Category Archives: Music & arts

The artists redrawing our perceptions of disability

Bengali Welcome, by David Constantine

Photographer David Constantine – he’s the creator of the arresting and uplifting image above, Bengali Welcome, above – has a theory as to why his subjects relax once they’re in front of his lens; his wheelchair breaks the ice.

Constantine’s work is being shown as part of the inaugural Bloomsbury Art Fair that opens today at the Goodenough College, Mecklenburgh Square, London. As well as works by popular artists Banksy and Damien Hirst, there are pieces for sale by new and emerging artists. The three-day charitiable event raises money for spinal injury-related charities.

Constantine, for example, began taking pictures as a teenager and sold his bike to buy his first camera. While on a working holiday in Australia in 1982 he broke his neck in a diving accident and became quadriplegic. Paralysed from the shoulders down, he gave up photography for a year. But while he wasn’t able to pick up his camera, he continued to “see” images. As he writes on his website: “During that year I realised that I was still ‘seeing’ pictures, choosing images in my head even to the point of deciding on film types and composition I would use for a particular shot. The only thing I lacked was the physical ability to use a camera. I realised that this was a ridiculous reason for giving up and all it need take was some adaptations to my camera and wheelchair to enable me to take pictures.”

Exactly a year to the day of his injury he began the process of taking pictures again. He travels with his work for Motivation, the international disability charity he co-founded, and his main subjects are people in their own environments. As he says, “the disadvantages I foresaw with my photography after becoming a wheelchair user have turned into advantages.” He has developed different skills and enhanced others: “I am so conspicuous that it has made me bolder, I am happy to go and ask someone for their picture. If I can’t communicate verbally I make it very obvious that I would like to take their picture, people make it quite clear whether they are happy for me to photograph them or not.”

Love, by Sophie Morgan

Among the participating artists is Sophie Morgan, who was runner up to Britain’s Missing Top Models. Morgan had a car accident in 2003 that left her paralysed and in a wheelchair for life. Her beautiful piece, Love, is above.

Morgan’s website declares that she is (in this order) an “Artist, Portraitist, Writer, Arts Psychoth

Art competition gives voice to youngsters struggling to be heard

Painting, by Jake Rose

Bold, intricate, colourful and thought-provoking – some of the artworks here wouldn’t look out of place in a city art gallery, but in fact these pieces are among the powerful creations produced by young people with autism and related conditions.

Earlier this month, to mark World Autism Awareness Day, a specialist residential college in Wales launched a national art competition (the works here are from the shortlisted finalists), Create! Art for Autism, open to those aged 11 to 25 who are formally diagnosed with an autistic spectrum disorder (ASD). The aim of Beechwood College is to show that art can not only encourage learning and instill lifelong skills but boost quality of life and future prospects.

The college cares for students aged 16 and over with ASD and teaches students to articulate themselves through creative programmes including music, 2D art, 3D art, digital media and horticulture. As Beechwood principal Darren Jackson says, “art and creativity programmes can transform the lives of young people who previously struggled to make themselves heard”.

Drawing by Alex Fox-Robinson

There were more than 350 entries from 52 different schools from all over the UK with entries also sent from as far afield as India and Croatia. The judges have chosen six finalists in each category of 2D art, 3D art and digital media art, who will attend an awards ceremony at Beechwood College on July 24th. To support and recognise the work that schools undertake, both the winners and their schools will receive prizes and there is also a “teacher’s choice” allowing teachers to choose the winners.

Ceramic work by Nicola O'Leary

The judging panel includes Brendan Stuart Burns, artist lecturer at The University of Glamorgan, Lucinda Bredin, editor at Bonhams Magazine, Hugh Morgan, chief executive of Autism Cymru and Beechwood principal Darren Jackson.

Painting by Evan Findlay

The finalists’ work will be rolled out into a national art tour open to the public, first at The Old Library in Cardiff and then in London in September. Finalists and other artwork can be viewed here.

