In Conversation With Art Doctors

At the start of lockdown, Fe discovered what Art Doctors is all about – helping people to improve their access to, and participation in contemporary art in all its forms.

Hey Art Doctors!  Introduce yourselves, please.

Alison:  We’re the Art Doctors.  I’m Alison Mcintyre and this is Liz Sterli
We are the founders of the Art Doctors, although we have a number of other trained Art Doctors now as part of the team, and our aims are to break down barriers to participation in contemporary art…

Liz:  We think about the role of creativity in our everyday lives as a positive part of health and wellbeing.

Alison  …so that’s kind of what we are all about and the way we do that is by dressing in white coats with paint splats on them. We wear stethoscopes and in ‘normal’ times, we are out there in the world at art galleries, or in the streets or at events, giving out prescriptions for creative activity or art that we think people would benefit from looking at and thinking about – and we’re very silly and we’re very keen about people not feeling scared about doing those things and making it really easy and accessible and us being silly and not being experts.

I like the being silly part.  When did you come up with the idea of Art Doctors?  As in, when did the concept come to you, as I know art and wellbeing is very popular now, but you guys have been going already, for a while.
Alison:  We were first commissioned in 2015 for The British Art Show 8 (TBAS) and it was through the Arts and Minds Network who were one of the community ambassadors (as part of The British Art Show 8 in Leeds) and the idea really was to do something that was silly and kind of explored the idea that art was good for you in a silly, accessible way, asking the question: Is art good for you?  If it is, why?

It was picked up by the TBAS for that, but also as an audience engagement – so it kind of played those two roles.  We were playing with that idea of prescribing art and does it make you feel better, particularly for mental health, because it was for Arts and Minds Network who are all about arts and mental health in Leeds.

In what ways did this format reach out to other groups?
Alison:  There was Natalie Walton who was doing all of the participatory work for TBAS was also interested in it as a way of talking to people about contemporary art who might not be coming to see the exhibition.

How did you execute this?
Alison:  So, it was the October half term and we basically lurked outside the art gallery steps, near the cafe, and very gently accosted people as they went past us in our outfits and prescription pads, which looked very much like real doctor prescription pads.  We asked them questions like, How are you feeling today?  What kind of art do you normally look at or do you like? Then we would prescribe stuff based on whether they wanted more of the same or they wanted a bit of a challenge.

How do you do work out a prescription ?
Alison:  For example, if somebody said they hated video but loved painting, we would send them to go watch a painting related video, to try and challenge them and encourage them to realise that any response they had was valid.  That it didn’t matter what they thought or experienced.  All of this is a valid response and they could come and talk about it afterwards with us.

For both of you:  What are your motivations and inspirations behind wanting to be an Art Doctor?  I know you are an artist Alison and you’re an art lecturer Liz, but what in your hearts made you want to create Art Doctors?
Liz:  Well, I suppose some of it is quite close to what I do as a lecturer, in terms of talking to people about art and trying to create spaces for people to be confident about talking about art, or creativity or ideas, and in a way, there’s a similarity there to that work and I think also, working as an artist doing quite a lot more formative work – I’m working with different people and kids, so it seems quite a natural development from that.  I also find art quite irritating.  Art in the galleries is quite irritating mostly, and I think it’s often a very exclusive space and I don’t think it should be and so it’s a kind of inspiration, in terms of being able to play around with lots of ideas.  I teach art, so I think it’s very important to try and break down those gaps and also I just wanted to mess around with Alison! Does that sound weird? We have been working together doing projects for the Chapel Allerton Arts Festival and I think we really work well together; it’s really entertaining!

That’s what I like about you guys.  You are perfect together for the job of getting people to engage with art in a non-serious way.
Alison:  Can I add to what Liz has said as for me, it comes from making art for probably the last 25 years or so.  I didn’t do an art A level, or a foundation course or go to art college, so I’ve always just sort of done it because that is what I wanted to do.  I think being in that space gives you a little bit of a feeling of being a fraud a lot of the time, or not quite belonging, or not quite knowing what the rules are – doing this thing that you are doing.  I think for me it was all of these things that had been in my head all along about – what you’re supposed to think about contemporary art.  Even as somebody who is working in this field, there are things that I feel worried about and that I feel, uncertain whether I know what the right thing is.  So, I think it was about breaking that all down – there isn’t a right thing, there really isn’t a right thing, there are just your responses and your thoughts.

