How a postal system helped vulnerable people find their creative side


A prescription for paint and poetry has helped thousands of people cope with the hardships of being stuck at home during the pandemic. The Art by Post initiative, organized by the Southbank Center in London, culminated in an exhibition of 600 works of art created by participants aged 18 to 103, which travels the country to highlight the power of art to improve the health and well-being of people.

As social prescribing gains recognition, similar regimes will become available to even more people.

An octogenarian woman said I she first started writing poetry when she took part in the project and now always has a notebook handy.

The Southbank Center worked with the National Academy for Social Prescription (Nasp) on the program. Nasp chief executive James Sanderson says up to one in five GP appointments are now about non-medical issues, such as social isolation.

“Drugs and medication are still incredibly important and have a huge role to play,” he says. “However, it is increasingly recognized that biomedicine does not have the answers for everything.”

He adds, “I basically think we know that art and culture can be very powerful in helping us maintain our health and well-being. Social prescription is not a show that functions like a pilot program; it is a national commitment to deploy a different way of delivering health care support.

The Art by Post project, launched in May 2020, offered free cultural activities to more than 4,500 people at risk of social isolation and digital exclusion.

Rosemary, 81, Norfolk

Rosemary had a pacemaker installed on the first day of the lockdown and was stuck at home when her stepdaughter spotted the program online and suggested she join.

“I found it very successful,” says Rosemary. “I got to the stage where I was watching for the postman who would come with the yellow envelopes. I really enjoyed getting involved. “

She lives quite a distance from her family and has found that the program gives her a reason to get up in the morning.

Artwork by Rosemary, Norfolk (Photo: Art By Post)

Poetry really appealed to her – and it is now a part of her everyday life. “I’ve never done it before and never even thought about doing it. I think one afternoon I was sitting here and something came to my mind and I thought I better write it down. It just snowballed from there.

Rosemary thought the ploy really gave her a boost.

“I fell very, very low at one point because no one could come and see me. Without the phone and something to do, I don’t think I would have been there.

Activity booklets organized around themes such as nature, hope, sound and movement were mailed to participants and they received feedback on their efforts.
The exhibit, which includes drawings, paintings and poetry, will be online and will also visit places and hospital trusts in towns and villages across the country.

According to Nasp, 59% of general practitioners believe that social prescribing can help reduce their workload. As part of the NHS long-term plan, Social Prescribing Liaisons are joining GP practices across England so they can involve patients in a wide range of cultural and physical activities. There are already 1,300 in place and the goal is to have 4,500 by 2023.

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“Connecting people to art projects like this is a way for prescription link social workers to support people alongside their existing health plans,” says Sanderson.

Luke, 48, Devon

Luke has enthusiastically participated in Art by Post and will be exhibiting six of his paintings at the exhibition.

He found the program to be really beneficial: “It really helped me tremendously. Knowing that I can send these works to the Southbank made sense to me. I found the feedback encouraging and positive.

Writing poetry and painting were crucial for his well-being. “I find that if my head is a little busy or I’m worried about everyday things, I paint or write a poem and my busy head turns off and my creative mind takes over.

Artwork by Luke, Devon (Photo: Art By Post)

“It’s a form of therapy, I guess. It’s nice to have a brief to work from and to have this structure of booklets.

In the past his poems were often about depression and mental health, but now he writes a lot more about love and trust and he particularly enjoys painting subjects from nature.

“I love to paint horses because they are powerful animals and I feel like through Art by Mail I am becoming my own power.”

Exhibition curator Persilia Caton hopes Art by Post also demonstrates the importance of providing services to people who cannot leave their homes.

“Aside from the pandemic, many people cannot leave their homes – due to chronic illnesses, for example – and I am optimistic that with digital and analog programming methods, access will increase in the future,” she declared.

For some of the participants it was a whole new experience. “Some of them have already done things, dabbled a bit,” says Cato, “but a lot of people are coming for the very first time.

“It opened up a whole new door for them,” she adds.

Amanda, 64, London

After her retirement, Amanda lived abroad with her daughter and grandchildren. Lockdown ended other visits, and the situation swept over her when she started participating in Art by Post. The first task she did was to write a letter to a stranger.

“In September, I was pretty low. I wrote this letter and while I was writing it it was about giving hope to someone else and I realized I was giving myself hope.

“I couldn’t wait to receive the flyers. I wasn’t much of an artist – I used to do stained glass as a hobby – but making the flyers made me think that anything can be art. The worksheets really kept my spirits up.

Amanda stained glass detail, London (Photo: Rosie Barnes / Art By Post)

Amanda particularly enjoyed the musical task and the one titled “You Exist,” which suggested simple life changes. “Just by moving my chair across the room, moving things around, I felt like I was in a new place.

“What the flyers gave me was the feeling that everything I did was creative,” she adds, “so I promised myself I would do 100 stained glass panels. I’m at 85 now For me, it was like getting on a train, and the view was that all these creative people were walking into my house.

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