By Colin Hambrook
The morning session of the conference saw a presentation by the artist Thompson Hall from Action Space, who run two dedicated art studios in London for the learning disabled community. Hall responded to the conference questions alongside the Rocket Artists who gave a much more visual presentation.
Hall has been with Action Space for 15 years producing and selling work through exhibitions. He gave the kind of clear, straightforward but entertaining presentation I long to hear from artists. He talked about the artists he likes to go and see - like Giacometti - and the techniques they use in their artwork that inspire him. He talked about his thinking process when putting a series of work together. Postcards from Brighton was researched through looking at images on the internet of famous Brighton landmarks, which he then interpreted using thick line and flat planes of colour.
When asked "what makes for quality' he said that he doesn't really think about whether or not what he is doing is 'good' per se. "It's a selective creative process" he said, going on to explain how the skill is in responding to the artwork as it develops in sketchbooks and on the canvas, experimenting, sharing ideas with others and changing what you do with the work as it goes along. He emphasised having fun in making artwork as an important part of it.
When Hall was asked if he saw what he does as 'therapy' he came out with a brilliant riposte: "If I wanted therapy I'd go lie down on a couch". That was a pivotal moment addressing what is a massive barrier for most artists working within the field of disability / marginalised/ outsider arts - the persistent need of curators/ critics/ audience to try to pigeon hole, and therefore dismiss the artwork as 'therapy'.
The Rocket artists (responsible for the brilliant Side by Side exhibition at the Southbank Centre last summer) gave, a similar clear visual message using their hallmark painting overalls: labelling artwork as 'therapy' sucks.
What came across from all the artists was a strong sense of owning their creativity and working to develop it and gain as much confidence in making art, as possible. Traditionally, therapy gives ownership to the therapist, who has the skill to encourage you to make work that opens up some kind of meaning to you. Hall went further when asked about whether artists need training? "Training gets in the way", he said. "what you need is is skill, talent and the will to create."
He was also very clear when asked whether exhibitions should say the work is by an artist with a learning disability. He said he thought it shouldn't figure one way or another in terms of judgement on the work and that in his opinion it can add a barrier, psychologically.
The disability arts movement would argue that the psychological barrier is the problem society has in wanting to normalise everybody and the opportunity the disabled artist has is a position from which to challenge that process through their work. But that is also dependent on what you choose to make artwork about and how relevant the subject of your artwork is to who you are personally?
Thompson Hall and artists like him who haven't come into the Art World through the usual channels present a challenge to the system as it is. Traditionally the language used within the visual arts world, largely devised by academics and curators for patrons; has attempted to intellectualise art in a way that more often than not makes little sense to the average person. Whether it actually makes sense at all is often questionable.
This has come about because what is seen in art galleries is usually determined by a closed circle of academics and curators whose decisions are generally based on how much they think an artist is worth, rather than how popular they think their work might be to an audience.
At the moment we are going through a trend where it has become more fashionable to be an 'outsider artist'. In recent months amongst the few visual arts programmes that go out on television two have been about artists from outside of the Art World. And so opportunities have been opening up for learning disabled artists. Hall said that in his opinion art by artists with learning disabilities is getting the respect it deserves, currently.
I think the key to keeping a door open for artists like Thompson Hall and the Rockets is to develop the kind of presentation we saw at Creative Minds within the gallery circuit; something more engaging in approach. In the long run it will be how the ordinary person responds to artwork that will make a difference to whether an art gallery attracts an audience - and thereby justifies its funding. What we need is more of Thompson Hall's debunking of the myth that art is mysterious and difficult.
Hall's solo exhibition of large canvases of architecture in the city Postcards from Brighton is on show in Brighton Dome's Founders Room until 23 March 2014