1 February 2006
Joe McConnell talks to Pádraig Naughton about his journey as a visual artist with a sight impairment.
After first coming across the powerfully evocative, minimalist, charcoal landscapes reproduced on his website at www.touchart.com, I have been eager to experience Pádraig Naughton's work in the original. This desire has been heightened over the years through glimpses of his sculptural work in photographs and tantalising descriptions heard in many conversations. Although this wish is still to be fulfilled, it was a great pleasure to finally catch up with Pádraig at the recent Disability Film Festival in London and to speak with an artist so unequivocal about his identity as a disabled person.
I began by asking Pádraig to give an overview of his practice.
There are basically two main strands to my work: ceramics and charcoal drawings. The ceramic work is tactile and abstract. It is made by touch with no visual references. Working in the medium began when I was first introduced to ceramics at the age of 7. By the age of 15, I wanted to go to art school to become an artist and didn't want to go into any of the stereotypical careers that visually impaired people seemed to do: physiotherapy, piano tuning, telephony or basketry.
Initially, going to Art College was as much about getting away from visual impairment, as it had to do with an interest in art itself. However, within a few months, I was struggling. The ceramics (Craft Design) course was highly visual and I couldn't see in the way that I needed to see in order to complete the course. So I had to find my own ways of making work. Firstly, I had to figure out what I could or couldn't see. Over the 4 years at the National College of Art and Design, I found that the best way of relating to clay was through touch, working really large and making very large murals. I was searching for a way of working that was sympathetic to both my way of being and thinking and also to the experiences that I was gathering. Quite by accident, I became interested in art therapy. Not because it had anything to do with disability - I just found it fascinating and ended up doing voluntary work in a local physiotherapy department (the only medical environment that would let me in) where I was asked to assist the ante-natal classes and received a crash course in massage techniques. This experience opened up a whole new language of touch. Throughout my last year of college, I researched massage and how it worked. Massage is very structured and I was able to extract different techniques and turn them into ways of mark-making that I used in my sculpture.
The techniques derived from massage - such as hacking which uses the sides of your hands in quite a vigorous motion and thumb-rolling - make very specific marks. In the early days, I worked blindfold but as I became more comfortable I would just close my eyes and disappear into my own tactile world. I tend to create a large area of clay, spending a few days rolling out and laying down and then working my hands across it for a day or two. So whatever the size of a mural, you'll find they've been created as entire pieces and then cut up into sections.
Partly because of the fragility of the murals and the problems transporting them, I started looking at other ways of making and began to devise hanging pieces. This was influenced by a visit to Japan, where I saw all sorts of ways of using screens and ways of closing off space. I began to devise pieces based on small ceramic objects (square or rectangular boxes, spheres, different shapes) strung on sash-cord or rope and then suspended from a height. This created something that was like a mural, but you could see through it and view it from both sides. You could actually walk through some of them, giving the viewer more ways of engaging with the work.
As a result of finding a way of making art by touch, I started to research what was going on around art and visual impairment in other countries. I worked closely with many institutions including the National College for the Blind in Hereford, the Richard Attenborough Centre where I was artist in residence and also schools for the blind in Japan. What often surprises me about the ceramic work is that I've made more money from talking about the work then from selling it. Since 1993, I have been involved in numerous workshops but my first ceramic commission didn't happen until 2000.
I think this is largely because the people who can afford the work can't see the value in it, whereas the people who appreciate the work can't afford it. I have always been willing to travel to do workshops and seminars so my work has been exposed to large audiences, but this tended to be through the education route rather than through the galleries.
The flip-side of the tactile ceramic work is the drawing. This came at a later stage. As part of my course, I had always been obliged to create design drawings. This was a total waste of time because the fact that the work was created by touch meant that there weren't lots of visual images floating around in my head. Often, I would create the drawing after the event just to fulfil the criteria. I found that I didn't understand light very well. I was dealing with images that were abstract and I became interested in the fact that in my drawings there could be two to three light sources. Although I was stimulated by the images, I didn't have the control I wanted. This led me to experiment with real landscapes and with drawings from my own photographs. I then found that I was able to draw in a way that suited me. Although I understood the traditional drawing techniques theoretically, such as line and perspective, they never really meant a lot to me visually. I found that the way one handles charcoal to be sympathetic to the way that I made sculpture in that it was something you could work with your hands.
You can use tools such as a putty rubber to make marks and you can model it into whatever shape you need to draw with. You can use something like cotton wool to get all sorts of effects. This gave me an advantage over line which visually doesn't make a great deal of sense to me, as I don't see in a bifocal, three-dimensional way and my perception of objects is flatter than that of a person with 20/20 vision. I discovered that with the charcoal I could use dark and light to create depth and could also start by drawing large shapes and then add in the detail. At the point at which I could no longer see the detail, I could stop and actually have an image that made sense. It was an ideal way to create images without having to rely on the concepts of perspective. I could achieve the kind of depth that I wanted by using tone. Using different coloured papers allowed me to work with charcoal in a more dynamic way and create moods and atmospheres by just altering the filter.