This was your inspiration for Art Doctors?
Alison:  It wasn’t my inspiration for it in the beginning.  The first time we sat down and worked out the kind of questions we wanted to ask people and the things that we wanted to try and do, it was a sort of a release of all of these things: What if people feel like this?  Or, what if people feel like that?  And what if…? What was really interesting is that people were really keen to have those conversations and I think that what surprised us both is that you end up having really, really interesting conversations, initially based on a piece of artwork.

Liz:  I think that’s one of the things that work because we come from really different backgrounds.  I’ve trained quite a lot in art and then I’m teaching students, but I know that lots of it is just a kind of construct, that is there to stop people engaging with it.  It’s a really good combination of our experiences, that then allows it to be all thrown up in the air and disrupted, challenged.

Alison:Disruption, we like that.  Yes.

Yes, disruption!
Liz:  The conversations we’ve had with people have just been so great and insightful of people’s thoughts and people have really enjoyed talking.  I think what we found, particularly in TBAS, which had some quite challenging artworks in it and loads of different stuff in it, that we struggled with quite a few pieces of artwork and we found that people wanted to be in the space, talking about the artwork, not just looking at it. They want to have an experience that isn’t just an individual silent experience walking around the gallery.  People want to talk about stuff, whether it’s the art or whether it’s their lives or just connecting with people. I think what art should be there to do is to help people connect with each other, talk about stuff, have ideas.  People do want to do that, it’s just that the set up often with art doesn’t encourage or allow that.

You have actually answered my next question about the response to Art Doctors from people.  From what you’ve told me, it sounds like Art Doctors is achieving its aims.  How many exhibitions have you had so far?
The only exhibition we have done was the one in Leeds Market where at the end of a project we wanted to showcase what we’d done as part of that project, which was the ‘Who’s Afraid of Contemporary Art’ project.  I think more than that we are doing events and talking to people at events and doing that kind of one to one conversations with people, that were a part of TBAS.  We’ve also done the Thackray Medical Museum more around creative activities, rather than actual artworks.  So, it’s not so much about exhibitions, it’s more about interactions, maybe we’ll call them. 

The interactions are the best bits!  What kind of feedback do you get from people and have you seen any concrete improvements in people’s lives from what you do in Art Doctors?
Liz:  Oh yes, society is completely fixed now…

Alison:  We fixed it.  It’s fixed!  Look what a good job we did!

Liz:  I suppose it’s difficult in a longer term, which is something we would like to know more about, but in the immediate, the conversations I’ve had with people – people feed back how they like it and how they find it funny. Also, they find how it gives them permission sometimes, to actually do things that they’ve wanted to do, that they’ve maybe often thought about but haven’t let themselves do it, or found the time to do – so often people have said it has kind of given them permission to do something and to let go of worrying about what they might do…

Alison:  What the rules are…

Liz: …or if it’s any good; all those things.

Alison:  … Yeah.  I think, like Liz said, we are interacting in real life with some people and within the moment and then they go away with their prescription and we do give them opportunities to put things on social media, but I think people are in the moment within that experience and we don’t get a lot of longer term feedback.  We have had people who have really loved the interventions on the day and feedback from them has been “This is the best thing I’ve ever been to in a gallery” things like that and that’s been great.  We have also, when we were doing the ‘Who’s Afraid of Contemporary Art’ project, which lasted a year – we worked with some groups longer term. One of those was Hay Days.  In this group we looked at various exhibitions that were happening in Leeds at the time and also looked at the street art and looked at the differences between street art in Leeds and exhibition spaces – what’s allowed and what isn’t allowed in certain spaces.  We had feedback from them and we had a little exhibition for the end of their term and we brought some of this into the exhibition we had in the market.  It was great that we could spend a long time with them talking and thinking, what is contemporary art and how do we think about it?  In their feedback, they talked about how it made them look at things differently, was the main outcome from that.  Thinking and talking about it over a long period of time gave them a real confidence to go to art galleries and go to see things that they might not have normally gone to see.  Also, doing that kind of combination between the street art and the gallery work, made them really think about how much art there is around you that you don’t normally see that isn’t in a gallery setting and think about buildings and architecture and beauty.  So yeah, it really broadened their idea of what art is and can be and that was really interesting.

