How art can help people put life into perspective

The Art House: Mark at work behind one of his sculptures
The Art House: Mark at work behind one of his sculptures

Arts centre and learning space is helping combat mental health issues.

Artist Kieron Long was reflecting in the cafe of the Art House, hidden away on a back street off Division Street.

The Art House: potter Mark checking one of his sculptures

The Art House: potter Mark checking one of his sculptures

“I used to read about people doing painting and drawing and how it helped them with mental health issues, and I remember thinking: ‘It’s just a few pictures!’”

He laughed. “Actually it’s unbelievable how it’s helped me. Coming here has really helped me put things back on track.”

Two years ago, the semi derelict building next to St Matthew’s Church on Carver Street was reopened as an arts centre, cafe and learning space, in a £1.5 million refurbishment funded by the European Regional Development Fund, South Yorkshire Key Fund, several local trusts, and the congregation of St Matthew’s.

The Art House charity took on potter Sarah Vanic and painter Ali Kitley-Jones to lead commercial courses for people fired up by the Great Pottery Throwdown (for example) along with a series of art and pottery classes for the centre’s wellbeing groups, for people who might be homeless, or have physical or mental health problems, 250 of whom have used the Art House in the last two years.

The Art House: volunteer Jane Hides helping potter Mark

The Art House: volunteer Jane Hides helping potter Mark

“We have about 80 vulnerable people coming in here every week,” said operations manager Andy Cutts.

Kieron has experienced housing problems and depression over recent years, he said, but attending the Art House means he can learn from and teach dozens of fellow artists as he experiments with his photography and abstract artworks.

“Having anxiety is different for everyone,” said painter Louise Taylor.

“You have to control it by finding something that helps you relax.

The Art House: George working on a cup in the wellbeing group

The Art House: George working on a cup in the wellbeing group

“Doing art and being creative and keeping my hands busy helps me stop procrastinating and work through issues, and I’m a lot more mindful and relaxed as a result. Art gives you an instant feeling of being better.”

The centre runs up to 30 commercial art and pottery courses every week, and as a social enterprise, the profits from these courses (and from studio rental and hire by other groups) allows separate courses to take place for people with health problems.

“We want to be an asset to the city centre,” said Andy Cutts, “while raising awareness of mental health in a positive way.”

He added that the building was originally built by clergyman Father Ommanney, priest at St Matthews Church from 1882 to 1936, who campaigned to improve living conditions for inner city families, along with providing education (and artistic inspiration within the Anglo Catholic church) for the parish poor.

“It’s interesting how history repeats itself,” said Andy. “The building is still striving to help and support people.”

He hopes the new city centre developments will place the Art House even closer to the centre of things.

The Art House doesn’t have an NHS logo on its door, said Andy, but still sees its work with people who have background health issues as one of its primary aims, and people like Kieron and Louise stress the building itself, with its exhibitions, studio space and vegetarian cafe, allows people of all backgrounds to meet and mingle.

The door to St Matthews church opens from the building too, offering a quiet space for reflection when needed, said Andy.

“You can come in here and immerse yourself in something else, and leave all your worries behind you,” said Louise Taylor.

Jane Hides is a voluntary helper in the pottery class for one of the wellbeing groups at the Art House, but a few years ago she’d been sectioned and placed in hospital after the effects of legal highs.

“I was a danger to myself, walking the streets of Parson Cross at 2am, and the police had been called round to my house three times because I was combative,” she said.

Jane was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, now medicated, but taking part in a pottery class with Art House tutor Sarah Vanic was life-changing, she said.

Sarah asked Jane to become a volunteer, and she now helps other potters regularly and is training to become a support worker.

“Sarah and working here taught me to value myself. Without this I think I’d have been back in hospital in six months.”