by Katie Smith
I signed up to attend the first workshop of the new year held at London’s Studio Upstairs – with unthinking enthusiasm. Studio Upstairs works as an open studio where the Studio Managers, who are HCPC registered Art Psychotherapists work alongside members in a therapeutic community setting to bring about wellbeing.
On the day, I arrived five minutes late and brought along with me the anxiety of a first day back at school. I told myself to act my age, sat on my hands to stop them from shaking and tried not to think about a potential escape route. As I tried to ignore myself, I studied the room – a beautifully light studio of perfect size and layout, just small enough to settle into and large enough to feel free. I was warmly welcomed by the Studio Managers and shared smiles with other people attending the workshop as we introduced ourselves. Most others were MA students of Art Psychotherapy or already working within arts and mental health organisations, so as a new Studio Upstairs Office Volunteer, I was extremely aware of my inexperience. Following a welcome to the studio and explanation of where paper, paints of all kinds, inks, clay, lino printing materials, paper and reference books were kept, the art making began. In my case, it didn’t.
A second wave of fear had slapped me in the face. I watched each person in the room head towards whichever materials they felt appropriate and instantly get on with creating. Slowly my anxieties dissipated as I drew confidence from seeing others seemingly fearlessly focus on working. Despite my confidence growing, I felt like my creative block could be sensed and it was a problem. The studio manager to my left did sense this, but after a short and indirect chat, I relaxed again. The studio manager nearest me carried on calmly with her work and I drew my own calm from seeing this. I thought about how subtle this moment was, yet how effective it was in drawing me out of anxiousness just enough to allow some sort of creative release. How effective the community of Studio Upstairs must be for its individual members. One of the main roles of the Studio Managers (Art therapists) in this setting, is to ‘hold the space’ (Gadiel, 1992) and I felt I was witnessing exactly that. Interestingly, at the same time as there being support, there is also a natural movement to the working space, for instance, people worked over initial drawings with heavier materials like paint or discussed starting all over again because the piece didn’t feel quite right. An intention of the workshop was to put ‘emphasis on how containment and boundaries are held or lost when the studio is a fluid shared space’.
Personally, I had gone from being stuck in my own negative thoughts, gradually shifting out of those constraints and into a pleasant state of focus via drawing. I realise that this would not necessarily of been achieved outside of the open studio model and that must be the case for many people who are now involved in Studio Upstairs. In such a variety of cases the open studio model succeeds in allowing the unraveling of tied up and difficult emotions through a connection back to the artwork and a knowing that they are supported within a community.