As part of the Fun Palaces campaign in October this year, Life of Breath collaborated with local Bristol artist Sophie Rae and the children of Shirehampton Primary School to create a breathing-themed mural. Sophie writes about the 5 days she spent painting one of the walls in their school playground…
When I met Havi and Jordan from Life of Breath at the beginning of September to discuss this project I was really excited. I thought the main challenge would be creating a design that reflected the young people’s thoughts on breathlessness. I wondered how I would create something visual about something so often invisible and whether I would get helpful feedback from the kids.
Over the course of one day I facilitated workshops with three different groups of children ages 6-11. We looked at a variety of images and I asked them questions such as What does breath look like? What is a good breathing environment? What affects your breathing? The older children spoke about how emotions affected their breath, being angry or calm. They all agreed that smoking was ‘really bad’ and created visual images of lots of trees, talking about the importance of open green spaces in nature and the detriment of pollution from cars and factories. They suggested people should walk or cycle instead. The last group wrote down ‘Breathe better, live longer’, ‘Making the environment a better place’, ‘I like to feel fresh air’, and ‘Breathe happy, breathe healthy’ which I ultimately added into the mural.
I found it challenging to create a design that was reflective of their thoughts, but also not too negative or gloomy to walk past every day. I loved break times when the children would all come out and see what I was doing, watching the progress and asking questions with their inquisitive minds. Whilst I was painting I asked them to interpret the mural – what did they see in it? I also spoke to those who had been in my workshops to see if I’d accurately portrayed their ideas. They would explain what they could see as it developed – ‘Oh that’s a car now” or “those are the lungs and this is a nice place in nature to breathe.”
I checked with them that they could understand it, that on the left I had represented a good breathing environment, nature, blue skies, plants and a bicycle. On the right of the mural, separated by some lungs, was a bad breathing environment. The left lung was healthy and the right lung wasn’t, representing how the external environment can affect breathing. They really liked the cloud which is blowing away all the bad fumes created by the factories.
They gave me some great feedback and seemed to be really happy with the result. Kids from the workshop would explain to their friends what it was about and proudly say they took part in the workshop. They gave me encouragement as they could see it progressing each day – “It’s looking really good” or “that’s perfection!” My highest accolade to date!
Some other quotes from the children I really enjoyed were:
‘Although its hard to quit smoking you can at least try’
‘Does smoking make you better? No’
‘Breathing can make you feel calm’
‘Did you know if you didn’t have any breath you wouldn’t be alive’
‘I feel calm when I’ve taken my inhaler’
‘Bounce on the clouds and the clean blue sky’
‘Drive less because it pollutes the air’
Working on this project has definitely made me more conscious of breath and the impact that the environments in which we breathe have on our breathing. I often sit and pay attention to my breath through meditation but it’s great to remind myself of the importance of breath – something easily taken for granted – compared to those living with breathlessness and lung conditions. It was a more powerful reminder to hear from the kids about ways they feel their breathing is impacted, including people choosing to partake in activities that can negatively affect the breath, such as smoking, or that some people grow up in areas with high levels of air pollution which often isn’t a choice and negatively affects breathing. Quite a few of the children said they had asthma and explained how that made them feel, and how smoking from adults had had a detrimental effect on their breathing.
Breath is, to me, a link between the mental and physical and is so essential to life that it’s often overlooked by those that do not experience breathlessness. When I’ve been speaking to other people about this project it also served as a reminder to them to think about the breath a little more than they already were.
It was a real pleasure to work with the children on this project, to get their brilliant insights in the initial workshops and their feedback throughout the painting process. I hope now the mural will be a reminder of their desire to breathe well and that by being part of this process they have reaffirmed their values of living and participating in a world in which it is healthy for them to breathe.
Thanks Havi and Jordan for asking me to work on this project and to Shirehampton school for having me.