International Summit at Project Ability

Last week, Outside In Manager Jennifer Gilbert travelled to Glasgow to attend the International Summit for Artists with Learning Disabilities; an event bringing together artist studios from across the globe to discuss their current practice and relevant issues. In this post, Jennifer shares her experience.

I have just got back from three wonderful days at the Project Ability Studios in Glasgow for the first ever International Summit for artists with learning disabilities. Thanks first to Project Ability for allowing me to attend in addition to the invited studios to hear from and mix with artists, facilitators, managers and directors from all over the world.

Art work from Celf O Gwmpas, Wales

Art work from Celf O Gwmpas, Wales

The three days were a mixture of creative activity, with information, stories from artists, networking, exhibition openings and book launches – as well as a pizza and Laurel and Hardy film night. And not forgetting myself and artist Thompson Hall from Action Space throwing some shapes on the dance floor with our friends from Australia!

What became apparent as time went on is that everyone was there for the same reason – to create a more inclusive art world, to find more opportunities for learning disabled artists to be seen on an equal platform as others, and to continue to exhibit this work in contemporary art spaces, with the labeling of the artists and their works being a focus. It also seems that residencies are something that should be pursued, making them something Outside In will look in to further.

I have come back buzzing with ideas. I am full of admiration for Studios around the world and am feeling positive that a change for learning disabled artists is just around the corner.

The summit kicked off with a presentation from Project Ability with a focus on a relatively new partnership between an artist and a volunteer. Initially, the partnership created an inspiration wall, with the finished works taking influence from this. A recurring theme within the art work was the depiction of cartoon characters, which are of particular interest to Project Ability artist Jonathan. The collaborative work really allowed both artists to stray from their normal art practice and to work in ways they were not used to, sometimes making marks over each other’s works.

Arts Project Australia's presentation

Arts Project Australia’s presentation

Arts Project Australia was next up. A centre of excellence supporting artists with intellectual disabilities, the Project is an advocate for inclusion within contemporary art practice. The Studio has been going for 40 years supporting around 115 artists and organising 14 internal exhibitions a year. Executive Director Sue Roff informed us that each artist is treated as an individual, with a focus on the direction they want their career to head. Paul Hodges, one of the studio artists – and a performer – loves to express himself through his art. He has been attending the Studio group for over 14 years and when pressed about what he would like to happen in the future he said he would like to work in a more professional manner. I thought about this over the next couple of days, before going back and asking what was meant by this. Studio Manager James stated that many of the artists wanted to step outside the walls of the studio to be accepted more professionally in the mainstream art world rather than in the safe space of the studio. This made complete sense to me and is one of the aims of Outside In – although, similarly to the experience of Arts Project Australia, this often proves quite difficult.

*Arts Project Australia organised the Outsider Art Conference in Australia at the end of 2014. You can read Tanya Raabe and Elisabeth Gibson’s thoughts on this by clicking here.

The final presentation on the first day came from Paul Freeman at the Nina Haggerty Centre, Canada. Before hearing Paul speak I was had already been mesmerised by a piece of work in the exhibition space by an artist they support called Kim Hung Ho. Kim looks at books and creates lines of hieroglyphic inspired symbols that represent his interpretation of the words. They were fascinating pieces of work, and the story behind the images made them even more interesting.

Kim Hung Ho's detailed art work on the left

Kim Hung Ho’s detailed art work on the left

The Nina Haggerty Centre has been active for twelve years; the youngest studio out of all of those presenting. The centre now supports 170 artists with developmental disabilities, as well as undertaking outreach work in local communities. They have a strong focus on advocating for inclusion for learning disabled artists in contemporary practice, with Paul saying, “The story of disability is what you usually hear, but we want to develop new stories with people for them to share instead.” Followed by: “We are not here for the easy people, we are here for the artists.” I think this latter statement is something that will stay with me for a long time.

