Disabled Artist or an Artist Reflecting on his Disability

National Arts and Disability Conference
Irish Museum of Modem Art

Dublin 18 November 94

My name is Pádraig Naughton and I am a ceramic artist with a particular interest in tactile art. Presently, I am working as artist in residence and teacher with the Richard Attenborough Centre for Disability and the Arts at the University of Leicester. The core activities of the Attenborough Centre include teaching, research and training. In addition, we assist the integration of people with disabilities into mainstream art programmes, such as our current collaboration with Loughborough College of Art and Design enabling visually impaired people to take up their Introductory Studies pre-degree course.

The theme of my talk is: 'Disabled Artist or an Artist Reflecting on His Disability'.

As a ceramic artist with a visual impairment, I suppose I fit into two categories, those of crafts person and disabled artist. While the gap between the sculptor and the ceramist is narrowing, the same can not be said in general of the artist and the disabled artist. In this short talk, I want to concentrate on what being an artist and a disabled artist means to me.

When I visited Japan last May to research the development and use of touch-art in galleries and schools for the blind, I had an article written about my trip in a regional newspaper the Yomiuri Shimbun. The article was headed, 'Irish disabled artist had cultural experience with pupils'. Another columnist with The Japan Times suggested that the day I stop exploring my visual impairment, its consequences and influences is the point I will be free to blend into the wider art scene.

Identity is something all artists consider very important. As I am in the very early stages of my career just recently having graduated from art college, a great many aspects of how I and others perceive me and my work is currently undergoing a formative process. In the early years you can make decisions that could limit or advance the range of opportunities that may open up in the future. This is particularly true in relation to how I present my visual impairment.

The question that comes to mind at this point is, why was I attracted to art in the first instance? Was it due to the physical limitations having a visual impairment placed on me or due to environmental factors, opportunities that arose that I responded to? Personally, I feel that my interest was most definitely led by a growing desire to create, of which my visual impairment was one of many environmental factors.

I was introduced to clay at the age of seven. This was the first art material I had ever handled that I was able to connect with. And so the seeds for a future intimate sensual relationship with clay were laid. My move to secondary school and taking on Intermediate Certificate Art and subsequent to that Leaving Certificate Art. facilitated my wider exposure to the visual arts. While continuing to work with clay, I was also being exposed to and learning to use a whole range of materials. And it was these experiences that awakened my fascination for art not just as something I liked to do, but also a medium that I could use as both a form of inward expression and or a way of communicating to a wider audience.

During my time at college I steadily came to the realisation that I needed to analyse how my visual impairment influenced the way I worked. This was an extremely gradual process taking about three years to emerge. In terms of my drawing, I discovered that I could not see three dimensionally and so as a consequence did not see in line or perspective but in masses. This was a significant discovery as it enabled me to concentrate on developing, methods of drawing and painting that were most real and best suited to me, the primary method which evolved, being charcoal drawing because of its soft edges.

I have always related better to objects that I have experience of handling. However, dealing with this issue in my ceramic work was far more complex. One reason, was the fact that I was beginning the serious process of analysing what I could not see and how I filled in the visual blanks. Not only that, but I had no language with which to work and so I needed to create that language myself.

For me this was a very difficult period as I was concentrating on a weakness and trying to extract its inherent strengths. It was also an exploration I was going through publicly and being assessed on by my tutors at college on a regular basis. This was very important, as the checks and balances of an academic structure encouraged me to qualify my direction at every stage. Taking this approach I was able to evolve a way of working with the clay using only my hands as a means of image making.

People close to me and my work have often suggested that openly discussing my visual impairment in my ceramics and drawing would isolate me from, rather than bring me closer to the mainstream. This is something that concerns most people with any type of physical disability, for fear of their work being first associated with their disability and not the strengths of its construction or the message it is trying to communicate. The need to hide ones disability is still something very real in this country, one friend suggested 'that it might damage business ' and if making pots is your primary source of income that may well be true. There is in addition to that the sympathy factor. The worry being that the rules and standards used to analyse their work is different. Above all else, artists want a forum which takes them seriously and in the long term will assist their growth and enable them to sell their work.

In reality I feel there is no such thing as a disabled artist as all artists are on a journey of discovery, reflecting how they perceive their environment in the work they create. My method of relating to my primary material clay, is touch. And it may be that my contribution to art is continuing to develop a tactile language, a challenge I am very committed to and look forward to continuing in the future.

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