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Prescribing art for wellbeing

Performance artist, Audrey Baldwin has prescribed more than 170 people with art over the last two weeks in what has been dubbed a ‘world first’.

It’s a space where there are no scripts for performers but every visitor leaves with a script.

Sounds like the start of a riddle, doesn’t it? But this funny business is no laughing matter.

From a site in Christchurch’s central city, Audrey and her team of nine performers, dressed in chemist lab coats, have been prescribing art to anyone who stops by.

“We wanted to respond to COVID-19 and find ways to bring people together and connect them with communities, particularly existing communities like the amazing arts community.”

In a session, the ‘performers’ talk through what’s going on for a person, and then they send them away with a prescription of art, which is rolled up and tucked into a little bottle.

“Art is a therapy,” says Audrey, who dubs herself an “art encyclopedia”.

Everyone is prescribed a different form of art, be it from theatre, art exhibitions or street art, and each piece is the product of Audrey’s countless hours spent researching everything showing in Christchurch.

Every bit of art therapy prescribed is free and accessible, thanks to Audrey’s desire to open the arts up to all.

Over the course of the pop-up, 380 people of all ages have engaged with the chemist. They might be having a bad day, be frustrated, curious or even a little closed off at first, says Audrey.

“People have been really open, generous and honest.”

Everyone then leaves with a piece of free art to experience and uncover but the chemists only ever describe it, so people get to see it for the first time in person.

“It’s about inviting a vulnerability from the audience. It’s about an exchange. As much as this could be described as an interactive theatre piece, I would call it a performance because it’s not about a script. It’s not about us playing a character. It’s about us hosting people and having a conversation and listening and responding to the individual.”

For Audrey, repeat prescriptions are particularly special.

One ‘customer’ came back again, and said she hadn’t resonated with the previous “colourful popcorn ceramic sculptures” prescription. So Audrey prescribed her another sculpture, which was met with a great deal of enthusiasm.

“It’s intuitive. We’re trying to match people with things we think they will engage with and enjoy and get something out of.”

The prescriptions are sometimes about nudging someone to see something new or to inspire creativity. Audrey sent one writer, who was experiencing writer’s block, to a burlesquercise class, to “listen to Taylor Swift and shake your booty in a playful way”.

“It isn’t meaningful but it is. It’s about moving and having fun and being embodied as opposed to creating something so serious.”

The chemist space, located in Cathedral Junction, was designed to be therapeutic, with exposed wood, textured blankets, salt lamps and diffusers pumping out calming scents. Audrey’s Dad helped her bring her vision to life by building the wooden shelving unit.

Support also came via funding from the Christchurch City Council and Life in Vacant Spaces.

For Audrey, the dream now is to take the Art Chemist around the country.

“I’d love to take it to different cities and especially smaller cities.”

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