Life stories: freeing the minds of dementia sufferers

It was only a picture of a gurgling baby. But to one elderly woman with dementia, it meant the world. “She had dementia, was in a care home and was past the stage where she could really have a conversation,” says Helen Bate. “But she just fell in love with that photo. She would try and wipe the baby’s dribble off, or feed it chocolate. It’s just an image – but it had the power to really engage her and she’s been able to talk to it.”

Bate is founder and managing director of Pictures to Share, an innovative social enterprise creating picture books and other resources for people with dementia. She’s a passionate advocate of people with dementia, who she argues shouldn’t be shut off from the world of books and art just because of their condition. “People make too many assumptions about people with dementia,” she says. “There’s often a lack of imagination in their care. If someone liked looking at good painting, they are not going to lose that when they are in a care home. They may not be able to read any more but they can still enjoy looking at the pictures in our books.”

Bate was inspired to start the business after her own mother, a dementia sufferer, enjoyed looking at a scrapbook Bate’s daughter had put together. “There was nothing else out there,” she says. her first three books were published in 2006 and, thanks in part to charitable sponsorship, she has now produced a total of 11, all designed to combat the isolation and depression which can so often be associated with dementia. The organisation has diversified into producing artwork and is now working on dvds.

“If you go into some care homes, it’s almost as if they assume that because people are old and have dementia, all they want to look at on the walls is pictures of the royal family, wartime or old street scenes. It’s pigeonholing everyone into a very narrow category.” The Pictures to Share books cover everything from sport to shopping and from the world of work to travel.

There’s diversity too in the choice of images: colour and black and white photos both old and new are mixed with reproductions of paintings. The key criterion is that all of the images should be powerful and easy to understand to prompt memories, a chat or simply a smile. “Because of their dementia, certain things won’t work if they are too complex,” says Bate. “And we have to be careful about showing pictures people might get worried about. For example, with a picture of children paddling in the sea where you can’t see any adults around, people could get quite distressed because they think the children are in danger.”

I tried out three of the books with my mother, who has multiple dementia. I was unsure how she would react, but I was delighted to find that the pictures inside captured her imagination. She used to be a great traveller, so it was perhaps inevitable that the biggest hit was the travel book. Its shots of the Taj Mahal and train, plane and ship journeys, really got my mum chatting.

The feedback from other users suggests my mum’s response is not unusual. “It opens the channels of communication that are a bit stuck,” she says. “Relatives find them really useful to get a conversation going, which can be tricky for people with dementia.”

For relatives and carers perhaps the most powerful thing about the books is that they remind us all that behind every person with dementia is an individual with their own interests, likes and dislikes and their own life story. They are not all the same, so let’s free our imagination – and theirs – as we care for them.

Midlands movers shaking up the arts scene

A scence from Visitor, by Movers theatre company

It’s not unusual to view art as an escape from daily life. It’s more rare for the audience to be transformed from observer to participant and to feel so immersed in a theatrical event that they feel like the only world they inhabit is the one on the stage.

I’ve just come across what promises to be a uniquely interactive drama experience, Visitor, by the East Midlands-based theatre company Movers. The installation-style performance, designed with disabled children and their families in mind, takes place in a dream-like, enchanted forest with “hidden activities” for the audience to participate in, a multi-sensory environment and the intriguing promise of some “interactive pods”. Audience members sit in a clearing in the “magical forest world” for the performance and, if they feel like it, interact with the characters, technology, materials and colours.

For some reason, I’m imagining A Midsummer Night’s Dream minus the foliage-related trip hazards and The Bard’s English…but the performance promises much more than this.

An actor performs with Movers theatre company

Movers, a company of learning disabled actors, is part of the 15-year-old Speakeasy participatory arts company based on the Saffron Lane Estate in Leicester. Speakeasy works in schools and youth theatres to create an accessible environment, which can be safely and freely explored. The group has developed a non-verbal, movement-based style, which audience-goers report to be quite mesmerising.

