Between April and June 2008 artist Alan Mclean took participants from Ethnic Advocacy and Apna Women's Group to Madame Tussauds and the Startstruck exhibition at Walsall Art Gallery
If I asked myself why I think this project was successful, I'd say the answer lies in shared ambition - a willingness to include, combined with the know-how to deliver the event. It showed a clear understanding of the value of showing people who don't have the opportunity to visit galleries that the practice of art-making and process of engaging with artists' work can be enjoyable and fulfilling.
The workshops allowed learning disabled people to experience art and to make artwork in their own right. As a disabled artist, I identify with my group's exclusion and lack of choice. With this project I wanted to be mindful of assumptions. I aimed to empower individuals by using the opportunity this project affords to demonstrate that learning disabled people can benefit and engage in high-quality art experiences. This belief and ethos was shared by the gallery, support workers and myself, so we set about ensuring that a structure was in place to deliver these values. We used torches and binoculars to focus our looking and increase the time spent with each picture. Each workshop included a visit to the gallery and an artistic activity in the studio.
In the gallery, individuals were given time to think about what they liked about the pictures in the current show, Starstruck, and to choose an artwork. In the studio we talked about the gallery visit and what we liked before making choices about how to go about drawing and mark-making.
Before the workshops began at the gallery, the group discussed my proposal to make work on the theme of celebrity, in response to the exhibition. They were facilitated by advocacy workers, who joined us on the project. Together they decided they wanted to visit Madame Tussauds to see the celebrities who excited them. Visits to Madame Tussauds are about taking photographs with your favourite celebrity. I welcomed a visit to the waxworks because I wanted the group, parents and carers to feel comfortable with the task of taking pictures and being in the photograph. More than 300 photographs were taken between us, using disposable and digital cameras.
The Bollywood room, including stars Salman Khan and Shah Rukn Khan, featured in every other photograph. I stayed with my camera in the Bollywood part of the exhibition for the afternoon and coached people to get the picture they wanted and to create a narrative with the wax figures. Families and carers who came along to London joined us on future trips to the Ikon Gallery and Compton Verney.
In workshops, we studied the pictures taken at Madame Tussauds and used Bollywood DVDs to select film stills. Using camera trickery we placed ourselves in the picture. The excitement and buzz from looking at stars we know was perfect preparation for viewing the Starstruck exhibition for the first time. Everyone got a lot out of seeing the photographs created by Alison Jackson and the intensity of colour in Gavin Turk's work. A few were brave enough to pose and perform in the Jessica Voorsanger karaoke room.
I worked with two different groups: the ladies' group, as they liked to be called, were calm, quiet, focused, consistent with each task, fully participative and had an eye on the work made. They were comfortable using words to describe pictures and had an overall appreciation for the image. The mixed group were more about activity, noise, openness in communication, and fluidity. They were sometimes resistant, and wanted to do, rather than reflect. There was a lot of excitement and a willingness to jump into each activity.
Overall there was a consistent enthusiasm for the project from all participants. In the final two sessions many said they felt they were at the beginning rather than the end of the project. For example, Siraaj wanted to know more about the skills involved in making artwork. He enjoyed using Photoshop on the computer to mix painting and photography. He said, “Painting puts our own stamp on the work”.
Mobeen, who enjoys the painting and drawing as much as making choices about composition and what is in the frame, said: "We are starting to make our own pictures".
When Siraaj, an articulate member of the group, was asked about what he thought of the visit to the Ikon Gallery, he said he thought the ride in the lift was terrific fun. The lift plays a piece of music made by artist and musician Martin Creed. It is the sound of a choir of singers which changes tonally according to whether you are going up or down.