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“An opportunity to celebrate what makes us unique” – Disabled artists hold South Yorkshire exhibition

The ArtWorks Together exhibition showcases artwork from adults with learning disabilities and autism from around the world, at Wentworth Woodhouse and as an online exhibition.

Artworks Together exhibition at Wentworth Woodhouse
Michael Strachan Brown from ArtWorks

ArtWorks Together is a new international art competition with nine winners and an exhibition at Wentworth Woodhouse, a stately home in Rotherham set in 87 acres of gardens. It's a project from ArtWorks, an organisation that supports artists with autism and learning disabilities to access the world of art. It's also available as a virtual exhibition online.

ArtWorks Together was initially judged by a panel of learning disabled and autistic adults, who shortlisted over 1,000 entries down to 34. The winners were then chosen by renowned names in the art world, including Alison Lapper and Helen Pheby.

Emily Uttley from Leeds won the first prize with her oil-on-canvas painting, 'Sleeping Boy'. A boy is pictured lying on a bed amidst brightly coloured walls and bedding, but other than his outline and some detail on his hands and face, the boy himself is devoid of colour.

Sleeping Boy by Emily Uttley

Sleeping Boy

Emily Uttley

"In the description, I explain that he was suffering from depression, which is why he was on his own in his bedroom," Uttley explains. "But what's been interesting is that it seems that other people can't really read his body language that well and they can't tell if he is quite unsettled or is lying. That’s what I found quite interesting."

The judges commented on the lack of colour in the boy’s depiction, leaving viewers asking themselves why the artist chose that approach. Uttley confirms that “there’s a lot going on beneath the surface with how he’s feeling”.

Uttley gave a lot of thought to colour combinations, debating various options, but in the end, she tells me, she went with her gut.

“You could go into a lot of thought about what the colours mean and there's this ambiguity between is it peaceful or is it troubled? And the red and the blue sort of ask: Is it the heaven and hell of his thoughts?”

Masking Conflict by Thomas Oscar Miles

Masking Conflict

Thomas Oscar Miles

Thomas Miles won third prize in the competition with his self-portrait photography. The prize-winning piece is the centre of a triptych that is based on 'masking', which is a way that autistic and other neurodiverse people act or behave to disguise their neurodiverse traits. Often not deliberate, masking is known as a social survival strategy.

Miles explains that he looked at how the ways he has masked his autism had had an impact on his everyday life and created the artwork to both understand himself better and to explain masking to others.“I wanted to talk about the downfall of masking and how sometimes it can become so stressful and almost chaotic in day-to-day life. I work in retail, so I have to face customers and people quite a lot, and I find that sometimes it can become so daunting and draining.

“I wanted this image to be almost like this breaking down of the characters masking in the image. It's a self portrait, so it's me in the image, and I've got blue-painted hands to try and blend into the flowers around me. And it's just sort of a raw, visceral effect, where I'm trying to do anything I can to blend into my surroundings, and how difficult that can be sometimes.

“So for me, this image is a really personal one. And it means a lot to me that it's been recognised so much. And getting that support from other people as well has been amazing, because it’s been able to become a discussion and people have connected with it.”

Uttley had never had an artwork exhibited before Artworks Together.

“I'm just used to making artwork in my bedroom. And so this is the first time that I‘m having my artwork shared, and I'm just really honoured.

“I'm really pleased that people are quite touched by it as well, so that I know that it has made an impact on other people. And it's not just me who feels something from it. And because I do, even though it's not a self portrait, I do feel like all my artworks are very personal. So it's a way of using my imagination to project my feelings onto an art piece and to be creative in the process.”

Miles feels the same.

“This is one of my first ever exhibiting opportunities, so it's really incredible for that. And for it to be something so personal as well, and something that really means a lot to me, is even more rewarding, because with this opportunity, I'm able to speak more openly about things that I used to be really scared to talk about.

“It's only recently, the last couple years, I’ve felt the confidence to talk about my autism. So having this opportunity gives it a platform and an elevation into people's lives really. The fact that we love our art so much and we can put ourselves so openly into that art is just the best thing ever. It's a really incredible opportunity.”

ArtWorks Together is on display until 27th June at Wentworth Woodhouse in Rotherham.

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