Can a pot of paint, a brush and a dusty old table help someone improve their health and wellbeing?
That’s what I intended to discover as I embarked on delivering an upcycling course to adult learners at the Salvation Army’s Bridge Project in Blackpool. I had no idea if anyone would be interested in designing a piece of furniture in their own style but there was only one way to find out: offer the opportunity of five sessions and see what happened.
The Bridge Project provides access to a wide range of services: from basic needs such as hot meals, washing and toilet facilities to professional advice and assistance with matters like health, housing, employability and substance misuse problems. My usual role involves helping clients improve their IT skills but I felt it was time for something a little different, a bit of fun and creativity. As soon as the idea was suggested, we had six names on the list. Six willing participants ready to give it a try.
My budget was very small, around £7 per learner, to provide the paint, brushes, sandpaper and all other materials we might need. My expectations were high and I used the best furniture paint available, Frenchic, to achieve the best possible finish. And, of course, I needed a piece of furniture for each learner to work on – but I’m no stranger to charity-shop browsing. After hours of picking my way through piles of broken drawers, wonky shelves and assorted trash, I found my treasures – some nests of tables and a couple of chairs, which were solid dark wood and basically sound. I like to think of these old pieces as elderly ladies, a little dated and dusty, crying out to be updated and admired once more. If all went to plan, they would have new homes and owners to love them all over again.
Building on skills and friendships
I was nervous before the first session. My car was crammed and resembled a cross between a junk shop and a branch of Wickes. Did I have enough equipment? What if no one turned up or if they didn’t like my paint colour choices or the furniture I’d brought? Could I sustain their interest for two hours or would they all get up and leave?
I really should not have worried. Six slightly apprehensive faces greeted me. Ann, Kevin, Brian, Janice, Suzanne and Khris. None of them really knew each other. A quick ice-breaking introduction revealed varying levels of skills and experience, and their expectations from the course. Ann had never lifted a paintbrush before, Kevin had worked in the building trade, Janice and Suzanne had some decorating experience and Khris had a background in design and art. Brian simply wanted to make something with a Liverpool FC theme. Most had ongoing physical and mental health problems and had been homeless at one time. They saw my array of tables, chairs, paints and brushes and were desperate to get started. Within minutes, the sander was humming, the conversation buzzing, the ideas flowing and the laughter and camaraderie established. We were blessed with a sunny day and worked outside, preparing, sugar-soaping, discussing colour schemes and visions of their finished item.
Kevin soon established himself as our resident expert. He had sanded and painted a table within the first hour, then turned his attention to assist any others who were grateful for his help. Ann quickly perfected her brushing technique, taking time and care to cover every part of her little table. Suzanne and Janice were deep in discussion about colours and finishing touches planned for their pieces. Khris worked quietly, observing all around him and chuckling at the jokes which soon filled the room. The atmosphere was jovial, with Brian’s devotion to Liverpool FC a particular subject of good-humoured banter. The six unsure learners had bonded into a team, new friendships were established and I breathed a silent sigh of relief that all had started so well.
A steep learning curve
Over the next four weeks of the course, the class continued to grow in confidence and amazed me with their commitment and enthusiasm. Each learner now had a clear vision of how their table or chair would be decorated, and several had purchased additional paints and embellishments to share with the group. They took time and care to make their furniture perfect and all were admiring of each other’s efforts. They discussed future projects and didn’t want the course to end. Any anxieties, lack of self-confidence or feelings of low self-esteem had long been dispelled – they now had a totally unique creation, a one-off piece of which they could be proud. After a final flurry of activity, the tables and chairs were ready for their new homes: the tired old ladies resplendent in their new painted finery, ready to be admired once again.
This project was a steep learning curve for me and all the members of my class. Their feedback was so positive, with many referring to their increased sense of achievement, renewed self-esteem and enjoyment of the company of others. The assistance of the Bridge staff – Bev, Karina and Steve – was invaluable, not forgetting our cook Gordon, who never failed to inform us if we had “missed a bit”. As the learners departed after the final session, carefully carrying their renovation, promising to start on their next piece, I was proud of them all.
“I no longer feel useless and worthless, just like my table,” said one. And that was my most humbling moment – recycled furniture, upcycled lives.
Alison Child is a tutor in adult, community and family Learning at Blackpool Council