Now, Voyager (2006) – a journey of self-discovery


Can art change lives?

At Start, we think so, and Manchester Mental Health and Social Care Trust have encouraged us to explore the evidence.

Through a 2 year project called ‘Getting to Know Alfred Wallis’, run in partnership with Manchester University’s Whitworth Art Gallery, Start artists and students (service users) have found out more about how and why art benefits mental wellbeing. The project culminated in our exhibition ‘Now, Voyager’, named after the Walt Whitman poem that vividly expresses our desire to mould our own destinies. Part of Start’s 20th anniversary celebrations, the show ran for six months at the Whitworth Art Gallery during the spring and summer of 2006, and was extended for a further month due to its popularity.

The Start Arts team devised a special course that mixed practical art with analysis and discussion. Students focused on ‘Outsider Artist’ Alfred Wallis’ painting ‘The Island’, looking closely at the image and delving into the stories behind the Cornish fisherman‘s paintings. As the course progressed, the students’ appreciation of the artist and his work deepened, from initial emotional response towards a more critical understanding.

One student explains: “At first I thought the picture was rubbish…but after I‘d learned about the artist and how he worked, I changed my mind. This altered the way I saw art… Now I would be less dismissive over work I once took an instant dislike to. ”

Study was intense and quite demanding, over and above the way we usually work at Start. Annie Tortora, one of the team who ran the project, comments: “The rewards were obvious from the first. People opened up more quickly, they felt a strong sense of achievement, they learned to control their anxieties, to have the confidence to express opinions, and to debate those opinions with others.”

“The chance to reflect on my own responses to art in such depth has helped me to understand myself better,” said a course member. “The course helped me come out from under. I have had more confidence to speak to people than I have had for years. It was a top-notch experience from start to finish.”

The course ran at the Whitworth Art Gallery rather than at our centre in Victoria Park. “Students told us that they loved working in an inclusive setting such as a gallery”, says course co-tutor Jill Cunningham. “They found the experience of sifting through the gallery’s collections to be absolutely fantastic.”

More about ‘Now, Voyager’

The exhibition was warmly received by gallery visitors, many of whom commented on the positive coverage of mental heath themes in the show.

  • “Truly human and humble – An excellent exhibition to help bring mental health issues to public notice – it really made me think about what is good for the soul.”
  • “A truly inspiring experience….Thought provoking – inclusive and healing…”
  • “It put a smile on my face” – Samantha aged 9

In his opening speech for the exhibition, Professor Aidan Halligan, Director of Clinical Governance for the NHS, said: “This exhibition will leave a legacy behind it that people will remember long after it has finished…it is about hope, and that’s what all health care should be about.”

Behind the scenes of the project

Start has produced full evaluations of the two year project ‘Getting to Know Alfred Wallis’. These look at the project findings and outcomes for its students in depth, and place them in the context of current research around art and mental health.

Click here to read journal articles about Now, Voyager.

Whitworth Education Worker Andrew Vaughan described how he saw the course. “Even though I’m not a specialist in mental health arts work, I could clearly see the changes that happened for people on the course. It was wonderful to see the transformation in self-belief, and the assurance around self-expression everyone developed.”

Says Start Lead Artist Wendy Teall: “In our everyday work at Start we see people regaining life skills, and learning to manage illness successfully, and we’re delighted that our specialist service brings these results for the NHS. And yet we’re aware that there are always improvements we could make. That’s why the Trust encouraged us to push the boundaries and pilot a more intensive version of our normal Start arts service.

“This research was about adding to our knowledge so that we can keep improving our service, and our user group have responded to our new project with a huge thumbs-up.”


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