A group of 8 people are working hard on their artworks; they paint, they draw, they cut. Madeline Alterman, founder of Artbox UK, surveys the scene with pride, as the artists apply the finishing touches to their pieces. An outsider might notice that these artists all have learning difficulties to some degree, but Madeline does not see their disability.

Launched in 2011, Artbox reaches out to people with learning disabilities and helps them to progress both socially and artistically with weekly studio sessions, allowing the artists to develop their own work and then giving them the chance to display and sell their art at exhibitions organised by Artbox. Not only are people with learning disabilities given an opportunity to show off their work, but they are given a source of income, as the money generated from art sales is split between the artist (60%) and Artbox London (40%).

Artbox proves talent does not discriminate against people with learning disabilities

The ethos of Artbox is simple, “We believe that by bringing skills to the fore, we can encourage people to look beyond the disability and to the individual”. Madeline, instead of concentrating on the disability, focuses on what the artist does well; instead of clipping their wings because of their condition, she nurtures their independence.

This attitude is all too scarce in society, as people with learning disabilities are often misunderstood, ignored and even shunned by mainstream cultures. They face challenges, prejudices and marginalisation on a daily basis.

According to Mencap, less than 1 in 5 people with learning disabilities work (compared with 1 in 2 disabled people generally) despite at least 65% wanting to. At school, 8 out of 10 children with learning difficulties are bullied.

Often, this discrimination stems from a severe misunderstanding of what these people are going through, and an underestimation of their talents.

Chris, an artist at Artbox, wrote about his experiences for the website exposure.org.uk. He said, “I did not like primary or secondary school because I didn’t feel the teachers were supportive. They didn’t help me with my lessons and my needs. I don’t think they understood who I was or the needs I have. I went to a mainstream school rather than one that works specifically with autistic young people”

“I didn’t make many friends, and I often felt isolated and helpless. I used to just stand in the same spot in the playground, avoiding people. It was better to stay alone than engage with people who might be mean to me. There were some students that were okay because they would come and speak to me, although no one was really ‘nice’.”

Sadly, many people only see the superficial aspects of learning disabilities and judge accordingly. This is partly what motivated Madeline to found Artbox.

She explains, “I have a younger brother with learning disabilities so am very much aware of the issues facing people with learning disabilities and their families, and am passionate about people with learning disabilities being fully included in society. I am also passionate about art, I studied Fine Art at university, and after a period of exhibiting and working on my own art I wanted to find a way of combining my two passions.”

A fresh approach from a different angle is what was needed, and so, Artbox was born.

The first thing that strikes you as you walk through the doors of the Islington Arts Factory, where Artbox hosts its free sessions, is the buzz of sociability, excitement and fervour that envelops both artists and volunteers. Talk around the tables is much like any other conversation all over London on a Saturday morning. Several are discussing a club-night for people with learning disabilities they had been to the night before, whilst others are catching up on how their weeks had gone. Suddenly there is a great flurry of action as Lekan, one of the artists, exuberantly announces his arrival, offering everyone high 5s, before playfully removing his hand just before contact.

Artbox proves talent does not discriminate against people with learning disabilities

Not all the artists, however, are effervescent and vivacious. Some are more introverted, but no less valued, no less talented and no less animated about art. Alex sits quietly, constructing various collages of dresses and other clothes in his workbook, but when asked about his work, he talks enthusiastically about his love for design and his desire to work in the fashion industry or contemporary art when he is older.

After all have gathered, artists and volunteers alike head to the studio to begin the session proper. The artists present what they have been working on, enthusing about their particular artwork, from watercolour painting, to drawing, to embroidery. Then they restart their efforts. A constant flurry of activity pervades the studio, whether it is Guilia intricately inscribing every detail of the Eiffel Tower, or Chris attempting to inject some brightness into his work by deluging it with glitter. Each artist shows immense pride and passion for their work and are granted a high degree of autonomy; Madeline and her volunteers are mere facilitators and companions.

Yet, to achieve this autonomy and excitement, Madeline and Artbox have to work exceptionally hard, faced as they are by the common issues that all modern day charities grapple with. As one can imagine, in such tough economic times, the biggest issue they face is funding.

“While we work hard to find as much ‘in kind’ support as possible, through volunteering and corporate responsibility schemes, we still do need money and we are often so focused on our core aims that we don’t have time to write big funding applications”, explains Madeline.

Luckily for Artbox, they benefit from being situated in the vibrant metropolis of London.

“London is amazing for finding great support in a multitude of areas – from building websites and marketing to hands on studio and exhibition support. It really is a talented, hard-working and creative city and when that stretches to Artbox is keeps us going!” Madeline enthuses.

One of Artbox’s aims is to provide 1 on 1 mentoring, so London’s vast and eager volunteering pool is a lifeline for the charity.

Helen Gourley is a student living in Camden. She volunteers two hours every Saturday morning to work with the artists at Artbox.

She says, “I have volunteered for various organisations in the past couple of years and coming to London this year I thought I would have no trouble finding similar positions in line with my interests, yet, I was still surprised to find an organisation so close to my heart; I am currently a first year History of Art student at UCL. My Uncle suffers from mental disabilities and so, for me, this opportunity to combine these two areas of interest could not be missed.”

“Volunteering with ArtBox on a Saturday morning never fails to improve my whole weekend. The artists’ vibrant energy allows me to forget the tedious problems of university work and essay deadlines.”

Artbox proves talent does not discriminate against people with learning disabilities

When thinking back to her favourite moment so far, Helen reminisced, “One of the artists, Lekan, loves Michael Jackson and so, for a treat, at the end of a session we put on his favourite track ‘You rock my world’. We were treated to a fantastic Michael Jackson-esque dance show and all had a little boogie!”

Thanks to volunteers like Helen, despite the relative infancy of the charity and its small size, Artbox has had great success already. There have been multiple exhibitions with each well attended by members of the public; last year, at the Fitzrovia Art Gallery, more than 300 visitors appeared over 4 hours with 80 pieces of art sold. Madeline adds, “The artists profit here and for many, it’s the first time they’ve made an income. It’s also a joy to see the artists mixing with visitors to our exhibitions – it feels inclusive and there is a genuine respect for them and their art.”

Indeed, it appears that, whilst the project may only be in its early stages, Artbox is going from strength to strength. There are even expansion plans Madeline reveals, “we’ve just opened up a second session and the plan is to open a new one each year until we have a 5 day a week service. We would like to be able to work with more people with learning disabilities and hold more exhibitions, and also set up an online shop and be in a position where we can sell art all year round!”

See the students in action in this video: http://vimeo.com/28714213

The next exhibition is on the 7th May from 6pm-9pm at the Prince’s Foundation in Shoreditch.

For more information about the work Artbox do please visit their website: http://www.artboxlondon.org/

The next Artbox exhibition is on the 7th May from 6 – 9pm at the Princes Foundation in Shoreditch, London. If you are in the area feel free to attend! 

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