BEYOND Festival: Sausages and beermats illuminate the lives of learning disabled artists

A beermat reads: “I am not allowed to watch the finish of the football match because my support worker has to finish his shift on time”.

This is what learning disabled artist Stephen Harvey calls a Moan Mat. Created with Julie Shackleton, the Moan Mats were placed across Leeds’ bars and pubs, inscribed with messages showing how learning disabled people’s lives and choices are limited by restrictions in social care and support. Like other artists tackling social issues, Harvey uses humour to make a serious point, printing slogans on tea towels, T-shirts – and on the eponymous beer mats.

Steohen Harvey and Julie Shackleton’s Moan Mats

Harvey’s was just one artist to display work at the second BEYOND Festival this summer. The festival brought together exciting work being created by learning disabled artists, with many artists have their first solo shows. From young artist Ria’s bright and bold abstracts, and the imaginative animal illustrations of Adam Cox, to the exuberant colour and pattern of the group shows, imagination, joy and creativity were defining characteristics of the festival.

Another big festival hit was Andrew Towse and Anne-Marie Atkinson’s Sausage Atlas, which maps cafes around the city which serve the best sausage sandwiches. From this simple idea – an abiding interest of Towse’s – a complex and layered installation has been created which will continue after the festival. Each of the venues featured has been given one of the sculptural display frames which hold a series of images of sausage sandwiches. A catalogue invites the public to find them all.

Andrew Towse and Anne-Marie Atkinson’s Sausage Atlas

Towse and Harvey’s work shows a strong sense of place; it is clearly rooted in Leeds. Howard Haigh, similarly, is inspired by the city. His Model City is a series of ceramic sculptures of Leeds’ architecture, appropriately on display in one of the buildings he has reproduced, the Central Library. The colours of stone and brick of Haigh’s sculptures contrast effectively with the vibrant backdrop of the Living Lines exhibition. Pyramid of Arts’ Legends group was inspired by the master of colour himself, Matisse. Group members’ individual pictures come together to create a unified whole. This is a fitting way to show the support that members get from each other by working together in a group.

Much of the work was borne from long-term partnerships between the artists and local organisations. Artlink West Yorkshire, for example, matches pairs of artists with groups in day centres and other services. These long-term partnerships have resulted in some lovely work, including films and installations using projection mapping. An example of this was the moving animated film Forecast, which used poetry to depict everyday lives.

Some of the artists exhibiting in Beyond have been successful in securing funding for their projects. This has enabled them to develop their skills, experiment with different media and styles, and to explore their interests in-depth. The glossy publications that accompany some of the exhibitions are excellent, on a par with many other artists’ and photographers’ publications. Liam Hirst’s graphic novel The Adventures of Square and Matthew Watson’s booklet No You Can’t, Yes I Can have become highly desirable publications.

Communicating ideas and addressing issues that are rarely represented in art, the work being made by learning disabled artists is exciting and fresh. Let’s hope other funders will take note and support this important work.