The day the Arts Project Australia contingent arrived in Glasgow (March 3) for the recent International Summit for Learning Disability Artists and their Support Studios, there were snow flurries. Over the time we were there it became clear that, when compared with the weather in Glasgow, Melbourne weather could be considered stable! However, cold, wind, rain and snow did not dampen the warm welcome and the positive and friendly feeling that characterised the three-day event.

Glasgow is a city of art, an impressive mix of contemporary and traditional. This makes it a perfect place to meet to create, experience, celebrate and talk about art. The Summit was a small conference hosted by Project Ability, an arts organisation in Glasgow that is similar to Arts Project Australia. It took place in the premises of Project Ability in the heart of the city in a building that also houses other arts organisations and galleries. Their space is light and massive – envied by everyone at the Summit.

Participants were predominantly staff and artists from ten arts organisations (in addition to Project Ability) and ight countries: Australia, Canada, England, Finland, Germany, Ireland, Scotland and Wales.  Sue Roff, Executive Director, James McDonald, Studio Manager, Paul Hodges, artist and Cathy Staughton, artist represented Arts Project Australia. Debra Howlett, Paul’s sister, and Jane Crosskill, Cathy’s friend, accompanied the two artists as companions.  I attended as an interested volunteer and writer.

The majority of sessions at the Summit consisted of an illustrated talk by staff and artists from each organisation about their work. The similarities in emphasis and vision among organisations was striking. Of course there were differences – for example, the size of the organisation, the number of staff and artists involved, frequency of artists’ participation, how long the organisations have existed, the range of art opportunities offered, the categories of artists the organisation caters for and the size and ‘grandeur of premises.

However the similarities far outweighed the differences in number and significance. Some of these similarities were:

  • strong valuing of community connections – both the art community and the local community.
  • an aim to connect artists with artists out in the community through collaborative projects (One staff member said, ‘Every time we go out we meet people and something happens’.)
  • recognition of the many positives as well as complexities of using volunteers, particularly volunteer artists.
  • most importantly, pride in and commitment to the work of the organisation and a common sense of purpose, based on deep respect for the artists. The shared aim is to support the artists to develop their unique art practice in the most effective ways possible, building on their strengths, interests and talents.
    • Absolute clarity about viewing artists as artists was evident in many presentations. As one staff member said, ‘It is a triumph when our artists are invited to participate in an exhibition or community event as an artist, not an artist with a disability’. It was clear that participants see creating art and promoting artists’ work as a powerful way to bring about inclusion.

      Each organisation showed work in an exhibition that occurred concurrently with the Summit. The diversity and quality of the art in itself was a powerful expression of the achievements of artists and the organisations they participate in. Some examples of items in the exhibition included:

      • complex mechanical structures created by Roland from Germany.
      • a beautiful elephant head made of soft felt that had been hand picked with a needle.
      • seven metal plaques with seven suits made of wire underneath which was text telling of the significance of each suit in the artist’s life.
      • delicate embroidery of significant places in Sweden (designed and made by Magnus, a gentle giant from Sweden, who said in his presentation that he was an ‘outsider embroiderer’, in as much as embroidery is considered women’s’ work – ‘Even men can embroider’!).
      • wood cuts of animals.
      • an irreverent hand-drawn animation depicting the relationship between George Bush Jr. and Saddam Hussein and involving the kidnapping of the Statue of Liberty and cameo appearances by Tony Blair and Barack Obama.
      • a large collection of painted gnomes gesturing the Victory sign.
      • a series of paintings called Postcards from Glasgow, featuring significant buildings that Thompson from London painted using images on the Internet.

      Arts Project’s contribution to the exhibition consisted of an impressive collection of work by Boris Cipusev, Paul Hodges, Ruth Howard, Julian Martin and Cathy Staughton.
      One of the highlights of the Summit was that when artists weren’t presenting or participating in presentations, they worked in the studio just outside the space where the sessions were being held. They worked alongside artists from Project Ability, and were supported by Project Ability staff. The foregrounding of artists and their strong contributions as presenters, working artists and fellow conference participants made the Summit come alive and gave it much more meaning and vibrancy than it would have had otherwise. Seeing work being created, being reminded of the artists’ talent and the seriousness and enthusiasm they bring to their work grounded the sessions in the reality of the exciting and important work of the organisations present.

      The uniqueness of each artist shone through in their interactions, conversations and their art. This diversity was a common theme in presentations. As one presenter said, ‘Some artists come in with clear ideas about what they want to do, while others have to uncover their interests and talents. Some will do the same thing over and over, and we have to decide whether and how to move them on’. Karina, a young artist from Sweden said, ‘My ideas are inside me and I want them to come out’. Throughout the Summit there was an implicit and sometimes explicit theme of empowering artists in a variety of ways as decision makers and creators.

      Jonathan, an artist from Project Ability, summed up the feeling of the Summit in his presentation when he said with great feeling, ‘It’s wonderful that I can stand up and paint’.

      Paul, the Artistic Director of the Nina Haggerty Centre for the Arts in Edmonton, Alberta, summed up the common purpose quite eloquently. He said,’ Often if you ask people with learning disabilities who they are, you get a story about their disability. We like to think that we help people have a new story to tell about themselves’.

      The Summit felt as much like a celebration as it did a gathering where new ideas, insights and information were shared. Participants expressed a strong desire to stay connected and to be able to anticipate another gathering like this one in a few years time. Hopefully this will be possible.

      Anne Stonehouse AM