INTERVIEW: CHILLI STUDIOS | NARC. | Reliably Informed | Music and Creative Arts News for Newcastle and the North East

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I started volunteering with Chilli Studios in Newcastle about a year ago. At the time I was experiencing a lot of difficulties with my own mental health and it is not an overstatement to say that finding the studio was a big help in my recovery.

Chilli Studios first started in 2004 under the name NAGAS (Newcastle and Gateshead Art Studio) and their aim was to provide creative-based services for people with mental health conditions. It was sheer coincidence that I found the studio in Blackfriars Hall on New Bridge Street, I wandered in and asked if they needed any volunteers and they welcomed me with open arms.

Their studio space is an absolute hive of creativity and talent; before lockdown, the studios offered an array of workshops from creative writing to pottery, water colours to live music classes, with all abilities catered for. Art coordinator and all-round good egg Jo Burke is responsible for helping to manage the studio space, organising gallery exhibitions and offering one-to-one sessions in animation.

[I love] the ethics and ambience of the studio, and the fact that there’s a real emphasis on supporting individuals. It’s community led and allows me to incorporate my previous work in the community arts sector with supporting the members. Ultimately, it’s creative and fun with lots of peer development.” Jo says.

The driving force behind Chilli Studios is their strong ethos of providing a much-needed creative outlet to the community. The member-driven studio allows attendees to choose their own projects and they train volunteers to support their practice.

The driving force behind Chilli Studios is their strong ethos of providing a much-needed creative outlet to the community

As a response to the COVID-19 pandemic, most of the programme has shifted online and has been adapted to meet the changing needs of the members. “The main issue that we were concerned with was the safety of our members, as a lot of them are vulnerable and have underlying health conditions.” Jo explains. “Before lockdown began, we made sure that the contact details were up to date and that we could get their consent for sending out art kits. Chilli Studios is a community and we wanted to try and keep that feeling as much as possible.” A fortnightly podcast has also been initiated, which ensures everyone is involved by recording the members over the phone so they can contribute.

As our dependence on technology grows exponentially, the ‘digital divide’ has become a huge factor in increasing inequality and restricting information flow. Chilli Studios have been immensely proactive and industrious in getting ahead of the curve and using the technology to meet the needs of their members. They’ve opened their forum and online workshop programme to those who are experiencing mental health issues or simply for those who just need a calming place to go, offering access to watercolour workshops, drawing, pottery and creative writing.

Jo’s personal artistic outlet is short film and installation but she’s also a graphic designer. She cites one of her personal highlights as the Heads & Tales Heritage Project which she describes as: “readdressing the history of mental health from a grassroots (or lived experience) perspective.” The Heritage Project is an archive of artistic works that aims to provide a voice for those with mental health conditions and it’s as varied as you would expect from Chilli Studios. With work that includes paintings, recordings of spoken word and animation, all with a focus on changing perceptions of those with mental health conditions.

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