Project Becomings is part of a Doctoral research project by Victoria Christodoulides at the University of Bath. It investigates ways to prevent and respond to the damaging impact of Adverse Childhood Experiences, thought to affect one in six adults in the UK. The research explored how trauma recovery could be understood and practised beyond (not disregarding) medical narratives. Using a Participatory Action Research approach over a year and a half, ten adult survivors of childhood abuse and trauma participated in a series of focus groups, workshops, and independent tasks. A crucial part of the approach woven into all the sessions was using creative practices for critical exploration, expression and public engagement. During the workshop sessions, participants developed evocative pieces for display in a public exhibition held in Bristol in August 2023.
Project Becoming’s participatory action approach meant working with communities to develop the project rather than delivering something to them. Creative practices enabled the co-construction of informal spaces, encouraging pedagogical experiences. Across six five-hour workshops, methods including body mapping, Photovoice, painting, drawing, writing, clay work and animation enabled participants to discuss challenging and abstract concepts regarding recovery more effectively. Creative practices facilitated a strong connection to the body, and embodied practices further supported individuals' recovery and community experiences.
The artwork was brought to the public to develop a collective awareness of how recovery is entangled with various complex influences. The project explores human and non-human matter (e.g. people, spaces, places, objects, narratives), provoking unique and evocative thought on an under-recognised area. Visitors to the exhibition were invited to discuss this taboo topic in accessible and innovative ways. Alongside the pedagogical element within the exhibition pieces, visitors could learn new skills like animation, stitching, and body mapping. These activities lead to high dwell times, allowing meaningful chance encounters and in-depth personal connections.
At its core, Project Becomings is about people using creativity to improve health and wellbeing. Although the original focus was on recovering from childhood trauma, the pilot saw how an arts-based approach could be adopted in other fields, e.g. depression.
Lived experience is woven into the very fabric of the project, with members of the research team, several external partners and all participants survivors of childhood trauma. The project nurtured an environment which sought to work with participants, ensuring they were integral to the project's development. While acknowledging lived experience is essential, the project also recognised that lived experience voices may not encompass all experience and knowledge of recovery. Therefore, the research team have remained open and curious, working with others without lived experience to provide appropriate critical discussion and facilitate knowledge transfer.
Impact – creative workshops
The impact participation in the workshops had on the group was significant. One participant shared how, through the workshops, she had found her voice. After 30 years in therapy, this helped her to find the means to respond to the negative self-talk she had previously struggled to control, often leading her into periods of depression. This shift gave her the courage to confront her abuser and share her experience with her family.
Creativity enabled the group to learn new skills and permit themselves to engage in ‘playful activities’ that also developed self-confidence and critical conversation regarding recovery. The creative methodology harnessed an environment that provided space and means to question misconceptions orbiting recovery, which continued to facilitate further opportunities. These opportunities made participants feel more confident and, therefore, found themselves trying new activities, recovery approaches, and groups and developing new skills, joy, and peace, subsequently improving health.
Impact – public exhibition
Over a week, the exhibition received 489 visitors across various ages and ethnicities. Most visitors strongly agreed or agreed with the statement that the exhibition exposed them to new points of view or ways of thinking. This directly aligned with one of the project’s objectives, which sought to co-construct critically creative informal spaces that shift recovery literacies through the aesthetics of arts-based practices. It could be inferred that the responses correlated with the number of people who felt moved or inspired and engaged within the exhibition. Creative approaches enabled evocative and meaningful connections, facilitating these pedagogical moments. The exhibition was welcoming to many, including families with younger children. The creative space facilitated opportunities for adults to approach this difficult topic appropriately and informally.
The exhibition provided benefits to project participants as well as visitors. Participants found that participating in the research, especially working on something which could benefit others, significantly impacted their sense of self. One participant who helped deliver the exhibition shared how emotional he was after spending a day talking to visitors. He noted that he had not anticipated the exhibition's impact on others and felt overwhelmed and fortunate to be part of the project and its effects. The artwork also allowed the participants to find ways to start a conversation with others about their experiences. Several participants brought friends, family, and significant others to the exhibition. For one participant, this formed part of her disclosure to her mother.
“I liked that it’s removing the stigma from the topic. As someone who has even just a little bit of trauma from the past, I know how hard it is to reach out and talk about my experiences without feeling like a nuisance, but I now feel more inspired than ever to speak up because I know I am not alone and that there are people out there that need to know they’re not alone too.”
“I left the exhibition with a deeper understanding of the subject.”
“I liked the inclusion of embodied experiences and the body mapping, as well as the overall message of the exhibition. It’s good to see the encouragement of alternative perspectives and ways of thinking about trauma and that there is no one way to support survivors of trauma (e.g. medication or psychotherapy).”
I have worked in MH (mental health) services for nearly 30 years and found the exhibition to be one of the most powerful and helpful illustrations of trauma and ways forward following trauma. The messages were insightful and accessible. I have taken a good deal from the work and will share this with my colleagues and service users.”
The project is developing the foundations for a national tour to build on the initial success. Keen to bring the approach to a broader audience, in addition to the exhibition and creative elements, there will be workshops for practitioners, researchers and the public to share methods benefits and support meaningful change.