I've done three exhibitions at The Old Fire Station. I curated one in 2014, called Maker's Month (Painting Week) which was lovely because it was all about including artists who hadn't shown their work that much or might be vulnerable in some way. I included Isadora in that, who I work with. And then last year I did a show with her called Drawn Together. That show was particularly special to me because Isadora has severe autism and it was a chance for her to be acknowledged for her art work, rather than judged on the basis of her disability. Often when others see people like Isadora they don’t think that they might have hidden talents – so to have this whole show which was a celebration of everything that she's achieved was just amazing.
I've been working with Isadora for about four years now. I teach her yoga and I also take her drawing in the museums in Oxford and so Drawn Together was an exhibition of all the work that we've done together. First of all we had to sift through hundreds of drawings that she had made – I did that with her Dad because when you work with a family you really have to take on board what they think as well. When we selected the work we had suitcases full of sketchbooks and laid everything out, I think it took us about three days!
What was great about it was that I had free reign to curate it and do whatever I wanted, which was fun for me because I'm an artist and I like to have a creative project - but the show also came with its own pressures because she's so vulnerable.
I put a lot of thought into how we presented it - I wanted it to look as cool and contemporary as possible, but then also quite quirky to reflect her work and the fact that all the drawings were done in the museums. So, I thought I could bring in some taxidermy and strange objects that would reference the museums. The Old Fire Station ok'd that which was fab. It was fantastic because I had this very clear vision for the show and everyone here helped me to realise it.
Then I spent a long time planning how we were going to hang it all, so that people would see the work as professional. I wanted it to be like, this is a talented artist and we're presenting her work in a way that we would any contemporary artist but she happens to have a disability. I also wrote the text that went with the exhibition. I wanted it to convey how people with disabilities, like Isadora, who might have speech and communication problems actually have a lot to say and they can communicate that through their art work. I didn't want visitors to come into the gallery and just think oh this is, you know, outsider or naïve art. I wanted the text to say, in fact, if you look at the work next to a Picasso or a Matisse, there are real similarities.
The opening was absolutely rammed, it was so nice. It was really heartwarming - a lot of people said that they were quite moved. Isadora loved it. All the staff were so calm, and it all went smoothly. But I don't think it would have gone as well anywhere else, to be honest, it was just that everyone at the Old Fire Station was so kind to her, so she felt safe enough to be in a packed environment - which ordinarily might have panicked her.
Later, when we were setting up my own show there was a Crisis trainee helping. She told me that because of volunteering at the Old Fire Station and working on shows like mine she was then thinking of doing an Art History degree. I felt proud to be part of that because I realised how those sorts of opportunities can really change people's lives. The gallery staff treated Isadora with a lot of respect and sensitivity and I think that comes from their experience of working with the Crisis members.
My solo exhibition here in the summer was also great because I've been in a lot of group shows but never had a solo show. It felt like quite a big deal because when you're in a group show you can kind of hide behind people - so to have this opportunity to just exhibit my own work was exciting, but also a bit daunting. But with both of the shows Sarah Mossop who works here and Becki the technician would always send me positive emails saying “oh how's it going? ...and if you have any concerns or problems that are arising, just get in touch”. On the last day a friend of mine from university came down to see it and said “this is absolutely amazing! I'm so proud of you!” She also said how so many people from art school had given up painting. It was because of that kind of comment right as the show was about to come down, that I then looked back on it and thought yeah that was a real achievement!
Which one of the exhibitions has been the most transformative for me? Well, you think it would be the solo one that I had, because it went well and I sold some of the work too. But Isadora's show meant the most to me - it was really important and it made me think a lot about how much people with disabilities are ignored and aren’t often given the chance to shine. We're thinking of doing a children’s book now, because her exhibition was so well received.
And working on the Drawn Together exhibition definitely helped with the next show I did here, it made me think, oh! I really enjoy the whole curating process, maybe I might want to do more of this.
My own show was a validation of my art and my practice. I'm a real painter, but I'm not very good at putting myself in the spotlight. So to be able to do that, with the support of the Old Fire Station, was wonderful. Everyone here has been constantly so supportive, it's sort of like a mentoring thing. There's not much of an art scene in Oxford and there are so many cuts to the arts, so it can be quite hard being a painter, and it's a solitary activity. You really do need that art network, mentors and people encouraging you – and something like a solo show then gives you the impetus to do another body of work. During the show being able to talk to members of the public and other artists about my work helped me to clarify what my work’s about. It consolidated my ideas, but also made me think about things for the future.
It's kind of changed this whole year for me actually. I thought, ok, this went really well, that’s it, I'm just going to paint a lot this year, and enter more art competitions. I think that if I hadn't have had that, that summer, I don’t know if I would be feeling as confident about my art work now.