Wonder Women, Part 3: Art of Living
Emily Bradfield is a strong believer in the life-affirming power of creativity and the freedom of just playing. As newly-appointed director of an arts-based charity, she is especially keen to reach out to many people throughout society experiencing social isolation
One of Emily Bradfield’s most treasured childhood memories is of gathering shells. “My grandparents lived in Hunstanton on the Norfolk coast. Both were artists,” she says. “Collecting shells and creating collages with them, I experienced the complete absorption and sense of calm that comes from creative engagement.”
In October 2019 Emily was appointed director of Arts and Minds, a small Cambridgeshire-based charity which uses the arts to promote social wellbeing and empower people to thrive. The charity’s small team runs several programmes that enable individuals experiencing mental health challenges to access and participate in the arts.
The longest established is Arts on Prescription is a 12-week programme of arts workshops, where people come together to engage in creative activities for two hours a week in local museums. Many of those participating are referred by their GP or other health professional.
“Arts on Prescription is led by a practising artist and a counsellor who give people the space and permission to experiment and tap into their own creativity,” says Emily. “As adults we lose touch with the fun of play. Creativity can be wonderfully life affirming and programmes such as ours can help to reduce social isolation.”
Other programmes managed by Arts and Minds include an inclusive choir that meets weekly (open to everyone - just drop-in) at Michaelhouse in the centre of Cambridge and a regular pottery group for people who have been diagnosed with early-onset dementia. “Getting to grips with clay engages people’s senses in a very visceral way,” says Emily. “It’s all about the process not the outcome.”
Arts and Minds is based at Cambridge Junction where a new Creative Cafe is making use of the spacious foyer area for a drop-in session on the last Tuesday of every month (10:30 - 12:30). The cafe is open to everyone who’d like to meet with others for conversation, coffee and creativity.
Emily explains: “It’s a chance for people who’ve taken part in our programmes to meet up and for those who are on our waiting list to come along too. There are craft materials available for people to play around with and volunteers to chat with people who come to the sessions.”
Cambridge born and bred, Emily loved art at school but “didn’t do brilliantly” in her A levels. “I was told I wasn’t even a B grade student!” she says. So the idea of taking an art foundation course didn’t appeal, despite her love of creativity. Instead, she trained as a personal assistant and began her working life in the demanding environment of the corporate sales world.
“The jobs I did after leaving school weren’t in the least arty but they gave me vital organisational skills such as time and people management” she says. Moving to Italy, for seven years she taught English at a private language school. “They say that if you can teach, you can do anything and it’s absolutely true!”
Living in Verona, Emily had access to the wonderful art of the Renaissance on her doorstep. Over the next six years, she took an Open University degree in Art History while working full time. “The last few modules were completed once I’d returned to the UK,” she says. “By this time, I’d decided that I was destined for a career in the charity sector that combined arts and community engagement.”
With the support of her employer, Emily embarked on a Master’s degree in Arts Management. Fast forward to 2020 and the school leaver with disappointing exam results is completing her PhD in Creative Ageing (University of Derby), while getting stuck into her new role at Arts and Minds and building connections with other local organisations.
“Many of them are small, like us. We’re all operating on a shoestring and we can offer a lot more to our participants if we work together,” she says. “Last year I founded an international creative ageing network with the aim of bringing together researchers, practitioners and anyone else interested in the power of the arts as a vital part of being human.”
There’s a satisfying circularity to Emily’s career with her latest role combining many of her skills. Decades after those blissful days on Hunstanton beach, she is a great believer in things being ‘meant’. Her new job, she says, feels “100 per cent right”.
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More by this authorAlex Buxton