wetware/society: interview: Deborah Evans-Stickland - the Arts and Learning Disability Programs

We last talked to Deborah Evans-Stickland, the female presence in the Flying Lizards, in 2001. We're back again primarily because of her involvement in a project which helps people with learning disabilities by exposing them to art in all sorts of ways. So far, they've been working with the Victoria and Albert museum in London and they have hopes that other institutions will join in.

You might also have heard Deborah's distinctive voice around over the last few years, as she's been doing some advertising work. Here we chat to her about what she's been doing.

Mstation: You've been working for some time on getting a project going that benefits the learning disabled by exposure to the arts. Could you tell us about it?

Deborah: Outside In Pathways is set up to encourage museums and galleries to run an ongoing service for people with learning disabilities and we are thinking of working with adolescents too: these courses are and will be run in museums and galleries and encourage participation and learning in the arts. Currently we are working in the V&A, we have made a film and have a psychological evaluation of our work which is very favourable. We are starting to make a theatre production based on photo collage which will be filmed and we will be working with a composer - Sophie Viney. I should emphasise that we are a group of professional and business people who think that the parameters in art are wide and embrace all - not only the successful, fit and able. The artefacts in museums and galleries embody, as do performances such as operas and plays, profound and regenerating social and spiritual ideas - they belong to everybody. The reason these ideas are artefacts or performances are existing in venues is quintessentially because of the powerful nature in which they communicate these cultural ideas. These ideas are the reason that we survive as a species. We do not exclude anyone, our only criteria for joining in is that a person want to to. Once you access as area where artists are very skilled, working with them appears to render extraordinary things.

The museum staff know us and sometimes talk with us at the end of sessions looking at the artwork and commenting. The middle class middle aged ladies who work on the front of house desk are particularly interested in us and think correctly that what we do is of the utmost importance, one said of us that we are like a family - this reminded me of what a young psychiatrist had said in our supervision group - we could think of ourselves as : not a perfect family, but it is our family.

I think what we are doing at the V&A gives us a rare window into seeing a reflection of failsafe mechanisms of civilisation - emotional intelligence and what is really at the centre of culture is optimistic and embracing. It is the art in it, not the doctrine. Our group have little knowledge of mythology behind the artefacts, but their explanations for them are more alive and meaningful than the original stories.

Have you any nice stories from the program?

We attempt to blend in with the environment, one day in the garden, a man and his son (who was about three) joined in drawing and painting with us, he had not noticed that we were a disability group. He only knew at the end of the session when we told him, we have some film of the session.

Have you hopes of expanding the program?

We plan to work in three or more venues, maybe V&A, Tate Modern and the Royal Opera House, all have shown interest. In the next three years we plan to create a much more comprehensive model with an evaluation based on social models of functioning with particular attention to motivation, which we think could be a European model of excellent practise when considering marginalized groups. We have been thinking more about people who for whatever reason cannot read or write and are innumerate. They are also disabled in our culture.

You've been doing some voiceover work as well. What does that involve in the way of production and such - do you just arrive at a studio, get a briefing, and then blab away?!

Advertising work is well paid and that money has empowered me to continue with unusual socially innovative work - thank you to the ad companies for that. I am shown an image and called upon to powerfully deliver the idea, no I do not just 'blab away'. Firstly, teams carefully work on what I will say, and I work on the metre and delivery along with intonation - which is discussed and decided by the client.

Your promo CD has some interesting things on it including a nice Hey Joe and a hysterical And Then He Kissed Me - where did they come from? Have you plans to do more in that line?

'Hey Joe' I supposed could be selling armoured cars - it is part of a blues album that I made with Bill Smith and Daniel Smith. 'The He Kissed Me' is unpublished work from 'Flying Lizard' days. In the end an actress was briefed to perfectly mimic me and it is her recording that was released. However it was not so perfect...or we may have heard more of it......

photos: Deborah today, with urban warfare attachments
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