They say you should do at least one thing a week that scares you. I don’t know who ‘they’ are, but there is nothing like a good dose of paralysing nerves to make you feel alive, so when I was recently invited to open an art exhibition, it was not without some trepidation that I accepted the opportunity to be flung out of my comfort zone. Public speaking and media work has been a part of my working life for over a decade now, and while the fear of making an idiot of yourself in front of an audience never truly deserts you, I’ve reached a point where I’m relatively comfortable with and almost enjoy it. This however was something I’ve never done before, and it brought with it a sense of responsibility, given the special nature of the project.
‘Our World View: Through The Looking Glass’ is a collection of printmaking work created by the artists of Western Care’s Ridgepool Training Centre in Ballina, and is the culmination of a three-month programme of workshops. The Western Care Association exists to empower people with a wide range of learning and associated disabilities in Co. Mayo to live full and satisfied lives as equal citizens.
Supported by Ballina Arts Centre and Mayo County Council Arts’ Office UPSTART programme, and mentored by artist Claire Griffin, the artists came up with the theme themselves, which explores the importance of where we live and our homes and our communities to our identities. The works are vibrant, elegant and experimental, incorporating familiar scenes from Ballina’s streetscape and landscape, as well as more abstract themes. Also included in and core to the exhibition is a montage of self-portraits of the artists themselves in print. On December 3, to coincide with International Day of Persons with Disabilities, the works had been put on display in the windows of businesses in town.
Researching the project brought me to thinking about how we regard art, how people with disabilities are included – or excluded – from our community life, and the value of such projects to our wider communities.
Firstly, the placing of the works directly into the community was something that struck me as a masterstroke on many levels. I had spotted them myself over Christmas, and was immediately curious – who created the works? What inspired them? Art is meant to inspire curiosity and bringing art out of traditional arts spaces and into the public realm provokes a bigger conversation about the importance of art in our lives and in our communities. It is something we should be aiming to do all the time, so it is all the more wonderful to see people with disabilities leading the way on this.
Secondly, art has long been recognised as tool against intolerance and exclusion. The symbolic placing of these works into locations in the heart of our town on such a significant date should encourage a greater examination of our own attitudes towards inclusivity. Sometimes the culture in which we live can be thoughtless and exclusionary; not always out of badness, but sometimes out of ignorance, sometimes self-centredness – and we need to get better at ensuring that people of differing abilities can have the opportunity to contribute to and participate in our communities, in our events, our festivals and our day-to-day discourse. It struck me that to not adopt this inclusive approach not only excludes members of our community, but it does communities a great disservice by failing to embrace the talent and creativity of people with disabilities, all of which serve to enrich the places in which we live.
Ballina Arts Centre is an institution in our town and lies at the heart of our community. It is a safe and welcoming space that is open to all. Unsurprisingly, it has quietly facilitated many projects of this nature down the years, in line with its community-engagement ethos. They are to be commended on this work, as is the Mayo County Council Arts Office. As well as the participating artists, it is our community as a whole that benefits. Despite the nerves, it was an honour and a privilege to be asked to open this exhibition and meet the creative minds behind it. And in the end, my own world view is all the richer for it.
‘Our World View: Through the Looking Glass’ runs in Ballina Arts Centre until January 26. Admission is free.
This column appeared in The Mayo News on Tuesday, January 15, 2019.