All posts here can be found through both the Disability Arts Online Website and my own website.

Emergence is a 12 month programme launched by Shape Arts, Disability Arts Online (DAO) and a-n The Artists Information Company aiming to support the practice of four emerging artists, with a practice rooted in the visual arts, who face disabling barriers.

The programme is intended to tackle the isolation, low confidence and marginalisation of emerging disabled artists, as well the lack of accessible opportunities in mainstream arts settings.

Each artist receives a bursary of £1,500 to support the development of their artistic practice. As the programme goes forward so each of the artists will blog about their progress in tandem with the taking up of one-to-one development sessions with staff from DAO and Shape. – Disability Arts Online

Image Credit: Josh Peter


Last month, I went to the Royal Drawing School in London to take part in their 2 week Drawing Marathon. This experience was the core part of my Emergence Bursary from artist-network, Shape Arts and Disability Arts Online. This blog post is a rough-around-the-edges but totally honest and reflective account of my first week there.
There was a few reasons I wanted to go;

  1. I wanted to improve my skills within my discipline
  2. I wanted to refresh my drawing practice
  3. Going to do their Drawing Year was ‘the dream’ and I wanted to scope the place out.

The plan was always to exhibit the work made during the experience in a solo show – not necessarily as a big, polished exhibition but to rather make myself and my work vulnerable. It seems that most exhibitions are too clean, too considered and only care about showing the best of the artists talent. But why do we never see the raw, weaker pieces, or the work that ‘thinks’? I feel like I’m too faddy about the way I present my work so I feel that to show the WIPs and the quick drawings would be quite liberating.

Before going, I was naturally both excited and nervous. I had also just started to come out of a four month spell of depression and was apprehensive about if I’d be able to cope away from the security and support of home (but budgeting in access funds to get my partner to London helped!). On the Sunday night, I was coming straight from my UNION weekend in Manchester, arriving in London 11pm to start the following Monday morning. I had no real idea what to expect, only really going off the class choices I had requested prior to form any sort of expectation.

N.B: I’ve already written this blog out already, but when going back through it all again it felt a bit flakey and ‘polite’. I realised I hadn’t really been honest or reflective, so I deleted it all and started again. Mostly because if I could’ve found experiential account of the RDS online (of which there do not seem to be many) before going, it would’ve really helped me out!

Monday 8th July
Got up nice and early, with my massive folder full of paper and my backpack full of all my art materials. It was A HOT DAY and it was a pretty long commute (hour and a half journey for essentially 8 miles!), I got to the RDS with over half an hour to spare. It’s in Shoreditch, which has become a very hipsterish part of London. When I was a kid I remember it being kinda grotty around there – it’s not any more!

I went in and just sat around quietly along with everyone else in their very nice, neat lobby bit for a while (the disruptor in me just wanted to stand on the tables or throw paint around it haha!).

At 10am, we were called up to the stop floor studio, this massive, beautiful wooden-floored space filled with easels and donkeys. We weren’t really given any instruction once we went in, but those who had never been there before followed the lead from the regulars who had done other short and evening courses at the RDS before. Pick a spot, get a board and sort your space out. Sounds obvious now, but there were plenty of bewildered people that morning!

We were soon told about the general outline for the week, and that there was a blanket ban of mobiles in the studio (to protect the privacy of the models). By the end of the week, most people tended to bend these rules slightly (myself included, though most of the time I stepped outside to use my phone), getting them out in breaks when the models weren’t present. Which is fair enough.

This first day was Life Drawing, pure and simple. There were two models, a man and a woman, and over the course of the day they got into various poses, individually and with one another, and using only charcoal and ink, we drew with what appeared to be a focus on form and negative space. The poses weren’t really very long for the most part, ranging from a few minutes to around 20 minutes in the morning, with three 45minute poses in the afternoon. The tutors came around to see everyone as they were drawing in silence (as someone who always works with music, focusing without it was challenging!), and were very encouraging with their pointers. I was dead chuffed to be called ‘bright’ and that my drawing was ‘beautiful’ by experts in the field. Confidence boost much! It was nice to just draw as I hadn’t drawn properly in a while, but it became clear to me very quickly that the modus operandi was very much all about traditional drawing – much more so than I anticipated. I draw very experimentally and although I was applauded over the fortnight for trying different styles and mediums, I could see that there wouldn’t be any room for concept-based approaches in an attempt to push line further. However, doing an intense period of pure observational work is how you get better, so it was still very welcome! I enjoyed the idea of focusing solely on technical skill development where you get to drawing interesting people, as even though I have a fine art degree, I’ve never had any real tuition in life drawing. Go figure.

At the end of the day, went back to my Dads and hung out with my awesome little sister. It was a good first day and, despite some concerns, my nerves had settled considerably.

