The winter of 2020 was tough, we were on the cusp of another national lockdown, hospital admissions were increasing at a rapid rate and the NHS was bracing for yet another gruelling few months. It was at this time that we launched Breathe Creative Breaks, a weekly, 30-minute online drawing workshop for NHS staff to unwind, reduce anxiety and take a purposeful break in the middle of the day. Staff have joined from home, masked-up with colleagues in the staff room at work and even on their phones somewhere between the two.
Staff participated in Breathe Creative Breaks in its first year
From the very beginning, Breathe Creative Breaks has been led by visual artist, Liz Atkin. And, a year on, it looks like it won’t be stopping any time soon.
The focus is on engaging with experimenting, relaxing and slowing down to use drawing to refocus and recharge, not to create a masterpiece. I always think of it as taking a rest on the page. Staff join to draw for anything from 10 or 45 minutes, we have staff just log in to watch the class, there is still the benefit of taking a bit of time to stop and unwind.
Liz lives with Compulsive Skin Picking, a disorder that is grouped under the term Body Focused Repetitive Behavior (BFRB). Several years ago, she began to reimagine her anxiety into drawings, photography and performance. She is well-known for her Compulsive Charcoal newspaper drawings. Before the Covid-19 pandemic, Liz created and gave away more than 18,000 of her drawings in London, New York, San Francisco, Cologne and more.
Each week, Creative Breaks is focused on a different drawing technique, taking inspiration from artists as a starting point. However, this special anniversary workshop happened to coincide with BFRB Awareness Week. So, for the first time, Liz presented her own artwork. It was an opportunity to shine a light on a very common but little-talked about disorder, while experimenting with new materials, refocusing our minds and bodies and getting very messy!
It was inspirational to hear Liz’s personal story. Amazing, how she turned her very difficult and challenging experience into something so creative, and not only that, but also the way it became a source of connection with others. I thought Liz was brave to be so open and potentially vulnerable with us….and, the charcoal work was tremendous, very accessible ideas, and made me want to do more!
To mark the anniversary of this popular programme, Breathe sent participants creative packs in the post, enclosing several types of charcoal and pages from newspapers to use during the workshop. The use of the charcoal is significant as Liz explained that black charcoal dust all over her fingers prevents her from being tempted to pick her skin.
At the end of the workshop, with grubby fingers but clearer heads, participants shared their work with the group on screen. Inspired by the power of stopping and drawing, many participants have found themselves being creative beyond the session. It’s always a treat to see artwork shared in the Creative Breaks WhatsApp group or in the post on the back of a Breathe postcard!
Breathe Creative Breaks are open to all Guy’s and St Thomas’ Trust staff and official volunteers, there is no need to commit to weekly sessions but sign up in advance is required. Register your interest here or contact Kat Penney, Project Support Officer firstname.lastname@example.org.
For more information about BFRB, please see the links below:
TLC Foundation for Body Focused Repetitive Behaviors
Picking Me Foundation, a not for profit specifically for skin picking disorders @pickingmefdn
Habit Aware, wearable technology to alert skin picking or hair pulling behaviour
Breathe Creative Breaks is funded by Guy’s and St Thomas’ Charity