Community, creativity and connection - Chelsea Pensioners and the Soldiers’ Arts Academy

26th July 2021

The Soldiers’ Arts Academy links serving and veteran Army personnel and their families with professionals from the creative arts. Through a range of workshops, projects and productions they give participants the opportunity to discover new interests, recover from difficult experiences, transition into civilian life and even find new careers. 

David Hinds Portrait

David Hinds Portrait

During lockdown, a number of Chelsea Pensioners have become involved with the Academy. They’ve discovered many benefits, from building connections and igniting past or new passions, to processing difficult experiences from their military days. 

“It’s a community in a creative sense, and a military one”

The Chelsea Pensioners’ relationship with the Soldiers’ Arts Academy has thrived during lockdown, with veterans exploring art, theatre, poetry and singing through online sessions. 

Julie Bailey, who has a background in drama and works in the Royal Hospital’s activities team, says it’s been very positive for the Pensioners during lockdown:

“The Pensioners like the camaraderie, they chat to each other and the fact that it’s connected with the military makes a big difference.”

Lily Howkins, a dancer and choreographer, who now also helps organise the Academy’s online sessions agrees: 

“During lockdown, when so many people feel isolated, one of the key benefits has been the community.  It’s a brilliant way to be with people who instinctively get where you’re coming from and understand a bit more about your experiences than others would.  Veterans often say they lost a military family when they left the services. The Soldiers’ Arts Academy provides that sense of being part of a team. It’s a community in a creative sense and a military one.”

“I’m discovering new things about something I’ve been interested in for years”

For some Pensioners – like Carl Hayhurst - the Soldiers’ Arts Academy connects them with a passion that has been important to them:

“I’ve been involved with amateur theatre for over 50 years. I’m too old to act now – I can’t remember what I had for breakfast, let alone a script! – but this keeps me in contact with the theatre. I’m discovering new things about something I’ve been interested in for years.  They’re developing a play based on Jason and the Argonauts exploring themes like PTSD and I really like the Monday workshops. They’re run by the former director of a theatre in York. The last session on the use of puppets in theatre was fascinating.”

Brian Connor - Chelsea Pensioner

Brian Connor - Chelsea Pensioner

Chelsea Pensioner Brian Connor, who has joined singing sessions with another participant found the “wonderful” sessions built on his existing knowledge:

“Although I sing with the Royal Hospital’s singing group as well as my church choir I have never had any formal coaching and the tutor Laura made me feel relaxed and comfortable very quickly. Also, sharing the time with the other participant allowed me to understand other techniques beyond those relevant to the song I was rehearsing.”

Laura Wright, a mezzo-soprano who runs these workshops, has noticed what a difference her sessions make: “I’ve always understood the power of singing and how it can help people’s mental health but running Soldiers’ Arts Academy singing workshops with veterans in the last year, a particularly harrowing time for many, I’ve witnessed how singing and song can help us find the strength and resilience we need in the very toughest of times.”     

Julie has also noticed how beneficial having a creative interest can be for the Pensioners:

“You can see the benefits. Pensioners who were maybe sitting in their room all morning watching TV turning into someone who’s really engaged. You’re helping to bring somebody to life. It’s the enjoyment and keeping an interest and passion alive.”

Lily agrees:

“It’s liberating and fun to try something new in a safe environment. You can rock up, give something a go and see what you get from it.”

“It gives Chelsea Pensioners the opportunity to reconnect with the serving military community”

Although the transition to working online seemed challenging, the Zoom sessions have proved to be very positive, connecting people from all around the country and beyond, as Carl observes:

“There are all sorts of people. One chap comes on regularly from New York and the other week there was someone from the Ukraine or Russia. It’s completely open, you just have to have a military connection. I’m quite sure it’s good if someone is feeling isolated.”

Those connections span generations, as well as continents, which Lily believes is a very positive aspect of the Soldiers’ Arts Academy:

“Being around people who are in a different place from you can give you fresh insight and energy. We have much younger people, who have recently left the military, or are in the process of it, mixing with the Chelsea Pensioners who have been veterans for many years. That’s quite special. It gives the Chelsea Pensioners the opportunity to reconnect with the serving military community again. Young soldiers also enjoy speaking to former soldiers who have had similar experiences and can offer support and a valuable perspective.”

That mutual learning is also evident in how those from a military background connect with the artists and creatives who run the workshops, Lily says:

“Nobody’s solely on their own turf and that’s good for both sides. They’re learning from each other and seeing things from other perspectives. It’s magical really and makes it approachable for everyone involved, putting their preconceptions and fears to rest.”

“Instead of crying, I’ll pick up a pencil or paintbrush now”

It’s clear that the creative opportunities the Soldiers’ Arts Academy offers can also be very beneficial for mental health, Lily says:

“The creative arts can stop you focusing on the things that might be challenging in your life. Having a few hours where your focus can be elsewhere can provide a pressure valve. Whether you’re trying to achieve something or just coming along because it’s fun and connects you with other people, it’s good for you.”

David Hinds - Chelsea Pensioner

David Hinds - Chelsea Pensioner

One Chelsea Pensioner who has found the Soldiers’ Arts Academy workshops transformative is David Hinds, who served in the Army for 24 years where his experiences left him with PTSD:

“You end up frightened of fireworks, of everything. You get flashbacks.”

When David started attending art workshops, he not only discovered a new passion, but also a way to process the trauma he’s experienced:

“What art does is take my mind away from that. I go into a safe place. If I’m feeling down now, I pick up a pencil and do a drawing. It doesn’t matter what it is, it comes out of your mind and flows through your hand. You can channel it into art. I do it to escape, but sometimes I’m proud too. I always do poppies when I draw a field and I use bright colours. There’s respect for the past, for people and the battles they’ve fought. Sometimes darkness creeps in – it comes through the soul and onto the paper.”

David found the workshops particularly valuable when he was confined to his ward after a hospital visit and is full of praise for the support he’s had from his online artist teacher:

“She’s absolutely brilliant. She teaches you to go with the flow. Nothing is wrong. It doesn’t matter what you put on a bit of paper, you’ll always see something in the picture you’ve created. It’s part of you. People are at different standards, all giving their input. It helps working with a group – they’re on the camera and you talk about it. Instead of crying now, I’ll pick up a paintbrush or pencil – it’s life-changing.”

   “Art has given me a new lease of life”

Both David and Carl plan to continue working with the Soldiers’ Arts Academy, whether online or in ‘real life’, as do a number of the other Pensioners who have been involved with the sessions. 

Lily and the Academy are keen to continue the relationship the Royal Hospital, while Julie is delighted with how positive the connection has proved to be:

“It’s really nice to see what they’ve achieved and that they want to keep coming. It’s a great thing to build on.”

 And for Chelsea Pensioners like David, discovering the Soldiers’ Arts Academy has changed his whole perspective on the world around him:

“There’s no doubt that art has been the best thing for my PTSD. I look across the grounds and realise how much colour and beauty there is and people just walk past and don’t see it. Art gives you expression. It’s given me a new lease of life.”

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