We were out to dinner when Newcastle-based artist, Bliss Cavanagh first handed me one of her Furry Delights. Tactile by nature, I was absorbed by the sensory experience and unaware of the passing time. Bliss’ immersive, tactile installations are grounded in research, bright and known for offering respite for mental wellbeing. Currently completing a PhD with the University of Newcastle, I had a chat to Bliss about the creative community in Newcastle and her signature sensory rooms.
NW: Everyone comes to being involved in the arts in different ways. What made you turn to art making?
BC: I excitedly grabbed my mums hand and pulled her to look at my latest piece “look mumma! I’ve joined the dots!!” I was 2 years old, had got my little hands on a fat permanent marker and started drawing a line from one wall on the outside of the house, right around the entire house until I ‘joined the dots’. I was always creating, from chalk artworks on our water tank to big cubby houses in the trees. If I wasn’t outside creating big things, I was inside drawing quietly by myself. My mum was a constant source of encouragement and saw my passion from a very young age. I was always very shy, but I found so much joy in being creative. My art making became such a strong part of my personality and when I was diagnosed with Tourette syndrome at age 9, it then became my most valuable outlet.
NW: How would you describe the creative culture in Newcastle and the Hunter Region more broadly?
BC: I’ve been living in Newcastle for the past 9 years now and proudly call myself a Novacastrian. The creative culture here is everywhere, from the never-ending array of handmade markets from the city centre out to the Hunter Valley vineyards and beyond, to the rise of young creative professionals through the likes of Renew Newcastle and the strong community of practising artists and the supportive arts community. Every Friday night, you can count on several gallery openings to choose from with an eager audience of artists and art-lovers. There’s always new galleries popping up. It’s a creative culture that’s open to all and it’s a thriving community to be a part of.
NW: It is important for artists to be visible beyond standard models for arts and cultural infrastructure. What was your experience like as an artist prior to and after being involved in Renew Newcastle?
BC: The Renew community is amazing. The support, network and capacity for creatives to grow and scale their passions on such a professional and commercially viable level is invaluable. Before being involved with Renew, I felt disconnected to the professional art world and everything seemed unreachable with no real structure on how to ‘make it’ as an artist.
Through Renew, I’ve learnt the importance of creating your own opportunities, building your own brand and backing yourself.
That it’s great to be able to make a living doing what you’re passionate about and that there’s an entire supportive community creating change in the way we view ‘success’ in the art world.
THE EVOLUTION OF STUDIO BLISS
NW: Studio Bliss is a great concept. Can you explain how it came about?
BC: Studio Bliss was born from a personal journey, which I would never have dreamt possible. It was during my Bachelor of Fine Art Honours research project at the University of Newcastle in 2012, where I decided to create my own personal sensory-art environment. This was a huge moment for me, which completely transformed my life. Until this, I had kept my diagnosis of Tourette’s hidden from fear of being associated with the negative stigma attached to the disorder. This had impacted my mental health significantly, and the anxiety affected many aspects of my life. But I always found comfort in creativity.
My art making became more abstract, playing with colour, texture and light, focusing on the experience of the space. Through research, I discovered the remarkable benefits of multi-sensory rooms used for helping people with disabilities or dementia and I wondered whether this could be helpful for Tourette’s.
I realised that this is what I had been doing my whole life, with my love for colourful mood lamps that I would surround myself with in the dark, listen to music and burn scented candles; creating a sensory experience to help me feel relaxed and happy.
All these connections led me to create a sensory-art installation, combining the science behind multisensory rooms and the therapeutic nature of the art making process to help alleviate my symptoms of Tourette’s.
What I discovered was that my tics actually disappeared during the act of creativity. This knowledge and awareness was liberating for me and I gained back a sense of control and choice. I saw my Tourette’s as my most valuable asset and the driving force behind my creativity.
The final sensory-art installation was a game-changer for me. Immersed in the experiential space, I had never felt so happy, relaxed and free of the tics and nervous tension that I constantly feel. I felt like I could breathe and had never been more myself. This space was me in every way that I wanted the world to be. I was empowered to share my experience of living with Tourette syndrome through my art. Another result from the work, was the response from others who visited the space. The work opened a safe space to talk about mental health and people shared their own experiences about mental illness with me, also identifying the benefits that they also experienced from the work. I saw that my work had the potential to help others too.
