Acclaimed artist inspires care experience young people

Ciara Callaghan is an acclaimed artist based in Milton Keynes and an associate artist at MK Gallery and the Milton Keynes Art Centre.

Ciara Callaghan is an acclaimed artist based in Milton Keynes and an associate artist at MK Gallery and the Milton Keynes Art Centre. Prolific in dyeing, embroidery, and quilt making, Ciara works primarily in textiles and runs inclusive community-led arts projects that make a significant difference to the lives of local young people. Over the past two years, Ciara has been a consistent source of inspiration for care-experienced young people who are part of our Grandmentors project in Milton Keynes.

Grandmentors’ place-based approach enables care-experienced young people to become more active in their community through local collaborations and resources. Ciara is a wonderful example of how someone in a place is using their skills to support care experienced young people to find their place, empowering them to thrive within it. 

Grandmentors is an intergenerational mentoring programme where older volunteers use their life experience and skills to provide emotional and practical support to young people transitioning from the care system to independent living. The impact can be transformational. In Milton Keynes alone, care experienced young people living independently or stable in having suitable living standards, increased by 87% from where it was at the beginning of their mentoring experience.

Establishing solid relationships is particularly important to Grandmentors’ young people who often come to the UK as unaccompanied refugees. Their sole interaction with adults is frequently within the confines of officialdom, so establishing relationships with adults can take time. Ciara built trusting relationships by giving care experienced young people the space and freedom to be creative during her workshops. 

“There is something to be said for establishing a connection and keeping it going over several years. Everyone needs something different, so this is about personalising the experience. My dynamic is that I don’t have boxes that I have to tick; there are no predetermined outcomes that I’m supposed to be trying to achieve. Instead, I am being guided by the young people. “

Ciara’s refreshing approach to community-led workshops has led to a treasured relationship between the artist and our Grandmentors team in Milton Keynes. Firm in the belief that given the right environment, anyone can be creative and become an artist, Ciara’s inclusive art workshops have become a welcome ‘safe place’ and creative haven for young care leavers to flourish as artists.

My work is two-fold; I have my very quiet studio practice and my exploratory, social engagement work where I look at how art can be used to build a real sense of community. To have your voice heard and change how you think, to do things differently. For young people, particularly Grandmentors, who wouldn’t have considered themselves creative at all can now confidently call themselves artists.”

It all started two years ago when Ciara ran a textile-based social enterprise called ‘Sew and Grow.’ Ciara welcomed young people to the workshops, some with special education needs as well as young people unable to continue in the school system due to anxiety and depression, young people in care, and care experienced young people. At Sew and Grow, the young people explored innovative and organic art methods, dying the cloth they sewed with from natural dyes grown in their dye garden. Ciara explains;

Through my work with the social enterprise, I saw how being involved in textiles or any art form young people can become. I saw how young people who were struggling to engage at school were turning up early for ‘Sew and Grow’ workshops and staying late. That sense of expectation, purpose, and accomplishment all added together to give young people that hadn’t had a sense of self-worth beforehand a strong sense of self-worth.”

That sense of ‘place’ and inclusive communication makes Ciara’s workshops unique, giving young people a real sense of purpose through art and conversation. “The workshops gave care experienced young people a place and a sense of belonging. There was no hierarchy, so they felt like it was a home they could come to. That has influenced my work moving forward. I work a lot with young people on well-being programmes. It’s like mentorship. Some of the young people on Sew and Grow were from Grandmentors. Working with young people in lots of different spaces means that I can build a relationship with them. “

Then came Transitional Belonging, another ground-breaking project Ciara founded on the principles of building trust and a sense of community. Overcoming boundaries of time and relationships is intrinsic to the artistic integrity of Ciara’s workshops. It’s about something other than working with large numbers of people turning up to workshops sporadically; it’s about working with a small number a lot! 

Held at the MK Gallery, the Transitional Belonging workshops involved care experienced young people in designing and creating their own quilts. Quilts are often passed down through families from an older generation, with a strong connection to home, comfort, and care. So for a care experienced young person or an unaccompanied refugee who doesn’t have that connection, making a quilt gives them ownership to create their own heritage to pass down to the next generation.

