Curator and Co-coordinator at Accessible Arts NSW Julie Barratt chats to Paul Andrew about a new exhibition at The Glasshouse, Port Macquarie, about artists living with disability and the politics of disclosure.
Julie I understand you began working on this exhibition almost two and a half years ago?
True, I work for Accessible Arts NSW, the peak body for arts and disability in NSW. Two and one half years ago AARTS received funding from Community Builders to establish the Creating Connections program working across the North and Mid North coast regions of NSW. As the manager of that project the aim of my role was to establish networks for artists with disability across the regions and assist them into mainstream opportunities wherever possible. It wasn’t long before I realized what a huge pool of talented artists there were out there and the idea for a regional exhibition was seeded very early on in the project.
And Twelve + 3 is also about supporting artists who rarely get an exhibition opportunity like this?
Yes, and initially it was really about supporting artists who hadn’t otherwise had the opportunity to exhibit at this level before because of all sorts of reasons, social isolation, distance, transport, lack of opportunities, the list goes on. Then there were artists who were working at a professional level and quite established in their careers but who hadn’t previously been supported or highlighted by Accessible Arts. The diversity of cultural practice only really became apparent when we started to put all of the works together!
And initial interest aside, how did Twelve + 3 get “legs”?
I wanted the exhibition to be big. I wanted to mentor all of the artists, get them all a website, foster their careers and so on. I always have a big vision. I approached Peter Wood (RADO Arts Northern Rivers) to see if he was interested in collaborating on the project.
He said ‘yes’, we submitted a grant application but were unsuccessful so we continued on anyway with a slightly less ambitious version of the project. I was blessed to have Zoe Robinson-Kennedy (Communications Manager with Arts Northern Rivers) come on board as the co curator of the project.
The exhibition title is intriguing?
I work across eleven council regions so initially the idea came from the thought that I could have one exhibiting artist from each region but as time went on and the process unveiled a bit more with Zoe from Arts Northern Rivers coming on board we made the decision to select a body of work from artists who best represented that diversity that you speak of so ended up with twelve artists.
In my position I also work with supported studios across the region in diverse projects including facilitating workshops, helping with marketing, promotion and it was important to also showcase some of the more collaborative work coming out of the supported studio environment. So that’s where the three came from; three supported studios
And the twelve artists, what were some of your guiding principles, motivations and selection criteria?
Essentially, that the artist had to have a lived experience of disability. There are so many fantastic artists working across this region that we really wanted to highlight some of those artists who Accessible Arts hadn’t previously supported or exhibited.
There was also a sense that we needed to show work across genres so that we now have glasswork, ceramics, painting, collage and works on paper in the exhibition.
We were very keen to mentor a few of the artists in the exhibition as well so these artists were very much supported through the process in terms of their materials supplied, several meetings with these artists to discuss the work and what we were actually looking for from the works themselves. Similarly with two of the supported studios we worked very closely with the two artists managing those studios, visited the studios, and discussed the work that we wanted for the exhibition so it was very much about a collaborative process.
Damien Conte is one of the younger artists in the exhibition?
Yes, that's right and I met Damien Conte very early on in the Creating Connections project. I was contacted by his mother Cheryl and clearly remember going into Damien’s home for the first time and seeing incredible, vibrant, quirky, contemporary paintings.
There were paintings on every wall, stacked against the wall, all throughout his garage studio and several in progress. Damien is autistic and has very little verbal language but his works had such a strong narrative going on. Damien uses text in his work and will often write around the edges of his canvasses and that intrigues me.
The other thing I love about his practice is that he often changes his signature with each new body of work so over the past 2 ½ years I have seen Damien’s work signed Damien, Damen, Planet, Lifeworks and at one point Jack Johnson. Damien’s repetitive patterning, his bold use of colour and personal narratives are common themes within his works.
And Brook Walker is another younger artist in the mix?
Young indigenous artist Brook Walker works out of the Jambama Indigenous art centre in Casino. The centre have a great commercial gallery space and it was here that I first saw Brook’s work exhibited on the day I went out to Casino to meet Brook for the first time.
While I was waiting for Brook to arrive I was looking through the gallery and there was a particular painting that caught my eye. Painted in blacks, yellows and ochres the painting possessed a similar aesthetic to Damien’s work in its patterning and elements of whimsy. Certain animal totems are repeated in Walker’s work such as the owl, that speak to us about the artist’s inner world and belief system that I find intriguing and naively beautiful.