Tuesday 9th July
Following the morning commute in the boiling weather, I went back upstairs to the studio. However, now there was a partition through the middle, diving the massive space into two separate, smaller studios. Today was all about portraiture. I have literally only ever done ONE portrait in my life where it actually looks like the person – but because it was of a psychiatric service user in an in-patient ward… well, it’s not like I can ever really show it without breaching confidentiality, is it? Again, there were two models (clothed this time), a man and a woman, which we took turns in drawing. We did 10-20 minute pencil/ink drawings of them in the morning, before doing a three hour long drawing of them in the afternoon. Which, may I add, was TOO much. Tuesday was generally a really frustrating day for me. The only drawing I liked was a 20 minute one of the fella, which was a single-line contour drawing because I felt I had been too ‘controlled’ with my line before that.

The tutor was lovely though; we got chatting and she’s now planning to come and visit Hull, and I said I’d show her around the city when she does.
That evening, my sister had invited her two best mates and her boyfriend over to meet me, and she cooked us all chicken/Quorn fajitas (which she did very well with) and watched Netflix together.

Wednesday 10th July
On Wednesday morning, I was already shattered on waking, and the heat and the daily commute was already getting to me, but I was really looking forward to this day.

This session was all about drawing a contortionist! Today was much more what I was used to – there was much more freedom and more experimental that what we had done before – since the model could only really hold her poses for relatively short periods of time. It was more about mark-making and expression, as opposed to precision and replicating life. As a result, I made at least 50 drawings, and some of these really quick sketches are some of my absolute favourite drawings from my time at the RDS.

We also had an hour lecture before lunch. It was about contorted bodies in art and it was very interesting. There were lots of examples of twisted, contorted figures, circus performers and dancers by various artists that she showed us. It surprised me that there was no real exploration of any cultural-social-political-historical-etc context in there though – like I’ve come to expect from arts lectures. Yet I put that down to time and the idea that it was probably made more simple to make it more inclusive of all students (this course was the first arty thing a number of students have ever really done). It was interesting though.

Today was a really good day for me. It was soured slightly by someone being snooty and responding really rudely to me when I explained that I’m interested in contemporary, boundary-pushing drawing. Like, they weren’t holding back on expressing literal distain, to my face none-the-less. If I were in a more mentally-robust place and it wasn’t at the start of my experience there, I’d have probably called out their rudeness and challenged them about it. It was obvious from first arriving that the RDS clearly favours artistic and aesthetic technical skill over nurturing any expressive/challenging creativity, but I never expected behaviour like that.

Thursday 11 July
This was another day I was really looking forward to. The Printmaking workshop was really limited in places so I was really fortunate to have a place on it. The whole morning was pretty much the induction to the workshop space though. Almost a 3 hour induction in a 6 hour day. For the last bit of the morning, we prepared aluminium plates to then etch into in the afternoon. We were not informed to bring anything with us but there was a bit of snarkiness about not having pre-prepared drawings with us to trace from (how I was going to directly copy an A1 drawing onto an A6 plate was beyond me). I traced a photo of a drawing from earlier in the week from my phone screen because I weren’t sure what else to do. Turns out I made a poor choice because it was hard to work into what was essentially a contour drawing. Because of this, I ended the day feeling quite disappointed and frustrated. I think if I was told to prep an appropriate image beforehand, it would’ve made the experience better. I wish I had drawn my cat in hindsight! Because there’s never enough artwork of cats in the world…

I enjoyed working with the chemicals and getting messy, but etching is a very long process that requires a lot of patience. I did a total of three prints that afternoon, in as many hours. I’ve done drypoint in the past and I really, really love the rawness and expression with line that is captured, where etching feels more about technical precision and a building up of tone. It was good to learn though. I’m like a sponge for knowledge, I love learning new things. If I had more time to experiment with the chemicals and processes, I feel like I’d have found my flow and found out how to make it work for me; I’d like to have another bosh at etching at some point though.

However. I felt really uncomfortable with how toxic printmaking is though, oh my god. I was reading the safety notices and considering the environmental implications of these chemicals/processes and as much as I was enjoying this new experience, I felt incredibly guilty. This stuff is awful. Like, awful. Why? With all our modern understanding, why haven’t the processes evolved? And for somewhere called the ROYAL Drawing School, you’d think they’d consider the eco-conscious messages their patrons have been promoting?

Since the RDS, I met with fellow Emergence Bursary recipient Fae Kilburn, who is a printmaker and a lovely person. She used her bursary to go to Canada and has learnt all about environmentally-friendly printmaking processes (yes, nice one, Fae), so the ability and knowledge to make the necessary change is there. Why aren’t there more people who take the initiative to act more responsibly with their practice? It’s a strong opinion, but if you can’t find a way to make your practice less damaging to the planet, you’re either lazy, ignorant or not creative enough. Or maybe all three. Times are a-changing and we all have a responsibility to step up. I’m digressing into a whole other thing now but you get my point!

