Wendy Woolfson


Sometimes an opportunity comes along that you know you can’t pass up, and this was the case for me when I had finished studying the course on Puppet Theatre Arts and was working on becoming an accredited professional storyteller with the Scottish Storytelling Centre in Edinburgh. All the while, I was working as a bike messenger during the week, and at my local grocery store at the weekends. One Saturday, I was doing my usual work of stacking shelves and helping customers when someone I had known many years before when I was a teenager walked in. It was real blast from the past. She recognised me and came over to talk.

I recalled how I had known her at a time in my life when I was struggling. I had been living away from home for about a year and I was always skint, I was feeling lonely and was looking for something more to do, especially something creative, I still had dreams of being an artist. A friend who lived in the bedsit in the flat below mine had put me on to her because she was looking for another woman to be part of a community arts project she was running and my friend couldn’t do it, and I was the only person she knew that was artistic. She gave me her phone number and I did what felt like a brave thing at the time, and I phoned her. After we had talked for a while she invited me to be a part of it and I jumped at the opportunity. The whole thing sounded fantastic and would involve me and four other women. We were to create pieces of art in our own style over the course of a year meeting once a week in the art space on Albion Street resulting in an exhibition in the Collins Gallery at Strathclyde University. I was so excited at the thought of making art for a whole year and being tutored by two professional artists.

It was an incredible year that proved to be a landmark in my life as it taught me a variety of different skills and techniques and built my confidence, plus being with other women, sharing our space and learning together felt meaningful; although I kept to myself a lot as I was shy and found it hard to trust anyone. I had terribly low self-esteem, I always felt scrutinised and that my work was either no good or not good enough. I thought everyone else’s work was way better than mine and I dreaded the exhibition. However, I was enjoying what we were doing and getting to know the other women and having the chance to make whatever I want and be creative. I would put my headphones on and listen to my music and get lost in the pleasure of making my art and creating whatever I wanted. I loved learning new ways to use materials and tools and took full advantage of what we had at our disposal.

The opening exhibition was launched by Glasgow sculptor George Wylie and the show was well received; we were all very proud of our work. In the two weeks following, while the exhibition was on show, the artists who had tutored and supported us held workshops for adults with physical and learning disabilities. The artist who I had been working with most closely asked me if I would assist her at the workshops. My first instinct was to say no. I immediately felt out of my depth, I had never done anything like that before and I knew nothing about supporting someone with disabilities, not only that, I knew very little about disabilities at all. However, somehow she persuaded me whilst reassuring me that I had nothing to worry about, and I would be fine. It’s interesting how other people can see talents, skills and potential in you that you aren’t aware of. I guess I’ve done the same thing countless times with people I work with and support.

The workshops began and I was assigned to help a young man who was twenty-six with learning difficulties and who was also blind. We were working as a group at a long trestle table using clay to make a variety of things such as pots, ashtrays; whatever they wanted. I was so worried about whether I would know what to do but once I sat down next to him and we started to talk and learn a little about each other I began to relax, and I realised this was not about how I felt but about him and what he needed. I remember what a lovely young man he was, so cheery and friendly, and trusting of me, and I tried to understand what his world must be like. He decided to make a small dish and I loved the way he worked with his blindness to make something that he could really understand the shape of by pressing the clay into the palm of his hand and moulding it into a shape he could sense and feel. He then added texture by pressing a length of hemp string into it in different shapes. In the end he had made a beautiful bowl that he planned to give to his mum. During our time together I learnt to communicate in a different way and I was moved by how strong he was. Coincidentally he had the same name as one of my brothers and was the same age, and it really drove home for me what vastly different lives we all have as well as how privileged I was.

I’ve never forgotten that year, it changed me in so many ways. It showed me what I wanted to do in life, only it would take me much longer to get there than I imagined. Life has a way of teaching you what you need to know but not always giving you what you want. I needed to learn other lessons first. Sometimes we have to fight the battles and lick our wounds for a long time before they heal and we’re able to articulate what happened to create in a way that is meaningful. I’ve often shared my experience with groups I’ve facilitated to illustrate the difference it can make to a young person to have an adult really pay attention and listen to them, as well as give them opportunities they would otherwise not have had to bring out the best in them and give them a sense of achievement and self-worth.

So, when she walked into the store that day, a whole flood of memories and emotions came back to me including how I had used that experience to get me my first job. She recognised me and was delighted to meet me again and we shared what we were both now doing. When she heard what I had been studying and that I was becoming accredited as a storyteller, she offered me a job as the Handcraft Teacher at the Steiner school, where she worked. Having a job there would give me the good fortune to work with children on a regular basis and help me to learn more about their different developmental stages. This would grant me more understanding of what stories are suitable for each stage and help me become accredited as a storyteller. It was perfect, and from the same person more than a decade later!

Once again I had a year of learning, great enjoyment and opportunity given to me by chance. Only, I don’t believe in chance, I believe in synchronicity, and all the right things falling into place by following my intuition and saying yes when it feels right. I’m forever grateful for both of these opportunities, they are times in my life that I often recall as they had such a significant and positive impact on my future. I think she must be one of my earth angels sent to guide me in the right direction when needed, and I’ll always be grateful for that.