AMD (Age Related Macular Degeneration) Awareness Week
Posted: 14 September, 2015
Acknowledging the link between arts and advocacy- my defining moment
This charcoal drawing on yellow paper is a self-portrait and some 24 years after I created it, it still remains one of my favourites. In many respects artistically it was a defining moment, the moment when I acknowledged my visual impairment was part of my arts practice. What I didn’t know then was that this shift in attitude was sowing the seeds for my future career direction in the arts.
While my face is clearly visible in the portrait, it is all the eyes projected around the edges that are most striking. The way I used charcoal in this drawing was almost sculptural. Charcoal was applied in layers to the yellow paper and using a soft putty eraser I drew out the highlights. As I don’t see in a bifocal way, using charcoal, I could create depth with light and shade rather than line.
In 1989 when I chose to study for a degree in ceramics, I had wanted to leave my visual impairment behind me in secondary school and become an artist. As a teenager, the typical career paths I kept hearing about were telephony, physiotherapy, piano tuning and basket weaving. Like most teenagers I was determined to plough my own furrow, art set me apart and I liked that.
However, during my time at NCAD I came to realise that I was on a visual design course, although the reason I opted specifically for ceramics was because I loved handling clay. The other big realisation was that I still had a visual impairment. The solution was to acknowledge this and figure ways of working creatively that suited my way of seeing. This self-portrait was a defining moment. It opened up a dialogue with my peers and tutors about how I actually saw the world and might respond to it creatively in my evolving arts practice. My final degree exhibition used massage techniques to create ceramic murals to be appreciated by touch.
Since then disability has been to the forefront in my career in the arts. Initially, the focus was the unique perspective my visual impairment gave to the making techniques I chose and the subject matter I worked with. Inevitably I became a role model and advocate. Steadily over the years my arts practice drew me further and further into debates on how the arts could be made more accessible to people with disabilities.
While I had lots of opinions on how the arts needed to change to be more inclusive of people with disabilities, I felt like the quintessential hurler on the ditch. My opinions mattered but I couldn’t influence change from the sidelines. So, ten years after graduating I made the transition from artist to arts administrator.
Since 2005 I have been Executive Director of Arts & Disability Ireland, the national development and resource organisation for the sector. ADI describes itself as “championing the creativity of artists with disabilities and promoting inclusive experiences for audiences with disabilities”. This we do in partnership with the arts sector.
Looking back on my decade at the helm of Arts & Disability Ireland I’m delighted to say that there are many more opportunities for people with disabilities to work professionally in the arts, and also more accessible arts performances and exhibitions to enjoy. With our Board and team of very committed staff, ADI has amassed a huge number of allies and advocates both here in Ireland and internationally. Without their funding, resources and collaboration my vision for change could not be realised.
As a visually impaired person, I’ll always be especially proud of my involvement in introducing audio description to the Abbey Theatre and Dublin Theatre Festival in 2006. This live commentary describes the visual elements of a performance as it unfolds, from sets, props, costumes to actors’ facial expressions and movements across the stage.
Starting in 2012 with the Butler Gallery in Kilkenny, ADI began utilising ‘Discovery Pens’ to provide audio description at exhibitions, thus making both the performing and visual arts more accessible than ever before to blind and visually impaired audiences across Ireland.
So while I didn’t see this self-portrait in charcoal on yellow paper as a defining moment back in 2001, I’ve little doubt it has played a significant part in shaping my career in the arts. Perhaps you will never put a brush to canvas or write a piece of prose. However, the arts are there to challenge and entertain, and they are becoming ever more accessible. Go be inspired and enjoy!