On Thursday evening, I met up with my little sister at the Wellcome Collection in Euston, to go see this exhibition on called Smoke and Mirrors: The Psychology of Magic. It was really good! There were collections of magic memorabilia, from Victorian mediumship equipment, to giant poster prints, to Tommy Cooper’s Fez to Dynamos magic set for kids. There were videos explaining how tricks expose habits/presumptions of the mind to ‘create magic’. What’s more, there was a great magician (with a PhD in magic) giving a lecture on the Golden Age of Magic whilst performing tricks. It was seriously cool and both of us really enjoyed exploring the exhibit. My sister then wanted to go to McDs for dinner, which we did, before heading home.

Friday 12 July
Friday was another whole day of life drawing. I was curious to see if I could see any improvement from my drawings on Monday compared to today. We had good strong models (male and female, as before) and one of the tutors was very philosophical. I think he lost a lot of students with the speech he gave. I’m lying if I said I remembered what it was about but I felt I grasped the concept… about experience and living through drawing. I think. Did lots of various poses today, mostly between 2 – 20 minutes and I mostly used charcoal again.

There was nothing hugely specific from the day today, except for most of the afternoon was a ‘crit’, exploring our favourite pieces from the past week. Again, no one had told us this was going to be the case, as most of us worked on large separate sheets of paper and, considering that we couldn’t leave anything there overnight, most people only had drawings from that day to choose from. I didn’t like most of my work from that day, so I felt annoyed that I was unprepared to show for a crit (I heard lots of murmurs of frustration from my peers about this too), which are far and few between once you leave uni.

Everyone laid out their work (5 pieces I think of ones you liked, and didn’t like) all over the floor, and the mass crit began. There were 40 people to go around, and I’m not going to lie, it seemed to take forever and it hot, uncomfortable and almost everyone got bored and tired of it really quickly. Luckily, I was one of the first five to have their work looked at. I was hoping for some real critical feedback and pointers about what I could focus on improving, but it to be honest, the crit was lacking. The comments were pretty complementary but they felt empty and kinda fluffy to me; I recognise that they’re not going to be critically honest to people who want to learn, especially if they’ve never had a crit before… but how am I supposed to know where I’m technically lacking without encouragement to work x, y or z? I listened to other peoples crits in the hope of picking up a few tips, but they felt equally as fluffy. It also surprised me to not be given evaluation/feedback forms at the end of the week.

I then headed on over to the Royal Academy to see the Making of an Artist: Learning to Draw exhibit (with the intention of popping into the Summer Show after). The exhibit wasn’t as big as I thought it would be – it was literally a corridor – but it was full of sculptures that ye olde academicians used to learn to draw from before they progressed onto drawing living flesh. There were big ole’ statues of muscley men and svelte women, but the most interesting ones were statues of people with the skin and flesh removed at various depths.

Apparently, these statues were of dead bodies that had been forced into poses, had their skin removed and then cast in plaster. I sat and drew one for an hour and a half, and dya know what? I learnt so much about human anatomy. I loved it. I could’ve sat and drawn longer but I was hungry and it was nearly kicking out time, so I headed back home to my Dads.

And that was my first week! Now I’ve had some time to digest and reflect on such an intense week, there’s a few (honest) thoughts there that have stood out for me.

General observations from the first week:

  • I felt like I peaked around lunch time every day. Either that’s the time when I work best, or I need a few hours to warm up to get to my optimum level before I get tired. This may be useful information!
  • I really enjoyed having the space to just observe and draw. Time is very limited and noone tells you that at least two thirds of being an artist is admin, so to just draw was lovely and very regenerative.
  • I appreciated just being given things to draw because I didn’t really have to think (which as an anxious overthinker and someone who falls into concept-heav work) and it was refreshing!
  • I work better and am more comfortable on donkeys than easels.
  • Bearing in mind that there’s a (rather heavy) suggested materials list, I barely used any of it as most of the time we were encouraged to just use charcoal and ink, which was there to use already! I can imagine that for people with physical disabilities, this would pose quite a problem.
  • On that note, the course generally didn’t feel accessible to some people with disabilities. Yeah there was a ramp into the lobby and a lift, but beyond that it felt like there was little consideration. And for the first week the lift didn’t work properly at the top studio floor. The room was way too hot (no temperature controls in a stuffy London loft with limited windows when its 38C outside) and 40+ strangers in a room felt pretty overwhelming at times. It was too quiet (which for some is a good thing) but a blanket ban of mobiles in the studio meant that when I was anxious and struggling, I couldn’t listen to my music via earphones; if I knew of the ban beforehand, I could’ve prepared better and dug out an mp3. There was a tendency to use fancy language and there was no offer to read information beforehand. I think that when applying to the course there’s an access requirement box, but you don’t anticipate a phone ban or that 38C is an acceptable temperature to work in.
  • I felt that the Drawing Marathon experience lacked communication and at times didn’t feel as tightly organised as you’d expect from somewhere with ‘Royal’ in it’s title. There was very little information given online (am I going to be doing traditional drawings? Experimental drawings? Lots of life drawing, drawing from life, drawing from imagination, or a combination? Who is my tutor?) and again, little information prior to the course (how much paper do I bring? I may need to budget, how much is the paper there? Do we need to bring all our materials every day? Or not? To which ones?). During the course, it would’ve been good to have been given more of a heads up about things (like simply to be told what to do when you first got to the studio on the first day, or to prep drawings for the print workshop, or to bring in work for the crit). Sometimes, when there was more than one tutor, it didn’t feel like they were necessarily on the same page.
  • I am fairly well read on wealth inequality, and find great issue with economic inequity. Although I fully admit I may have a slight chip on my shoulder about it, there is a definite class thing going on there. It was one of my biggest concerns before going because of really bad class-based prejudices, discrimination and bullying I have experienced in the past at another prestigious art establishment. I felt it before even going and was confirmed to me the second I walked into the building – which is weird really, considering the RDS is all about making drawing tuition accessible, open and affordable to anyone and everyone. Although there were a mix of people from various backgrounds, many of the students (and others occupying the building) very clearly and obviously came from money. There is no financial concessions available for their summer courses (why?)… but considering that it is the only opportunity that folks outside of London may have to get a feel for the place before applying for a Drawing Year Scholarship (especially important if you’re a disabled artist, I’d argue), it isn’t exactly accessible. Only reason I was able to do it is because the £550 course was paid for using my Emergence Bursary (thanks again a-n, Shape Arts and DAO!). If I wasn’t able to stay at my dads house in London, the bursary wouldn’t have been able to also cover two weeks in a hostel/hotel, travel and access needs, so it goes to show how expensive the experience was. I don’t know the point I’m trying to make here. Maybe it’s wrong to draw conclusions after only being there for a short space on time, but I think that although the school is inclusive and accessible in princple, it possibly isn’t in practice.

