The Elephant in the Room exhibition opened in Paisley’s Art Department space in early May and ran for just about two weeks, (until 13th). The works on display were produced as a result of collaboration between local artist and social historian, Lil Brookes (aka Gatekeeper Art), and adult day centre service users at the Disability Resource Centre (DRC) and older adults day service users at Ralston Day Centre and the Falcon Day Centre.
Supported by a grant from Renfrewshire Council’s Cultural Heritage and Events Fund (CHEF), the project was inspired by the artist’s feverish dreams of pachyderms, had while suffering and recovering from COVID19. The experience seeded the idea to pursue a community project aimed to draw out the memories and experiences of the COVID pandemic, with the elephant – famed for their reliable recall – as a central motif for the activities undertaken.
The approach to producing the work on display was multifaceted, it included art and reminiscence workshops, ‘white elephant’ discussions and a questionnaire. Art workshops were led by local creator Kevin Cantwell who – alongside service users at the DRC – created the large sculptural elephant (and exhibition centrepiece) whose skin is inscribed with memories, thoughts, feelings towards and, reflections on the pandemic period. All of these emotions and thoughts were collated from the responses given to the first question on the project questionnaire. Participants in the DRC group also crafted their own mini-herd, members of which were displayed alongside the tea-drinking matriarch.
Reminiscence workshops, white elephant discussions – led by Lil Brookes with older adult day service users, centre staff and carers – and questionnaire responses were utilised to capture stories of life during the succession of COVID lockdowns and partial re-openings that shaped so much of 2020-22. These activities were aimed at capturing the memories of that time, while fresh, before they are forgotten or begin to be normalised; COVID was an elephant in the room of all our lives.
In addition to the three-dimensional pieces on display, the exhibition also comprised poetry which took the elephant-ish theme as core inspiration. While on the one hand bright, cheerful and whimsical, the exhibition makes an important point about the social, cultural and community impacts of COVID and the need to capture and reflect on these elements of the pandemic experience – large and small. It also amply demonstrates the role that art and art participation can play in starting and mediating these processes, helping all of us to better understand our collective experience of living for so long with an elephant in the room.