Cloud Workshop: The art-based programme that helps grieving children

by Catherine Steel / 02 September, 2017

Photographer Deborah Smith’s Cloud Workshop art programme helps children feel less alone in their grief.

Kelly Majanja paints the final touches of her volcano onto a T-shirt. “I love how we can take home what we make,” she says with a grin. At a table nearby, three brothers whisper, planning how to improve their designs.

It’s a Sunday afternoon, and the youngsters have gathered in a large, sunny room at Auckland’s Mercy Hospice. Paints and brushes cover tables as they customise their T-shirts, which some will later parade.

All of those taking part share something in common: a person close to them has died. They’re here for Cloud Workshop, an art-based programme for grieving children that “offers community and solidarity”, says photographer Deborah Smith, who co-founded the initiative with artist Melissa Anderson Scott in 2008. The sessions don’t provide therapy as such, but escapism from grief. “We offer a safe space to be with other bereaved kids.”

When a friend of Smith’s died more than a decade ago, he left behind three children. Having lost her own father at 18, Smith understood the need for them to have a support network, but struggled to find one. “What helped me when my father died was art, literature and cinema,” she says. “I watched how others processed loss and suffering.”

Sessions are held in Auckland eight times a year for children aged five to 18 (

People are welcomed with an introduction touching lightly on why they are there and then set loose to create something fun. A therapist is present for anyone to talk to, and parents leave once their child is settled to encourage them to interact.

“There have been interchanges where children have spontaneously discussed why they are there,” Smith says. “It seems to have been comforting for them. But they aren’t forced to talk, everything is optional.”

An Elam graduate and high-school photography teacher, Smith creates projects for each workshop that might resonate with the children’s feelings. The T-shirt session was inspired by Skeleton Tree, an album by Nick Cave, whose teenage son died in 2015. Smith can liaise with a child psychotherapist over the content, and a team of artists helps run the workshops, which are usually fully booked – and are free, thanks to volunteers. Separate sessions are also run for young people living with a life-threatening illness in the family.

“We’ve given 53 workshops, all run on love,” says Smith, who hopes to expand to other main centres. “Grieving adults can access help on their own, whereas children can’t. Cloud Workshop offers tools to be creative and to process tough things. Young people respond to sophisticated projects. We show them that creativity may be a useful skill to deal with dark stuff.”

Child psychotherapist Lorna Wood says we live in a world where children are seen, but possibly don’t feel able to be sad. “A lot of adults can’t bear their kids having big feelings. Groups such as Cloud Workshop provide a supportive opportunity for them to make sense of their experience.”

One parent describes the sessions as a wonderful outlet. “Kids don’t necessarily externalise verbally,” she says. “A death can affect them more deeply than adults may realise.”

Rosalind Sach O’Hoy says her six-year-old daughter, Meelan, has met young people she can talk to about losing her father without feeling out of the ordinary. “She came back from the first workshop buzzing.”

This was published in the August 2017 issue of North & South.

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