A Blog about a creative art project at All Saints’ Church Westbury
As I said in a previous Blog I have spent a good deal of time during 2021 in a volunteering capacity as Churchwarden of All Saints’ Church Westbury.
Churches as community spaces
I am passionate about sharing the church building with the wider community of Westbury and helping them to engage with its history and heritage.
Churches like All Saints’ Church are grounded in their communities. The recent survey of the building carried out by the Wiltshire Medieval Graffiti Survey demonstrates that (another topic for a Blog!). The names of those who lived and worked in the community are literally etched into the windows and walls of the building.
The disengagement of people with churches and church life is a much bigger topic which I have no intention of exploring on these pages but the result is, it seems to me, a perception that non-churchgoers are unwelcome or don’t have the right to enter and enjoy their parish church.
I often hear children cry out as they pass the open door that the church is open and express a desire to enter but all too often I hear their parents say no. This makes me sad. Of course it may be just lack of time and the need to be somewhere else but that feeling of awe that young children have is soon lost. The danger is that in time, they too feel that the church is not a place for them.
Inspired by a presentation from Annie Lucas about her National Lottery Funded Project in St Cubert’s Church, Cornwall at the 2019 SWFed Conference in Plymouth I decided to see if I could do something on a smaller scale here in Westbury.
Source of inspiration
The vision was to hold workshops that enabled members of our community to create something themselves using our beautiful Grade I church building as a source of inspiration. I wanted those people to be welcomed and feel that they too owned the space. I hoped that they would leave feeling that they could return and explore in their own time and tell others about us. I saw the workshops as a way of helping more people to value and appreciate the church as a community resource.
Our church building has stone carving, woodwork, textiles, stained glass and ceramics all providing colour, beauty and interest and every inch telling a story.
I reached out to artists and creative practitioners via social media and the Arts in Wiltshire blog and was really pleased with the response. I asked those who expressed an interest to complete an online form so that I could see what they all had to offer. I wanted to make these workshops available to adults and young people.
Next job was to secure funding as the Church could not afford to underwrite these themselves. Grants would enable us to pilot some sessions, without risk, to see if the concept worked before considering holding these more regularly in the future.
I applied to the Westbury Community Area Board for a grant to support this work. This was part of their programme to support older people and in particular those suffering from social isolation which is said to be at high levels in Westbury. I was grateful to receive one early in 2020 with the intention of holding the workshops that summer.
Delays to the programme
Then of course the pandemic hit!
Like everyone, I initially thought the Covid 19 scare would be over by the summer and we might be able to hold them in the summer of 2020. But as the virus continued and before vaccines were available it was clear that the time wasn’t right and that those people that were intended to benefit from these workshops would be unlikely to want to risk contact with others.
So we waited and in early 2021 I started to make tentative steps with the three practitioners we had decided to work with to see if we could make them happen in 2021.
We made plans, we looked at being ‘Covid-secure’ and how we could manage the sessions following the various levels of guidance available and we felt that the roll out of the vaccine programme would mean that people felt safe enough to sign up. We agreed a programme of three workshops. Each one very different
All systems go!
I was really keen to try and reach those people that might really benefit from some activity after such a long period of isolation so I contacted the Community Engagement Manager for Westbury and Warminster and the Local Area Coordinator for Westbury and Dilton Marsh to ask for recommendations of individuals and groups who are in touch with older and in particular socially isolated individuals who might welcome the opportunity to begin to meet with others again. We also contacted those people who had been bereaved in the past year that our clergy had supported who might be interested in attending these sessions.
In May 2021, the following groups were contacted:
- White Horse Surgery
- Alzheimer’s Wiltshire
- Age UK Wiltshire
- White Horse Surgery Patient Voice
- Care Support Wiltshire
- Carers in Wiltshire
- Warminster Open Door
- Westbury Friendship Group
- Westbury Court
Those contacted were provided with a poster in .pdf and .png format and an information sheet which aimed to answer questions and provide sufficient detail about each session. The Wiltshire Council Local Area Coordinator also circulated to his contacts. Despite a reminder email, many did not reply at all, others responded positively, seemed to welcome the idea and said that they would pass it on to their users. However, we are aware of only one person coming through this route which was disappointing. More work would be needed to find out why those who were contacted through these organisations did not attend. A more fruitful approach would be to work directly with specific organisations in partnership to create a bespoke activity which met the groups specific needs.
