“When we feel inadequate, it’s because we’re not being heard” – Elinor Rowlands talks to Kate Lovell about ‘coming out’ as a disabled artist in the latest of DAO’s Viewfinder peer-to-peer interviews.
Elinor Rowlands doesn’t feel she fits into traditional societal models, and little wonder, for she is a Renaissance woman at heart. She has a multitude of talents, and working across painting, poetry, theatre, screenwriting and film-making, she is not just an artist who can, but an artist who must: “I have a really fast mind and sometimes there are moments when I just need to paint.”
It isn’t necessarily Rowlands’s unusually broad skill-set that has made her feel out of sorts in the artistic world. Rowlands manages invisible impairments, and speaks openly about how self-identifying as disabled in current society does not present an issue, but in fact empowers her: “My disability has allowed me to really feel and know my body and my feelings.”
It is Rowlands’s non-conformism that draws me in – the freshness of her views, along with her sensitive and varied artistic voice is totally absorbing for the all-too-short time we have together.
After having a difficult experience working as director on a film-set, feeling forced to push herself into societal norms and play down her access needs, Rowlands decided enough was enough and ‘came out’ as a disabled artist.
In telling me the story of her first time working as a film director, she asserts that the details don’t matter, “what matters is that I got rid of the crew [and] my next team I told straightaway, ‘I am disabled’”. This simple and bold act of being explicit from the outset transformed Rowlands’s on-set experience: “my crew would really listen to me when I was talking and they would sit down with me when I sat down and then I just realised, actually, I’m a good director”.
Rowlands currently has a feature film in development called Rouge:
“It’s about a girl who is grieving, but at the same time she’s in love with someone, and at the same time someone else is in love with her. So she feels completely overwhelmed by these emotions and so she starts creating or devising a reality that feels more manageable for her. The audience don’t know what is real or what’s not until the end, when they figure it out and she figures it out because she’s not completely sure either.”
This sense of unreality permeates Rowlands’s artistic voice, as she outlines the concept for her stage play, Jamie’s Lighthouse, which tells the story of a young man with Asperger’s Syndrome and ADHD who is forced to live with his mother due to governmental cuts and decides that “he wants to live underwater because the noise is different there.”
The voices here are of those who need to escape reality, who are searching for a space of their own in an increasingly demanding world, and Rowlands explains that her biggest theme is:
“Feeling very stuck or frustrated; or that experience of being unable to feel because you’re so overwhelmed you can’t let it all in and so you don’t know what to do in that moment.”
It strikes me that Rowlands’s sensitivity to sensory stimulation chimes with why she is attracted to filmmaking.
“With film you can use such a multi-sensory experience, it’s cinematography, then it’s also sound, lighting and colour, and there is so much that you can do with it. There’s a non-verbal way of experiencing the story, so you can actually turn the sound down and you don’t need the dialogue, you can just see, you can pick up patterns.”
It is clear to me that whilst Rowlands’s artistic voice straddles many forms, the visual arts are her key to unlocking her creative voice: “painting helps me concentrate, it helps me gather everything, all the ideas and all that I want to say and I put it all down, like I splatter it everywhere non-verbally”.
She describes her flat as a warehouse of canvasses which guests must trip over when they visit, and when asked why she cannot put them away, she explains that they are “completely unfinished thoughts but in colour on a canvas.” For Rowlands, painting is meditative, “a place I go when I need to talk with my psyche.”
It makes sense that she has not neatly framed her best works and recycled the rest – for her, painting is like any writer’s notebooks, chaotic and full of ideas, a necessary outpouring, “then I can breathe and then I can actually write again.”
Rowlands’s writing has been labelled controversial by others – she wrote her first play at sixteen for seven girls at her school, and “the play was banned two days before it was to be put on.” Rowlands’s thoughts on the topic resonate with my own as she says, “it did strike me as odd that a sixteen-year old’s voice would be so scary.”
The play explored the lives of girls of differing ethnicities, many of whom were disabled and managed mental health issues, drawing on their real-life experiences. So why was the play censored? The school headmistress decided that those watching would laugh at her and the girls, that they would only elicit pity from an audience of their peers and friends.
At a tender age, Rowlands experienced censorship veiled as protection. She believes this is something that continues to operate outside of the microcosm of the school: “an awful lot of disabled people are being shunned, and being told, ‘Oh you’re fine, stop complaining’, and they’re not complaining.”
This issue feels especially pertinent in a climate where disabled people are being forced to shout ever louder about their needs in the face of rank prejudice masked as ‘necessary budget cuts’. It is far easier to label disabled people as tantrum-loving complainers than to acknowledge the frightening realities of governmental moves that are too horrifying to stomach. But stomach them we absolutely must, and I feel Rowlands recognises the danger of this attempt to silence disabled voices.
In coming out as a disabled artist and being rigorous in her ability to draw on her own experiences to discuss very live issues, she shines a bright light on uncomfortable truths. Rowlands explains that “people have often told me to stop being so sensitive, but I embrace it”. It is her sensitivity, combined with her willingness to make art that goes against the conventional flow, that makes her a compelling voice to welcome onto the disability arts scene.