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Features/Visual Art

Art that breaks barriers and opens eyes

28 October 2021

It’s an art exhibition that is much more than an art exhibition. Ara Jansen discovers the annual ‘As We Are Art Awards’ and why they are important.

This year, more than 200 pieces will be displayed as part of the 2021 ‘As We Are Art Awards’. Last year there were 150 entries.

The artists who enter range in age from 18 to those in their 60s and are free to use any medium. The works are colourful and subjects include everything from pets, friends, family and mystical worlds to expressions of current events.

What makes this exhibition so important? All the entrants are West Australian artists with intellectual disability and the show is designed to empower them and bring joy and wellbeing into their lives. The exhibition is just one of a number of strategies – including forums, mentorships and networking events – presented by community organisation As We Are, to achieve that aim.

“The talent and the quality of the work blows people away every year,” says Susie Waller, former coordinator of As We Are. “It blows people’s expectations about what they think an artist with intellectual disability can do. It’s a great way to break that barrier down. For us the approach is always about the art and the artists and never about the disability.”

The talent and the quality of the work … blows people’s expectations about what they think an artist with intellectual disability can do.

The awards are in their 19th year and are truly a community affair, particularly during the staging of the exhibition, when the artists can assist, whether it’s judging, photographing opening night, sitting the exhibition or even taking on MC duties at the opening.

There are eight awards, each with a cash prize of $1000, including a people’s choice voted by exhibition visitors.

“Everyone who enters is shown,” says Waller. “That includes a range from those doing it for fun through to professional artists who have had solo shows and exhibited internationally.”

Last year opening night attracted more than 400 visitors and Waller can’t be effusive enough about how much love and encouragement was in the room.

“I’ve seen how amazing it can be for an artist. It’s a platform for them to show their work to family and friends and the broader arts community. And a real platform for those who want to take the leap into something more serious.

“This gives them the exposure and the confidence to make more art. There’s a lot of pride seeing your artwork hung professionally and the excitement in having it sell too.”

Artist Mathew Clark is pictured holding a marker pen up to a picture of a park, with a river running through it, inhabited by various colourful flowers and flying creatures.
Artist Mathew Clark says As We Are’s mentorship program helped him “bring [his] characters to life.Photo: supplied by As We Are

Waller says having the artwork hung in public can help expose a talent to family and friends, who can then see the artist as serious.

“It can be a real eye-opener and it often encourages greater commitment and support from family to help the artist continue doing what they love.”

One of the ways As We Are continued to empower its artists with intellectual disability during COVID was by setting up a series of classes online. The Awards were also a tangible goal to work towards, in terms of producing work. Lastly, restrictions on gathering in groups for classes inspired two one-on-one mentorships for emerging artists Mathew Clark and Mandy White.

Working with Perth-based artists Kate Leslie and Natalie Scholtz, each of the mentorships included twice weekly three-hour art sessions. The emerging artists first worked in a shared studio with two other artists and then in their own space at Artsource’s Fremantle studios.

The mentorships were not only designed to develop artistic skill further but also to help with the business side of their art, like having an artist bio and statement written, getting an artist photo taken, having work professionally photographed, developing and maintaining a social media presence, and submitting a piece to a local government art award.

On the practice side, Clark and White worked on painting and drawings skills development, including colour theory and mixing, paint application techniques and bringing line and drawing into a painting.

Clark says the program helped him “bring [his] characters to life” and he produced about a dozen pieces.

“It helped me with my skills and showed me new skills,” says the artist, who chooses science fiction, fantasy, history, political commentary and nature as his favourite subjects.

“All the work Mathew did with the mentorship gave him a real licence to continue in the direction he was going,” says mum, Beatriz Clark. “I could tell it really helped validate what he was doing and the mentors encouraged him to paint his stories. Most of his paintings have a story behind them. Both Natalie and Kate were great at guiding and encouraging Mathew to capture them. Mathew’s stories and images are unique and worth sharing.”

Drawing since he was a child, the program also exposed Clark to animation, which he’s keen to explore further.

‘Making art makes me feel good and makes me feel special. I love doing it.’ Mandy White, pictured doing what she loves. Photo: supplied by As We Are

Both artists produced a strong body of work during the mentorship, the results of which were seen in a show called “Deep Winter”, presented by As We Are at PS Art Space in July, but a piece will also be seen at the 2021 “As We Are Art Awards”.

Clark and White have submitted to the Awards since 2010 and 2012 respectively, have been awarded numerous times and sold work.

For White, who took up painting in her early 30s, the exhibition has been an important part of her journey, not only to being able to declare herself an artist but a professional one. In that time, she has already done public art commissions and participated in various shows, such as “Sculpture by the Sea”. Her work is held in various public and private collections, including the Art Gallery of Western Australia and DADAA.

Mandy loves the act of producing art, but she also loves the social aspect of going to shows and being part of the artistic community. She has been an exceptional role model.

In her work, White’s bush creatures are inspired by Yamatji stories her late mum used to tell. Fascinated by these stories, they are a recurring theme in the artist’s practice.

Always doing something creative, White is prolific and rarely without a pen, texta or brush in her hand. Her mentor painting sessions often started with music and dancing, and sister Michelle White says when she came back a few hours later there would be a massive painting almost completed.

In October White won the 2021 Invitation Art Prize in the City of Joondalup for her piece Creatures of the Crystal Caves, after being entered by DAADA. The $25,000 prize is going towards a bathroom upgrade in the house she shares with her dad, art supplies and a holiday.

“Mandy loves the act of producing art, but she also loves the social aspect of going to shows and being part of the artistic community,” says her sister. “She has been an exceptional role model and loves to talk about her work and meet other people.”

“Making art makes me feel good and makes me feel special,” says White. “I love doing it.”

The 2021 As We Are Art Awards opening is from 5pm – 7pm on Saturday 30 October, in the main foyer of the Perth Convention and Exhibition Centre. The exhibition runs from 31 October – 14 November 2021.

Pictured top: Mandy White with one of her many artworks. Photo: supplied by As We Are

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Author —
Ara Jansen

Ara Jansen is a freelance journalist. Words, bright colour, books, music, art, fountain pens, good conversation, interesting people and languages make her deeply happy. A longtime music journalist and critic, she’s the former music editor of The West Australian. Being in the pool next to the playground is one of her favourite places, ever.

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