes, and after a while he discovered his own special manner of expression: he began to model animals. A giraffe, a hippopotamus, a tortoise – he loved animal programmes on TV and modelled his animals depending on what programme he had just viewed. As far as the technique was concerned, he only needed a few hints such as: “In order to avoid crack formation while firing an object of a certain size, it needs to be hollowed out with the appropriate tool.”

handmade Wellbeing graz
Clay animals in St Peter workshop. Photo: uniT

Another participant was completely different. He used a wheelchair and had an aversion against dirt and mud in general and “anything looking like shit” in particular. He began by modelling a crucifix and a little Jesus figure which, however, he refused to form with his bare hands. He also rejected our suggestion to use thin work gloves. Over time, he developed a specialised method which allowed him to model things without coming into greater contact with the “filth”. He used a modelling tool or a wire loop as an elongated arm. Colleagues helped him to roll out slabs from which he cut out smaller slabs of clay (approx. 10 x 10 cm) with a knife into which he then carved drawings and texts using a modelling tool. Despite his limited fine motor skills and the weakness of his hands and fingers, we were amazed to see how quickly he developed a functional working method that suited him well, without much intervention at all.

The third man was very skilful and ambitious, but sometimes his ambitions proved obstructive rather than helpful, which was why he did not turn up at every session. He was unhappy sometimes, because he had not been able to create a piece of work in the way he had imagined. For him, it was a true revelation over time to realise what he was able to put into practice. Towards the end of our project, he had become so keen on pottery that he even asked us for more information on courses available to the public.

The next step was to work collaboratively. With our eyes closed, we worked, one after the other, on a huge lump of clay weighing about 7 kg from which we formed an “IT”. In a second step, this “being” was coated with four layers of paper scraps and glue and then left to dry. A week later, we all took turns in coating it with latex. After the drying period was over, we meticulously extricated the clay, which had not yet dried, and separated the two layers of paper and latex, presenting the object in the exhibition as a final highlight.

What was especially fascinating about this project is that we granted ourselves sufficient space and time to process this material, which is far from easy to work with, without setting any specific targets. More importantly, we did not focus on mastering pottery and the techniques it requires, nor was it decisive to create pots that would actually work as such. That approach helped us to experiment with the material and go our own ways. Participants were allowed to use their imagination and learn the required technique by acquiring practical experience.

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Collaborative clay work. Photo: uniT
Making pictures by knitting and other techniques in Kumberg assisted living home

Empty wooden frames with a size of about 50 x 70 cm were selected that were to be prepared using various materials such as wool, lace, ribbons and string.

This allowed the most various techniques to be used: knotting, knitting and crochet. These all had a direct link with very familiar activities which some of them had regularly practiced, but also led to a quite different and new result for the residents. They found the project was fun. They were also very pleased by the presentation at the exhibition.

Handmade Wellbeing Graz
Wooden frames with knitted and crocheted objects. Photo: Sirpa Kokko
Making a sculpture of plastic cups in Kumberg assisted living home

This was much more of an experiment. White plastic cups – 800 of them – were to be put together by the members of the group in a jointly created sculpture. Both the material and the task itself were extremely challenging.

Work on the sculpture was linked to a question: what would I like to leave behind me as a memory? This was initiated with a discussion on the subject starting with a quotation from “The Little Prince” by the French author Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. This discussion was followed with great interest. The thinking here flowed into the work. Small notes on which the reflections of the members were written were placed in the cups for the sculpture.

The work with the plastic cups, however, met with a great deal of resistance, since the material was seen as bulky and the participants failed to understand why the cups were not being used for drinking. The smell of the glue was also unpleasant. It soon became plain that this project idea was a very distant one for the people who participated. What is more they did not perceive the results as being their own work.

Handmade Wellbeing Graz
Plastic cup sculpture. Photo: uniT
handmade wellbeing graz
Making the sculpture. Photo: uniT