I’m pointing out lots of negatives here, aren’t I? That’s not intentional! But the reason I rewrote this blog is because in the first draft I omitted a lot of the critiques. Yet I rewrote it all and included these things because they’re big issues that need talking about aren’t they?

I enjoyed my first week there and really valued the opportunity afforded to me. I churned out many drawings (both good and bad!) and I feel like I had got better at drawing. How or what exactly, I can’t pinpoint though! I spoke to some lovely people, and my tutors were ace. I was looking forward to my second week, which I’ll tell you all about in a second post soon!


Tomorrow it will be four weeks since I delivered a presentation on my practice at the Tate Modern as part of Shape Arts’ Flux/Us: Be part of the art event at the Tate Exchange. Usually, I would write something almost immediately after a big experience like that but I’m challenging myself to allow some space and reflection in between now. Three weeks though. Wow, it’s totally flown by.

I’ve been really busy with some other things recently, such as The Critical Fish stuff (going to print next week – eep!), my second UNION; Arts & Activism residency (of which there will be another post in the coming weeks) and, if I’m being blunt, needing to safeguard my head a little.

It’s been quite useful to give myself some space actually as I’ve processed some of the things that happened.

I went down to my hometown, London, on the Thursday and stayed with my dad, his partner and my awesome little sister. It felt so nice to be back in the hustle and bustle of the big city, to the point where I was the only person grinning on the Victoria Line to Blackhorse Road during rush hour. I had forgotten how much I missed the grotty seats, the deafening rumbling and screeching and the faux-aspirational adverts lining the train carriage in which one is denied any semblance of personal space. Home! I ended up after my dad’s gaff after getting separated during an impromptu family visit to Ikea (“Marco! Polo!”). Before bed, I went through my freshly-edited presentation with my sister and laid out my green dress in preparation for the morning.

I had just arrived at the Tate and felt excited looking up at the huge building. As I was heading in, I had a tap on my shoulder – fellow Emergence recipient Fae Kilburn had recognised me (the blue hair kinda does that) and we worked our way upstairs to the Tate Exchange. Up there I met the other two bursary recipients Letty McHugh and Leo Wight, Jeff and Isabelle from Shape, Trish and LD from DAO.

It was great to finally meet them all and put real faces to email addresses and social media handles! Everyone was so kind and it was really good to start getting to know the other Emergence artists a bit better. Take it from me, we’re all pretty awesome people as well as super talented! The four of us were understandably nervous though but we did a good job of egging each other on and of course Shape and DAO were really welcoming and supportive of us too.

We were in a cooler room to the side of the main Tate Exchange area. At the front, there was a big projection screen, a podium, a couch, a palantypist and a screen for her real-time subtitles. Then about 30-40 chairs were laid out for the audience. Our presentations were part of a wider discussion surrounding the barriers facing disabled artists. Talking about our art and sharing our experiences as disabled artists helped to highlight and illustrate some of the issues explored within the conversations held in between presentations; Letty and Leo presented in the first half, Fae and I talked during the second. I enjoyed watching the others talk about their work and the things they had done and achieved and I valued the honesty in which they spoke.

I was genuinely moved at some parts too. Although each of our disabilities are different, I could relate to a lot of what they were saying about all sorts, including the exhausting expectations of the art world and the negotiationary defiance in relation to one’s disability. It truly was a really interesting and enlightening few hours. Fae and Letty have both blogged about their experiences too.

