Artist Deborah Smith was just 18 when her father died. “I remember it feeling weird being a bereaved child and having no one in my class who understood what I was going through,” she says. “It felt very isolating, very strange.” While Deborah found some solace in her art, her youngest brother turned to drugs to numb his grief, and Deborah vowed to help in any way she could to alleviate the suffering of similarly grieving youth. The Cloud Workshop is a manifestation of that promise.
The concept — to provide a safe, creative and familiar environment where youngsters aged 5- to 17-years-old can for a few hours forget their woes — took shape in 2008, founded by Deborah and her friend Melissa Anderson Scott. Centred around various artistic endeavours, the 45 workshops so far have mostly been based out of the Mercy Hospice, with the main art galleries of Auckland, Hastings and Wellington also playing host. “The Hastings Art Gallery gave us an entire wall to draw on which was really exciting,” says Deborah. “It’s a fantastic, authentic art experience for a child to be able to come into a gallery and do that.” One young boy who attended that workshop has attended all others since: “His dad had died suddenly just a year before, and his mum says the only time he’s really happy is at the workshop.”
The workshops are so popular that there’s a waiting list, but it took time to establish such trust. “People thought it would be like AA, with everyone forced to stand up and speak,” Deborah says. “They were concerned we’d take the lid of the kids, but it’s just not like that at all.”
The elephant in the room is addressed immediately: “We welcome them and say that we are all here because someone close to us has died and that that sucks. The kids love that — they think that it’s very naughty — then we tell them that we’re not going to bang on about it but if they do want to talk there is a counsellor, so let’s have a great time and make some great art.”
The organisers, who all give their time and energy for free, include fashion stylist Paris Mitchell, clothes designer Marilyn Sainty, artists John Reynolds, Emma McIntyre and Harry Were, and “an amazing haematologist” named Claire McLintock. Deborah’s mother, Lorraine Smith, and Deborah’s husband, Nicholas Stevens, have also supported her from the off, and none of it, she says, would have happened without them.
“The art projects are quite demanding and require much thought,” says Deborah, “but they are very free in the way they can be interpreted. The children use good materials and usually have a beautiful object to take home. When people visit, they’ll ask them about the project which then often engages them to speak abut the person who died. There are many benefits such as this that we hadn’t imagined.”
In the workshop, interaction is key. “We need to find inspirational ways to break down the barriers as fast as possible,” Deborah says. “The children are all very shy to begin with but the place fills up with chatter very quickly. On occasion, there have been some amazing discussions about who they have lost, and what happened. From having done so many of these workshops my understanding is that these children want a holiday from their pain, but find it comforting to be amongst others who understand what they’re going through, without it being spelt out.”
I ask about the oft-repeated notion that kids are stronger than we give them credit for, and Deborah dismisses it as myth. “It may make us feel better, but bereaved children really are very vulnerable,” she says. “Even if they don’t look like they are. I kidded myself that it’s not so bad for the little ones, but having done the research, it’s not okay to lose a parent when you are three — you can become disassociated from other people. Children are not as resilient as we like to think but we’re trying to give them tools to be so. In this case, it’s the tool of creativity.”
Deborah’s aim is to create a national network of workshops. “It feels like we’re providing something that needed to exist,” she says. “We are lucky with the generosity of those who volunteer their time or resources. The children become empowered. I’m glad to do something practical to help, but I can’t focus too much on their stories because I would be debilitated, I’m not a therapist. My hope is that Cloud Workshop can simply help these young people to feel less alone in their grief.”