Movers performed in front of an audience of 25,000 at the opening ceremony of the 2009 Special Olympics hosted in Leicester (check out the amazing costumes). Formed by Speakeasy in 2004, the theatre company’s aim is to create professional quality touring performances which are inspired and created by the learning disabled adults involved. The company, which includes 11 adults aged 19 to 60, creates at least one new performance a year, and its recent work has included commissions for the Leicester City NHS Primary Care Trust – Make my stay, about experiences of healthcare from a learning disabled point of view – and an educational play about personalisation and the changes to the benefit system.

Speakeasy, which costs about £30,000 a year to run, relies on commissioned projects to make its work possible and, through Movers, has worked with roughly 20 learning disabled artists since 2004.

Speakeasy artistic director Andy Reeves says of Visitor: “We’re trying to make a piece of theatre which, though it’s imagined, devised and performed by learning disabled artists, will be a great audience experience for everyone. Visitor gives the audience the chance to get closer to the action, interact with characters and technology in a dream-like, woodland setting. Our goal is for everyone- disabled, non-disabled, young, old- to come out with a smile on the outside and a warm feeling inside.”

Movers actor James Langley adds: “It’s not going to be your average performance,it’s going to be completely different to what you’ve seen before, because it’s going to be by Movers, who do things differently to everyone else.”

Langley’s fellow actor Emma Shuttlewood says she wants to provoke an amazing response in the audience: “I want them to say ‘wow’!” Based on Movers’ previous successes, I’m sure they will.

Visitor premieres on Wednesday 1st and Thursday 2nd June at Embrace Arts, Leicester, as part of the Spark Children’s Arts Festival.

Being visionary about sight loss

A new exhibition aims to challenge prejudice about sight loss and explore notions of sensory perception by showcasing works by visually impaired artists inspired by the sense of smell.

The two-day pop-up exhibition, Scents and Sensibility, is organised by sight loss charity RNIB and opens at central London’s Vaad Gallery on Monday. The theme is fragrance expressed through exhibits including painting, sculpture and photography. Read about it in my Society Guardian piece today.

Artist Rachel Gadsden will be exhibiting her work at the Scents and Sensibility show in London from Monday

The cuts – an alternative

For those who’ve not already seen it, this powerful film presents an alternative to the government’s devastating cuts agenda. It features community groups and anti-cuts campaigners along with Bill Nighy, Radiohead’s Ed O’Brien and Zac Goldsmith MP. Worth watching ahead of this weekend’s demo in London against the cuts.

It Cuts Both Ways…The Alternatives from Oonagh Cousins on Vimeo.

Fiction based on fact; theatre explores the threat to special needs provision

Art mirrors life for those of us with an interest in learning disability issues as a London play explores the threat to special needs schools. The play coincides with the government’s plans to overhaul special educational provision and comes at a time when learning disablility support is in jeopardy thanks to public spending cuts.

Actors in Alan Share's Death of a Nightingale

Death of a Nightingale runs at Hampstead’s New End Theatre until Sunday 3 April and focuses on the inclusion agenda which can shoehorn children with special needs into mainstream schools that offer inadequate support.

The play, written by Alan Share, a former chair of governors at a special school, also addresses the problems when a special school is threatened with closure. Since 1997, more than 100 special schools have closed, resulting in the loss of about 9,000 places for children.

Professional actors are joined on stage with learning disabled young people from the Oak Lodge School in East Finchley. The cast includes 18-year-old Max Lewis, an actor with Downs syndrome who appeared in Notes on a Scandal. Lewis plays a pupil who truants from schools that fail to meet his needs.

Written in 2009, the play is being resurrected to coincide with the government’s green paper on special educational needs. Share describes the green paper as “yet another missed opportunity for the government”. He adds: “It wants to find a quick fix for children with moderate learning difficulties and avoid the challenge of meeting more complex and varied needs.”

For more on the green paper and special educational needs provision, check out the very good Guerrillamum blog.

Disco dreams: dance nights with a difference

Liz Astor, mother to 18-year-old Olivia, who has autism, realised how desperate her daughter was to socialize on nights out with her peers when, in response to being offered a packet of dates to snack on, the teenager blurted out (entirely seriously and with great indignation): “I want to go on a date! I don’t want to eat one!”

