Jason Wilsher-Mills is an East Midlands based digital artist and the artist-in-residence for Square Peg at Artlink Hull as part of Hull 2017 City of Culture. As a result of this he has worked with the disabled and other inclusive communities of Hull, creating responses to their stories, which ultimately resulted in a solo exhibition in early 2018.
Other noticeable works include his commisions at the Houses of Parliament to celebrate 800 years of Magna Carta and at the Disability innovation Summit 2017 at the Olympic park.
We sat down with Jason to talk about his work...
Can you tell us more about your artistic background?
After studying Fine Art at The Cardiff Institute of Higher Education and initially specialising in traditional painting techniques, in recent years I have focused on using digital painting, using technology such as iPads and Wacom tablets. The use of these technologies in place of the more traditional artistic mediums allow me to produce large scale, detailed paintings despite the physical challenges presented by my disability.
Initially, the use of technology posed a challenge to me as I felt conflicted about the validity of making digital art, feeling I was betraying my training. However, in recent years I have come to truly embrace the possibilities of digital technologies to expand my work from purely 2D paintings. I have fully ‘embraced the pixel’.
Since committing to my practice in 2011, I have gone on to exhibit my work at numerous venues around the UK and internationally. In 2015 I had two banners on display at the Houses of Parliament. The 2 commissions were based on the story and persecution of agricultural labourers from Dorset, ‘The Tolpuddle Martyrs’ and the impact on society of implementation of the Disability and Discrimination Act in the twenty years since it was brought into law.
Another commission saw me being commissioned by the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha, Qatar, where I created work in response to artwork in their own collection. Among my other key exhibitions, I have exhibited at The National Centre for Craft and Design and had work commissioned for the Magna Carta’s 800th anniversary celebrations at Lincoln Castle.
I was commissioned to create a large, fully interactive sculpture for the Global Disability Innovation Hub Summit, which was held at the Olympic Park in London 2017. The sculpture was called ‘Brave Boy Billy’ and was created with the help of young disabled people in London. Billy was a fully interactive sculpture, using augmented reality technology to tell the story of these incredible young people, who I was working with. ‘Brave Boy Billy’ was later chosen to be exhibited at Tate Exchange, as part of ‘Ghost in the Machine’ which was a disability arts event, organised by Shape Arts.
Tell us about your work now and how you create your art?
I describe myself as an ‘analogue digital artist’ as although I use iPad & Wacom tablets to create my work, I still employ all those skills I was trained to use when studying painting. The work created for the exhibition at ArtLink Hull took over 500 hours to make.
Major themes that consistently run throughout my work include my experiences as a disabled person and the struggles I have endured through illness since childhood, up until the present day, trying to translate my daily experiences and challenges to the viewer. A major aspect of my work also focuses on the treatment and perception of disability and disabled people in society, as well social history and the democratic process.
A great deal of my work plays with my fascination with memory and I use references and imagery from popular culture that holds significant recollections from different times throughout my life. Regularly referenced images include characters from Dr Who, rugby league players, etc. Other influential aspects of my life that I also like to include are industrial & social heritage and family photographs. The result being that I am effectively creating a revised version of my personal my history and in some small way trying to remedy the years I spent in hospital as a child in Yorkshire.
I describe my work as being a mixture of ‘The Beano’ meets the film ‘I, Daniel Blake’.
How has the Spirit funded Artlink programme helped you in getting your work more recognised?
I have often been quoted to say that showing my work at Artlink Hull has been the best thing I have ever done, as it has enabled me to gain some recognition and have a platform to celebrate my work. For this I am eternally grateful to the wonderful team at Artlink Hull.
The director at Artlink Hull has been incredibly helpful in talking to other organisations about my work, and as a direct result ‘Brave Boy Billy’ is going to be exhibited at Eureka - The National Children's Museum, in their digital art gallery. I also have other galleries who are interested in showing my work, which as an artist, is incredibly exciting.
We are also looking at further collaborations and we will be meeting the Hull University about one of my interactive sculptures being created for the campus. This is wonderful as it will give me an opportunity to continue working with the community of Hull.
What did you most enjoy about Hull 2017 City of Culture?
I enjoyed meeting the people of Hull, through the workshops that took place over the course of a year, which was a real honour. I enjoyed bringing art to those who may not always engage with creative industries, and felt the strength of this residency, is that we took the Hull 2017 City of Culture to them in their own communities.
The city felt very vibrant and there was a tangible sense of pride.
What have you most enjoyed about in taking part in your artist in residency at Artlink?
I enjoyed putting into practice my ‘manifesto’ of working with those in the community who do not have a voice, particularly the learning-disabled community. I worked with people who had slipped through the net, who lived on the edges of the community and as a result of working with them, I was able to tell their incredible stories.
The characters I created for the exhibition were all based on the stories I heard throughout the residency.
“East Hull Elvis’ was based on an incredible guy who was part of a learning-disabled community group in East Hull.
I created ‘Mario Lanza & the Hedge Trimmer Adventure’ after meeting a lady in one of the community group workshops, who told me the incredible story of Mario Lanza borrowing a hedge trimmer from the composer, John Barry, and never returning it.
I also created ’The Personal Independence Payment Princess’ who was a tribute to the amazing, beautiful women that I met in the workshops.
What motivates you to share your ideas and practice to community groups?
It was easy to be motivated by the community groups as I gave them the tools to create art, providing them with iPads, so they could use the same apps I employ.
They opened up to me and told me their own stories, both through the art and over coffees in a very trustful way. I felt driven to do justice to them and although I felt angry that some of the people I met obviously needed more support, I felt compelled not to make overtly angry art. To create art which perfectly reflected these incredible people I met, I need to include all the love for life that they exhibited.
Where do you gather inspiration from for your work?
Inspiration comes from lots of sources… Usually from popular culture such as the “Bean0’ & ‘Dandy’ comics of the 1970s, when I was a kid. I am also influenced heavily by artist such as Frida Kahlo & Philip Guston.
I am inspired by the groups I work with, as I use the stories they tell me to create art which hopefully is a testament to their lives.
What are the main barriers for you as an artist?
As a disabled artist I have to earn 30-40% more than my able bodied counterparts, as I have to pay extra costs for support, travel, etc. I also require lots of care, which makes life hard, but I embrace the challenges.
A good example of the challenges I face was the recent harsh weather, as I was not able to get to the Tate to see my sculpture on show there, as I could not leave the house due to the snow. If I had been abled bodied I could have done it, but it was unsafe for me to travel.
What are your hopes for the next year of Hull 2017 for artists and the people in general?
I have a great belief that if an artist works in the community with vulnerable people then you should never say goodbye. You should look at ways of giving them other opportunities, which is what has happened through the Artlink Hull residency. We are already planning to expand and add to the work, though other commissions.
Hull should carry on with its great work, but it’s also up to artists to carry on with the work we have started.
What advice would you give to other disabled people looking to become artists or to pursue a full-time career in their work?
I would say don’t be afraid to get in touch with organisations, such as Artlink Hull & SHAPE Arts to get support and advice. It’s a tough life, but there is lots of help out there.
I would also say that the main thing is to create art every day and keep on going through the painful times, as it will pay off. The main thing is getting your work shown, so you can use the internet to do this.
I would also be happy to help and offer advice to other disabled artists, who are starting out. They can contact me through my site www.jwmartist.co.uk