Liz:  I think also, even people who are going to art galleries weren’t that necessarily confident to talk about it, even though they were going to see stuff.  I think it gave people maybe a lot more confidence to talk about it.  It doesn’t matter what words they use, they felt like they could just talk about it from their heart, or whatever they feel about it or thought about.  It’s that thing of being able to express something in your own words and that’s fine.

It seems it’s working.  People are beginning to open up with art and the situation we are in now, there is a lot of promotion of using creativity to get through this time we are going through.  How have you adapted what you do to online Art Doctoring?
Alison:  That’s a good question!  We actually have been doing that.  Before we get into it in detail, I think that idea about feedback is interesting in terms of what we are doing online, that I think we do get more feedback there and I think developing that as an idea is next, because we don’t do huge amount online.

Liz:  Also, the project we did last year ‘Who’s Afraid of Contemporary Art’, we held in the Leeds Market in the hub community space, a sort of library space.  We specifically chose the market to hold the exhibition in a different space that was a part of people’s every day lives, part of people walking through and wouldn’t feel like they had to know something before they came into it.  People did return and come back for more conversations, like whole groups of kids from Swarthmore College who came and did some workshops.  You could come and sit and chill out in the space, look at the film.  Swarthmore bought back more classes of kids over the week and they really enjoyed it.  It had an amazing feel to it I think.  We were already thinking about, how do we then maybe do other things as well as performing and talking to people where we create spaces where people will come and join in something.  Now we have a forcing into a situation of thinking about how we can be much more online.

Alison:  Yeah, it is similar to that, that we are creating that kind of space online where we can do something and that’s good for us and for our mental health and wellbeing, getting through it, being able to spend time together.  Once a week we are coming together on Zoom and doing a making activity that’s really easy that you can do with just the stuff you’ve got at home, which means that we have a giggle, which makes us feel better.  Then we can put that out, as we’ve set up a YouTube playlist where we’ll put all the videos and also putting them out on our social media, linking them up with some of the organisations in Leeds like Arts and Minds, the Leeds Art, Health and Wellbeing Network and Arts Together, various organisations – because although we really came up with the idea because we wanted to do something silly and fun together, actually the feedback on the first video, was that people have really appreciated it.  I’ve just had some photos sent through from somebody I know – kid’s paper sculptures. This kind of response is what we need to be encouraging people to do. Have a go yourself, come to take photos of your creativity and send them in, or make a little film yourself and # us.  Although it’s a difficult time and we’ve had things cancelled that we were going to do, it’s kind of really quite nice to think about it in this way, that we haven’t thought about it before, of creating a community.

Liz:  And I think it shows it’s much more of an accessible space for people to interact and respond, because people feel they can just upload stuff to their socials.  It’s what you make of the situation, so it really opens up to us, as in this is how that ongoing conversation with people continues and where people can be much more sharing there.

Alison:  I feel at the moment, even after this is all over, we might not be doing it once a week any more, but I think it’s something…or maybe we will do it once a week!  I’d  be happy!   I think it’s definitely something that would be really nice to carry on doing in some way.  Whether we’re making or whether we’re just talking about something to do with contemporary art. It might be that we’ll have conversations sometimes when people start going back to galleries.  We made a tool kit for gallery visits.  We could make a film using one of the activities from the tool kit in the gallery and put it online.  It’s just made us think a bit more broadly about what’s possible.

Liz:  We were thinking about doing the tool kit in our homes to try it out. We might invite you Fe to do one!

Yay!  I’ll be up for that!  It important that during these restrictive times, people work with the barriers and find ways to still do what they do and not be totally defeated and give up, so I’m happy to see Art Doctors are expanding into the online territory.  It’s going to fun watching what you guys get up to. 
Alison:  We could build to one big live event where we make a film and everybody is making it with us at the same time.

That sounds like an excellent idea!  I will have to watch this space! Thank you Alison Mcyntire and Liz Sterling, the Art Doctors, for talking with me. 

Alison and Li  Thank you, Fe!

Note that there are now 14 episodes of Art Doctors Lockdown Specials to watch. Go have some fun!

For the weekly Wednesday Art Doctors session, go to their Twitter
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Fe, for Leeds Living, is an adventurer, always willing to try something a little different. Her interests lie in art, fashion, film, music, theatre, health and wellbeing, history and City projects.

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