“There isn’t another place like it,” says Sandra, the Coordinator of Rise’s Arts Hub in Warwick. The old building behind Warwick Hall has served as a vital hub for a community of artists, staff and volunteers. When Sandra started running the hub, 5 years ago, there were 70 artists now there are 120 and a long waiting list of people wanting to join. It’s open to people with an intellectual disability, a mental health challenge or another obstacle that they negotiate every day. “There’s no judgement on people who come through the door,” says Sandra.
Every morning Sandra and the team prepare the studio. Canvases and tables are moved into position as paintbrushes clink the sides of a glass. Volunteers in the kitchen are chopping vegetables and making sandwiches.
By 9am vans begin pulling up outside and wheelchairs and walkers are lifted out. Sandra warmly welcomes people as the hub begins to fill. Some have been coming almost daily for many years, others come less frequently, or maybe just once, but all are welcome.
By 10am everyone’s working together. Sandra has implemented an open-door policy. Artists move between the pottery, craft and painting room as they choose. They often drop into the office if they want to catch up with a team member or need some advice with something that’s happening at home. Sometimes it’s an artist who is having a challenging day and Sandra needs to provide some extra support and encouragement. The open door policy means there’s no ‘us or them’ atmosphere, just a group of people supporting each other. It also means artists don’t feel they are interrupting something by knocking on a door.
Sandra has created an energy and camaraderie that binds an eclectic group of artists, volunteers, and support staff from all walks of life. “Be kind to everybody and accept everybody as they are” says Sandra. Some of the artists don’t verbalise or speak but they find their most powerful voice through art.
The volunteers are just as diverse. There are engineering students, retired tradespeople, and business workers as well as home makers.
Ethan who also works at the hub says that “Sandra positively influences and guides her team while demonstrating courage, empathy and inclusion. She continues to reassure, support, and bring clarity to staff, and volunteers, never losing sight of seeing our community live their best life as independently as possible.”
Sometimes people can hold those with disability back,” says Sandra. She gives an example of a staff member ironing an apron for an artist as they were concerned, they’d burn themselves. However, Sandra encouraged them to teach the artist how to safely iron it themselves. The artist was so proud to do it herself that she asked Sandra to take a photo to show her mum.
Sandra says that sometimes the hub can get quite noisy and this can be challenging for some people. “Somebody with schizophrenia wants to do painting and if it’s loud in the room, they may not be able to concentrate. We also have people with anxiety, who don’t always want to be in a big group. We decided to create a quiet room on Fridays. One lady had not left her house for 18 months but came to the hub. I showed her the quiet room and now she comes in every week which is massive,” says Sandra.
Sandra’s constantly sought for guidance to solve problems on the fly. The tools in the woodwork room need repair or the kitchens low on stock for the lunch run. “There’s a lot to running the centre and I couldn’t run it without the volunteers and team. Everybody has a can-do attitude and there’s nothing I would ask a team member that I wouldn’t do myself,” says Sandra.
Last year Sandra even had to manage the roof in the hallway falling in and the centre being flooded. ”The water was coming in through the ceiling and then the whole ceiling fell through, and water was running down the corridor into the art room,” says Sandra. Artists were quickly evacuated as staff began the clean-up. The hub closed the next day for repairs but was able to open the following day.
Some weeks require more innovative solutions. For example, during the peak of the Covid pandemic, government restrictions meant the hub had to temporarily close. Sandra had to think of a way to support artists at a time of uncertainty who felt isolated at home. Sandra and the team decided to take the hub to the artists. Team members put sewing machines, the pottery wheel or paintbrushes in their vehicle and headed out for the day. The van arriving in the driveway was the highlight of the week for many artists. Behind the scenes Sandra also had to work out the staffing logistics and paperwork for NDIS funding.
The record of success that Sandra has achieved is phenomenal. The Arts Hub had 64 entries into the prestigious As We Are Art Awards last year. This was the most entries for any art centre. However, it’s the individual stories that truly highlight Sandra’s achievements. Sandra has supported many artists to grow and challenge our assumptions of what’s possible.
Clients like Clive Collender who has been attending the hub for many years. Clive can’t hear or speak, and his eyesight is probably down to 1 – 2% but he is still able to draw with a magnifying glass. He’s got paintings on display in galleries in Canada and won a merit award at last year’s As We Are Awards.
Tony White is another successful artist from the hub. Sandra has supported Tony to build a small business selling his artwork. Tony hands out business cards to visitors and sells his artwork at community markets and online.
For other attendees at the hub it’s less about the art and more about being part of the community and connecting with friends.
By creating a culture where everybody feels welcome, listened to, and supported many once isolated members of our community have found passion, pride and purpose.