"Shadow Stories was a six-week project that took place at the Warneford Hospital Day Unit and The Highfield Unit between October and December 2015. The Warneford is a mental health service in Oxford and treats adults on an inpatient and outpatient basis. The Highfield is a separate unit on the hospital grounds for teenagers who are struggling with mental health issues and they are treated as inpatients.
|Javanese Shadow Puppet © Pitt Rivers Museum|
I am a visual artist and have worked previously with the young people in the Highfield on a project with The Ashmolean Museum. I was struck by how much the participants seemed to enjoy the sessions. With this in mind in 2015 I spoke with Maya Herbolzheimer, VERVE Education Officer at the Pitt Rivers Museum, to see if they would be interested in collaborating on another creative project for the young people at the Highfield Unit and at the Warneford. Could we bring a little piece of the museum’s magic out to the hospital?
As we planned the project we looked at lots of fascinating objects, from Chinese masks to African musical instruments. But it was the Javanese Shadow Puppets, traditionally used to tell the story of the Hindu epic the Ramayana that we eventually decided upon as our creative inspiration. I loved the amazingly characterful faces, the huge eyes and the extraordinary detail in the painted clothing.
|Making Shadow Puppets © Stuart Hobbs|
|Playing the Gamelan © Stuart Hobbs|
In the first week we went to the Warneford in the morning and the Highfield in the afternoon.
In the morning Maya introduced everybody to the Pitt Rivers Museum, giving a little insight into its history and origins. The group on the Day Unit was a delight. There was a lot of lively discussion around the objects she had brought in for people to handle: a papier maché tiger’s head from China used during New Year’s celebrations and a ‘thumb organ’ from West Africa which everyone enjoyed having a go at playing. Maya then introduced the puppets. People LOVED them. Great fun was had making shadows on the walls using torches, bringing the characters in and out of focus. People were also intrigued by the story of The Ramayana. We ended the session by looking at details from the puppets and drawing from them. I was struck by how carefully several people looked at the patterns and faces they were depicting and how carefully they made their drawings. At the end of the session several people took their drawings home to finish for next week.
|Making Shadow Puppets © Stuart Hobbs|
In the afternoon, we went over to the Highfield Unit. We were met by Jackie, the fantastic senior teacher who would be co-ordinating the sessions. Jackie had a real skill for rallying troops and bringing people who are feeling vulnerable and unsure of themselves into the sessions. The other staff members were fantastically helpful and excellent at bringing the young people on board. The sessions at The Highfield were lively and full of laughter. People enjoyed manipulating the puppets and getting them to engage in unusual situations!
|Creating Shadow Stories © Stuart Hobbs|
The following week Cath from The Story Museum joined us for the telling of the Ramayana. She created a magical space and we all sat round and listened to the epic tale. It was all very enchanting and none of us wanted it to end! Then, when asked to write their own stories, several of the young people came up with some pretty dramatic tales of their own. Rat kings being pushed into volcanos and the Grim Reaper’s revenge to name but two.
In week three we started making our own puppets. Both groups took to this really well. What I found really pleasing was to see how innovative people were with their ideas. One woman on The Day Unit made a line of three marching characters as one single puppet. In the Highfield, one of the young people made ‘The Other Mother’ a character from the animated film Coraline. She took great care over the making of her puppet and was justifiably proud of the result. This young person told me: ‘I always hated art, but I have really enjoyed this!’ This comment really made it all feel worthwhile.
|Shadow Puppets © Stuart Hobbs|
For me, the highlight of the project was the Gamelan session with Isabelle. What an unusual sight the Gamelan was! A carved, dragon headed gold and turquoise concoction of instruments to bang, drums, xylophones and a collection of enormous gongs, all sitting in the middle of the living room floor! Julian, the music therapist helped us with the session. Isabel encouraged us to experiment with the sounds, swapping instruments and getting a good feel for each. She then taught us a tune called ‘crazy cowpen’. This was great fun. It took a bit of concentration, but unbelievably we seemed to stay pretty well together and under Isabelle’s expert guidance speeded up and slowed down in unison.
The enormous gong had to be everybody’s favourite instrument, both in The Day Hospital and The Highfield. You really felt it reverberating through your body as you hit it. The very talented Stuart Hobbs, musician and teacher at The Highfield, recorded this workshop so we could use them for our accompanying film. Without exception, everybody thoroughly enjoyed Isabelle’s session.
|Gamelan Session © Stuart Hobbs|
The other highlight was the filming of the finished puppet show. Stuart directed proceedings with a firm hand! In the Highfield performance we had magic unicorns dancing with underwater beasts and dragons doing battle with the Grim Reaper. The Warneford Day Unit puppeteers came up with an elaborate tale which was a twist on the Ramayana. There was an army of Charlie’s angels, a wicked magician with sharp teeth and extraordinary curling shoes and a very nasty stepmother.
It was fantastic how much everybody entered into the spirit of the project and we achieved an awful lot in a very short space of time. .
Maya and I worked closely with Tom Cox from Artscape, and Charlotte, the very accommodating Occupational Therapist on the Day Unit, and also Anne Marie, a very experienced artist who had worked with the group before. Thanks to them, and thank you to Pitt Rivers Museum for believing in the project and of course to all the wonderful people in the Warneford and the Highfield. It wouldn’t have been a project at all without your enthusiasm and engagement, so thanks for giving us the chance! You did a really great job and you deserve be very proud of what you have achieved. "