Possibly because of the context in which we were presenting, something that really stuck with me was a point from Leo – like me, his work is about something ‘other’ than anything relating to disability. He said something about how being a disabled artist with an invisible illness whose work has nothing to do with their disability means you feel like you don’t belong in either mainstream arts or disability arts. I feel like I’m straddling between the two too. Like Leo, I’m in the in-between, where your disability can be at odds with the demands of the mainstream arts industry, but because your art isn’t explicitly about disability it’s easy to feel an outsider within disability arts too. Although I felt it, I hadn’t considered the words around it, and Leo did a great job of articulating that sentiment. Something to think about, I thought.

Admittedly, my mind was occasionally elsewhere (anxiety will do that to a person) but I really enjoyed hearing what the public had to say about different things too – the everyday barriers related to disability, the socio-economic complications and personal experiences relating to the not-always-as-inclusive-as-it-thinks-it-is art industry. Jeff shared that the biggest theme in the Emergence applications was this theme of ‘isolation’, in whatever form that may take. It didn’t surprise me somehow, but it did sadden me. I can empathise with the real, perceived, enforced and self-inflicted isolation that artists, especially disabled artists, face. I spoke about some of these issues in my presentation.

I spoke about quite a few different things in what was really quite a short time! I purposefully tried to speak positively about my ‘journey’ to not bring everyone down – which, experience tells me, is very easily done when talking about a long history of poor mental health. Using a number of image-based slides as illustration, I spoke honestly about how I got to now; including my pockmarked road through Higher Education, moving to Hull from London, feeling isolated, losing total belief in ever being an artist, my day job(s) in the NHS and the reinvention of myself between 2016-18… before introducing my current practice. I talked a bit about The Critical Fish, how my making doesn’t really relate to my disability, about my philosophical influences (yes, I took them down that rabbit hole), my process and about how I draw in the expanded field. Got through quite a lot in ~13 minutes, didn’t we? It went really quickly and doing it wasn’t as terrifying as I anticipated – saying that, I was relieved when I had done it! It felt like a big achievement, and it was!

After the wider discussion we spoke to Ellen Wilkinson from a-n – she’s lovely and really interesting to talk to. She was supportive of giving us advice, resources and opportunity that a-n could provide. I spoke with some members of the public. The response was brilliant and I was happy to share the knowledge and talk about the experiences they asked about. In one instance, however, I was indirectly challenged about the legitimacy and need of my bursary award by the mother of a physically disabled artist (impressively, in a really nicey-nicey way), suggesting that I wasn’t ‘disabled enough’ (and/or no longer ill enough) to be deserving of the opportunity afforded to me by Shape Arts, DAO and a-n. I’m not going to lie, it hurt and it did really affect me. I considered omitting this part from my blog because it was raw and there was the risk of giving away too much of myself, but screw it. I’m not going to censor a genuine issue that I’m sure I’m not alone in experiencing.

Compassion is something I for whatever reason struggle to apply to my own experiences. I fully acknowledge that poor mental health is a disability in its own right, I advocate for mental health causes every day and for ~23 years I have wrestled with a mind that has literally attempted to self-destruct… and yet I need to justify the fact I’m disabled. That’s weird, isn’t it? If it was anyone else, I wouldn’t dare think it. I think none of these things about anyone else with mental health challenges. It’s not about feeling shame about my experiences (Mad Pride, all the way!!), it’s not disdain or pride – it’s not anything that stems from some sort of egotistical thing like that – but because of a fraudulent self-imposed narrative that requires I need to justify to myself my own mental health disability. I wonder why that is? Is it some sort of self-stigmatising thing? Is it because it’s an invisible illness? Because I can cope ‘well enough’ these days? Because the traditional discourse around disability places mental health below physical health in the hierarchy of need and support? I don’t know. Maybe it’s simply empathy for others that discourages me from using up the scarce resources available. It’s totally bizarre really.

This is one of the reasons I wanted to wait a while before writing about what was otherwise a great experience. I had needed to go through a difficult justification process to myself during every step of the way to be where I was, and she had challenged the legitimacy of my being there. If I was in the worst state I have ever been, would I be more justified in being there (despite the fact I wouldn’t have been able to handle it)? I am confident that a lot of people with mental difficulties feel, or have felt, in a way similar to this. Or any invisible challenge, in that respect. If you have come out the other side/manage your condition better, why is guilt a thing? It’s almost like ‘survivor guilt’, in a weird twisted way.

Afterwards, we went for a drink in a Tate bar – the posh, trendy one with the skyscraper views. I shared with the others what happened and they were very angry at her but very supportive of me (massive love guys, thank you), as were Shape and DAO when I told them about it. In fact, everyone I’ve told about it has been shocked and disgusted at her audacity. Which, you know, is incredibly reassuring and reinforces the idea that she was an anomaly in the wider picture. Still, if I lacked the support network or my new-found resilience, or she had said it to someone like a younger version of myself, it would’ve been crucifying. I loathe the fact that I felt the need to explain myself to her. I wish I had said something else instead.

