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Artist, Advocate or both?

Posted: 22 April, 2013

Pádraig Naughton spoke at The Dinner Party: Not Just a Dublin Coddle, a performance event created by Doors to Elsewhere and The Blue Room.

Artist, Advocate or Both, a transcript from this speech:
‘I was very fortunate in some ways that I was the last generation of people with disability and in particular with visual impairments who was obliged to go into set careers.  In other words there were careers, pre-defined like piano tuning, physiotherapy, basket weaving, bed making and telephony!  And the one thing that terrified me more than anything else was becoming a telephonist!  I just did not want to become a telephonist.

The thing for me was that it was all about choice and we all need to be able to make choices.  So for me what I suppose I’m trying to say is that when I was going through school I was interested in art. I liked it! I liked clay, I really enjoyed handling the material and I kind of thought to myself I’ll go and do this art thing because then I won’t have to do telephony. Not only that I wanted to step outside the visually impaired and blind world. So in stepping outside that environment I decided I wanted to become an artist.

I managed to get the grades and went off to the National College of Art and Design in Dublin where I studied Craft Design and Ceramics. What I found fairly quickly was that, craft design ceramics was a visual design course and I still couldn’t see. Although I wanted to step into the sighted world my visual acuity hadn’t changed at all. I still faced the same issues of my visual impairment as I did when I was in school. But in fact I was now in a fully sighted world that didn’t understand me at all. At least when I was in school some people understood me and so I had to figure ways while I was in college of taking what was my love for clay a tactile material and that visual design course I was on and turn that into something that was useful for me. For example I moved from creating designs for pieces of ceramic in a drawing format to working with machetes and then drawing those up or sometimes working from machete to final piece in ceramics. Eventually that led me into creating tactile work. Using massage techniques as forms of mark making, then that lead in many regards I suppose to me completing a degree which was all about touch and clay. In many ways I was totally referencing my visual impairment in that mainstream environment.  That for me was never intended, it was a complete accident.

I then did a number of things. I spent two years as artist in residence at the Richard Attenborough Centre for Disability and the Arts at Leister University,. I had a very interesting set of experiences there, which was really really valuable. During that time I worked with school children and art students, developed my own practice, spoke at a lot of conferences and lectures and very much immersed myself in the UK disability arts scene as well. I went on to study a postgraduate teaching qualification at Breton Hall in West Yorkshire. One of the reasons I chose West Yorkshire and Breton to study in was because one of the things that they explained was that they had 90 places for postgraduate teaching students and they wanted 90 different people and I could be one more different person within that group of 90. That for me was a very exciting opportunity. I decided subsequently to return to Ireland and set up my studio practice.

From 1998 through until 2003 I ran my own studio practice doing large scale tactile architectural sculpture which was influenced by using massage techniques as forms of mark making. It’s quite abstract work and alongside that charcoal work, very much photorealistic landscapes. Over that time what I found though was more and more of my studio practice was being eaten up in time terms with ‘Will you speak at this conference?’, ‘Will you sit on this consultation panel?’, ‘Will you be part of this steering group?’.

In many ways what I felt like was a hurler on the ditch. or a footballer on the fence. Someone who could give their opinions til the end of time but never really got to play the game. What I found was loads of people wanted my opinions but I never really got a real part to play in implementing those opinions. That was very important for me and so I decided in 2003 I would go to the UK and work for Equata the Disability Arts Development Agency for South West England and see what working for an organisation engaged in  change would feel like.

In 2005 I came back to Ireland and to take up the position of director of Arts & Disability Ireland. The important thing for me was that as an artist I couldn’t change the things that I saw that were wrong. For example as an artist if I wanted to exhibit my work I was given a slot in August, who the hell wants a slot in August when everyone’s on holidays? I was given the opportunity to exhibit in Museums that most non-disabled artists never get to exhibit in, in fact most of the artists that are in those museums are dead. In other words my work wasn’t been seen alongside my non-disabled peers. I felt as an individual artist I couldn’t change that just by making my work.

So deciding to move into the area of arts administration for me was really important about making a difference on a bigger scale. I feel very strongly about this: not every person with a disability needs to be a leader , although everyone should be able to speak and advocate for themselves and has the right to be listened to but not everyone needs to or wants to take on a leadership responsibility. Last week I met David Toole the internationally renowned English disabled dancer who told he’s now 20 years making dance. For the last 10 years I haven’t made art. The world would be a poorer place if David didn’t make his art and actually my best contribution is in terms of trying to advocate and lead for change so that other people can get on with the job of making their art. I do sometimes think it’s a pity that people with disabilities are almost forced into the position where they have to make a choice, but sometimes that’s what you have to do. I don’t regret making that choice’

Pádraig Naughton
Director of Arts & Disability Ireland.

This talk was given as part of The Dinner Party: Not Just a Dublin Coddle, a multi-media performance event featuring emerging artists with disabilities from Dublin and Liverpool led by professional artists from Ireland and the U.K. Created by Doors to Elsewhere (Tallaght, Dublin) and the Blue Room (Liverpool)

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