Harnessing the talent of artists with disabilities

Providing everyone with equal access to the arts isn’t some token aspiration; it’s a basic right, Evelyn Grant tells Ellie O’Byrne

Artist Mary O'Sullivan dances in the exhibition space at Perceptions 2016 in the Crawford Gallery. Picture: Clare Keogh

The 1916 Proclamation stated a commitment to cherish “all of the children of the nation equally and oblivious of the differences which have divided a minority from the majority in the past”.

In many ways, cultural events marking the centenary have become an opportunity to examine the successes and failures of Irish society in this regard.

“Maybe, we really need to look at how Irish society is now, 100 years after that proclamation, clearly not cherishing everyone equally,” says Evelyn Grant, broadcaster and music educator. “There’s a lot of tokenism going on.”

CIT Crawford College of Art and Design, with the Crawford Art Gallery and Cork City Council, is marking the centenary with Perceptions 2016: The Art of Citizenship, an exhibition of works by disabled artists who work in supported studios, taking place in 10 venues across the city. It will also feature a symposium on the notions of citizenship that are the underlying theme of the exhibition.

Grant, a regular contributor to Lyric FM and conductor with Cork City Pops Orchestra, has always had an interest in music and disability arts advocacy, so, while she may have strayed into a different discipline, that of visual arts, for her involvement as host for the conversational aspects of Perceptions 2016, she says many of the issues are still the same.

Crawford Art Gallery

While the focus on issues of equality for women during the centenary year is welcome, she believes, it’s an easier issue to look at than the profound and sustained inequalities still experienced by disabled people.

“We as a society really have to ask ourselves what our attitude is to the creative potential of people with disabilities,” she says.

“I always felt it was a rights thing. I always felt that people with disabilities should have the right to perform music as much as anybody else. Teachers should be able to deliver that to them; it’s different with visual art to an extent, but the concept is still the same.”

Some of the artists who will exhibit have been involved in the Expanding Realities project, a network of three supported studio groups: GASP Cork, Art in Motion (AIM) Bristol, and Debajo del Sombrero Madrid. Supported studios bring together visual artists with disabilities and their ‘non-disabled’ peers to share skills.

“I’m so taken with the quality of the work and the intention in it,” says Grant. “We’ve people going at it, like fully-invested professionals, who are totally sincere and serious about their work. All the artists benefit from working with one another. Instead of keeping people with a disability ‘occupied’, it’s about finding the ability in people and really giving them an opportunity to go in-depth and be professional. That’s what supported studios offer.

“If you’re a musician or artist and you can support a fellow member of society to fulfil their creative potential, then you’re just being an active citizen, as far as I’m concerned.”

Louise Foott and Maeve Dineen : Perceptions 2016 : The Art of Citizenship from Culturefox.tv on Vimeo.

A cornerstone of visual art is its ability to enrich our experience of the world by giving us a glimpse into the inner lives of others. Is it necessary to be aware of an artist’s intellectual disability to appreciate their work?

“There are two schools of thought,” says Grant. “Some say that every painting we look at, we approach with a narrative or context that we apply ourselves. We project our own values and ideas onto things, even at a subliminal level. So, some people say that we need a context.

“Other people will consider this a form of ‘outsider art’, but in a way, all of those delineations need to be looked at again; what’s outside, and what’s inside? Why do we need to talk about bringing people inside in the first place?”

On Oct 25-26 Evelyn Grant will host a symposium on the notion of citizenship within the context of the ongoing Perceptions 2016 exhibition at the Crawford Art Gallery in Cork

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