Ciara Callaghan is a well-known artist based in Milton Keynes and associate artist in MK Gallery and the Milton Keynes Center for the Arts. Prolific in dyeing, embroidery and quilting, Ciara works primarily in textiles and runs inclusive community-based art projects that make a significant difference to the lives of local youth. Over the last two years, Ciara has been a consistent source of inspiration for experienced young people in care who are part of our Grandmentors project in Milton Keynes.
Grandmentor’s place-based approach enables young people experienced in care to become more active in their communities through collaboration and local resources. Ciara is a great example of how someone somewhere used their skills to support experienced young people to find their place, empowering them to thrive in it.
Grandmentors is an intergenerational mentoring program in which older volunteers use their experiences and life skills to provide emotional and practical support to young people transitioning from a system of care to independent living. The impact can be transformational. In Milton Keynes alone, the care experienced by young people who are living independently or are stable at having an appropriate standard of living increased by 87% from their initial mentoring experience.
Establishing solid relationships is especially important for young Grandmentors who often come to the UK as unaccompanied refugees. Their only interactions with adults are often within formal confines, so establishing relationships with adults can take a long time. Ciara builds a trusting relationship by giving experienced young people the space and freedom to be creative during her workshops.
“There is something to be said for establishing connections and maintaining them over a number of years. Everyone needs something different, so it’s about personalizing the experience. My dynamic is that I don’t have a box that I have to check; there is no predefined result that I should be trying to achieve. Instead, I was mentored by young people. “
Ciara’s refreshing approach to community-led workshops has resulted in a valuable connection between the artist and our team of Grandmentors in Milton Keynes. Firm in the belief that given the right environment, anyone can be creative and become an artist, Ciara’s inclusive art workshops have become a welcome ‘safe haven’ and creative haven for young care graduates to develop as artists.
“My work is doubled; I have a very quiet and exploratory studio practice, my social engagement work where I see how art can be used to build a real sense of community. To get your voice heard and change the way you think, do things differently. For young people, especially Grandmentors, who previously did not consider themselves creative, can now confidently call themselves artists.”
It all started two years ago when Ciara ran a textile-based social enterprise called ‘Sew and Grow.’ Ciara welcomes young people to the workshop, some with special educational needs as well as young people unable to continue school due to anxiety and depression, young people in care, and young people who are experienced. At Sew and Grow, young people explore innovative and organic artistic methods, dyeing the fabrics they sew with natural dyes grown in their dye garden. Ciara explained;
“Through my work with social enterprises, I see how young people can get involved in textiles or any form of art. I saw how young people who were struggling to learn at school arrived early for the ‘Sew and Grow’ workshops and left late at night. QHowever, a sense of hope, purpose, and accomplishment all add together to give young people who previously lacked a sense of self-worth, a strong sense of self-worth.”
An inclusive sense of ‘place’ and communication make Ciara’s workshops unique, giving young people real purpose through art and conversation. “Workshops provide a place and a sense of belonging to experienced young people. There’s no hierarchy, so they feel like a home they can come to. It has influenced my work going forward. I work a lot with youth in welfare programs. It’s like guidance. Some of the young people at Sew and Grow come from Grandmentors. Working with young people in many different spaces means I can build relationships with them. “
Then came Transitional Belonging, another groundbreaking project Ciara founded based on the principles of building trust and a sense of community. Overcoming time and relationship barriers is an integral part of the artistic integrity of Ciara’s workshop. It’s about something other than working with lots of people coming into the repair shop sporadically; it’s about working with lots of small numbers!
Held at MK Gallery, the Transitional Belonging workshop engages experienced young people in designing and making their own quilts. Quilts are often passed down through families from older generations, with strong associations with home, comfort, and care. So for experienced young people or unaccompanied refugees who don’t have that relationship, making blankets gives them the ownership to make their own. heritage to be passed on to the next generation.
Ciara explained: “I developed a trusting relationship with four young people by working with them for six weeks for half a day each week. It helps young people to form groups, support each other through their quilt design process and ask self-reflective questions which develop into an experimental and inspiring exhibition.”
