In this blog, Jo Slack interviews Emily Hayes, Co-Director of Pathway Arts. Emily has been involved with Pathway Arts since its inception in 2012. In this interview she explains how she first became involved in the arts, and what led her to set up Pathway with fellow artist Anna White.
Tell me a little bit about your background and how you got into embroidery:
I was first drawn to art as a medium because I believed in its power to create positivity, and to bring people together to develop a sense of self or belonging.
I first studied art at school during my GCSE’s. During my studies I went on a volunteering placement to an adults home for people with severe brain injuries. It was during this time that I began to understand the transformative power of creativity. There was a patient in the facility that hadn’t come out of his room for a number of weeks, despite attempts from the staff to get him to join in with group activities. I was delivering painting activities, encouraging the patients to be creative with a paintbrush and paints, with no parameters or rules to it. It was mainly about having fun. Whilst I was there, the patient that hadn’t left his room expressed an interest in joining in, and ended up coming out for the first time in weeks, ultimately furthering his recovery. I understood at this point how powerful creative activities could be, and how they can appeal to everyone, regardless of their situation.
At University I decided to study embroidery as I knew it was a tactile medium that would be good for working with people. At the start of my career I took part in a few exhibitions, but my work always had a social edge to it. I then decided to do a teaching degree as I felt that it would help me to develop my work with different people, and it was during one of my teaching placements that I first started working with refugees.
Why did you set up Pathway Arts?
After volunteering in a refugee drop in centre, where people receive food and advice from case workers, my Co-Director Anna White, and myself realised that there was a need for people to be able to be creative. We saw that living moment to moment, waiting for advice and waiting to hear from the home office was an opressive way to live. We felt that people needed an outlet to express themselves. We developed one project where we went into the drop in centre with a large piece of fabric, and encouraged people to use embroidery or photography to say whatever they wanted. Through this project, we learnt that people desperately needed an outlet to talk about the asylum system and to express their frustrations.
Pathway was set up as an art organisation to work with people whose minds were consumed by their asylum process and all the hardship that comes with that. Pathway started as an escape for some people, a way to have a few hours of peace and a way to let people know what they were going through. Showing the work outside of the drop in centres and outside of refugee communities was always key, as starting Pathway we realised we had been very privileged to meet these people and get to know such strong and courageous people that were going through an extremely difficult time in their lives, and that needed to be seen by the wider world.
Why do you work with refugees?
I feel incredibly proud and honoured to work with people seeking asylum. Over the 6 years of running pathway everyone I have met has been humbling to meet. I have met doctors, lawyers, teachers, scientists, artists, parents and unaccompanied children, each person as individual as can be, but they all have been lumped under the same category of refugee. Refugees are seen as a problem, seen as the current issue to blame economic issues on, but are rarely seen as an equal.
I work with refugees because once you meet people going through the asylum process, it’s impossible to turn your back to the difficulties people are facing in the UK system. The refugee crisis across the world should force us to question what is happening; when there are more people displaced than ever before, when there are more slaves than ever before. I think we need to ask: what are we doing about it? For me, it’s impossible to just watch it happen and do nothing.
There are many ways you could work with refugees, but with Pathway you have taken an artistic approach. Can you explain a bit more as to why you chose this route?
Art can be therapeutic. When you are being creative you have time to escape in you mind. Many group members that we work with say they have forgotten about their problems for an hour or that they have lost track of time whilst taking part in the sessions. Most people want to take materials home to work with, just so they have something to take their mind off their situation.
In addition, art is a way to get people talking; talking to each other in a supportive and fun group, or to get people to new spaces in the town or city they live in, to see exhibitions or to show their own exhibitions. Isolation is a terrible feeling that can have huge impacts on an individual’s wellbeing, and art is something that can break through that isolation and connect people. I have seen people glow with pride when they have created something new and heard people say it gives them a reason to leave the house.
Art also has the ability for people to share their stories with a wider audience; art can be emotive in ways that speaking can’t.
What has been the biggest achievement of Pathway so far?
For me, pathways biggest achievement is often unseen. It can be when a group member finds a voluntary position out of our projects and therefore finds connection. Or when audiences ask questions and want to know more, and want to know about the asylum system and how they can help.
For me the biggest achievement is when a group member is frustrated with what is happening to them and they feel completely powerless, but through making connections and working with Pathway they manage to speak out about their problem and can identify a path to change.
What do you think is the biggest challenge that refugees face in the UK today? How can Pathway help?
I speak to people who say they are lonely and worried, feeling isolated in dispersal towns, far from any support systems and constantly worried about their case with no legal aid available. I see people feeling left and abandoned as their cases take years to be answered. Pathway believes by working with communities to create a more welcoming space not only will people feel less isolated going through the asylum system but communities will get to know local people seeking asylum and offer a welcoming hand. Pathway looks to raise issues around the asylum system and would like to build knowledge in local communities to get more people to stand up against the treatment of people seeking sanctuary and stand in solidarity with people. Art is crucial in starting these conversations, it is a safe environment for everyone to begin to ask questions …..