Many similarly amusing moments tinged with a serious edge have been enjoyed in my family thanks to my youngest sister’s grappling with the vagaries of the English language and her inability to take words anything other than literally.

There was the time she stormed home from school, complaining that she had been told to “puck off!” in the playground. My mother was caught between the pedant’s reaction of correcting my sister for mishearing the word (“Actually darling, it’s not ‘puck off’ it’s…”) and an anger-fuelled desire to advise her to tell her potty-mouthed peers to puck right off back (coining a new breed of Shakespearean insult in the process perhaps?). Instead, we checked there was no bullying involved and told my sister to maintain a dignified silence.

The silent treatment shut those stupid playground puckers right up, I can tell you.

I digress. Thanks to her daughter’s literal take on the date conversation, Liz Astor realized how much Olivia wanted to enjoy the sort of nights out her mainstream peers take for granted.

Spotting a gap in provision for young autistic adults in her local area on the Surrey-Kent borders, she launched a not-for-profit group, Disco Dreams, late last year. The specialist nights in a community hall in Oxted, Surrey, are aimed at 18-30-year-olds with autism or moderate learning difficulties. “Why shouldn’t young people with autism have the same opportunities as others their age?” asks Liz.

Autism charities offer vital support for the autistic and their families, and there’s some great work being done by inclusive arts charities, but even without taking into account the fact their future is under threat in the funding cuts, opportunities for young adults with autism to socialise is patchy around the country.

The Disco Dreams nights are tailored specifically for those with autism; the DJ is aware of when noise levels overwhelm the young people, a chill-out zone provides a quiet space and entry is £10 but free to carers.

Aside from the social benefits, the positive impact of music, exercise and dance in relation to a host of health-related conditions is well-documented. For example, there was a great BBC documentary last year, Autism, Disco and Me, which showed how disco dancing transformed a young autistic boy’s life

Back on the Kent-Surrey borders, the next Disco Dreams night is scheduled for tomorrow night, Friday 21, if there is enough interest (email discodreamsdance@gmail.com for more information). The whole project is funded entirely by Liz, Lady Astor of Hever. Plugging a gap in provision in this way is very big society, but not every community is lucky enough to have such philanthropic verve in its midst. Let’s hope the venture is successful and inspires similar events elsewhere, so Olivia gets to eat her date and have one too.

Women, know your politics

Uncovered from The Original Ranch on Vimeo.

Above, ‘Uncovered’, a short animated film inspired by women’s attitudes to community, participation and politics.

The best ideas are, usually, the most simple ones. That’s one reason I’m a fan of a new project called Politics Uncovered, a community-based attempt to demystify politics for women.

Working on the premise that a) women are still woefully underrepresented in politics and b) very few people know even the basics of democracy and government, social enterprise arts organisation The Original Ranch has produced an event that is something of a beginners guide to politics.

The Original Ranch recorded women’s views about community, participation and politics during several discussion groups last year. It used the material to create a short animated film (above) which, along with a basic lesson in the workings of government, constitutes the event Politics Uncovered. The lesson explains the key structures at national and local levels, describes the main players and their roles, and gives participants an opportunity to ask questions.

The first Politics Uncovered event at the end of November involved around 30 women from London, all political novices who wanted to find out more about government issues.

According to Olivia Bellas, founder of The Original Ranch, what makes the project unique is that it is a free and accessible ‘lesson’ in politics, presented in a non-politicised environment (the launch event was at the Women’s Library in east London and offered a crèche facility) and it offers interactive and creative approaches to learning.

Put simply, if you want a beginners guide to politics, delivered in an informative but interesting way, look no further.

“Politics can be quite difficult to grasp; there are many different players, institutions, mechanisms, and formalities,” says Bellas, “and so it is hardly surprising that many people may not fully understand it”.

Although there is as yet no formal evaluation, Bellas says that anecdotal evidence from participants reveals
an increased knowledge of and interest in politics and a feeling of empowerment.

The quirky template used in Politics Uncovered could be used to raise awareness of all sorts of social issues in communities, in a visually appealing way that participants find neither too intimidating nor too condescending. I’m interested to see how the project evolves in 2011.