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Liam Toner Post-Human Painter

Sheffield-based artist uses portraiture to explore art, neurodiversity and what it means to be human.

As humans, we can’t help but be drawn to images of the human face, and it’s all the more captivating when you happen upon an artist who is engaging with this most familiar of facets in a way that challenges your ideas about what it really means to be ‘human’. Sheffield-based painter Liam Toner is one such artist.

First things first, tell us a bit about yourself and your creative practice.

I grew up in Sheffield and apart from going to university in Nottingham, I have lived here all my life. I live with my wife Cassie and our two lovely children. I’ve painted since school – shout out to Sarah Drabble, my amazing secondary school art teacher – but what I was using my painting to do and explore has shifted since the first lockdown. A few disparate strands started to pull together into my current artistic practice.

I’m really interested in disability. I’m neurodiverse and have always worked alongside other disabled people. I think through the lived experiences and stories of disabled people, a lot of the problems with the world get drawn out and writ large. You start to see with a bit more clarity the kinds of people and ways of being that our current society values, and what the limits of normative assumptions might be – this is sometimes referred to as ableism. My art practice has – among other things – become my way of exploring that.

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Your painting became prolific during lockdown last year. How does your artistic practice sit within the context of Covid-19?

Like a lot of people, I struggled with lockdown. It had a much bigger impact on my mental health than I had expected. I am a key worker, so in the first three months, I was trying to get on with work from home with dodgy IT and two pre-school children in the house practically 24/7. It was full-on, to say the least. I had been exploring my own neurodiversity for a while and got the outcome of that diagnostic process in May. Then in June, I lost a family member to suicide. I am lucky enough not to have lost my job, to still have a roof over my head and food on the table, but I was definitely feeling overwhelmed, isolated and disconnected from the world around me. I started using art as a way to process and respond to all of that.

I first started by painting portraits of close friends and family. In the process of doing that, I found moments of connection with people who were important to me, who were missing from my day-to-day life. It became a way to be in the same room as someone, even though I might not see them face-to-face for months. The process of painting also became a therapeutic outlet for me and a way to give myself a little headspace here and there, to help me keep afloat. I think there is something about the lack of consequence that I found particularly reassuring. It didn't matter if it went wrong; it wouldn’t negatively affect anyone else, and in fact, going wrong seems to lead to more interesting ways of creating.

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We've really enjoyed reading your blog, Exploring Art & Neurodiversity. How do you hope to investigate neurodiverse ways of understanding the world through your art?

I’m reading a lot at the moment. I am really interested in the work of Erin Manning, a Canadian philosopher. Her work sits at a useful intersection for me, between artistic practice and neurodiversity. I am almost at the point where I can pretend that I know what I am talking about when I’m discussing her work, but I’m not quite there yet! Her writing has got me thinking about the process of being artful, as well as the creative potential of non-volitional movement, like stimming, shaking and rocking. Next, I want to start having conversations with some co-conspirators. I want to start talking to other artists, to other neurodivergent people, and see how we can develop some of these ideas together.

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And finally, from an artistic perspective, what are your hopes for the coming year?

I feel like I am at the start of developing something that I think could be really exciting. I hope to spend the next year seeing what starts to emerge from all this. I hope there are more opportunities to connect with other artists to see what we can develop collaboratively.

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