At the Nina Haggerty Centre what’s really important is that the people making the art are happy with what they are doing. Their programme includes large scale exhibitions that have originated from one artist’s idea, but include contributions from all the other Studio artists in one form or another.

Roland's art work from Atelier 5, Germany

Roland’s art work from Atelier 5, Germany

On Thursday morning, I was ready to hear from Axel, the Studio Manager from Atelier 5 in Germany. Axel told us that they are named as such because the Studio started with just five people. Today the Studio supports 20 artists to develop their work and exhibit internationally. Housed in a former post office in a small village, they work with a local university to help train their Art Therapy students as art assistants. Atelier 5 pitches the artists simply as artists, and not as artists with disabilities. This idea of choosing not to divulge the biography of the artist cropped up numerous times throughout the Summit with lively discussion surrounding how much information you should choose to disclose.

Sheryll Catto from Action Space spoke next, explaining how the group started life back in the 1960s, with the creation of two Studios in London in 2004 – with the help of some Arts Council England funding. The two Studios exist to provide opportunities for artists with learning disabilities, including exhibitions, residencies and other professional development opportunities. As with other Studios, Action Space does not disclose information about the artists’ background so that the work can be accepted into contemporary art exhibitions on a level playing field and with no stigma attached. Studio artist Thompson Hall said of his creative activity, “I do art out of enjoyment and it is something that I have a passion for. I do it to make my family and friends proud.”

Thompson Hall and his art work created within the Studio space at Project Ability

Thompson Hall and his art work created within the Studio space at Project Ability

Action Space works with 65 core artists on a weekly basis with 8-10 artists in each studio group. The art facilitators running the groups really challenge the artists, giving them complete autonomy over their own art practice, leaving them to choose their own materials and the size in which they want to work. Lisa Brown was training at Goldsmiths in Psychotherapy, but decided to leave the course after seeing artists creating from the heart at Action Space – she saw the work as very raw. Lisa started as a volunteer and is now an art facilitator for two groups a week. Lisa believes there is a narrative behind all artists’ work and she aims to develop these narratives with the artists themselves.

KCAT is based in Kilkenny, Ireland, and speaking at the Summit was Lorna, Declan, Andrew and Barbara. It started life in a former sausage factory in 1996, but has since moved and now houses a studio and exhibition spaces. Lorna, an artist using the Studio, saw herself as an artist from the age of five when she poured paint on to a tractor outside her house. Lorna, whose works are often based on dreams, has had the chance to participate in more than one exchange trip – during one she turned up at a pub at 5pm only to find it closed. “Don’t you know we’re Irish!” was her response. These opportunities seem to have greatly influenced her more recent pieces.

Lorna from KCAT talking about her art work influenced by her exchange trip to Australia

Lorna from KCAT talking about her art work influenced by her exchange trip to Australia

After lunch we heard from Tanya Raabe, a practising visual artist who has been awarded an Arts Council England grant to participate in a five week residency at Project Ability. She spoke about her work with Project Ability as well as her practice more broadly. Tanya was at the Summit capturing all of those involved through quick sketches on her iPad, as well as more developed portraits, all of which were pinned up throughout the venue. (I was the very last person to have my portrait done and I was quite nervous. The outcome and the way my hair was portrayed made it all worth it – thank you Tanya!)

Jennifer's portrait by Tanya Raabe

Jennifer’s portrait by Tanya Raabe

The next Studio to present was Kaarisilta, a 25-year-old arts activity centre in Finland that currently supports around 90 participants. Located in woodland with a renovated cow shed for a sports hall and a hen house for a ceramic studio, Kaarisilta also offers drama, music and sports sessions. In terms of their visual arts provision, they have set up an art school which students can continue to attend once they have finished their course. During their presentation, Kaarisilta spoke of setting up a gallery in Helsinki to spread the work of their studio artists to a wider audience. This looked like a beautiful space and one which I hope to visit in the near future. They finished their presentation with a traditional folk song sung by one of their artists.

