Cork library showcases artwork by children with medical conditions and special needs

An exhibition featuring work by children with medical conditions and special needs runs at Tory Top Library this month. COLETTE SHERIDAN talks to a mum whose son is involved, and one of the artists from Helium Arts
Cork library showcases artwork by children with medical conditions and special needs

Artist Ashleigh Ellis works part-time for Helium Arts. Picture: Andrew Downes, Xposure.

FOR 13-year-old Conor Nolan, who has Down Syndrome, the highlight of his week is going to the Togher Family Centre where children with medical conditions and special needs get to be creative at a weekly art session organised by Helium Arts.

And now, the fruits of the labour of these children is on show at Tory Top Library in Ballyphehane until June 18.

Conor, who has two older brothers, “absolutely adores” his Saturday afternoon art workshop, says his mother, Alison.

“It’s something he goes to independently. His siblings don’t go with him. It’s his own activity and he runs in and out of it with a big grin on his face. 

"It’s a whole layer of independence for Conor, an activity that he has ownership of. He just thrives on it. 

Conor Nolan, one of the Helium Arts kids.
Conor Nolan, one of the Helium Arts kids.

"It has definitely increased his interest in making things. The amount of time he spends doing art at home has expanded as a result.”

Conor, who lives in Farren, goes to a special school, Our Lady of Good Counsel in Ballincollig.

“He enjoys school and does art there. He has his friends and there is a great level of support there. The school is for four- to 18-year-olds.”

One of Conor's art pieces.
One of Conor's art pieces.

Stressing that Conor was very lucky there was a place available at the school, Alison says a serious issue is the limited educational facilities for children with Down Syndrome.

“Once you get your child into a facility, it’s all good, but the difficulty is actually sourcing a suitable place for your child. Conor was in a mainstream school and moved over to the special school at a time when he was ready. We were very fortunate. A lot of parents when they start looking for places (in special schools) at the end of primary school find there’s no secondary placement.”

With just eight children in his class, a teacher and two special needs assistants, Conor gets plenty of individual attention.

“He enjoys school. He enjoys doing his homework. The children do a modified curriculum. They do cookery, home economics and horticulture. They recently put down a poly-tunnel and a horticulture teacher comes in every week.

“They also recently acquired a school bus. This allows them to go out into the community. They do a trip once a week. It could be going to a coffee shop or a shop where they use their money to purchase something. So that sort of life skills is an excellent part of the curriculum.”

Conor loves art and craft.
Conor loves art and craft.

During lockdown, Helium Arts provided online art classes for the children.

“Helium Arts sent out a box of resources every week to the children. It was phenomenal what they provided the children with. 

"I can’t speak highly enough of the volunteers at Helium Arts. They are so warm and welcoming. They support the children to maximise their abilities.”

Conor found the Covid restrictions difficult. He missed interaction with friends and he missed going to school.

“It was only at the end of lockdown when we realised how hard Conor found it. He wouldn’t be able to vocalise how much he missed school but it was evident once school re-opened.”

Artist Ashleigh Ellis works part-time for Helium Arts.  Picture: Andrew Downes, Xposure.
Artist Ashleigh Ellis works part-time for Helium Arts.  Picture: Andrew Downes, Xposure.

Artist Ashleigh Ellis works part-time for Helium Arts. She facilitates Conor and his classmates and has organised the art exhibition.

“We’re having a lot of fun, getting messy and enjoying sensory exploration with art materials and natural material - and making friends in the process. It’s about the children trusting their creative instincts and developing their creative agency.

“It’s really wonderful to feel so empowered. It’s good for wellbeing, knowing you can create something that you’ll be proud of.”

Is working with children who have medical conditions challenging?

“You would think so but it’s absolutely not. I love working with the children. Even the volunteers who support us have commented that they don’t think of the kids’ conditions.”

There is always a paramedic on site “to take care of any medical needs. This allows the artist and the children to completely focus on having fun and making art. Obviously, there are mixed needs in the group that the artist has to facilitate. You have to be very sensitive and aware of everyone’s needs in the group. That is interesting rather than challenging. It develops your practice as an artist. It is so rewarding.”

Conor loves coming to the space.

“He’s very sociable and loves meeting people. He turned the whole room into an installation with electrical tape. Another boy joined in who also has an affinity with tape and wrapping things with it. It’s an adventure for them.”

Sensory exploration is, Ashleigh says, an important part of the art sessions. Playing with sticking tape fits into this activity.

The theme of the exhibition is creative journeys.

“It is mapping our relationship with each other and the world, investigating the natural world and just celebrating discoveries together. The artwork on show captures the experience of our workshops.

“I’ve curated little photos that are snapshots or fragments of our experience together. That’s our cabinet of curiosities. There are also two large pieces of art, measuring three metres by one-and-a-half metres. They are collaborative pieces the children worked on.”

Helium Arts is hoping to form a workshop for teenagers. With Conor having recently turned 13, that will be of interest to him.

“We’re doing a teen taster this summer,” says Ashleigh.

Helium Arts is a charity that works to transform the healthcare experience of young people through art and creative interventions.

As CEO of Helium Arts, Heléne Hugel, says: “In Ireland, 11% of children live with a long-term health condition or disability and approximately 1% of all children - about 13,000 children - are seriously inhibited in their day-to-day lives. This can lead to significant social and emotional challenges for them.

“At Helium, we work with young people in healthcare and community settings to offer them art and other creative experiences with a view to improving their wellbeing and mental health.”


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