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Why it's important for art to be accessible

Why it's important for art to be accessible

Artist Jason Wilsher-Mills shares his experience of designing a sculpture for London's first step-free art trail and reflects on the importance of accessibility in the art world

Earlier this year I was asked to design a Morph sculpture for London’s first step-free art trail in collaboration with Aardman and Whizz-Kidz, the UK’s leading charity for young wheelchair users. It was an offer I couldn’t possibly turn down, given the trail is a way to increase public awareness about the need for young wheelchair users to be mobile, enabled and included in society, through the power of art. It was something that seemed extra important to me, given art isn’t always something that has felt accessible to me as a working-class disabled person. 

I was born in Wakefield, West Yorkshire, in 1969 into a large, working-class family, of eight. I was the youngest of eight children. Mum was a housewife and Dad worked as a boiler man. We never had much money, so pursuing hobbies was difficult, but regardless of the lack of money, Mum and Dad always ensured I had something to draw with and something to draw on.

"Art isn’t always something that has felt accessible as a working-class disabled person"

My earliest memories involve me sat in front of the open coal fire, in that busy house, and just losing myself in drawing.

I was able-bodied until the age of 11, when I caught chicken pox badly, and both the virus and my white blood cells caused me to be paralysed from the neck down. I was in hospital for a year and had to have 24-hour care throughout my teenage years

I lived in my head during those years, and it was at this time that I learned to escape through art. Fortunately, I recovered enough to go to art college, and this was the start of my life as an artist

Because of my disability and my feelings of inadequacy as a working-class person, I felt that I could not be a professional artist, so after graduating I drifted into teaching, and then management.

Jason Wilsher-Mills artist - the importance of making art more accessible

Jason Wilsher-Mills

It was not until my early thirties that my disability made working in education nine-to-five too difficult for me, and I had what I call my "Hagrid moment". I was ill, on morphine and one of my artist friends said to me, "Jason, you are not a manager, you are an artist. However hard life is now, you can paint your way out of it."

I said, "I can’t paint," due to my disability, and he advised me to get this new gadget called an iPad.

I took his advice and purchased an iPad on December 27, 2011, and it changed my life. The art poured out of me, like a torrent. Things moved so quickly that after just four months, I had my work shown in a group show in America.

Falling back in love with art

As a disabled person the digital tablet was an incredible asset, as I was able to work anywhere, at any time. It was small, but it fitted a whole studio of work inside and if I was having a bad day I would work from bed. It revolutionised the way that I worked and made art.

The themes of my work, even all those years ago, was my personal experiences as a disabled person, my childhood, aspects of popular culture and disability activism. Right from the start I did not want to make "shouty" art, but rather chose the route of imagining that I worked for The Beano, and they had commissioned me to create PG-rated high art about what it was to be disabled in the 21st century. In fact, when asked what my work was about, I would simply answer, "It’s The Beano meets I, Daniel Blake." 

"When asked what my work was about, I would simply answer, 'It’s The Beano meets I, Daniel Blake'"

So the work was accessible, as it resonated with the viewers' own childhood memories, whilst challenging them with difficult concepts, such as equal access to toilets. I call this my "Trojan Horse" method; people are drawn in by the bright psychedelic colours and humour, which means I can then release my "soldiers of activism" into their minds, so they must consider some of the serious issues I am raising.

Using the iPad opened a whole new world of possibilities, as I was effectively creating art digitally, which meant that those same digital files could be used to create 3D prints, fibreglass/bronze sculptures, and even huge inflatable sculptures. I was also able to create augmented and virtual reality games, apps and experiences.

Jason Wilsher-Mills' morph for the Morph Art Trail London

Jason Wilsher-Mills' Morph for the Morph Art Trail

All of this led me to work with groups of disabled people, both in the UK and as far as Japan, so I could use these tools to make art about the stories I was being told. I was not giving them a voice, but rather it was them who gave me a voice, so that I could make public art about disability. Ultimately, I hoped this art would change policy and public perceptions. This has now become a "movement" which I call "Jason and his Argonauts".

"I am incredibly proud to be part of the first fully accessible, step-free, sculpture trail"

When I was approached to work with Whizz Kidz and Kids Industries to be part of the Morph Sculpture trail I was immediately drawn to it, as it would give me an opportunity to extend my "argonauts" universe through working with young disabled people, who I delivered an online workshop with, and they helped me design the Morph for the trail. I am incredibly proud to be part of the first fully accessible, step-free, sculpture trail. I love the thought that thousands of disabled people will be able to take part and enjoy the wonderful art on show, and know it is a celebration of them and their lives.

You can see Jason's work here.

Cover image: Andy Newbold

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