People rarely figure in my drawings to date. Although I physically see people, I find them very hard to record in my memory and therefore there aren't that many visual images in my head of people. I would like to experiment around this in the near future. I am also intrigued by my inability to make eye contact and I'm very interested in exploring this aspect of my relationship to other people.
Exploring difference in spatial awareness seems to be a very important part of your work
There is a fascinating illustration of different ways of thinking and different spatial awareness, which comes from Japan. In Japanese art, there isn't a distinction between craft and fine art as there is in the West and consequently the attitude to ceramics and the way it is used is quite different. From the 1940s, there have been many art teachers who have worked with visually impaired and blind people. There was one such teacher, Shiro Fukurai, who wrote a book called 'How can I make what I cannot see?' (Van Nostrand Reinhold Co, New York, 1974, isbn: 0442224907)
The book includes examples of young blind children's art in clay. One of these is very interesting in terms of spatial awareness. A child showed him 3 pieces of clay, which represented the school bus. One of the pieces was small, flattened out and horizontal, another a pole like shape and the third a large slab. The child explained that the first piece was the foot-board; the second what you hold as you get in and the third the floor of the bus.
Some people in Disability Arts might say that this is far too impairment-focused. But I think there are fascinating issues that need to be explored around how visually impaired people see and how they do not see. And visually impaired people themselves are the best people to do that, not necessarily sighted people who are researching the subject. A better understanding of how we see leads to very interesting ways of working. My own exploration of how I see the landscape has actually produced ways of working that might never have happened if I were not a visually impaired person. And that is a very important aspect of what I do.
I have real reservations about projects like Blindart. Although they are described as innovative, they've actually been around in one shape or another for a long time. I first came across one such project from Cork in the 1980s, where fully-sighted artists created work to be appreciated by visually impaired people. One of the pieces was called Touch and was a very large piece of Perspex with holes in it, which were meant to spell out the Braille characters for the word t-o-u-c-h. But because the letters had been scaled-up they meant absolutely nothing to a Braille user.
It is great that artists are creating work that can be touched, but I would also like to see both accomplished and amateur visually-impaired artists being encouraged to explore their own ways of making, thinking and seeing.
Tell us about Arts and Disability Ireland and disability arts in Ireland
I was recently appointed as director of Arts and Disability Ireland. The meaning of this term is slightly different in Ireland where it refers to any practice in the arts that involves people with disabilities. The term that is mainly in use is people with disabilities. I am part of a small number of artists who like to describe themselves as disabled artists. But at the moment we don't have a vibrant disability arts scene like in the UK and there are very few opportunities.
My own post is the only job in the whole of the Republic in arts and disability / disability arts filled by a disabled person. "Arts and Disability Ireland">AD describes itself as promoting the engagement of people with disabilities in the arts at the highest level. Revenue funded by the Arts Council of Ireland, in 2006 this is set to increase by 60% to €119,300. Projects that are in development include, a virtual interactive artists facility, a reader exploring disability arts in the Irish context, an audio-description pilot for live theatre, a best practice pocket mentor for drama with people with learning difficulties and an exhibition series exploring arts and visual impairment.
In Northern Ireland, there is an Arts and Disability Forum which has been active for a long time. They administrate the Arts & Disability Awards Ireland on behalf of the Arts Councils North and South which has generated some extremely innovative Disability Art. Nonetheless, Disability Arts has been hard to embed in Irish thinking because the disability movement in Ireland is largely based on a consensus/ social partnership model, which in addition to people with disabilities also includes families, carers and professionals of - unlike the movement in the UK which is very much disabled-led and out of which disability arts sprang forth.
Over here, Disability Arts is often seen as activism rather than an art practice and not part of the bigger consensus. Many people, including disabled people themselves, see disability as a negative as opposed to it being a result of physical, attitudinal and economic barriers. People are looking for very basic things like access to events and workshops. Alternative formats, audio description, touch tours, sign language interpretation, being able to sit with non-disabled friends at the theatre are all taken for granted in the UK.
In Ireland, there's a lot of work to be done around greater access to the arts-making process as well as to exhibitions and performances. An example of this was one venue who confirmed my reservation with, so that's 3 adults and 1 wheelchair. I'm very keen to create a debate around Disability Arts and separate it from arts and disability and to show that this is a practice in its own right.
The argument must be made strongly that if people are not given the opportunity then it's not going to happen and that people speaking on others' behalf doesn't make it happen either. In Ireland, Disability Arts is still seen as being too radical in terms of what mainstream society thinks disabled people should be saying and thinking thus it operates a subculture apart.
Visit Pádraig's site at www.touchart.com