Arts & Disability Forum AGM

Guest Speaker

Share Centre
28 May 1999

My name is Pádraig Naughton and I am a tactile and visual artist based near Ballinasloe in south county Roscommon. My primary interests are in developing sculpture that is made and can be appreciated by touch, landscape drawing and research into issues that concern art and visual impairment.

Let me begin by giving a broad overview of my work and myself. As I already mentioned I live near Ballinasloe. Ballinasloe is a medium sized town in the midlands located some 40 miles east of Galway.

At present I am working full time as a studio-based artist. However, since graduating from the National College of Art & Design Dublin in 1993, I have worked on a variety of projects. Exhibiting my ceramics and drawings in numerous galleries and festivals throughout Ireland as well as the UK and in Belgium.

In 1994 I visited Japan to do research and participate in touch-art projects in schools for the blind and galleries. In the autumn of that year I was invited as artist in residence and teacher to the Richard Attenborough Centre for Disability and the Arts, at the University of Leicester. In 1997/98 I completed a Post-Graduate Certificate in Education, Art & Design Secondary Teaching at Bretton Hall College of the University of Leeds West Yorkshire.

Since returning to Ireland last summer I have mounted one exhibition at the Brideswell International Celtic Festival. More recently I have exhibited my work as part of the Focus Exhibition which is on view here at the Share Centre. Over the last few months I have been working on a new collection of landscape drawings while also writing and developing an Internet Web Site about my work and activities as an artist.

At the moment, I am putting the final plans together for a trip to the Scottish Highlands, to lead work on a collaborative tactile wall mural with disability groups and schools in Ross-shire. In the coming months, I hope to set up my own ceramics studio and to this end am delighted with the substantial financial backing I have just received from Mid-South Roscommon Rural Development Company under European Union Leader II funding.

I describe myself as a tactile and visual artist as I see my art activities as being comprised of two distinctive elements. While my work as a sculptor and landscape artist may compliment each other in the broadest sense, there is little crossover and both are compartmentalised. Like a bilingual speaker, I have two languages, tactile and visual.

My interest in what I like to call tactile art began while I was a student at the National College of Art & Design Dublin, where I studied for a degree in Craft Design majoring in ceramics from 1989-93. However, over the duration of my course I began to realise that the way I related to clay was by touch, when I was in fact receiving a visual arts training in a three-dimensional material. So the single issue that arose repeatedly was. How could I find an accommodation for my need to create by touch when my course was firmly based on a visual aesthetic? Consequently, I spent the first two years of my degree trying to find an approach that could be both pleasing in a tactile and visual way and that fitted the criteria of the course.

In my third year I began to work with large murals using textures and physical actions to produce movement in my work. Using under-glaze colours and a wash of glaze I was able to emphasise the textures. Although visually pleasing, the murals were not sympathetic to the hands.

Just by chance during the summer before commencing my final year, I did some volunteer work in the physiotherapy department of a local hospital. While working there, I was introduced to massage as part of anti-natal classes that the department gave. In this medical environment I was able to discuss touch with the physiotherapist and other staff, like as if it were a tactile aesthetic and of course it was. While a bizarre coincidence, I believe it to have been a monumental awakening of my awareness. I now had found a complete example of a tactile language. On reflection, it amazes me that as a visually impaired person that it took this experience to help me focus and begin building a vocabulary. The challenge then, was to find a way that allowed me create in touch, sculpture that could be appreciated in a tactile way.

Continuing to look at massage both in the way its applied and the individual strokes such as hacking, thumb rolling, etc, I started to evolve a non-visual form of mark making in the clay. To my surprise what emerged was a way of working that had both a visual and tactile aesthetic. The final result at my degree show, was an architectural wall mural measuring 22 x 4.5ft that was entirely worked by touch. Working by touch is very intuitive and I don't really have a visual image as I work. Therefore, I only apply colour to emphasise form; usually iron oxides rubbed back and a clear glaze on top.

'Celebrating Difference' was a national touring exhibition that began in Dublin in September 1993 and continued on to visit some 28 venues both north and south over the following year and a half. The central theme of this exhibition was to "celebrate difference as advantage rather than disadvantage". My contribution was to say that touch could appeal to all. Committed to integration, I see the affirmation of difference, as a way of broadening public perception and acceptance.

Since then I have worked on several installations of varying sizes. One major departure has been the creation of ceramic screen like structures. 'My Hands on You' an installation exhibited at the University of Leicester in 1995, was comprised of hundreds of individual pieces of clay. In this case the massage strokes were applied to small hand-size pieces, that when fired to stoneware temperature were treaded on rope and hung. This allowed the viewer to walk around and through the curtain and to handle individual pieces.

Drawing has always played a part in my work. In the early years I used it, as a design tool for my ceramics, although over time I have became more comfortable making clay models and photographing them. My interest in a tactile approach to sculpture and my use of a camera has had a significant impact on my drawing. I especially like using photography to record mood and suggest emotion.

My preferred drawing media is charcoal. For me line expresses the theory of drawing but it certainly does not help me to investigate a subject in any sort of meaningful way. For me, the most natural way to draw is to first build up the general forms of the image and then add the detail. This approach is most probably influenced by my visual impairment, which prevents me from seeing in a bifocal way, therefore making what I see in reality a little flatter.

Around the time I was working with massage techniques as forms of mark making, my drawing was reflecting my visual interest in tactile form. In particular the way light could be used to suggest these forms. The more I experimented with these images, the more I realised I did not really have a deep understanding of how light worked. This brought me on to looking at light in the landscape and how high contrast can be used not only to capture form but suggest mood as well.

The use of coloured papers to draw on has been a feature of my work for several years and I think it was very much influenced by my experimentation with filters in photography. I am also intrigued by the fact that I often see one colour in a landscape. A typical example is an evening sky when the setting sun turns everything, first yellow and then red. Another example is the night sky, which sometimes has a purple light especially in snow.

Since completing my PGCE in Art & Design secondary teaching at Bretton Hall, I have decided to base myself in Ireland and work as a studio artist. My ambition is to combine my creative abilities as an artist and skills as a teacher so that I can establish a career that is not dependent on travel on a daily basis.

It is a testament to how radically attitudes have changed in recent years, when local funding bodies are able to see the business potential in the activities of an artist as well as having the confidence to support a person with a visual impairment, from the many applications they receive. For that reason I feel deeply indebted to Mid-South Roscommon Rural Development Company. The funding from the Leader II programme will go a long way in setting up a ceramics studio, developing my Web Site further and the framing of a sizeable number of my drawings over the coming year. This level of acceptance builds credibility in my own community, and hopefully will allow me to contribute to the arts in a wider sense, not only on issues of disability.

Fortunately, we live in a world that is being made ever smaller by communication. Technologies are becoming easier to use and consequently it is possible to take on more tasks. In the past if you wanted an audience for your ideas or your work, it was necessary to get published in print and exhibit in galleries. Now it is possible to seek out an audience that is worldwide, and unlikely to have been reached by traditional media. For example, this talk will probably be available on my web site by tomorrow evening. In addition to having an international forum, the internet provides an opportunity for exchanging and sharing information, in particular with students with disabilities who are attending courses in the visual arts and maybe the only student on their course or even in their college or university with a disability. It is imperative that if integration is to succeed that what was learned in the past by other people with disabilities is disseminated.

In conclusion. I would say to you as a group. While striving to assert and explore your identity as people with disabilities. Seek to inspire confidence in and interest from the wider community.

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