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How we took ‘Clay for Dementia’ online in 2020

When the Garden Museum first closed for lockdown in March 2020, one of the many challenges we faced was how to continue our offering of community learning programmes such as Clay for Dementia. Could these workshops work online? Head of Learning Janine Nelson looks back over what happened next…

Clay for Dementia began at the Museum in January 2018 as part of an ongoing partnership with charity Arts 4 Dementia. Every Thursday, individuals with dementia come to our Clore Learning Space, each with their carer, to join ceramics artist Katie Spragg in hands-on creative sessions working with clay. Why clay? It is an engaging material, easy for beginners, which resonates with ground and garden, and the touch and smell has a potent relationship to memory. During each project, their ceramic work is fired and glazed by Katie at her studio and then either displayed at the museum or brought back to class for the participant to take home.

As Katie says, ‘Everyone loves working in clay, it can be so easily transformed so it allows participants to take the prompts I start the sessions with and use their imaginations to take it in whatever direction they feel in that moment. There isn’t the same inhibition working with clay as there can be with other activities like drawing.’

Our spring course was about to start when lockdown came. Could we go online? Zoom came to our rescue, as well as a helpful delivery driver who deposited bags of clay on a dozen London doorsteps. Thematic inspiration came from from our exhibitions, seasons in the garden, and one week, even Katie’s pet tortoise inspired the model making!

Instructions for making a clay tortoise for anyone that would like to try can be found here

Reflecting on how the classes have proceeded online, Katie comments, “I’m so happy we’ve been able to take these sessions online, the feedback from participants shows how valuable keeping this community going is. Thursday mornings are a special time, an hour a week to hold space to make together and chat. The best moments are when everyone is quietly getting on with making, it feels we are together, even if we can’t be in the same physical room. We really do feel like a family.’

In June, we turned our attentions to the Derek Jarman exhibition, then on show at the Museum. Participants made model houses that meant something to them, inspired by Derek Jarman’s cottage. Jarman himself also kept a model house on his writing desk, which was on display in the exhibition.

Derek Jarman’s model house. Photo by Graham Lacdao

And what did our participants think? Here are some of the thoughts they’ve shared about our online endeavours:

From our eldest participant, in her 90s, ‘I am very old and I can still do something. All old people should have this. I love it, someone different to talk to… I wish we could do it more often. We don’t see people now so it’s nice to see all these different people on the television [i.e. on Zoom].’ One participant with dementia remarked, ‘It’s amazing – it’s just as it always was. I feel as if I’m in the class. I forget it’s on the computer.’

A carer added, ‘We used to attend a variety of groups for Dementia before lockdown and they have tried to continue to support us but it is difficult and Mum’s not really interested. Clay for Dementia it is ‘real’ and provides her (and us) with some continuity.’

And as one carer commented, entrusting participants with professional materials, and having it fired by a professional artist who also teaches at the RCA, makes it feel like more than just an activity. It gives a sense of being taken seriously, and that boosts confidence and self-respect.

Find out more about our Clay for Dementia classes here.

Katie Spragg currently has an exhibition at Make Hauser & Wirth, inspired by Piet Oudolf’s garden at Hauser & Wirth in Somerset and the surrounding landscape: find out more

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