Ciara explains: “I developed a trusting relationship with four young people by working closely with them for six weeks over half-day periods every week. This helped the young people to form a group, supporting each other through the design process of their quilts and asking self-reflective questions that evolved into an experimental and inspirational exhibition.” 

“One of the most important ways to create the quilts was to keep coming, and the young people kept coming – there was never a week when they didn’t show up. Each of the quilts looks completely different – there is nothing similar about any of them, yet they are so representative of the young people who made them. Quilts are incredibly hard to make, so it was an astonishing achievement.” 

In August 2022, Grandmentors’ quilt-making culminated in an unforgettable exhibition at the MK Gallery, as described by Ciara; “The exhibition was one of the best evenings I’ve ever experienced, unlike any other exhibition. It was one of the most emotionally charged evenings I have ever been to, and I have never been so proud.” 

The exhibition was a triumph for care experienced young people who took centre stage in showing their quilts to attendees, including a researcher and journalist in quilt history. Ciara recaps, “What was very special was when the young people took people over to see their quilts and were able to talk about the design confidently.” 

I consider that project to be one of the most successful that I’ve ever done based on how that evening felt; it felt so rich, and everyone who was there was so moved by it, by the young people and by their work and by the way they had ownership of that space for the evening. It was just the loveliest evening; everyone was dressed up, it was emotional.”

Inspired by the Transitional Belongings project, Ciara is producing a book compiled of photographs, and interviews, capturing the young people’s experiences during the quilt exhibition. 

Ciara explains, “The interviews with the young people are vibrant, open, and honest with lots of photographs. Local photographer Sagar Kharecha, worked really well with the young people, encouraging a young person interested in photography to stylise all the photographs. Everyone thoroughly enjoyed the session.”  

Thanks to Ciara’s unwavering support to Grandmentors, each of the care experienced young people and the Grandmentors team will receive a copy of the book with any remaining sold by the MK Gallery shop. The proceeds from sales will be donated to the Communities in Residence programme.

For Ciara, this is about a legacy of how to continue to fund art projects; “One of the things I am concerned about with community outreach is that when a project ends, it just finishes, and all of the good feeling and all the skills that people have learned stops.”  

Using funding from the MK Gallery (legacy money), Ciara plans to run another series of projects at the gallery; four-hour sessions run once a week for five weeks. The sessions will be open to young people new to Grandmentors so they can get to know each other in a safe space. Less directive than quilt making, the idea is for young people to make items of their choice, including garments. 

“Maintaining the social aspect is equally important as showing up for something – there are so many skills involved in doing something like that.” 

In keeping with Grandmentors’ place-based approach, MK Gallery has been instrumental in each project’s success by making care experienced young people feel welcome, as Ciara explains; “MK Gallery want the young people to feel like the gallery is for them, not just this alien place only for a select few, but a place for everyone and that is why the gallery is so invested in making sure that the young people feel like they have some ownership of the gallery and that it is their safe space.”  

Over the past year, Ciara has created incredible memories with our Grandmentors team, rounding off 2022 with a sleep workshop during Care Leavers Week, where the young people and their volunteer mentors made their own sleep masks by blending herbs specific to their individual needs. “It was a wonderful, gentle, relaxing workshop – everything a sleep workshop should be. You don’t always need to outsource your care; often, you can create it yourself!”

Ciara shows no sign of slowing down during 2023, with plans underway for a new project called Blecca Lea. Funded by a public art commission from the Bletchley and Fenny Stratford Council, the project will host a self-led arts space at the Brunel Centre in Bletchley three days a week. Easily accessible from Milton Keynes, the workshops welcome local young people to work with commissioned artists. 

Trust and time are fundamental to Ciara’s unique approach to community-led arts projects and her unwavering support to Grandmentors; “I’ve built up my relationship with Grandmentors over two years – it does make a difference to nurture and build a relationship – they know me, and I know them so well. We are all part of a creative experience – time and consistency allow young people to learn new skills and be creative.”

As a values-led charity, we believe that positive change evolves when we take the time to understand people’s needs, hopes, and aspirations. Building relationships within our communities that improve people’s lives is vital, as is acknowledging and celebrating those relationships and the indelible support that develops over time.


Please click here to learn more about our Grandmentors project and how to get involved.

To find here to find out more about Ciara Callaghan’s workshops.

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