Lewis at Soft Touch Arts

I began attending the STart project when I was in a bad place: I went through a period of depression through my final years of secondary school and, since leaving, had shut myself out from the world for about a year and a half. I’d worked with the lack of motivation that came with being depressed because school was compulsory; as well as being all that I knew. From the youngest age I’ve also had social anxiety, which I’ve been told is likely to have brought the depression on.

I finished secondary school in 2011, earning the equivalent of 13 A*-C grade GCSEs. I’ve always been in two minds about whether my issues aided or hindered those results: On the one hand, I never stopped procrastinating; the only revision I did was on the night before french exams. I also stayed up until 4am every night playing on my xbox, which mean’t that I only got rest on weekends. However, I was more level-headed than most when it came to exams; and I managed to understand everything being taught to me except for the advanced algebra stuff. I don’t really know for certain if depression and anxiety brought on those traits, though; I could have been the same way without them. I achieved mainly Bs at GCSE level; and in the past, I always held the belief that I could have gotten As or A*s if I’d been revising. Now though, I’m beginning to question that train of thought. My only A grade (or A grade equivalent) was a Distinction in BTEC Music. I felt a little cheated upon leaving school, actually; as my music teach’ had always put it to us that the BTEC we were doing was the equivalent of two GCSEs: The general consensus outside of school, however, always seems to be that BTECs are worth less than a GCSE.

Many of my fellow students had already been ‘guided’ by their parents toward a career path like becoming a doctor. I, on the other hand, had no idea what I was even interested in doing with my future. I decided on going to Wyggeston & Queen Elizabeth I College, because most of my friends were going there. ‘QE’ didn’t have a reputation as the best place to go for a vocational course like Music, which was what I wanted to pursue at the time; and, almost as some kind of warning, the college waited until enrolment day to inform me that their Music Technology course wasn’t going ahead that year. As far as I know, they cancelled it because the course had insufficient interest. I was only going there at all for the sake of stalling any kind of career choice, so I decided not to stress myself with switching to my second choice of college. At QE, it was compulsory to do four subjects and at least one enrichment course. I went with Psychology, Sociology, Media Studies, and Graphic Communication; my enrichment being photography. The basics learnt from that photography enrichment were pretty much the only thing I gained from QE. I’d immediately noticed the teachers’ re-enforcement of the idea that we shouldn’t stick around if we were liable to leave prematurely. I identified as someone likely to do this; becoming stressed, procrastinating, and then stressing even more until I caved and dropped out.

As soon as the mother found out that I wanted to drop out of college, she arranged for me to talk to a counsellor. I’d talked to him a couple of times in year 10;  when I first entertained the idea that I may have been depressed. I only had two meetings with him around that time, losing enthusiasm for the service after four months on the waiting list; so I just told him that I had recovered from a low period. This second time I stuck with it. I spent between December 2011 and December 2013 learning to deal with anxiety. From what he told me, the issues of anxiety and depression are quite often seen together: The first order of business was to figure out which one came first. I began attending STart about half way through 2013. My mum, knowing some of the staff at Soft Touch, got me involved with the STart project. She saw the project as an opportunity to get me out of my room and I was enticed by the thought of picking up a guitar again, having not touched it since finishing at School. Unknowingly, I was STart’s first real participant; but wasn’t aware of the fact until a month or two into attendance: I naively assumed that one of the project workers was my age, which is 10 years younger than she actually is.

Although music was what I originally wanted to pursue at the STart sessions, I found myself exploring the world of painting. I loathed using paint until this point, ruining my work with it at school. Soft Touch made me feel at home with them; giving me the space, comfort, and freedom that I needed to explore my abilities; where I would have otherwise been left wallowing in inexperience and self-pitty. I joined at exactly the right time for someone with anxiety, because I’ve been able to get to know every participant as they became involved. If I were to have joined the group in its current capacity, my confidence would have been much harder to cultivate. Upon discovering a degree of ability in painting, Soft Touch have also given me multiple opportunities for exhibiting my works: I’ve now participated in half a dozen exhibitions through them; as well as making and exhibiting my first two sculptures with them; and recently worked on/ran a photography exhibit called LuvLeicester. All this has finally given me a much-needed sense of direction, as well as skills I’ll need in pursuing the industry.

In the last week of May, after the bank holiday, I began working for Soft Touch. Working with them has been perfect for me so far, because Soft Touch had been guiding me and my artistic future for a year already. Unfortunately; the job itself is only a 6 month internship, which is now coming to an end. It is still earning me money and it is also a bearer of work experience, doing something that I enjoy, with people that I enjoy being around. My position is funded by the arts council, through the Creative employment programme: The programme has given me a chance to get my foot in the door of the art field and earn at the same time, the latter being something my mother has been trying to get me to do since I first left college. I had worried that in other jobs I would be left with so little time and/or so little enthusiasm for art, that my work would become neglected. Soft Touch actively finds opportunities for me to progress and to use my skills, so the opposite has been true while working for them.

An example of this would be the aforementioned LuvLeicester exhibit, which just ended: Soft Touch arranged for me and a group of other young people to explore Leicester’s City Centre, taking photos of its people and landmarks along the way. We each were able to select up to three photos for sale in the exhibit. As is further explained in the Young Advisors post that I just linked, I also took part in a self portrait project for the same exhibit. The entire STart group got stuck into the project, ‘The Unusual’, creating multiple stencil layers and then using spray paint to recreate photos of ourselves. My self portrait became a green zombie, with what was originally a plastic hand becoming part of my zombie arm. We were given a unit in the Highcross Shopping Centre in which to hold the exhibition, but weren’t told which one we were getting until a week or so before it was due to open. Because of this, we didn’t have work prepared for a whole extra floor in the unit we received. We were initially disappointed that we weren’t going to be able to use all of the space available to us, but were lucky enough to have had a backlog of work from artists involved with Soft Touch to fill it with. We had just taken down a selection of pieces from the walls of the Orange tree pub on High Street; mainly from myself, Kieran, and Kim; which we used as last minute filler for the extra space. I ended up selling two photographic prints; a £35 photo of a green dragonfly (at 10×8), as well as a £40 photo of some flowers in a graveyard (A3). The exhibit generated interest in four of my paintings, and someone even offered to buy one of the stencil stages of my ‘Unusual’ portrait’s creation process, but none of those potential sales ended up going through.

I’ve found that selling work through an exhibit can be tough; you have to get a commitment from buyers in that spur of the moment rush they get: In two exhibits run by Soft Touch, I’ve had ten offers on artworks which have then fallen through. Three of these opportunities have failed through my own naivety; once an offer has been made, I have turned away other people who were perhaps more ready to make the purchase. At the same time, I have not given the people who made the first offers any incentive to come back: When potential buyers aren’t in the presence of the artwork itself, they don’t hold that same feeling that drove them to make the offer in the first place. At a recent Soft Touch away day, we’ve discussed the idea of getting a card machine for our future exhibits; which should mean that securing a sale will be easier. Any opportunity to learn is a good one, though; even when it’s from a mistake. I’ve just put some work into the Cank Street Gallery’s first open exhibit and will continue to look for places to exhibit, but I seem to do a better job of making sales when it’s at a Soft Touch run exhibition.

That’s all for how Soft Touch have helped me so far: Hopefully, in a year’s time, I’ll have more paragraphs to add to my story.