As many young people settle back into the school routine, or make plans to start university or college, it can be reassuring to know that there are still options available for those who aren’t sure what should come next.
Finding the best path can be especially tricky if you are interested in a creative career. Creative Catalyst, a Scottish Government-funded project based at WASPS studios in Perth, is on the hunt for 20 creative young people from Perth and Kinross who may be facing barriers accessing education, employment or training.
Creative Catalyst was established by founding director Helen O’Brien in 2020.
“I was running a pilot version of Creative Catalyst for two years prior to setting CC up,” says Helen. “The funding was cut – alongside my job – but there was still a need for young people to be supported, so I set up a social enterprise to make sure the project continued.”
She was able to continue supporting young creatives thanks to funding from Firstport and the input of two former colleagues.
“We had all worked well together and they both had experience in business, work experience for young people, and creative industries,” explains Helen. “Having this team behind me gave me the confidence to take this on.”
Helen, a visual artist, trained in Cardiff and returned to university to complete an MA in art and humanities at Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art & Design in 2020. She has been involved in arts education and community engagement for more than 20 years.
Encouraging creative careers
“I’ve always been interested in visual art, and love sharing this enthusiasm with others to encourage the process of being creative, and the impact it has on us,” she explains.
“Catalyst is a combination of all the skills and projects I have developed over the past 20 years – making art, engaging and encouraging young people, and looking at the transferable and employability skills they gain while they are immersed in the process of making.”
Aimed at young people aged over 16 and funded by the Scottish Government Communities Mental Health and Wellbeing Fund, Helen says that the scheme “offers a safety net to those young people who know they are creative, but are struggling to take their next steps for whatever reason – be it anxiety, or lack of self belief”.
“We are here to offer that support system, and a bit of time and space for them to find their creative confidence, and then move on,” she says. “Not everyone wants to have a career as an artist, but we hopefully demonstrate and show them how to do it – even if it is a hobby or side hustle.”
Helen adds: “We are a social enterprise, as we wanted to lead by example in proving that you can make a living as a creative practitioner, and art is work.”
Anna Kelso is an artist and a creative facilitator at Creative Catalyst. “I am an applied artist with a background in digital art,” she says.
“I studied fashion design at Edinburgh College of Art which introduced me to illustration. This led to some day jobs doing graphic design while at night I developed my digital illustration skills.
“I now have a growing creative practice that includes digital illustration and design, site-specific applied art and I am currently exploring a return to textile-based design.”
She got involved when Helen spotted her at a business accelerator course for creative businesses. Anna says: “She (Helen) was interested in my digital art skills and how that might fit in with Creative Catalyst.
“I delivered a couple of mentoring sessions focusing on digital art and branding. We then collaborated on creating the Creative Catalyst logo. We are a very small team, so we help out in as many areas as we can. We all wear many different hats!”
The Auchterarder-based artist says that she would have loved to have had access to a programme such as Creative Catalyst when she was starting out.
“As a graduate, I thought you were meant to emerge from university knowing everything that should be known about your field – as a result I suffered from crippling imposter syndrome and low confidence,” explains Anna. “To be part of an informal group with other artists, peers and mentors would have helped me overcome this.”
Confidence building at Creative Catalyst
Now, she is delighted to be able to support young people in their own creative journeys.
The support available at Creative Catalyst is tailored to each young person. “Each young person will periodically have an individual review of their work and we support them to build a plan for going forward,” she explains.
“We run weekly sessions – these can be an informal get-together, where the young people can connect with each other and chat to us about their work, or ask questions. They can work on their current projects and get feedback from us or their peers.”
The sessions can also be in the form of workshops, introducing different techniques or enterprise skills, or used to prepare work for an upcoming market.
There is some structure to the programme but there are no formal expectations, which can work well for young people with mental health issues or who need to work around other commitments.
One of the scheme’s early success stories is Ben. “Ben came to us after he had disengaged from school, and college during lockdown. He was really nervous and unsure what he wanted to do,” says Helen.
“We got him involved in lots of different projects to try new ways of working, and help build his confidence in his abilities to be creative and also be confident to talk to people, and make his own decisions.
“Last year he applied for college with a portfolio of work he had developed with us and has just completed his first year – and about to start an HND in visual communication.
“He recently came to see us and was a happy and confident young man – which was an absolute delight to see,” she says proudly.
Caitlyn Hanna has also benefitted enormously from Creative Catalyst.
“Caitlyn came to us as a Kickstart placement – after finishing uni and moving back to Perth – worked alongside us for six months, learning and understanding what we do, before going on to become a self-employed artist who now runs their own market stalls and is a freelance art worker for various organisations,” explains Helen.
Caitlyn, 26, says: “After I graduated, I felt really lost and unsure of my next steps or even if the degree had a real purpose.
“Through Creative Catalyst, I’ve been able to work on my own artistic practice – whether that’s paintings, sculpture or ceramics – while also facilitating workshops for young people.
“From running the kids’ club to learning about marketing, social media and how to run a stall, I’ve learnt so much.”
Caitlyn is autistic and was a school refuser for most of her secondary school years before going to art college and on to the University of Cumbria. “It felt natural to mentor the young people as it wasn’t that long ago that I was in their shoes,” Caitlyn says.
Sharing experience through Creative Catalyst
“A couple of them had just been accepted to go to DJCAD so I was able to share my experiences with them.
“So many people think they’ll never succeed or get anywhere if they don’t do their Higher English or maths.
“I didn’t even attend secondary school, let alone get any qualifications, and although I wouldn’t recommend that, I still went to college and university.
“There are different paths and routes to achieving your goals, it’s not all about your grades. Because I’m autistic, being freelance suits me. I wasn’t sure if it would, due to the lack of structure, but it means I have control. I can dip in and out of different projects and take breaks when I need to. I also enjoy life.
“We all need to do more of what makes us happy and being stuck in a nine-to-five desk job was never going to work for me.”
Another enthusiastic beneficiary is Lauren Evans. Essex-born Lauren lives in Perth with her five-year-old daughter.
She explains: “When I first got involved, I had a young baby and was struggling with anxiety, depression and PTSD. I’d always been creative but never explored it as a career.
“Creative Catalyst gave me a place to hang out, talk things through with others and build my network, taking part in creative workshops on everything from a refresher on sewing machines and business skills to sustainability,” she says.
“I’m so grateful for the project and its people – I can now envision a creative career when it was just a pipe dream.”