‘I was blown away by the work I saw’: the Turner prize and the rise of neurodiverse art | Art and design

‘Everyone’s done brilliant, not just me.” I’m chatting to Lucy, an artist with Project Art Works, about the Hastings-based collective’s Turner prize nomination (they lost out to Belfast’s Array Collective in the end). Today she’s in the character of Listey Cat; Lucy’s work revolves around her love of animals, which often manifests in the form of the bright, elaborate costumes she makes and has worn to give gallery tours. “It’s given us more independence and we get to work with other artists,” she says, of the collective. “I feel lucky and chill. It’s therapeutic.”

Founded in 1996, Project Art Works collaborates with neurodiverse artists and those with complex support needs, providing them with studio space, materials and facilitators. Tom, who works with lead artist Lucy, is like many of the facilitators also an artist, and is keen to stress the collaborative nature of the practice: “It’s a mutual experience,” he says. “I support Lucy and she supports me.”

Neurodiversity has become something of a buzzword in recent years. It’s about replacing the stigmatisation of people with conditions such as autism with the recognition that these are simply normal variations, with qualities of their own. The Turner nomination suggests that the art world finally seems to be catching on. Though perhaps not fast enough, if some of the attitudes Project Art Works CEO and artist director Kate Adams has encountered are anything to go by: “It was only about six years ago that a head of exhibition somewhere within an organisation said to us, ‘I don’t think it’s right [to have] people with learning disabilities in an exhibition downstairs with an artist of calibre upstairs. They shouldn’t be in the same building.’”

Changing perceptions … House No 6/8, 2016 by Albert Geere, Project Art Works, in the Turner prize exhibition. Photograph: David Levene/The Guardian

Such attitudes have been infuriatingly commonplace. Adams co-founded Project Art Works with fellow artist Jonathan Cole after attending neurodiverse classrooms with her son, who has complex needs, and noting the high standard of the work. Special schools were “these fantastic anarchic little kingdoms”, Adams tells me, producing talented artists the art world was oblivious to, and who lacked practical support. She set out with two goals in mind: to help create connections with individuals who are sometimes hard to reach, and to change perceptions though showing the work they were making.

“It’s really important within an exhibition to curate a gradual insight in where the work comes from,” she says. “That tends to have a really good impact on people, because they’re seduced by these incredible artworks, many of which are extraordinary, abstract, spirited images. And then there’s a sort of deeper insight into how they were made and who they were made by.”

Audiences, perhaps being less hung up on an artist’s background or identity, have always responded well. But it isn’t the audiences who are the problem. Project Art Works have spent years trying to open up institutions using the methodology they established, and for which they received Arts Council funding in 2017. Some, like MK Gallery in Milton Keynes, have been very receptive, but it hasn’t always been easy. “It’s been really hard to open up the cultural sector,” Adams says. “It is incredibly conservative, especially contemporary visual arts because it’s so aligned with theory, commerce and ego,” she says.

Adams believes that they have benefited from what she calls “an existential crisis in the cultural sector about what it’s for. Covid has propelled that. And I think that’s one of the reasons why the Turner prize this year is artists’ collectives.” When they got the nomination, however, they still had to brace themselves. How has it been? “Interesting,” is the response. Some of the coverage has been patronising and dismissive, putting Project Art Works in a box marked “charity” and invoking a word that we both confess to hating: “worthy”.

“That is a big put-down. It’s also a way of putting us in a box that says this isn’t real. We don’t need to take them seriously, they’re not real artists,” says Adams. “It’s a disgraceful aberration of actual thinking about what people are seeing.”

Critics, she says, are heavily invested in the idea of the “artist with a capital A”, so this sort of collaborative practice simply doesn’t seem to compute. Nor does the fact that autism doesn’t somehow preclude a person from being an artist. “We never talk about our work as outsider art. It’s just art,” says Adams. People are hopefully starting to recognise this. “I think we’re in a moment. I can’t say that I absolutely trust it. But it’s a good move in the right direction.”

The Project Art Works show in the Turner prize 2021 exhibition at the Herbert Art Museum and Gallery, Coventry
‘I think we’re in a moment’ … Project Art Works exhibits in the Turner prize show. Photograph: David Levene/The Guardian

In London, Studio Voltaire is currently hosting the first significant survey outside of the US of the American artist William Scott’s prolific 30–year practice. It features among its 80 works Scott’s utopian depictions of an alternative San Francisco, known as Praise Frisco, an inclusive place free from crime and violence, and his portraits of black politicians, celebrities and activists including Maya Angelou, Prince and Barack Obama. Refreshingly, the materials surrounding the exhibition focus on Scott’s status as an artist in his own right – as opposed to his dual diagnosis of autism and schizophrenia – and his artistic concern with community, activism and urban development.