Yes, I’m one for meaningful reflection but I’m consciously not one for making everything a depressive-fest. Apart from that little moment (which from the amount I’ve written about it, makes it seem a much bigger thing than what it was!), it truly was a fantastic weekend. I didn’t get to see much of the art in the Tate though, which was annoying because I had been looking forward to that wander around for ages! On the Saturday, my super-amazing little sister and I went for a mooch around the London Borough of Culture, Waltham Forest. We spent some time at the William Morris Gallery (his old gaff in Walthamstow), watched wildlife in Lloyd Park and was dazzled in God’s Own Junkyard. We even found time to sneak in a cheeky Nandos.

After seeing my ageing East-Ender auntie and a soriatal ukulele jam on the Sunday, I jumped back on the train to ‘Ull. I was sad to leave but looked forward to seeing my other half and my cat again. It was a really good experience at the Tate and I’m so glad that I did it – these things build confidence and self-assurance, don’t you know. I’m looking forward to seeing what happens next now!!


What has led to your taking on the identity of a socially-engaged interdisciplinary visual artist?

It’s quite a loaded identity to have, isn’t it? I’ll do my best to break that down a bit!

I’m your typical idealist; a dreamy type who believes things should and can be better than what they are. But, I am also a grafter (and pretty tenacious). I see my role as a socially engaged artist is to present and pragmatically motivate the people to think of creative ways to make change for themselves.

I have only just started on my journey into a socially-engaged practice but I recognise and value the importance of art and creativity in making change in local and wider spread communities. I’m a strong believer that everyone can develop a good relationship with art and that art has the ability to inspire individuals and move social consciousnesses. Throughout 2019, I’m fortunate enough to be part of the UNION; Arts & Activism programme, which brings 20+ artist-activists together to reflect on their practice in using art and activism for positive change – I’m looking forward to seeing how my ideas and practice develop within the coming year.

This isn’t to say that I don’t work with communities already. I do this through the projects I produce, such as The Critical Fish, and through my NHS day-job, where I advocate the arts and share skills for mental well-being using my own lived experience.  I’m a bit of a multipotentialitie and a lot of my interests overlap or combine or inform one another.

In what ways do your interests overlap?
As you can see from the featured image, my practice, as a whole, sits together in a rhizomatic fashion. A rhizome is like an underground network of botanical roots, a net, a web of interconnecting points that has no real beginning, or end. My practice feels a hell of a lot like that, where the intellectual, sensual and material sit in relation to the concepts, subjects, media and contexts I explore throughout. As well as the bits I’ve already mentioned, I have an academic interest in the mental health/arts dynamic, am environmentally conscious, I run a freelance arts business, I meditate etc… and these different disciplines very often impact, inform or support one another.

The art-making side of my practice sits almost separate from the socially engaged stuff, I suppose. Well, at least in this moment in time. Making is one of the most important elements of my life and I value the time I spend doing it. Art is something that drives the rest of my practice, be that conceptually or in the practical doing of things or materiality or whatever – my practice is very much rooted in experimentation and making. For a while now my attention has been turned to the fragility of the mind.

How does mental health relate to your practice?

I’ve often been asked how my mental health relates to my art but it’s a tension that I sometimes struggle to articulate. As a ‘mentally ill artist’ (a label I detest because I don’t feel as if my disability defines me, artist or otherwise), there is sometimes the assumption that I make art cathartically, as therapy, as a means to express trauma or difficult emotion. Well, I don’t. Although I recognise that art has been useful in managing my thoughts over the years, my art has very little to do with expressing myself or otherwise in relation my own mental health difficulties. I think it’s more of the objective view I have on my experience of mental health itself and objectively understanding how I manage nowadays that I find interesting; I have a long history of poor mental health; depression, anxiety, unhelpful behaviours/responses, suicide attempts – you name it, I’ve probably got some lived experience with it. Although I now manage my mental health a lot better these days, I still fall into a period of depression at least once or twice a year, but that’s fine, it’s who I am. What I find curious is that I understand that when I’m not doing great, I lose touch with reality – I’ve seen this in some of the people I have worked with over the years too. Experience and perception is subjective, and reality can be altered, and I find that whole concept fascinating. And therein lies the relationship between the two on a personal level for me, I think. That critical, investigative eye that I possess after the fact.

I’m a bit of an amateur philosopher and it challenges me intellectually, mentally and to an extent emotionally to explore these threads by drawing in the expanded field. And that’s my practice in a nutshell, I think – I think about thinking.

Could you explain some of the philosophical concepts behind your work?

Brace yourselves, I’m about to take you down a rabbit hole!!
I find myself thinking about the things I notice day to day, in myself, in others… I have thought a lot about the processes behind thinking, observation, conceptual knowledge and how we respond to those things both as individuals and collectively.