Celf O Gwmpas (pronounced Kelf O Gumpas!) is located in remote Wales in a converted school. Being very isolated, they often run residency swaps with places further afield. Studio artist Dean Warburton spoke about his love for making things out of found materials before breaking them down and turning them into new pieces of art. Director Shan Edwards described Dean as being a ‘compulsive manipulator of the everyday object.’ Dean spoke about a lack of storage space where he lives, leading to him have to constantly recycle his art – or sell it at an affordable price. I imagine many artists can relate to this, especially if their work is 3D or of a substantial size. Dean said, “If you cut me up I have got art all inside of me. I cannot imagine not doing it.”

Horace's Suit Project created whilst at Venture Arts

Horace’s Suit Project created whilst at Venture Arts

On Thursday afternoon we heard from Amanda at Venture Arts in Manchester, which enables people with learning disabilities to do meaningful things, like look for cultural employment opportunities or undertake work experience. This was followed by a presentation from In-Definite Arts, Calgary. The Studio has been running for 40 years and is funded by the Government as a non-profit fine art Studio, so it is not specifically a provision for artists with disabilities They do, however, have a strictly hands-off policy to help the artists to find their own voice and to discover their own talents. In-Definite Arts relies heavily on volunteers, partnership working and artists working alongside university students, which is of benefit to both parties. They also work one-to-one with artists on small scale solo shows within their exhibition space to encourage professional development. One of the stand out activities was their approach to supporting artists write an artists statement; something which happens over a series of four sessions – a process which they have now published. In-Definite Arts work with artists to create the tools they need to build a career for themselves, like the artist statement, but also encompassing the creation of websites and business cards. I feel that funding and capacity issues stop other organisations being able to do this sort of thing, but it is something to keep on the radar for the future.

Action Space's display in the exhibition to accompany the Summit

Action Space’s display in the exhibition to accompany the Summit

Thursday evening was the official launch of the Summit’s accompanying exhibition, which saw ten Studios having a section each to showcase their artists’ works. A beautiful book about the Aspire programme at Project Ability was launched simultaneously. I highly recommend this book; certainly the artists were proud to see their portraits, art work and statements in printed form. (Cost is £10 – to be purchased from Project Ability)

The Summit’s final presentation came from Inuti in Sweden; a non-profit organisation running since 1996 with four studios across Stockholm supporting artists with disabilities. Magnes, who has been attending the centre since 1996, spoke about championing embroidery for men. We were then taken through a series of smART movement exercises, which was a welcome change to sitting down and listening. Finally Karina, who has been with Inuti for nine years, spoke about her art work being a comfort to her, almost like a friend. She spoke very good English and was a passionate speaker – especially when talking about her woolen elephant heads.

After lunch we reconvened to share our thoughts from the past three days; things we will take away with us and things for further discussion. What seemed apparent is that a lot of the Studio groups lacked professional space to exhibit in as well as high quality materials. It also seems that there is a greater need for more space to support and nurture artists; space where they can develop a professional attitude to their practice.

To me it seemed that the success of the Summit lay firmly with the artists and the role they played throughout the conference. I think that more organisations need to stand back and give artists a space and a voice. Additionally, the idea of having a creative space for the artists involved to go and work in throughout the conference proved very popular, giving the artists a focus and resulting in some fantastic work.

The artists busy at work in the Studio Space at Project Ability

The artists busy at work in the Studio Space at Project Ability

The artists’ closing remarks highlighted the most important conclusion from the Summit – they want to have their work seen and enjoyed by a much wider audience. Artist Andrew from KCAT ended the Summit poignantly: “Do art, don’t talk about it, and do it more often.”

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  1. phil baird

    Lovely to read this piece about the International Summit really strong groups and individual artists heartening that such good work is happening globally and that there is collaborations and networking
    possible for the projects.

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