Anyway I was looking at this painting (not knowing that it was one of Brook’s) and just knew that I had to buy it. So I did, and then Brook walked in and asked what I thought of his work. I like the artist as much as his work. Brook Walker, a Bundjalung man who lives with disability, is a self-taught artist who has been painting since childhood.
Damien is also a self taught artist and perhaps the fact that their work is unadulterated by academic instruction or traditional influence is what I find so refreshing and unique about these two artists work.
Twelve +3; the big vision you mention?
Accessible Arts vision - and it’s a vision I share - is a society in which people with disability can contribute to and fully experience the arts and cultural life. It’s about inclusive practice so touring this exhibition and basing it in a major regional gallery as a first exhibit was very important. It is about the artist first and foremost and about the work these artists are making.
And there are other artists like Brook working with indigenous subjects, themes and concepts?
Two of the Indigenous artists involved in the exhibition, Mabel Ritchie and Lewis John Knox, are represented by the Dunghutti Ngaku Aboriginal Art Gallery in Kempsey and both attend a local disability workshop known as ‘Life skills’ where they paint.
Mabel’s beautiful works are based on the local flora in her region and her attention to detail and pattern is extraordinary. Mabel has some difficulty with communication and struggles to make herself understood, however through her painting she speaks volumes.
Johny has been interested in painting since he was a small boy with cerebral palsy and polio. The church makes a regular appearance in Johny’s narrative works but he depicts the church not so much in the religious sense but as a regular gathering place. Johny and Mabel both grew up on missions. Johny paints stories – what he saw on the way to school, family gatherings, church going, they’re observational in character.
I am now trying to imagine an ordinary day for you Julie during this long development period?
An ordinary day would always involve driving. With the artists spread out over a 600 km region from Damien at Cabarita Beach in the north to Claire who is based in Taree, then west to Casino as well the artists’ studios are spread far and wide. Visiting an artist’s studio, talking on the phone about paperwork, writing submissions to galleries, writing grant submissions, curating work, there were so many tasks associated with this exhibition and then we decided to tour it which added a whole other dimension.
Zoe and I just recently spent a week in Port Macquarie installing the work for the first twelve + 3 exhibition and with almost seventy works I think it is the biggest exhibition I have ever hung in all my many years curating and hanging shows. Definitely one of the most exciting as well.
Clearly Accessible Arts NSW has played an important role in helping artists in the region build momentum with their professional practice?
I guess for this project in particular it has been about giving voice to the lived experience of disability by providing a forum for work produced for and by people with disability and about disability.
Will there be a follow-up exhibition to help build this professional artist and skills development momentum?
Well from small beginnings big things grow. Is that how it goes? So we started with an exhibition at the Glasshouse gallery in Port Macquarie and the project has now grown to include exhibitions at the Regional Arts Australia conference in Kalgoorlie in October this year, an exhibition at the Artspace on the Concourse in Sydney as a part of our upcoming conference in October.
Your personal aspirations for the artists in Twelve +3 as the exhibition travels?
Hopefully it will assist all of the artists involved to lift the profile of their artistic practice to a wider audience. Every artist involved in this project has a unique artistic practice and an amazing story. There is an authenticity and individuality in all of the artists work across many genres and hopefully these exhibitions will give the work the well deserved attention and recognition each of the compelling work deserves.
It has been an absolute pleasure to work with the artists and to watch their process unfold.
And the politics of disclosure, revealing an artist's "back-story"?
It is interesting and thought provoking to think about this question and it reminds me of a forum that Accessible Arts conducted at the MCA in Sydney late last year where some of these issues were discussed.
One of the panel discussions at the Supported Studios network was themed Considering Perceptions and it highlighted the difficulties for commercial galleries to sell the work of self-taught artists without talking about ‘the back-story’.
Evan Hughes from The Hughes Gallery said, "It is almost impossible for me to sell the work of self-taught artists without the back-story." Evan claims that he does not exhibit work with such narratives but the questions almost always comes-up from prospective buyers.
This raises the complex issue of disability disclosure to artists in general and in particular to the artists that I worked with on the Twelve + 3 project.
I guess when we worked on the artist statements for the project I really wanted to first and foremost have the artists talk about their work and the reasons for making the work that they do.
For some disclosure of their disability was important as it very much informed their artistic practice, for others art and art making has always and will always be a part of their life.
There is a lovely quote from Zoe in the exhibition catalogue which I think sums up perfectly how I feel about each and every one of these artists work: “There is a lyricism in these works which could easily be misunderstood as a form of naivety, but instead should be viewed as each of the artists gifted ability to work with an unbridled sense of freedom”
PHOTOS: Courtesy Zoe Robinson - Kennedy
More details of the exhibition can be found at the following links:
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