I’m curious about the subjective, and by combining both intuitive and analytical methods of observation I really try to get a sense of what it is for me to ‘know’ about something, so I can attempt to answer the questions I find myself wondering. The notion of experience combines both physical and mental processes, and that the reality of the object is transformed BECAUSE of the context we give it.  To ‘know’ something is to make it more real. Therefore, if I can first get to ‘know’ a concept, I can better interrogate it – I try to get a sense of what it is to ‘know’ about something and what it is that makes me interpret what I believe to experience.

What does your philosophical art-making practice seek to understand?

The types of questions I explore very much depend on what I happen to be focusing on at the time. And how I decide to interrogate the question depends very much on what the questions are about. My graduating work focused on the concepts of reality and perception, so I therefore chose to concentrate on raisins – yes raisins – as the subject of my investigations. Why raisins, I hear you ask? There’s a well-known meditation/mindfulness practice that involves experiencing and consuming a raisin over a prolonged period of time. It just made sense to me to focus on raisins when thinking about experience. So for that reason alone I ended up drawing raisins for 18 months. And it’s these connections that mean a lot to me in my practice.

A highly complex rhizome of memories, opinions, sense data and values come together to shape your understanding of the world. Everything you process, and everything you ‘know’, sits in relation to everything else. I observe and try to understand my subject in as many ways as possible…  I engage all my senses and experiment with a number of drawing techniques and methods to try and communicate the way of ‘knowing’ that I attempt to isolate in that drawing, whether that’s a sense of smell, or taste, or memory, or whatever.  There is also a term called ‘Gestalt’, which resonates quite strongly with my way of working. It is the belief that an organised whole is given more value than the sum of its parts. I fragment, distort and layer observational drawings to bring attention to the multifarious and subjective nature of reality. By then layering them back up, therefore, it gives a more accurate representation of what something actually is than what our brain allows us to perceive.

Can you explain what ‘expanded-drawing practice’ is, and how it relates to the concerns of your artistic output?

I feel we can move towards understanding, and more importantly challenging, our interpretations of the world through the act of drawing. Drawing, for me, felt like a very natural process to develop when thinking about thinking… there’s something about its likeness to thought, since the very act of drawing can react at the speed of thought… I think drawing possesses an expressive fluidity to it that doesn’t seem present in many other processes.

Drawing for me is a way of problem-solving, experimenting, developing and gaining insight into not only the thing I draw, but into my own thought processes and ideas. I feel the act of drawing is the closest we can move to pure thought and is therefore a powerful means of translating the experiential understanding that I’m so interested in.

Although much of my work begins with traditional methods of drawing, of line on paper, materiality and an experimental approach to processes tend to direct my work. As much as I enjoy traditional drawing, and processes such as drypoint printing, I often find myself using unconventional materials, exploratory processes and reflective techniques. Ending up moving beyond two dimensional planes and into sculpture, into video, into sound… I find alternative ways of drawing, not because I’m trying to be ‘different’ or anything, but simply because I find it more interesting, and I’m excited by the idea that it can also open up more opportunity for audience interaction.

I soon discovered that my practice seems to sit within the Expanded Field of Drawing. I find it compliments my way of working – other artists in the field, such as Leger and Boozer seem to approach drawing in the way that I do – conceptual and of thought, but rooted in experimentation and making. Drawing in the Expanded Field attempts to see drawing stretched beyond what is commonly considered drawing in the traditional sense. It’s a hard one to explain!!

What stage is your ACE/ Hull City Arts funded project Critical Fish at?

My co-producer, Jill Howitt, and I are only in the pilot stage at the minute, but The Critical Fish is a community-facing and regionally available publication that’s centred on Hull. It was born from a lack of critical debate during and after our City of Culture year and from a personal belief that everybody has the ability to think critically on their experiences and relationships with art.

At time of writing, we’re in the finalising stages of producing Issue One, but we have ambitions of doing a more inclusive and creative programme of direct engagement with existing and new audiences to develop critical and research-based but fully accessible discussions surrounding art and visual culture. We put the bid in around September 2018 after working on it throughout the summer; the bid was approved the week of Halloween and since then, we’ve been relentlessly working on getting this project off the ground with our brilliant steering group and talented designer Joseph Cox, towards producing the first issue, due May 2019. We sent out an open call to writers and artists to submit works for publication, and we commissioned writers Lauren Velvick and Kenn Taylor, and artist-designers Josh Williams and Lydia Caprani to contribute. More recently, we’ve been working with our brilliant editors (Jay Drinkall, Michael Barnes-Wynters and Barnaby Haran) over the last few months too.

Although Jill and I are getting it up off the ground, I really believe in the collaborative power of shared ownership and the cooperative production of a strengthened community that we can all benefit from so my own personal vision for Fish is that it becomes less and less managed by Jill and I and more in the hands of the communities it wishes to serve. Since day one, we’ve done what we can to ensure that The Critical Fish is co-designed, co-produced and co-delivered as collaboratively as possible using the resources available and within the framework that we’ve built together. The role of Fish is to facilitate the ideas and voices that already exist out there by holding a shared space in which people can have conversations. In this way, I’m hoping that artist-led Fish will grow in a way that moves towards a more culturally democratic model, involving more and more communities and becomes very much done BY the people, FOR the people.