From my honours installation, I attracted my first big commission and applied for a commercial space through Renew Newcastle. I was successful and opened a studio/shop called Studio Bliss and not a week later, I was offered the opportunity that set my career in motion. A commission to design, create and install the ‘Rave Lounge’ for the 2013 PossABLE IDEAS Disabilities Expo at the Newcastle Entertainment Centre. This opened up a whole new direction for me, as I saw the value my work held for connecting with people of all ages and abilities, as well as the benefits that people gained from experiencing my sensory-art. Since then, I’ve been creating my signature sensory-art spaces for special events, disability organisations, mental health units and custom sensory rooms. I’ve also developed a successful range of sensory products that I sell in my Newcastle store, online and market the sensory benefits to the mainstream community. Everything we experience in life is through our senses – so why not use this connection to create inclusive and innovative ways to improve mental health and wellbeing.
NW: Can you describe what a visitor can expect to experience when they drop into Studio Bliss?
BC: “It’s like bubblegum for the eyes!” or “a physical form of my dreamland” as described by past visitors. Last year, I had a lovely group of HSC students regularly visiting the space. One girl left this comment about her experience:
“I’m on a very big journey where many challenges will be and have been faced. I am astonished at the shift in mood and clarity that has occurred within because of this space. My stress levels have evaporated into thin air and the anxieties of my day feel lighter. I will be sure to come back regularly. This place is magic and healing.” – Louisa
Studio Bliss is a sensory wonderland of colour, texture, sound, light and aromas. Indulge your senses as you sit in comfy furry chairs, lounge under the colour changing light of galaxy stars and soak in the sensory indulgence of illuminated sculptures, organic forms and calming sounds of instrumental music. It’s like entering another world, where you feel like a kid again, full of wonder, excitement and delight and then you find a comfortable spot to settle and let the sensory experience sooth your mind and body into a state of relaxation and happiness.
NW: That all sounds incredible. Where do you like to source your materials from? Do you make everything yourself?
BC: I source my materials from anywhere and everywhere all around the world. It’s a very enjoyable part of the creative process; the search for the perfect pompoms or the softest feeling fabric. I make everything myself in my studio – it’s about 100 square meters of space, with not much floor in sight.
OPPORTUNITIES AND WHAT’S NEXT
NW: In 2016 you were named a Young Social Pioneer by the Foundation for Young Australians. What did you take away from this experience?
BC: I felt so honoured to be selected as a 2016 YSP – it was an incredible experience of growth, knowledge and confidence. I feel like I’ve been given a secret guide to navigating the social enterprise space. Most rewarding were the 59 other amazing people in the YSP cohort. They were each inspiring in their own right and I feel such a strong sense of connectedness and confidence from the support they have all shared. It’s difficult to try to sum up the experience, as it was just that – an incredible experience filled with turning my dream, my passion, my purpose, into a goal – with all the knowledge and skills necessary to make it possible.
What’s next for you? How can our readers find out our more about you?
I’m now down to my final 12 months to complete my PhD at the University of Newcastle. My research ‘The Sensory-Art Experience: Exploring the Effects of a New Space on Aspects of Mental Health and Wellbeing’ is at the forefront of interdisciplinary research, working between Health Science and Fine Art. I’ve been invited to present my research at The Art of Good Health and Wellbeing 9th International Arts & Health Conference at the Art Gallery of NSW at the end of October 2017.
My PhD exhibition ‘Otherworldly: a sensory experience of art’ is now open to the public at Maitland Regional Art Gallery from 16th September to 19th November 2017. This exhibition showcases a deconstruction of the sensory-art space study, interwoven with extracts from interview data collected from the participants’ experiences. Discover the impact of this innovative research and immerse yourself in an otherworldly sensory experience of art.
I’ve also been commissioned to create the ‘Sensory Journey’, a large-scale inclusive sensory-art installation for the annual Burwood Festival this year, held at Burwood Park on Sunday 8th October 2017.
I’m also continuing to grow my sensory products brand Happy Senses, which includes a beautiful range of high quality, hand-crafted weighted blankets, weighted toys, and sensory night lights and mood lamps, all designed and created in Newcastle.
You can keep up-to-date with my work by subscribing to my website: or by following my socials on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.You can also check out my entire range of sensory products available online at www.happysenses.com.au/shop/
Click here to read part two of this conversation. Bliss explains her perspective about the visibility of artists living with disabilities and mental health issues.