“One of the most important ways to make blankets is to just keep coming, and young people just keep coming – there’s never a week they don’t show. Each blanket looks completely different – none of them are alike, but they are very representative of the young people who made them. Blankets are incredibly difficult to make, so it is an astounding accomplishment.”
In August 2022, Grandmentor’s quilting culminated with a memorable exhibition at Gallery MK, as Ciara described; “This exhibition is one of the best nights I’ve ever had, unlike any other exhibition. It was one of the most emotional nights I’ve ever had, and I’ve never been this proud.
The exhibition is a triumph for experienced young people who took center stage in showing their blankets to attendees, including a researcher and journalist in the history of blankets. recap Ciara, “What’s really special is when young people get people to look at their quilts and can talk about the designs with confidence.”
“I consider the project one of the most successful I’ve ever done based on the feeling of the night; it was so rich, and everyone who was there was so touched by it, by the young people and by their work and by the way they had room for the evening. It was just the happiest night; everyone dresses up, it’s emotional.
Inspired by the Transitional Belongings project, Ciara produced a book consisting of photographs, and interviews, capturing the experiences of young people during a quilt fair.
Ciara explained, “An interview with a young person is passionate, open and honest with lots of photos. Local photographer Sagar Kharecha, works very well with young people, encouraging young people who are interested in photography to stylize all the photos. Everyone really enjoyed the session.”
Thanks to Ciara’s unwavering support of the Grandmentors, each experienced youngster and Grandmentor’s team will receive a copy of the book with the remainder being sold by the MK Gallery shop. Proceeds from sales will be donated to the Community in Residence program.
For Ciara, it’s about the legacy of continuing to fund art projects; “One of the things I worry about about community outreach is when a project ends, it just ends, and all the good feelings and all the skills that people have learned stop.”
Using funds from Galeri MK (inheritance money), Ciara plans to run a series of other projects at the gallery; four-hour sessions run once a week for five weeks. Sessions will be open to young people new to the Grandmentor so they can get to know each other in a safe place. Less directive than quilt making, the idea is for young people to make items of their choice, including clothing.
“Maintaining a social aspect is as important as showing something – there is so much skill involved in doing something like that.”
True to Grandmentors’ place-based approach, MK Gallery has been instrumental in the success of each project by making experienced young people feel welcome, as Ciara explains; “MK Gallery wants young people to feel that the gallery is for them, not just this foreign place for just a select few, but a place for everyone and that’s why the gallery is so invested in ensuring that young people feel like they are. they have ownership of the gallery and it is their safe space.
Over the past year, Ciara has created great memories with our team of Grandmentors, closing 2022 with a sleep workshop during Care Leavers Week, where young people and their volunteer mentors create their own sleep masks by blending herbs specific to their individual needs. “It was an amazing, gentle, relaxing workshop – everything a sleep workshop should do. You don’t always need to outsource your care; most of the time, you can make your own!”
Ciara shows no signs of slowing down for 2023, with plans for a new project called Blecca Lea. Funded by the public art commission of Bletchley Council and Fenny Stratford, the project will host a self-contained art space at the Brunel Center in Bletchley three days a week. Easily accessible from Milton Keynes, this workshop welcomes local youth to work with commissioned artists.
Trust and time are fundamental to Ciara’s unique approach to community-led art projects and her unwavering support for Grandmentors; “I’ve built my relationship with Grandmentors over two years – nurturing and building relationships does make a difference – they know me, and I know them very well. We are all part of the creative experience – time and consistency allow young people to learn new skills and be creative.”
As a values-driven charity, we believe that positive change thrives when we take the time to understand people’s needs, hopes and aspirations. Building relationships in our communities that enhance people’s lives is important, as is recognizing and celebrating those relationships and the indelible support that develops over time.
DOWNLOAD grandmentor’s 2022 IMPACT REPORT
Please click here to learn more about our Grandmentors project and how to get involved.
To find here to find out more about Ciara Callaghan’s workshop.
Famous Artists’ posts Inspiring Care of Experienced Young People first appeared on Volunteering Matters.