“I can understand it, there’s a fear of people with intellectual disability when people don’t have regular contact. And so, I think artwork, which is about the experience of different kinds of people, becomes a conduit for connection,” says Gabrielle Mordy.
As the artistic director of Studio A, a Sydney-based studio for artists living with intellectual disability, Gabrielle grasps this concept better than most – especially as she didn’t start her career with the intention of working in this specialised field. “I was doing my honours degree in anthropology and I wanted to write about artists who make work from a different cultural perspective,” Gabrielle says. But a shift came when she started working part-time at Studio Artes, an organisation which provides recreational creative programs for adults with disabilities. She says, “I just was really blown away by the quality of artwork. It was electric.”
There weren’t any opportunities for these artists to develop their skills further or exhibit their artwork in galleries. “The concept of Studio A was really born out of that need. It just seemed like a no-brainer,” Gabrielle says. “I ended up writing my honour’s thesis on the cultural assumptions around the relationship between intellectual capacity and the making of art. Still to this day when I tell people that I work with artists with an intellectual disability, people immediately think that I’m an art therapist, or they assume that it’s a recreational art program and I’m a volunteer. There seems to be a mindset that if you have an intellectual disability you can’t simply make good artwork.
“The work that these artists make very much reflects our rich experience, but it’s not coming through an intellectual way of thinking. It’s coming through different ways of experiencing the world.”
Along with principal artist Emma Johnston, Gabrielle made it her mission to support these artists and challenge our assumptions of what’s possible. They began by running Studio A as a professional pathways program five years ago under Studio Artes, then last year Studio A formally became a social enterprise. There are 15 resident artists currently working in the space. They also offer weekly workshops, an annual exhibition program, and assist artists in selling and exhibiting their artwork.
“We recently exhibited at Sydney Contemporary, the art fair at Carriageworks. One of our artists, Thom Roberts, was there drawing people’s portraits,” Gabrielle says. “And I could see that people were a bit hesitant at first, but then they so enjoyed it. They didn’t need to be talking; sitting for a portrait led to this really beautiful interaction.”
In the next month, Studio A artists Damian Showyin and Peter Dudding will exhibit their work at the Underbelly Arts Festival, a celebration of contemporary art at the National Art School, while weavers Adam Mandarano and Damian Showyin will be producing artwork live and chatting with visitors at Sydney Craft Week: Lads with Looms.
“The studio has been quite transformational in the artists’ sense of identity, and the way they value the work that they do; Now, they will introduce themselves as artists,” Gabrielle says. “You hear it from the families as well, like the expression of pride and the glow that the families have when they come to exhibitions and seeing the recognition that their sons and daughters are getting.”
“Also, often people with Down Syndrome or autism have very routine-based lives and can be quite hesitant or resistant of change. The artists we work with, because they’re so passionate about a project, will completely turn their regular routine upside down and go to places they never normally would. They’re learning really important life skills in the process of being an artist.”
To find out more about Studio A, visit www.studioa.org.au