My new project at Łaznia was a step into the unknown on many levels; no prior knowledge of the group, of creating autism-friendly outdoor spaces, and with a minimal amount of speaking or understanding the Polish language! What I was sure and confident about was my practice as an artist educator and my ability to communicate with children and families beyond any spoken language, through the use of creativity. I’m not an autism specialist, but my sensitive approach to my education work and art practice seems to compliment the nature of such needs.

Before I came to Poland I asked a parent from Open doors at Manchester Art Gallery to write a testimonial about their journey through the workshops, and the effects it had on their child and family as a whole. Here’s an extract;

‘We wanted to come to Open doors so that we could see him in a more relaxed environment and allow him to develop a curiosity and connection with a hobby outside our home. It was also important for us to help him with the sensory issues of touch, noise, lights and sounds, (over / under responsiveness). Here, at the gallery, my son could relax, run about, and enjoy the space. We felt accepted and un-judged. He enjoyed just running about the space, taking off his shoes and running over bubble wrap and following yellow stickers to navigate his way around the space and rooms. Very slowly he connected with the art and the adults at the project. Simply wonderful to watch. Very slowly, with the help of regular attendance to the Open doors project, changes started to be made and milestones reached. This in turn meant our son was happy and relaxed and could begin to learn in a quiet gallery space. …allowing (my son) to explore the space as he wanted meant that his anxiety levels decreased. His concentration increased as he became slowly more interested in the art and materials at the gallery.’

What I’ve come to realise of working with children with autism, is that the steps taken may be smaller but they are hugely significant. Time is stretched and magnified. Slight movements can contain so much meaning and, like turning cogs, the effects support the whole family. I knew that the space I had created at Manchester Art Gallery supported the Open doors programme, but without that ready-made space, would I be able to create an environment that developed meaningful learning, connections and creative language? My intention with Space in the process was to slow everything down and explore the true meaningfulness of developing an autism-friendly creative session.

My aims with Space in the process, were to observe and research how my autism-friendly work with galleries in the UK would translate overseas. I wanted to connect with new families and to deepen my knowledge by sharing thoughts and ideas with others. I wanted to give my career a shake up, to open myself up to new possibilities and opportunities. On reflection, something that was significantly different from my work in UK, was my personal need to move away from being a gallery educator, and to focus on the project as an artist.

To ensure I was able to connect with the group outside of the sessions, I set up a Facebook page to document the weeks. This became a sketchbook of ideas and photographs that I want to continue to update and share as the project and it’s legacy develop, please take a look, like and share


Another accidental, life changing event happened at Manchester Art Gallery in 2011. Whilst running a drop-in weekend workshop I noticed a woman quietly observing from the edge. On approaching and inviting her to join in, she introduced herself as the Learning Curator for a gallery in Gdansk, Poland, who was researching new ways of working. We briefly chatted about our approaches to gallery education and, never wanting to miss an opportunity, we exchanged contact details. Fast forward 5 months and I find myself in Gdansk, running workshops at Łaznia CCA funded by the British Council and later in the year having supper with Gilbert and George! (this really is another story). But with these lines of communication open I ensured they never closed and have subsequently been back to develop other experimental workshops with the public of Gdansk and beyond.

Not only have these opportunities allowed me to share my practice and exchange knowledge with others, they have provided a space for me to reflect on what I find important in art and have developed an awareness of creative communication; how does my practice and ideas translate within a different country, without speaking the language?(more on that later).

I made contact with Ania Meronk late last year and shared the autism-friendly workshops and research I’d been developing with Manchester Art Gallery and Tate Liverpool. Earlier this year I was invited to present my ideas and practice at the Why and How? conference at the Royal Academy of Arts, and Ania was able to attend as a participant.

And this is where the Travel Bursary comes in, with it I was able to set up the sensory-inspired project, Space in the Process; a 6 week residency, co-curated by myself and Ania Meronk, Head of Education, Laznia II, Nowy Port, Gdansk, Poland. I worked with families local to the area and together we explored handmade sensory objects and environments, that bonded us through actions and non-verbal language. The next posts will guide you through the processes we all went through