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The White Room Creative Space was developed in late 2014 in response to a growing need to foster and develop the creative talent of people supported by SkillWise. With its own dedicated creative space, resources, FB page and webpage, it has become an exciting and successful place where artists can explore and showcase their potential.

The White Room is located within the SkillWise building on 344 Manchester Street, and offers 10 classes a week to over 94 individuals. To ensure the artists have the space and resources,  the class sizes are limited to no more than 10 per session. To support these artists,  two art tutors are employed who are responsible for developing the artists potential and creating new opportunities for the artists and the White Room.

We spoke to Simon Gray about The White Room.


The White Room has been going since 2014, tell us a bit about what you do there?

I’ve been working there for two and a half years now. Skillwise is the overall organisation and it works with adults with intellectual disabilities and it has been going for nearly thirty years now. They saw a need for creative opportunities and creative spaces – there had been an organisation called Floyds and they stopped operating after the earthquakes – so there was a gap and I believe that was a part of setting up The White Room.

It’s specifically for adults with intellectual disabilities? Does it also have space for children?

It is, due to the lack of space we have. Last year when we got funding from the Ministry of Culture and Heritage to do the outreach programme, the reasoning behind that was we didn’t have any more room to get people into The White Room, we don’t have a very big space.

Would you like to see that change?

Our long term plan is to have a truly transformative space for anybody to come and use to do art creative activities. With the outreach programme, we’re finding more and more people have the need to access us.

I imagine it’s great to be able to have a dedicated space and one that’s based in the city?

It’s really good for us to be able to use all the facilities in Christchurch because for the people who are using The White Room at the moment it’s an opportunity to be visible. It builds confidence for them to be able to use the city as a creative space. The library, the galleries – from that perspective it’s providing opportunities for the artists to go and see the city and also be seen.

But the physical space you have on Manchester Street is just as important?

Yes, to have a base where you can come and learn all these different techniques and have a place where you can make work yourself is important.

How many people do you cater for in The White Room?

We’re open five days a week – and the outreach programme opens up on a Saturday and has extended hours on a Tuesday and Thursday – but I guess we would see about 100 people a week. We can fit ten people in a session and we have two sessions during the day. What I’d really like is to be able to have a space where people can come and go as they like. We’re working on that as part of our longer term vision to be more flexible.

How do people know to come to you? Have they experienced art before, or for most, is it their first time creating something?

When they come to Skillwise, they might go through a plan in developing what it is that they’re interested in doing, what they would like to extend. That can be problematic as well, because it can be limited by their own understanding of what there is to do, if you don’t know you can do something, you may not ask for it. But they may say, ‘I really like drawing” or “I’ve done some painting” and we then we try and expand their idea of creative activities and that also happens when they go out and see other artists work. So connecting with places like The Physics Room – or dance performances – we take them round and see different art forms. We’re always looking for opportunities so when they come into The White Room they might spend time doing something of interest to them, but we try to provide opportunities to engage with other community projects or things going on in the city, so they are exposed to other ways of working.

You must see some amazing transformations in peoples work?

You might have someone who has been coming to The White Room for a number of years and you see something in their work. It’s seeing what they’re using and what their interest are and using that as a way of teaching them other techniques. We have a number a number of artists who do work which is very suited to comic book/graphic novel work and so we try to find someone to get in and run a workshop and support them. For example the Zine Fest is coming up so we can do something with that. Giving them opportunities to get involved in areas they’re interested in gives them an opportunity to not just show their own work, but to make outside connections.

It strikes me that there is a challenge, along with the challenge of their disability, in getting their work noticed or taken seriously?

Yeah, it is. We had an exhibition at the Eastside Gallery in Linwood and we really had to think about whether we promoted the work as being by people with intellectual disabilities or do we just let the work talk for itself. It’s difficult. It’s an ongoing dilemma – hopefully we’ll get better at noticing that the work is the first thing we look at. But at the same time, their disability can be the thing that informs their art. One example is Peter Chou, who has had a few exhibitions, he’s autistic and he just does these amazing drawings of places around the world. It’s fascinating to watch his very particular way of working. People come and see his work and are amazed at the technical aspect of his work.

Has does working together in a shared space work?

People see each other’s work and think ‘oh maybe I’d like to do that too’ – it’s a big part of the shared experience. They’re taking in what’s going on around them. They also get confidence to help other people in the space and encouraging them.

You must see confidence grow?

It’s really a simple thing, I think. It’s amazing what a bit of encouragement does, just saying ‘that looks really good.’ In terms of human development at some point we could all draw and didn’t worry about whether it was any good in other people’s eyes but at some point we started questioning our own ability. The number of people who say “I haven’t done any drawing since school because someone said it was rubbish’ – you hear it quite often. The people at The White Room can be pretty self-critical. For many, especially those in residential care, they have very little independence in their lives. So when they’re making art, they’re making their own critical judgements on what they’re doing and they can be tough on themselves. They’re solving problems when they’re doing the work and that’s good for confidence.

Do you see anything in the work that you don’t see with artists who don’t have a disability?

Peter Chou is a good example. Even when you look at his work – he will work off a photograph – but the work doesn’t resemble it. He changes the perspective or he’ll be seeing things in it that you might not notice. When you’re working with different groups of people, you see their different perspectives. We have another artists called Gary who does paintings of buildings around Christchurch – often the new ones that are coming up – and he puts his own perspective on them. Some peoples work can be very personal – we had one artist who really wanted a relationship and painted pictures of her having a baby with her potential boyfriend. It was there on the paper for everyone to see. She was clearly expressing what she wanted through her work.

How supportive is the community here in Christchurch?

The more we go out with the outreach programme, we’re seeing a lot more support.  We’ve connected with all sorts of groups like Gap filler, Slap City Festival but of course, outreach is a lot of extra work for us!

And your recent successful boosted campaign – how’s that going?

We’ve got the bike and it’ll make its first appearance at the Zine Festival. That will be the first real project. The idea is that hopefully that other people will see it and have other ideas for it too.

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