The RA’s involvement in the making of art gives it a unique advantage. “As an artist-led institution, the Academy has a commitment to the idea of practice, which makes it different from a traditional museum,” says Saumarez Smith. “It’s not just about treating our works as things to be admired and respected, but showing that they derive from a process. And people should be encouraged to think about that process.”
The handling element of the InTouch session that I visited certainly fosters that awareness, as do practical workshops where participants get a chance to make their own work. These currently take place in a room in Burlington House, but when the Academy’s new development at Burlington Gardens is complete in 2018, there will be a dedicated learning studio on the ground floor next to a new lecture theatre, allowing for the future expansion of the programme.
I went on to attend a family workshop for children with special educational needs (pictured at top). The walls of the current studio were covered with images of forests, and sprigs of greenery lay on tables alongside makeshift palettes with daubs of blue, green, yellow and brown paint. Nine family groups were taking part. Most of the children, whose ages ranged from two to late teens, had learning disabilities or autism, and some had mobility and visual impairments.
Cash Aspeek, the facilitator, described how the forest theme had been inspired by the Kiefer show, and the family groups began creating their own ‘forests in a box’, using cardboard, paint or bits of vegetation. The parents seemed to be having just as much fun as the children. Nadine, an artist with a disabled son of five, said she relishes the time that she has with him here. “It gives me a chance to spend three hours with my son with no interruptions. We work together and I evolve as well. I love coming here because there’s no pressure and it’s so friendly and it’s a quiet time.”
At the end of the workshop the little forest boxes were displayed together on a table. Each family had come up with a completely individual take on the theme. Ethan, whose father is Canadian, had inserted a lumberjack in his forest alongside a tree nymph and a wolf. Natasha opted to make a winter woodland, while her father painted a blazing sun for the roof. Most were planning to continue work on their pieces and display them after they had taken them home.
The RA’s InMind sessions cater for an older audience of people with early- to mid-stage dementia and their family members, friends and carers. I was once again astonished at just how much I gained from the intense experience of looking encouraged in these meetings. The aim is to provoke immediate responses without reliance on memory, and picture labels are covered up so no-one approaches the paintings with prior knowledge.
Two groups were assembled in the Fine Rooms, each focusing on a different work. The first, led by Baxter and fellow artist and educator Jonathan Huxley, gathered in front of William Hamilton’s Vertumnus and Pomona (c.1789). “We just want to know what you think,” said Baxter, “there are no right or wrong answers.” Most of those present are unlikely to have come across the picture’s relatively obscure subject, from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, but the duo skilfully drew out the participants by asking what they thought of the picture, before inviting them to speculate on what the figures’ gestures might mean.
Meanwhile, a group in another room, led by Francesca Herrick and Kim Jacobson, were passing round pieces of fake fur fabric as they discussed Briton Rivière’s The King Drinks (1881) – a painting of a lion lapping the waters of an oasis. The samples prompted a discussion about the texture of the lion’s mane, and whether the artist had ever seen a lion in the wild. (It turned out that he had travelled no further than London Zoo.) At the end of the session both groups came together to vote on the pictures they would like to discuss next time they meet. In the best democratic tradition, everyone was given a wooden spoon to hold up beside his or her chosen picture.
The multi-sensory and active nature of these sessions sometimes spurs unexpected creativity. Tony, a former barrister who is one of the regulars, said that at a previous session he had been encouraged to draw. He had never picked up a pencil or brush before, but was so inspired that he went on to produce his own art at home, encouraged by William, a volunteer. Tony’s art was recently displayed at an event co-hosted with the Alzheimer’s Society and held in the Fine Rooms. Rowena, who had been coming along for around nine months, said that although she no longer made her own art because her condition meant she has trouble interpreting visual data, she goes home feeling her ‘brain has been stimulated’.
According to Bretton, an important element of these sessions is the way that they allow people to voice their opinions and make decisions. When someone is no longer able to communicate in the way they used to, they can often lose confidence in articulating their ideas, and many decisions can begin to be made for them. Bretton and her team try to structure sessions so that there are a series of choices to make.