We decided to hold off advertising the event publicly to give these target groups time to circulate to their members and to book in.
In the end we used social media including paid for advertising on Facebook and the local press to reach out across the local area. Participants were asked to book in via Eventbrite.
The feedback reflected the high level of positive comments received on the day. Those that came were appreciative of the warm welcome and really enjoyed exploring the church in a new way.
The participants were a mixture of people who had not been before some expressed Christian beliefs many said they had none and one participant told us that she was a Muslim.
Conversations at each session and following have shown that they had a real impact on those people that came. For many it was the first time that they had been with others like this for over a year.
Feedback forms were produced in hard copy for the first two and sent as a Google form for the third session. The form was designed to:
• measure satisfaction,
• record the number of people who had not visited the church before
• find out if they would feel comfortable coming into the church on their own in the future
• explore the interest in those attending on returning and
• if they would pay for the experience in the future
Did the workshops work in the space?
The Church proved to be a successful venue for the workshops. There are a variety of spaces available. The Chancel proved to be a useful open space and its stone floor meant that mess could be cleared up easily. The building also provides quiet areas for solo or small group working. There is power and water. A microphone is available for larger groups and there is a screen and projector available. Background music can be played if required.
There is level access for those with mobility issues but it is a big space for someone with limited mobility.
Each session lasted for 3 hours with a break for refreshments in the middle.
Longer sessions could be accommodated, there were several comments from participants that they could have spent all day enjoying the activity. There is a kitchenette in the corner of the Church which enables light refreshments to be served and people could be asked to bring their own lunch if the session lasted longer.
All the professional artist practitioners enjoyed the space, found it inspirational and found it a good place to hold a workshop providing both indoor and outdoor space.
Reaching our target audience
It was disappointing that our attempts to reach out to specialist support groups appeared not to be successful. Bespoke programmes working with an individual organisation would undoubtedly be a more productive way to reach this aim. A more extended programme might lead to more success through the building up of relationships and it may be that these groups would rather have an event tailored to their needs. However, the feedback and comments from the participants showed that there is a general need for opportunities to spend time together and meet new people.
Individual stories demonstrated that there is a need for these kinds of activities in Westbury. Some of our participants were new to Westbury and it was an ideal way to get to know the town and meet other people in a safe space, others had been recently bereaved and found the church space suited their needs. Some participants revealed that they had demanding jobs that had been more stressful during the pandemic and that the sessions provided much needed escape from working from home.
Our workshops were limited to those aged over 55 due to the funding conditions but feedback on Facebook indicated that there was an interest in getting involved from many people under that age. This demonstrated that future workshops would have wider appeal and something to consider for future events.
Facebook provided a good marketing space and ensured we reached a local audience. Working with other partners would provide a wider audience and a longer period would help reach a wider range of people.
Our boosted (paid for posts) reached far more people than our average posts with over 1,000 engagements when our normal posts reach less than 200.
Eventbrite was an effective way to book participants in but there were some participants who found it difficult so providing a phone number to book is necessary.
The response was that people would be happy to pay a moderate charge for future workshops. If the workshops are repeated a grant could help to make future events affordable by subsidising them.
What happens next?
We are hoping to work with a business in Westbury run by local artists who regularly provide sketching and other art and craft workshops. Art workshops is not the ‘core business’ of the Church of England and so as a church community we need to balance the time it takes to develop a programme of workshops with other activities. Working with a partner might help to reduce some of the time managing a programme of workshops would take.
We’d like to provide these workshops at a price to keep them affordable and even consider providing some free spaces (or pay what you can afford) so that they are accessible to all. We are exploring sources of funds to help make this happen.
We are very hopeful that we can hold more workshops in 2022 and have three workshops for young people planned for the February 2022 half term – watch this space!
The church building is open daily from approximately 9am to dusk – why not come on in and get creative yourself?
I’d like to thank Jo Taylor, Marie Hillcoat and Matthew Tett for their support in planning and leading these workshops and Wiltshire Council for the Community Area Grant which supported the workshops.