Kelly Donaldson: Arts groups draw fine lines from poets following their passions

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What does ‘my time’ mean to you? That’s what we asked the public last spring, when Voluntary Arts Scotland teamed up with the Scottish Poetry Library to run an exciting new project.

We wanted to know about those precious moments, when work and family commitments take a back seat, and creativity is allowed to flourish.

An open call for poems was launched and over the summer ­people shared their lives with us through verse. We heard about the joy of singing in a choir or capturing a view through watercolour painting, the thrill of dancing or a stage curtain about to rise – and much, much more.

At Voluntary Arts Scotland, we know that people join creative groups for many different reasons – to express themselves, to learn a new skill, to make friends, to overcome adversity. Whatever the reason, the outcome for individuals is often the same – a sense of belonging, achievement and increased wellbeing, both physically and mentally.

We knew this already, but it was brought home to us ­during the My Time project. We paired ten poets from St Mungo’s Mirrorball in ­Glasgow with ten voluntary arts groups across ­Scotland.

From a mandolin band in ­Shetland to a youth theatre company in ­Stranraer, a dementia-friendly choir in Helensburgh, to a centre for ­Chinese culture in Glasgow, the groups hosted poets who took part in rehearsals, chatted to group ­members and wrote a poem reflecting their experience.

“Their passion was palpable,” says poet Rachel Tennant, who visited Thistle Quilters in Edinburgh. “They were so vocal about their love of ­quilting and such an enthusiastic group – I had no shortage of things to write about and it was a pleasure to be welcomed into their world.”

The feeling was mutual. Gillian Harrison, a lifelong quilter and ­member of Thistle Quilters, found having an outside eye on what she and fellow group members do was a moving experience.

“It was very exciting to welcome Rachel to Thistle Quilters,” she said, “and her poem, My Stash, with its clever quilting and patchwork ­references, made us laugh and smile – the last lines in particular were so touching and meaningful.

“We immediately liked the idea of taking part in the My Time project, but we hadn’t expected how profound the experience would be.”

Poet Stewart Sanderson had a ­similar experience in Inverness, rehearsing with the amateur ­musicians of the Truly Terrible Orchestra (which, despite its name, isn’t). “It was a pleasure and privilege to spend an evening with them,” he said. “Listening to them practice reaffirmed my conviction that the arts have a role to play in everyone’s life.

“As I say in the poem, virtuosity isn’t everything. Though many of the members are actually very good players, I love the way the orchestra provides an unpretentious, welcoming space for enjoyment and ­participation across a broad range of ­proficiencies. It’s a great group doing ­really important work.”

There are an estimated 10,000 ­voluntary arts groups across ­Scotland, and as Sanderson says, the importance of what they do can’t be underestimated.

For Truly Terrible Orchestra ­member Elaine Fetherston, returning to music-making as an adult after playing the oboe at school, has been an important aspect of self-care. But it’s not just the music that has an impact. There are great benefits to playing an instrument,” she said. “You’re totally focused in the present moment and I find that helps counter the stresses of everyday life.

“I have a stressful job, working with difficult social issues, and music reminds me there’s still goodness and beauty in the world. The sense of shared achievement in an orchestra is really exhilarating, rewarding and therapeutic. I love the challenge of learning new pieces – you can always do more than you think, and even if it goes horribly wrong, we just laugh.”

Poems from the open call and the group visits have now been published in an anthology and an exhibition of words and photographs from My Time appeared at the Scottish ­Poetry Library – with plans afoot for other venues later this year.

We’ve also been working with ­Renfrewshire Council on a mini My Time exhibition as part of the ­Scottish Mental Health Arts Festival, matching up local groups and poets. It’s a project we hope will have legs – continuing to capture the joy of ­creative participation.

Kelly Donaldson, communications manager, Voluntary Arts Scotland