The Studio Voltaire exhibition is a collaboration with Creative Growth, a non-profit in Oakland, California, where Scott has practiced since 1992. It is here that I find him when I call him over Zoom to discuss his work and practice. His emphasis on “wholesome encounters”, he tells me, comes from a utopian desire to create a better city. “There was too much violence on the news,” he says, of his interest in architectural painting. “That’s why it makes me draw new cities … I can make a new world when I paint.”

Creative Growth doesn’t just provide space, materials and facilitators for neurodiverse artists; it also acts as agents, bridging the gap between them and the art world. It’s been running since 1974, so they’ve witnessed a lot of change over the decades, though, as gallery director Sarah Galender Meyer points out, it’s been something of a slow burn when you consider that Jean Dubuffet introduced the concept of art brut in the 1940s.

“Even in the past 10 years, there has been quite an increase in acceptance and excitement in the art world,” Meyer says. “It’s really being embraced, even without being under the umbrella term of ‘outsider art’, or ‘self-taught’, which is used, and it’s fine, but I think that they’re just contemporary artists. They warrant the same kind of inquiry that other artists do.”

At the heart of this acceptance, Meyer thinks, may be the dawning understanding that neurodiverse artists offer something new and exciting. “Collectors and institutions and galleries … everybody’s really interested in our artists’ process. And in their work, as well. It’s not like anything that anybody’s seen before. It’s different than somebody coming out of an MFA programme.”

The discovery of neurodiverse artists is often led by other artists, she tells me. “It has typically been a pattern that contemporary artists are the first to discover and applaud the work of self-taught artists. They themselves are steeped in artistic process and are attracted to other artists that embody innovative practices.”

That’s not to say that there isn’t work to do in changing perceptions. “Even in major exhibitions they are not always received as contemporary artists, which further marginalises their work,” says Meyer. “There is an assumption that unless an artist has received formal training and respond to the canon, their process is not ‘legitimate’.”

Encouraging artists to speak for themselves is part of Creative Growth’s ethos. As Scott says, “art can help make the world better. It will bring peace to the world, and bringing peace makes people feel lucky and happier.”

‘An existential crisis in the culture sector’ … An archive of work by neurodivergent artists, Project Art Works at the Herbert in Coventry.
‘An existential crisis in the culture sector’ … An archive of work by neurodivergent artists, Project Art Works at the Herbert in Coventry. Photograph: David Levene/The Guardian

Later that week I’m at Hart Club, a studio space in an old estate agent’s shop in Lambeth, London, looking at some of the work its members have produced. Though much smaller and much newer than Creative Growth and Project Art Works, it shares with them a dedication to championing neurodiversity in the arts by working closely with small groups of neurodiverse artists and exhibiting their work.

I’m here to meet Yangdzom Lama, an artist who works here, and whose paintings are like a beautiful, colourful mix of Frida Kahlo-esque symbolism and Tibetan thangka paintings of Buddhist deities. “I don’t remember this, but my dad used to be a thangka painter, and apparently I used to watch him when I was really little. So I guess all the colours got ingrained into my life.”

“I’d love to be in exhibitions in galleries. That would be a dream come true,” Lama says, when I ask what she hopes for. Hart Club has given her happiness and a sense of community. “I did a term of art school at Camberwell College of Arts but I didn’t really like that,” she says. “There was just too many people (there were 600 on art foundation). At the time, I didn’t know that I was on the autism spectrum either.”

“One thing that’s really wonderful about [Hart Club] is they know that I’m on the spectrum and they’re really accommodating towards that and just really nice. Back in Camberwell, I felt like they weren’t really aware of that kind of thing.” It wasn’t that she didn’t make friends at art school, she explains, so much as the fact that the tutors felt very removed. “It was hard to figure out who you could ask for assistance.”

Hart Club was set up by artist and art school graduate Helen Ralli in 2018 after she worked on an exhibition of neurodiverse artists’ work called Great Minds Think Different. “I was really blown away by the work that I saw,” she says. But there was a disconnect between the work’s quality and where it was being seen, which was mostly limited to a community setting, so she resolved to provide a platform for some of the artists to exhibit. “Those events were a really mixed crowd, very different from the kind of typical art openings that I personally was experiencing before,” says Ralli.

Neurodiverse people are often excluded from such environments, not to mention art school. Ralli said she saw first-hand how “incredibly selective” it is: “It felt lacking in terms of a creative environment, because it was the same people.” Hart Club is an alternative that aims to provide time, materials and encouragement in a nonhierarchical environment, with an emphasis on co-working. “I don’t think it’s about emulating the existing structures. It’s not about ticking boxes. It’s about having to completely rework and rewrite what creative spaces look like.”

Like others in the field, Ralli finds the charity label problematic. “That’s really not what’s happening here,” she says. “Whether they’re a facilitator, or one of the artists, everyone is learning.” She also stresses that a diverse environment is a gift to be embraced by neurotypical artists as well. “Until you’ve really experienced what it is to have a culturally diverse space, I don’t think the true value of it is understood. This is more exciting, enhancing and enriching.”

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