Over the rainbow

Over the rainbow

Art can help change lives as Lesley Finlay found out when she visited the Rainbow Gallery, a therapeutic, creative arts centre in the heart of the Rare Breeds Centre...

It is raining. As we walk towards the old brick building, heads bowed to shield us, the landscape looks grey, and early summer's lush green fields have taken on that dull, flat hue of winter months.

Bustling in, we receive that unique all-encompassing English welcome - a chorus of 'come in, come in' as sympathetic voices emit concern at our wet clothes, articulating gentle lamentations about the inclement weather, while offering warm greetings as we enter.

Suddenly I look up and the colour hits me. My eyes are assailed by a haphazard curiosity shop of chromatism. There are pastel pink and blue wooden gifts on shelves, lime green and cyan ties, canvases of shocking red and sunshine yellow, paintings on multi-coloured paper pinned up around the room; a bright mural round one corner, sparkling glitter balls and bright lights peep through a secret room beyond.

We are in the Rainbow Gallery: a perfect moniker for a place so full of colour, it does exactly what it says on the sign. It is the creative heartbeat of the Canterbury Oast Trust, the wonderful organisation that supports adults with learning difficulties in the heart of rural Woodchurch that Wealden Times has chosen as its charity this year. You might know the place better as the Rare Breeds Centre, the working farm that has grown to be one of the top tourist attractions in the county.

The Rainbow Gallery is one of the seven strands of the Canterbury Oast Trust, which provides a home, 24-hour care, a programme of personal development, work training and work experience for adults with a learning or physical disability.

Jen Sutton, the gallery's assistant manager, explains: 'We have several artists here; some live here at Canterbury Oast Trust, while others are referred to the gallery from local councils. They apply for a placement then come in for a taster morning to see if they would like to join us.

'Once here, artists have a six week assessment to allow time for them to settle in and try the activities. The Rainbow Gallery is not work, but a chance for artists to develop skills and to get accredited training. The artists are learning and developing skills and understanding the process. They work - in their own time of course - towards City and Guilds qualifications.'

There are 75 artists signed up with four or five main tutors at the Gallery. Around ten or 12 artists will attend daily. Jen says: 'It's good for the guys to be seen as artists and to show off their art and talent. We get commissions for garden plaques and for craft fairs and there is a real sense of achievement that someone has bought their art.'

One of the advantages of joining the Rainbow Gallery is that sense of purpose, but also the social and personal development side. The artists learn new things and get stuck in, including those with severe physical problems who can pick up a paintbrush. 'It's a great environment to work in! As a practitioner myself, I have learned loads from being here - all the tutors do. Our artists are a great bunch of people - some days it's extremely calm, others not so - but every day is different!

'They are encouraged as far as possible to create their own work and adapt it to suit individual talents.' The artists work in small groups - one in wheelchairs downstairs and another group upstairs. They are happy to talk about their work, and do so knowledgeably, with pride, and sometimes with an artist's angst that 'it's not really working out'.

Upstairs is a hive of activity and the place, a cavernous artists' garret full of paper, paint, materials - and willow which is being used to create figures for the upcoming theatre production of Julius Caesar by the Oddsocks Theatre Company. Jen says: 'The willow figures will be part of the set. This is a great thing to take part in for the Trust and we're really proud to be able to do it. We'll participate in all sorts of art forms from baking, printing and felt making to hand sewing and lino/mono/screen printing with our artists.'

Ben Hillman is one of the artists and talks through his work. He says: 'I'm doing a project about earth and landscapes around the world. I went on holiday to Scotland so I am looking at pictures of it on the internet.' Other pieces include dramatic scenes from Japan and city-scapes using London as a starting point - this is real art research that will be used to inspire an art work through a process of discovery, starting with the creation of mood boards to inform a final piece.

Assistant manager Nicky Mole talks through with Ben the composition of a painting, a collaborative approach that benefits both parties. Nicky says: 'We learn so much from the artists ourselves.' Ben adds: 'Getting it from our heads and onto paper is the hard thing. How do I go about doing justice? Yes I have the arts skills but to be honest they are limited.' Sounds like the typical self-assessment of any artist!

In the studio downstairs is a merry band of artists in wheelchairs. Here there is great camaraderie and real work going on, as they paint in small canvasses depicting images of birds and flowers.

Paintbrush in hand, Adam Kirkup-Bowyer says: 'I'm working on a canvas showing a kingfisher. The picture is traced onto the canvas then it's waxed and we use some special paints and let them dry. Then we sell them.'

Jackie Bowles says she likes to paint flowers and birds. 'I've been coming here for about five years. I like it,' she says.

Finally we take a peep into the sensory room, an inspiring, calming place - full of dimmed colour taken from the palette of colours - that is used for one-to-one sessions allowing the artist to relax, a reminder that the artists have specific needs and challenges. Jen explains: 'It's important our artists feel cared for. Some of our clients have more sensory needs than others and benefit from just being in here; others work in small groups on art and craft sessions in here.'

Calming does not do this justice; coloured lights pulse slowly, changing colour from pink to blue to green and light sticks draw in the eyes while a glitter ball rotates, slowly revealing coloured canvasses on the walls. This is a cocoon, a haven where the power of colour can change mood, calm and inspire.

The Rainbow Gallery is a wonderful place where artists - many with severe challenges - are treated as equals with a creative force that has worth for its uniqueness and artistic endeavour. Inspired by the work and its provenance, we cannot help but make a purchase of a bright yellow and orange plate. As we step outside, the rain has stopped. I swear we saw a rainbow above us...

To find out more visit the the Rainbow Gallery website www.rainbowgallery.org.uk. You can commission works from the site but it is also available to buy at the gallery, Yonsea Oast, Rare Breeds Centre, Woodchurch, Ashford, Kent TN26 3RJ and the Coterie Tea Rooms, 15 High Street, Rye TN31 6JF.