Can you tell us a bit about the project eg where the name came from and who your partners are?

The name ‘The Critical Fish’ was inspired by Hull’s fishing heritage. For me, it feels like Hull’s fishing industry has been replaced by the industry of culture, especially in the wake of our 2017 UK City of Culture celebrations; so I quite like that play on concepts, and words. The name doesn’t take itself seriously and opens up a world of possibility in regards to visual/literary puns (e.g. ‘Fish n’ Crits’). Jill is a super-fan of Gordon Young’s ‘Fish Pavement’ (1992), a public art trail which encourages people to explore lesser known parts of the city centre; Hull’s fishing heritage is combined with playful language and visual cues (e.g. a shark motif outside of the bank) to creatively engage the public – which The Critical Fish is also aiming to do through critical conversations. And if I’m just being honest, I like how the word ‘Fish’ sounds when it’s said outloud!!

We have no ‘official’ partners at this moment in time, but we’ve been working closely with Hey Form, Humber Street Gallery, Artlink, Double Negative, Venture Arts, G F Smith, YVAN and a number of local artists, writers and editors, to name but a few. We have recently had the opportunity through The Double Negative of writing an article in response to the Liverpool Biennials ‘Place to Place’ exhibition at Humber Street Gallery, which was pretty great too! It’s been an absolute rollercoaster and we’ve not even published anything yet!! I’m looking forward to seeing how the project develops (funding pending) and getting stuck into the doing fun and creative things with the public in the pursuit of critical conversation, which is where I feel more passionate.

How did you get to this stage?

Like many folks, art has been the one thing throughout my life that has remained a constant and is something I enjoy in and of itself. I wanted to be an artist as a kid, but my mental health has thrown a few curve balls my way, meaning I had an intermittent art school experience and had no self-belief about ever ‘making it’ and was turned away from places and yahdeyahdeyah… and for a long time, I had no direction and pushed art to the side.

I had experience in delivering meaningful activity in residential and psychiatric inpatient settings (after trying the 9 -5 daily grind for a few years) and it’s an interest in Art Therapy that saw me go back to Uni and finish off my Degree. Through advocating the arts to service users who were in similar positions that I could relate to, I reminded myself how much I loved making.

I ended up organising a public art exhibition to showcase the talents of the people I met on the wards, and through that I convinced the Trust to fund me to do an Art Therapy Foundation Course in Sheffield. Both recognising that I’d probably be dead myself without art being in my life and after this inspiring and motivating course, I felt I had found my calling – but I had to complete a BA in order to do my MA in Art Psychotherapy. However, this posed a huge dilemma – I would have to return to education after a 4 year hiatus, lose a permanent, pension-paying job that I love, take a huge cut in pay, risk going somewhere terrible, and rack up more student debt… just so I could qualify at least five years down the line, in something with next to no jobs. But, for the first time in ages, I had direction and purpose. So against my better judgement I just went and applied to HSAD to do a part-time Top-Up in Fine Art.

My dissertation, unsurprisingly, focused on the relationships between the visual arts and meaningful mental health recovery. I rigorously researched into the definitions of mental health, artists who have used art for personal or societal benefit, and the ways in which art has been used for therapeutic gains both in and outside of the clinical arena as maker and spectator.

Can you tell us a bit about how your research into the relationships between the visual arts and mental health informs your practice?

Ironically, my research totally turned me away from pursuing Art Psychotherapy as a career. Yes, there was no denying the benefits of art on mental and emotional wellbeing – I mean, the research had only validated my own beliefs and experiences – but I strongly felt that there’s more to be said on art for art’s sake, art as a means of individual and collective transformational change, outside of clinical environments and instead in communal, everyday settings.  On further reflection and research, I also found myself more and more critical of traditional psychiatry, the frame work in which it’s built and the narratives surrounding art and mental health. Realising that I didn’t need to be an art psychotherapist to make change was liberating… I just needed to be an artist.

This area of critical interrogation has had an indirect, but powerful influence on my current practice. This questioning of subjective experience and its relationship to the status quo and other associated contexts live in the realms of both psychology and philosophy, the latter of which has always been a strong interest. My research area has shaped my understanding of things and in a way, motivates me to challenge the way people view mental health and the arts (as separate things and in tandem with one another). There’s this tension between the experiential acknowledgment of the value and benefit of the arts in emotional wellbeing (therefore the output is irrelevant) and the pursuit of skilled, high-quality art that ought to be challenged and critiqued. Combined with the stubborn belief that everyone can make art, consume and critique it. My practice walks between these thin boundaries by inciting and developing critical conversations and philosophical debate around what is, what could be and what should be.

For more information and exploration into my practice, please head on over to