Interview with Becky Sheraidah, founder of ARTHOUSE Meath

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In 2005, artist Becky Sheraidah set up ambitious social enterprise ARTHOUSE Meath. She tells us how she juggles her work and achievements with her life as a single mum. 

What’s your career background? 

I studied fine art painting. When I was studying it was people and making art accessible that interested me. A lot of my artwork was based around capturing people’s true essence, immediate mark making with nothing being too over-worked. During this time I volunteered in a school for children with learning difficulties. 

When I finished my degree in 1999 I worked as a freelance artist and one day a week as an art instructor at a day centre. I then went away and travelled working as a freelance artist. When I returned, in May 2003 I set up and ran an arts centre in Hertfordshire for adults living with learning difficulties, severe epilepsy and physical difficulties. That became the first ARTHOUSE. 

Three years later in September 2005 I moved down to Brighton and set up ARTHOUSE Meath, for Meath Epilepsy trust in Godalming, Surrey. 

What is ARTHOUSE Meath and where did the idea come from?

ARTHOUSE Meath (AHM) is a social enterprise that presents the skills and talents of men and women living with complex epilepsy, learning and physical difficulties.

Over 70 artists work alongside instructors who enable groups or individuals to create artworks which are developed into designer products for sale. All work derives from the skills each artist brings to the enterprise and every contribution holds true value

In 1999 I started to run workshops facilitating art for adults living with severe epilepsy, learning and physical difficulties 1 day a week. I loved getting to know each personality, each individual’s way of working, each person’s refreshing outlook. 

I felt empathy for the people I was getting to know; no one had much belief in their own skills, it seemed that due to requiring 24 hour care, skills were considered redundant. Many peoples daily lives could consist of colouring in someone else’s drawing, sticking tissue on paper all of which was thrown away at the end of the day. 

Everyone has the desire to feel value, purpose is therapy. I felt just because an individual requires care it doesn’t mean they loose the desire to feel purpose.

I really enjoyed seeing the unique, intriguing style within each person’s drawing technique. Each person’s style came with a fresh, raw, honest feel; a style of working in which I knew mainstream artists were striving to achieve themselves. The work spoke wonders. It was engaging and endearing and I knew there was room for this work in the market place. 

And so this is where the idea began.

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What was your drive for creating it?

I believed that there was a model we could create to make a change and head towards better inclusion of people living with disabilities. We could create a business where individuals would really feel respected for who they are; feel embraced, included and accepted.

I wanted the artists to be able to feel real achievements and be recognised for their skills. I believed that through their work they could offer other people new ways of seeing the world.

I felt there was a need for change in attitudes and perceptions towards people who live with varying difficulties. I also felt a need to prove to each individual we worked with of their importance, to help each person feel a true sense of purpose.

If one card or mug design is appreciated you get closer to appreciating the person or people who were involved in creating it. Ultimately that moves us towards better inclusion and acceptance.

Fundamentally, the reason comes down to purpose. Feeling purpose is important to us all. Feeling truly purposeful through the use and recognition of your own skills, to feel included, integrated and accepted is important to everyone. Each person’s contribution holds real true financial value; to realise this and to develop self-belief based on it develops better well-being. 

How did you go from idea to creating something real? What were your first steps?

There were and may still be, day centres across the country, where many people whom require 24 hour care, access daily activities with paid staff members to run groups. I sent a proposal to set up ARTHOUSE at Meath Epilepsy Trust in, what was then, their day centre, luckily for me the Meath accepted my proposal based on what I had achieved in Hertfordshire.

I was given a room to set up ARTHOUSE Meath in. When a part time member from the Meath day centre team left I was given that budget to employ my first AHM instructor for 3three days a week.

I started by promising each individual artist that they do have skills and people will love and buy their work. I ensured the first paid member to run a group was a very high professional standard artist, that they understood how to create saleable artworks themselves and understood what we as ARTHOUSE wanted to achieve. 

From there we could take forward peoples work to exhibition and start to develop the business of creating and selling. Then we got to employ another highly professional artist, for ARTHOUSE Meath enabling us to run sessions five days a week. We grew with outside interest and public buying the artwork work and products.

ARTHOUSE Meath became a ltd company five years ago and has been selling to trade ever since, we moved to a high street shop in April 2012.

AHM now sells to over 140 stockists in Britain and many in Europe, we are stocked by Tate Modern, Conran, Amnesty International etc, have sold designs to Lush, Fat Face and working with other major organisations as AHM design agency.

We have an incredible team an amazing group of volunteers and all artists recognise their individual achievements, sell in the shop and grow in confidence daily. 

What has been the biggest challenge you have had to overcome?

Originally convincing people how great the work is and what skills people do have. How to change pre conceived ideas of what people can achieve within a sheltered environment.

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And what are you most proud of?

I am really proud of the team and individuals achievements  Seeing the above change happen. We have thousands of followers, passionate patrons, so many orders and the endorsement of Tate modern, Conran, Amnesty. Seeing this change happen reassures me that change and acceptance is starting to happen.

Why do people love ARTHOUSE Meath’s artwork?

It’s real, honest and it touches the heart. A huge part of the appeal for the buyer is that when you buy a gift, when you buy a product, that money is going towards a feel good factor for the artists that have created the work. 

You’re changing people’s lives and the ripple effect is that you’re changing attitudes; you’re changing views on how people should be included and treated.  If you’re buying it as a gift and you’re giving it to someone else you’re spreading the word, you are doing so much to change perceptions. All the money goes back into the project for further development.  

How do you balance your work with raising your daughter?

Thank goodness for modern technology! I have chosen to live one hour and 20 minutes from where I work also which adds to the juggling act. I physically go in three days a week when I am not in offsite meetings, one day between school hours, one day my daughter is at after school club and another she is picked up. We have a fantastic team that I can communicate with remotely when I am not onsite. 

I am a single mum so evening work when Habiba is in bed is essential. I feel very lucky to be able to have work life balance with my daughter, we are very lucky to have a great community life living by the sea.

What advice do you have for other mums who want to pursue a similar project?

Starting small while kids are young will make the initial juggling act easier, but starting small with big ambition you will achieve your goals quickly.

There are many care organisations out there that are looking for enthusiastic people with ideas, could maybe offer one session, in childcare or school hours, to get started and grow from there. The majority of AHM team are mums and dads of young kids and travel into work, many people have flexible hours but the expertise and passion that comes with the brilliant team we may not get without offering flexible working hours and we are very open this way of working.

You can find out more about ARTHOUSE Meath on their website.

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