Disabled artists talk about their creative lockdown journey

For many artists with disabilities, the past year has been a perfect storm of financial and emotional disruption, magnifying the challenges they face yet also highlighting their resilience and creativity. Jenny Lee speaks to two and asks, might something good emerge for disabled arts sector from the pandemic?

Joe Kenny performs a live-streamed home gig along with his son Oisin

BORN with congenital glaucoma, musician Joe Kenny lost his sight completely at age five. But he hasn’t let his blindness hold him back; a regular on the Belfast music scene, pre-pandemic he could be found entertaining punters in the likes of Lavery’s, The Northern Whig and The Points.

“I always felt that the only limits that were set were by me and music was never off limits,” says the 43-year-old. "Even if I go to a new venue, as long as the manager is there to let me know where everything is, I set up myself and get started.”

The pandemic, of course, meant performing live was "off limits" for Kenny this past year, but instead of wallowing in self-pity he invested in some microphones and cables and started performing from his living room.

Billed as The Joe Show, his live show is streamed every Friday evening on Facebook and Youtube and has been “an absolute lifesaver” for Kenny, who lives in Belfast with his partner Louise and four-year-old son Oisin.

“Gigging at the weekends was a huge part of my life, so I wanted to find a way to keep on playing music. Doing my live performances has also helped me focus on what it is I want to do when this is all over. I've been a musician all my life, but I've been distracted by other things. I would love to get to the point where I could make music be my main income," adds Kenny, who also works in the communications team of The Stroke Association.

While he uses screen-reader software to help him post material online, he admits that many technologies within the music industry are not accessible to the visually impaired. He was therefore delighted last month to receive a funding grant from the d/Deaf and Disabled Artists Support Fund 2021/21 for a career-development grant to produce a five-track EP. The grant will cover the cost of the time needed in a professional recording studio and the services of a music producer and sound engineer to bring this project to fruition.

Kenny is one of 44 artists to be awarded £94,000 in funding to create new work and support them through the Covid-19 crisis.??“What I’ve found throughout my life in the mainstream music world is that when people realise you are blind they dismiss any artistic endeavour you might have," he says. “I want this EP to be of a professional standard for commercial release, which will hopefully be taken seriously by my mainstream peers.”

Known for singing covers by the likes of Ed Sheeran, The Killers and Snow Patrol, Kenny has used the past year to concentrate on his own songwriting.

“It's been a bit of a creative journey for me and I'm happy that something positive has came out of it," he says.

Describing his music as “acoustic folk” Kenny’s writing focuses on “his life and view on it”. Among the tracks is Turn It Round, a song “about those times when we’re going through some sort of crisis” and yet it reminds people “that nothing lasts forever”.

He also hopes to write a song in the new album on the need for equal access for people with disabilities.

“It’s a difficult subject to put into a song," he admits. "But I'm certainly going to give it a go."

Someone else who has turned the time Covid restrictions have enforced upon us into a positive is Belfast-based visual artist Joel Simon. The animator and painter, whose left leg was amputated in 1997 following a freak shooting accident during a holiday in Kenya with his wife, says the past year has been his “most artistically productive one yet”.

The result is an ongoing series of oil paintings on the human figure, which take a nostalgic view on life.

“I would be quite as sociable character and obviously haven't had many opportunities to go to events or meet friends. That’s forced me to focus on my work,” says the father-of-three who describes his disability as a “minor inconvenience” when it comes to his profession.

Like many others, Simon’s income has been affected by the pandemic. He had supplemented it by hosting workshops, teaching children how to animate using iPads. These stopped last March but new work opportunities grew as a result of the pandemic, with commissions to work on animations for the BBC Bitesize education resource.

He was also delighted to be awarded a grant of £2,000 through the d/Deaf and Disabled Artists Support Fund to create two new oil paintings on canvas. In these paintings, which will go on public display later this later, he will “explore the themes of loneliness and alienation in a world full of virtual noise”. It’s a subject that is close to the artist’s heart.

“I try to infuse all my painting with emotion and personal feeling. These paintings are going to be an interpretation of the feelings of isolation and loneliness that I have experienced and witnessed in a lot my friends who have felt alienated and locked in themselves due to Covid restrictions,” explains the 47-year-old.

His commission will also explore the opportunities and limitations of social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram.

“I don't just want to work in isolation, I paint with the hope that what I paint will be seen and will strike an accord emotionally with people. So it’s has been a great way of reaching out and communicating with people and showing my artwork to people at a time when galleries are closed.

“But social media can be a double-edged sword. It can also appeal to negative emotions, like envy and reinforcing insecurities.”

Arts charity The University of Atypical takes an empowerment-based approach to supporting the involvement in the arts of people who are disabled and D/deaf – a term used to mean both sign-language users and those who are hard of hearing. They have become aware of many concerns about mental health and economic worries from their 300-strong membership during the past year.

Chairman Damien Coyle welcomes the latest funding provided to its artists and believes the commissioning of new work from visual and crafts practitioners will “create a legacy” beyond the current pandemic as their work go on display at public venues, libraries and special schools “giving others with disabilities the capacity to believe they too can become artists in the future.”

Coyle, who is hearing-impaired himself, acknowledges that as arts programmes moved online, deaf people were losing access to the arts – as audiences, participants and interpreters.

Signify Media, a new broadcast initiative with sign-language interpreters Paula Clarke and Jane O’Brien, is addressing that with a weekly broadcast of cultural news for the deaf community.

Coyle hopes this will be the start of a move towards accessible online events from all cultural organisations.

Looking towards to the future, the University of Atypical is running a pilot project with 10 organisations across Northern Ireland to help them develop plans to make their buildings and their programming more accessible.

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