Creative activities used during research project

Making paper teacups: researching experiences of Family Time during Covid

Associate Artist Michelle Wood (Sea Tern Print) explores the role of creative activities within a research project.

Aims and approach

One of the key aims of this ‘Time Together’ project was to explore what worked for Family Time during lockdown. Family Time for care experienced children is about the contact between birth family and children, where family members are supported in a safe and empathetic way.

We worked in partnership with South Tyneside Council who commissioned the project as part of the Department for Educations Partner Improvement Practice work.

With Blue Cabin’s innovative approach of linking artists with care-experienced children and carers, this involved using arts activities as the research mechanism. Our role as Associate Artists, previously trained in working with care-experienced children, was to devise creative sessions to explore and capture their experiences during COVID-19.

The approach was one of collaboration, where Blue Cabin brought together a team of academics, artists and producers. After several online meetings, we were given a list of research questions to help us devise our arts activities.

Artist as researcher

It seemed natural and instinctive for me to translate the research questions into a conversational interview. My previous research training and experience, albeit in the very different world of economic geography, provided a useful foundation for this project. I saw my role of artist researcher as bridging the research questions with the reality of people’s lived experiences. I felt that the questions could be simplified, so that everyone could participate and understand what was being asked.

I think this instinctiveness is central to how artists work; we are constantly linking experiences and ideas. We observe, listen and reflect and then translate that into an artform. For myself as a printmaker, observations are shared in a visual form.

Why paper teacups?

I’d already developed the idea of making paper teacups as part of my own arts practice. In 2014 I was involved in an collaborative exhibition at the former Maling Pottery Factory, where I made printed, paper teacups celebrating the women who once worked there. As part of the exhibition, I ran interactive sessions for people to make their own paper teacup and chat about their lives.

The teacup as a metaphor for time spent together, feeling at ease and sharing stories seemed a fitting activity for this ‘Time Together’ project.

With a paper saucer, teaspoon and even paper ‘steam’ coming from the teacups, these provided a way of organising the research questions and a flow to the conversational interviews. The saucer was for background information, outside the cup for what worked/what was good, inside the cup for what didn’t work/what you didn’t like, the spoon for an outstanding moment and the steam for what should change/how to make things better.

They were easy for everyone to make using cardboard templates I’d prepared. Additional  materials brought fun and colour to the activity and included gel pens, an assortment of rubber stamps and inks, and colourful sticky tapes.

Researching difficult themes

Since the experiences we were researching were difficult and emotional, the aim was to make the research interviews playful, accessible, colourful and fun. Hopefully everyone involved would be at their ease and feel able to share their thoughts in a safe and supported way. Drawing on my training with Richard Rose and experiences of previous Blue Cabin projects helped me be aware of, and prepare for, the sensitivity of the topic.

In the face to face sessions it was important for me to listen and observe how everyone was doing. This helped with the flow of the conversation and realise when to shift the focus if something was just too difficult for the child to talk about.

What worked?

Everyone engaged really well and responses included: it was fun; it was therapeutic; it made you think; and it was good to talk. What a joy to hear and a privilege to help them tell their stories.

It was clear that being involved in a creative and playful activity really helped ease the conversation, especially given the difficult circumstances that the children were facing. It was emotional work and I was aware, by the end of the sessions, of being ‘filled up’ with the stories from the children and their carers.

The teacups now hold their stories of Family Time during COVID-19 and are a visual reminder of our creative time together.

Michelle Wood, Sea Tern Print, 4th June 2021

for Blue Cabin and South Tyneside Council DfE ‘Time Together’ Research Project