Image: Installation view of The Outside is Inside Everything we Make, an exhibition for Glasgow International 2021 by Laura Aldridge, Leanne Ross and Judith Scott and Kendall Koppe Gallery, Glasgow. Credit: Keith Hunter.

Writer Chris Sharratt tells us how art-making can make a difference and speaks to three artists and organisations that provide vital support and help people discover their own artistic practice.

“It’s a collective, it’s a group – it’s not just a passive environment where people come and you’re given a paintbrush and people make something. It’s collaborative and social at its core.” Glasgow-based artist Laura Aldridge is describing her work for Kiss My Artist, an artists’ studio space based in Midlothian and supported by the arts and disability organisation Artlink Edinburgh. Like many contemporary artists, Aldridge sees such work as an important part of her artistic practice – and also part of what makes art so vital for people’s mental and physical health.

Increasingly, studies are showing the benefits of both experiencing and making art, and how it can contribute to the prevention of ill health across a broad age range. For those with complex disabilities, the hands-on activity of art-making along with the help and social interaction provided by professional artists can have a profound and sometimes life-changing effect. Aldridge has worked with Artlink for a number of years, and as well as weekly KMA sessions she delivers regular sensory-based workshops with people whose learning and physical disabilities mean they’re unable to speak or communicate clearly. “The sensory workshop has really had a profound impact on the way I think,” says Aldridge. “It’s really made me think about time, this idea of being productive, of getting things done. I could spend three years doing a regular sensory workshop with someone, and suddenly you have a break through – it can completely open up.”

Time, of course, has been bent out of shape for many of us over the last 18 months. While for Aldridge lockdown meant a halt to in-person studio workshops and some activity moving online, it also allowed for more time to develop her group show for this year’s rescheduled Glasgow International festival, which saw her exhibiting at Kendall Koppe gallery with KMA artist Leanne Ross. It was the first time Ross, who has Down’s Syndrome, had shown at a commercial gallery. Aldridge says the experience of making the show – which also included work by the American artist Judith Scott (1943-2005) – has been a hugely positive one for both of them. “It’s changed how Leanne looks at what she does. She just has this complete agency now; it’s amazing to me how aware she is that it’s her work, it’s her practice. Doing this has given her a lot of confidence – it’s helped her see how far the work can reach, where it can go and what it can do.”

Aldridge stresses the importance of Ross being regarded as an artist in her own right; an artist whose brightly-coloured, life-affirming artworks will be on show at the Frieze London art fair in October. It’s a view shared by the Shetland-based, artist-led visual arts organisation Gaada. Among the many activities it facilitates from its base in a former Methodist kirk is a programme of one-to-one art workshops for artists with disabilities or life-long conditions. And while each individual’s needs can be very different, their creative potential is never underestimated. “As soon as people come for their first session, they’re an artist,” explains Amy Gear, who co-founded Gaada in 2018 with fellow artist Daniel Clark. “They might resist it for a while, but then who wouldn’t?” Gear illustrates her point with a story about one workshop participant who at first called her ‘The Lady Artist’, a reference to the character from the Katie Morag stories. Soon, however, the tables were turned: “Within two weeks it had swapped round and she was now The Lady Artist – I’d lost my title!”

Gear – who is from Shetland – met Clark while the pair were studying in London at the Royal College of Art. They chose the name ‘Gaada’ because it is a Shetland word meaning ‘gaps’ – which was exactly what they could see in the art provision across the Shetland Isles. Gaada is a member organisation of the social care charity Self Directed Support Scotland, and funding for the one-to-one workshops is provided by the participants’ Self-directed Support payments. Although still a young organisation, demand is high. “We could do much more but we only have one room,” says Gear. “We get phone calls all the time from people; from social work, from local schools. When people are getting to the age of 16 and they’re about to leave school we’ll get phone calls from support teachers, people’s parents or their personal assistant. Recently, on one day we added three people to our waiting list. But really, until we have a bigger building and more staff and rooms, it’s really hard to expand.”

While there are clearly health and social care benefits from the work Gaada does, Gear stresses that the organisation is ultimately all about the art – and that being artists is integral to its approach. “We’re not support workers, we’re not social care workers, we’re artists,” she says. “The people who have disabilities who come to Gaada are working with peers, they’re not working with support workers.” It’s an important point, and one that applies to the many different activities artists are involved in across Scotland. Rather than replacing the work being delivered by clinical and social care staff, artists are bringing something distinct and complementary – “a different energy”, in the words of Elisabeth Gibson, director of Project Ability, the Glasgow-based charity that is internationally recognised for its work with people with disabilities.

One of Project Ability’s recent projects, Our 100 Portraits, is showing at the organisation’s gallery in 103 Trongate until 8 October. Funded by a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund, it began life prior to lockdown with the intention of providing a snapshot of the learning disability community in Scotland through portraits drawn or painted by artists on the organisation’s Aspire programme for adults with learning disabilities. Due to Covid restrictions, the idea morphed into a wider celebration of the people important to the artists. “It changed from being portraits of leaders and policy makers to being people in their immediate circle, people that were supporting them and keeping them well,” explains Gibson. “Also, for a lot of people what’s kept them going has been their love of music or their love of TV or films.”

Gibson says that lockdown brought into sharp focus how vital regular art activity is to the people Project Ability supports through its work. “That little bit of time which has been theirs to switch off and focus on something else has been incredibly important.” The benefits of providing this space for expression and discovery can also be seen in other Project Ability activities, such as its work with NHS Mental Health Learning Disabilities Services. Two professional artists provide weekly activities across four inpatient units, bringing what Gibson describes as “an artist’s perspective” into the hospital environment. She adds: “Particularly over the last year and a half, with visits restricted and people even more locked in, it’s been a really positive experience to be able to keep contact with these places.”

Art brings something rich and entirely unique to the area of health and wellbeing. As society opens up, artists clearly have an important role to play – not as a surrogate health professionals, but as artists first and foremost. As Gear says of Gaada’s work: “We’re not a service. We’re all artists and we’re working together to make art.”