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Colin Hambrook responds to Tony Heaton’s talk about his sculpture as part of Shape’s ‘Animate’ programme on 4 February 2010 / 10 February 2010

Great Britain from a Wheelchair sculpture by Tony Heaton

Great Britain from a Wheelchair 1994 © Tony Heaton

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I’ve known Tony Heaton since 1993. He’s always been very enigmatic, passionate and down-to-earth in his approaches to the projects he takes up. I came into the disability arts movement in the wake of Shaken not Stirred - a piece of performance art installation that became a defining moment in disability arts history for many people in the disabled peoples’ movement.

The title came from a quote from James Bond who always liked his martinis shaken not stirred. Apparently Ian Fleming didn’t know how to make a martini, but that was the last thing on peoples’ minds when Tony created some media attention when he threw an artificial leg, complete with doctor martin boot, into a seven foot high pyramid of charity collecting cans. It was part of a protest against Telefon – ITVs fundraising marathon to raise money for disability charities, regardless of whether those charities actually represented disabled peoples’ concerns or not.

I say it was a defining moment, because at the time it was still regarded as sacrilegious to question whether or not charities listened to the disabled people they represented. It still is. But at that time Tony Heaton made a lot of disabled people sit up and think “we don’t have to take this any more.”

The slogan that stirred our imaginations was “nothing about us, without us.” It became a calling card for disabled peoples’ engagement, demanding consultation and employment at the heart of organisations working in our name.

It kind of begs the question “where are we now?” Some would say we’ve gone further backwards; there is more poverty in our community and largely disabled people remain outside of the decision-making processes. Others would say there has been advancement; that disabled people are within the public gaze like never before. There are many projects – like Animate – that have been funded to bring disabled people into the limelight to raise awareness of our culture and history from our own perspective.

Tony Heaton has been undertaking commissions over the last 21 years. He’s not been a prolific artist, but everything he’s made has been meticulously and with a rigorous thought process behind it.

When I was but a new kid on the block Tony came up with Great Britain from A Wheelchair – a map of the UK (minus Northern Ireland and the Isle of Wight) – made from the parts of two charity-issue wheelchairs.

In a way it made me nervous. Here was this massive statement, saying “disabled people aren’t going to hide away any more, so you’d better learn to deal with us.” A lot of us are shy of being open about the disability aspect of our lives. We don’t want to be seen as making mountains out of molehills. We get tired of being made to feel that we are crying out for special dispensation. We face barriers to being able to do things in all kinds of life situations, that are largely taken for granted by the mass of people.

So here was this amazing piece of sculpture that took the ubiquitous symbol for disability – the wheelchair – and made it into something we could aspire to. It was an eye-opener. It made me think a lot about shame and blame – the attitudes I’d grown up with that formed a cloud around the disability bit of my life.

I didn’t actually get to see the sculpture in person until it came on exhibition at Holton Lee in the late 90s. Although I knew the size of it, I’d built it up as something enormous in my mind, and was slightly taken aback seeing it for real, standing only 6 foot high.

We’ve been dogged by an attitude of fear and loathing towards the impaired body and mind since Greek civilisation. Great Britain from A Wheelchair will come to stand for a moment in time when disabled people stood up to confront those attitudes.

Tony Heaton’s sculpture tells stories about geometry and integration. It’s a journey of self-discovery – finding new bits to identity integrated out of disability. He tells his stories very eloquently, in objects and in words. As such he is perfect subject for ‘Animate’ which is continuing to take an in-depth look at the legacy of the disability arts movement.

Artist and Writer Allan Sutherland talks about the work of artist Tony Heaton, part of the Shape Animate series of workshops.

[Transcript of podcast]

Alan Sutherland: As an artist, I really like Tony’s work. I like its – it’s elegant but it’s witty and it’s always thoughtful. It’s always worth talking to Tony about what he’s doing with a particular piece. But you always find there’s this whole kind of superstructure of kind of ideas around what may seem like quite a simple piece. It’s actually – and then you think, “Oh, right.” He makes you feel a bit slow sometimes. "Oh, so we should have got more out of that."

But I was going to talk a little bit about ‘Split’. I will but very little given that you’re being asked to form your own opinions. I think that’s a kind of quite quintessential Tony Heaton piece. The way he’s taken the bit of wood with a split. Is that the term? With a crack in it. And actually made what would have been seen as a flaw – a reason for throwing a bit of wood away by other sculptors – as the heart of the piece. What the piece is all about. And something that’s very positive and meaning-bearing.

And obviously that sort of reversal has big implications in terms of disability and how disabled people are judged and what disabled people can do. And all of that stuff. The classic Tony Heaton work I think is ‘Great Britain from a Wheelchair.’ A map of Britain made from two Ministry of Health wheelchairs.

I looked up an article I wrote about Tony some years ago for dail and I found a quote from him. He said message those wheelchairs originally convey is, “This is for some sad bastard.”

And he’s completely reinvented that - and made like a joyous, amazing, extraordinary piece of art. I have to admit that he told me about it. We had a phone conversation when he was just starting to think about it. He said, “Oh yes I’ve got this idea, just get some wheelchairs for me.”

And I’m not an artist. I don’t have that kind of visual imagination. And I thought, “He’s lost it this time.” (Laughter) And then I just remember that moment. It was in Leeds where I first saw it exhibited. And initially, it was like one of those, you know, those 3D things that were on sale where you like sort of peer at them and then suddenly they click into place.

It’s just like all these bits of wheelchair and then suddenly – bumph! It’s Great Britain. And that’s extraordinary. And disabled people, you know, we are everywhere, we are everything. We are all powerful. We are interesting and wonderful. All of that.

And then the other side of Tony’s work – when he became director of Holton Lee. Holton Lee, yeah. Tony has struck me as – at least until you started taking effect there as kind of an odd place. A charitable trust that was a kind of a little bit spiritual and a little bit stuff for the cripples and a bit ecological but… I always had in talking about Holton Lee, difficulty kind of finding a term to sum it up and saying, “It’s a…” What?

But while Tony was there, he really turned that rather odd kind of mish-mash into something that’s a strong part of the disability arts scene in this country. A bit of a – in its time, a bit of a powerhouse.

I don’t know whether it’s going to stay like that. Or whether it’s just gonna purely be part of our history. But with an extraordinary talent for finding funding for capital projects. It essentially created the first Disability Arts campus.

And now, he’s starting to do much the same thing for Shape. And my guess would be that the workers at Shape actually haven’t quiet realised how much their organisation is changing for the better.

Tony Heaton: But don’t tell them. (Laughter)

Alan Sutherland: I don’t know. I don’t – my guess would be, you don’t know because that’s the whole thing. It’s that ability to take just take something and keep moving forward and finding out where you get to. I guess that’s – I never thought of it like that way before. Like putting an artist’s way of working to running an organisation.

Tony Heaton. This is your life. (Laughter)

Tony Heaton: Thank you, Alan. (Applause)

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sarah p

23 February 2010

Interesting to see the Great Britain from A Wheelchair sculpture again because I was on we (the editorial board) used it as the cover picture for the first booklet in the Disability Portfolio for Museums. Libraries and Archives - text written by Annie Delin. Looking for appropriate art work and ensuring best accessibility for the portfolio was one of the challenges we faced in working with a non-disabled designer, but the end result was very successful and has been translated into many languages as well as winning Disability Information Forum award.