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Electric Feathers: Teenagers with epilepsy make ‘art how you feel’ on a partnership project with Epilepsy Ireland

‘Making art and friends’ was how one teenager described Electric Feathers, an art project led by Helium Arts in partnership with Epilepsy Ireland for young teenagers (aged 12-16) with epilepsy. Taking place from February to July 2018, participants worked with artist Rachel Tynan to create artworks that drew on ideas of individual and group identity. Along the way, the young people got to experiment with lots of different artmaking techniques, inspiration was found in the art at IMMA, and the Electric Feathers art group was born and cemented forever in screen-printed apparel.

Artist Rachel Tynan and Robert create the final touches on the Electric Feathers group artwork. Photo credit: Thom McDermott

I got to do something I love - Participant

Electric Feathers was also a project of firsts: the first time Epilepsy Ireland has engaged creatively with young teenagers, bringing together a new cohort of young people, many of whom had never participated in any activities with the organisation, and the first time a visual arts project has been undertaken by Epilepsy Ireland. Breaking new ground together was made possible through funding from the Artist and Youth Work Residency Scheme which is managed by the National Youth Council of Ireland on behalf of the Arts Council Ireland and the Department of Children and Youth Affairs.

Final touches: Last day of art camp. Photo credit: Thom McDermott.

The best thing was that you can do your art however you feel – Participant

The project sought to give the young people a voice and space to explore ideas of identity through a high quality collaborative arts experience and to create artistic representations of their individual and collective stories. By giving participants the opportunity to take control of the creative process and to work with the artist as equals, the project supported the development of the young people’s independence, decision-making and communication skills and helped to build self-esteem in those less confident in their abilities. We learned a lot from the young people too, the project providing an enhanced understanding and wider perspective on their experiences and also on their approaches to artmaking.

Spring workshops: Who am I?

As an artist and educator I believe that the teenage years are crucial in forming our identity and sense of self. Many teenagers with chronic illness feel isolated and I believe bringing them together will help them create a common voice while maintaining their individuality.‘ – Artist Rachel Tynan

On two exploratory spring workshops, participants took part in brainstorming activities around personal identities (how they saw themselves, what they wanted to be, the things that inspired them) before embarking on developing and designing their own avatars – characters inspired by elements of their own personalities or entirely new creations. They could choose whatever artistic medium they liked and the characters came to life through drawing, textiles, plaster of Paris, audio performance, stop-motion animation and more.

One participant created an avatar that reflected her experience of living with epilepsy: ‘Her name is Ellie, she has dark spikey hair that sometimes stands on end. Her skill is that she can be called by people who need her. She has electric powers so she can interfere with the electrical activity in people’s brains and prevents seizures! Her goal / wish in life is to help people with epilepsy.’ The character of Ellie was the impetus for a discussion between a small group of the young people about seizures and imagining ways to sense or stop them. Already they had begun to make friends and swap phone numbers.

 

Characters in the Ellie universe

Electric Feathers: Developing Group Identity

The third workshop in April saw the young people move from exploring individual to group identity. Participants were encouraged to take ownership by naming their group and designing a logo that responded to their group identity. A word association game threw up a number of names and ‘Electric Feathers’ emerged as the clear favourite. The name has resonance with the experience of epilepsy – imbalances in the brain’s electrical rhythms result in seizures.

The brain itself became a jumping off point for the next phase of the project – a summer art camp – with the young people keen to explore ideas around brain mapping and how different parts of the brain contribute to different ways of thinking and knowing (our individual identities); for example, one young participant was interested in friendship and the part of the brain that helps us make connections with people. With nearly three months to go until we would meet again at camp, Rachel introduced the young people to journaling, beginning with her own art journal from her first year at NCAD. Participants were provided with notebooks to record ideas and to visually maps their lives and things that inspired them as a bridge to encourage idea generation in between workshops.

Artist Rachel Tynan’s art journal from her first year at NCAD.

Summer Art Camp at IMMA: Brain mapping, feather hunting, Frank Bowling

The Electric Feathers art group took part in a three-day art camp at the Irish Museum of Modern Art in July. They screen-printed their logo onto t-shirts (a technique that was new for everybody), choosing their own colours to put an individual stamp on their group identity.

The opportunity to respond to works within the gallery space at IMMA proved an important source of inspiration. Identity is a key theme informing the work of Frank Bowling, a Guyana-born British artist. Mark Maguire, Assistant Curator at the Engagement and Learning Department of IMMA, brought the group on a tour of Bowling’s Mappa Mundi exhibition.

Bowling’s large canvases influenced the group’s individual artworks, as did a number of his painting techniques, including paint drip and the use of masking tape. Bowling’s triptychs inspired one participant to create a diptych (below), bringing together her love of music and nature.

For other participants, their passions in life were also a stimulus for their final creations: from a love of Formula One to Doctor Who. The teenagers embraced different media: light art, sculpture, text and the embellishments of objects (a teddy bear!).

For the Electric Feathers group artwork, a ‘brain map’ was the focal point with each participant contributing their own section and feathers collected by the group from the grounds of IMMA anchoring the collective identity of the piece.

Sophia and her brother in front of the Electric Feathers group artwork at the end of project showing of work. Photo credit: Thom McDermott.

Celebration of work: Mini exhibition for families and friends
On the final day of art camp, family members, friends and guests joined the young people to view and respond to the artworks they had created. Many of the participants were happy to stand by their work and discuss it. Rachel presented each participant with their own screen-printed Electric Feathers hoodie, commemorating all that the young people had achieved throughout the project.

 

Robert (in his ace Electric Feathers hoodie!) with his dad at the end of project showing of work
Gemma and her dad at the end of project showing of work

In Our Own Words

What was the best thing about the project?
‘I had time to think during [the workshops]’
‘Learning new techniques’
‘Meeting other people who know what it’s like to have epilepsy’ 
‘Doing art and meeting people’

My daughter liked getting to talk to other kids with epilepsy and getting to do an activity which she found very enjoyable. She also found getting help from an artist very beneficial.’

‘[My daughter] learned to be part of a team and be accepted for who she is without the need for explanations.
– Parents

It is the first time that Epilepsy Ireland has been involved in an artwork project for teenagers, which has allowed us to reach new families who have not engaged before. The teenagers really enjoy meeting each other and coming together and having time without their parents present on site.‘– Edel Curran, Community Resource Officer, Epilepsy Ireland

 

Acknowledgements 
The Electric Feathers art project was produced by Helium Arts in partnership with Epilepsy Ireland and in association with the Irish Museum of Modern Art. The project was supported through The Artist and Youth Work Residency Scheme, which is funded by The Arts Council and The Department of Children and Youth Affairs, and administered by The National Youth Council of Ireland. We gratefully acknowledge the support of the RHA and The LAB Gallery. Many thanks to Edel Curran and her fellow CROs at Epilepsy Ireland who supported the young people throughout the project.

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