To raise vital funds for their work, AT The Bus, a charity that delivers a school-based programme for young people aged 7 to 18, has collaborated with renowned photographer Joanna Vestey to create MASKED, a series of portraits of well-known artists and communicators portrayed wearing masks. The limited-edition prints are available to buy at atthebus.org.uk.
Over the past year, face masks - or face coverings if you prefer - have become an integral part of our existence. To raise vital funds for their work, Oxfordshire-based charity AT The Bus have collaborated with renowned photographer Joanna Vestey to create MASKED, a series of portraits of well-known artists and communicators, portrayed wearing masks. They have a simple but ambitions goal of raising £150,000 from the sale of the limited-edition prints to support their work.
Founded by Juli Beattie and a team of professionals in 2016, AT The Bus is a charity delivering a school-based programme of art as therapy to support the education, health, and wellbeing of young people in Oxfordshire and London. AT The Bus uses a double-decker bus turned into an art studio - which, by the way, is a joyous work of art in itself - as an inspired way to bring the pleasures, immersions and creative peace to those feeling pulled apart by the strains of this or any other time.
Simon Schama, probably best known for writing and hosting the BBC television documentary series "A History of Britain", described AT The Bus as "a heroically wonderful project which deserves all our support." He commented that "Art has a magic power to liberate us from our sense of confinement; to cue up joy; to make us sense the flights and depths of life even when they suddenly seem beyond reach.”
A sign of the times.
AT The Bus collaborated with Joanna Vestey, an award-winning photographer who lives in Oxford, to photograph several celebrity supporters, or sitters, in their masks, in a socially distanced manner between lockdowns. There are 24 sitters in the series - all leading figures in the respective fields - including actors Dawn French, Andrew Scott and Juliet Stevenson; artists Joy Labinjo, Cornelia Parker, Grayson Perry and Jenny Saville; fashion icon Dame Zandra Rhodes and writer Philip Pullman, amongst others. You'll find a full list at the bottom of the page.
As a visual artist, Joanna had always felt strongly about children using arts as a means of expression and, in particular, the transformative effect AT The Bus had on the children they supported, just a few months down the line. So, naturally, she was quite supportive of the effort to make a difference. Compared to 'Custodians for COVID', her recent widely-acclaimed project that raised large sums for London theatres, Joanna describes making MASKED as being "honest and intimate". This was in reference to the fact that it was just her, with a camera and a tripod, 2 meters away from the sitters, at a time when physically meeting people was such an immense privilege.
And the resulting portraits are not at all disheartening, as one might have initially presumed. Quite the opposite, in fact. Perhaps, because, more than anything else, they are an empowering record of a poignant period in our existence that will someday become just a line in the journal of history. Or maybe because the images of faces concealed for our temporarily precautions in themselves demonstrate the permanence of human expression.
It’s support that’s needed now, more than ever.
Social isolation - both from lockdown and the physical barrier of wearing a mask - can have particularly toxic ramifications on the mental health of our young people. So, it comes as no surprise that an AT The Bus Practitioner would say that "the opportunity to reconnect safely with others - provided important respite from the constraints and isolation that many were feeling due to the impact of the changes necessitated by COVID.”
Speaking with Juli, you get a sense of pride in bringing this project to fruition during the lockdown. "Children and young people need support for their wellbeing, mental health, and education, particularly during times of uncertainty and stress. AT The Bus delivers a therapeutic, educational intervention for those who need it most. As lockdown is lifted and we see a return to face-to-face learning at school, it is a vital time for the AT The Bus to support our children," Juli explains.
And Professor Mina Fazel, Professor of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry,
Department of Psychiatry, University of Oxford agrees, adding that "If there was ever a time to care about the mental health of the most vulnerable young people in our communities, it is now".
So what's a typical day at the bus like?
The double-decker bus offers a calm, safe space on school grounds for students. Sessions take place during the school day in a purpose-designed therapeutic studio space in a double-decker bus located on school grounds. With no need to travel to reach the bus, students remain connected to their regular school routine.
The two decks offer distinctive yet complementary therapeutic spaces by design. The upper deck includes a tailor-made art workshop space and a quiet sofa space for group welcome and discussions, while on the lower deck, there is a purpose-built kitchen area for eating together around a table.
Students arrive at the bus for the first of a series of timetabled group sessions. Groups consist of between 6-8 young people working with a minimum of two trained and experienced facilitators. The atmosphere is calm, welcoming, creative and purposeful. The session begins at the sofa area on the upper deck. All students are included and given opportunities to talk, to find their voice and participate in the discussion.
Illustrated books, art books and picture books are used to inspire, to share ideas, and as works of art in their own right. Projects are introduced using books, images, stories, current affairs and visual objects to bring the project to life. Students are offered freshly prepared fruit, toast and drinks on the lower deck of the bus. Eating around a table together is an important part of the session.
After eating together, the group moves to the art studio area. Classical music, often Mozart, is played in the background as students begin the process of creating works of art. The art projects are either individual objects or group projects that are transformed over several weeks. They are offered high-quality paints and other materials to create new works of art. There is no ‘wrong’ way to create art. The students are encouraged to develop and build on their creative ideas each week.
While students work, skilled AT The Bus facilitators nurture and offer guidance and choices. The approach is inclusive and non-judgmental. At the end of the session, students are encouraged to comment on each others’ work to build a sense of recognition, achievement and progress.
The limited-edition prints are available to buy at atthebus.org.uk. Each image is available as an unframed 28 x 34 cm print, signed and authenticated by Joanna Vestey, and printed on Hahnemühle Photo Rag 308gsm. Each image is a limited edition of 50, and you can pick one up for £150.