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Pyramid of Arts: What does culture mean to you? Part II

James Hill is Director of Pyramid of Arts, a Leeds-based  art collective which runs weekly collaborative arts groups for people with and without learning disabilities, including a high support programme for people with profound or multiple disabilities.

On 3rd March Leanne visited Pyramid of Arts, this time to meet with the Eden Group – 17 artists with and without learning disabilities who have recently created high-profile exhibitions at Arts @ Trinity, The Tetley and as part of the British Art Show 8.  The group are currently working on an extension of their Walking in Our Shoes project (initially created for British Art Show 8 at Leeds Art Gallery) that will be shown in the BEYOND Festival in June.

I have to admit that I thought Leanne and I would get very different responses from our Eden Group.  Within Pyramid of Arts they are often talked about as being the group who most clearly self-identify as being ‘artists’ (whereas some of the other groups are a little more like social clubs who happen to do art).  The Eden Group have exhibited regularly over the last few years and at least two of the artists have had work bought by galleries or selected by exhibitions outside of Pyramid of Arts.  The nature of some of the answers surprised me, and left me feeling frustrated at my own inability to communicate, so I am going to make these entries anonymous!

We asked people what they like to do in life, whether cultural activity or not, and what are the barriers that sometimes get in the way of them doing them.

A. always has lots of exciting plans. Straight away he told us that he would like to go “paintballing, go-karting, speedboating” as well as walking and playing the keyboard. He goes on lots of holidays, to Norfolk and Torquay – he can’t remember all the holidays that he’s been on. He also came with Pyramid of Arts to Ireland to visit KCAT – another organisation like us.  What he actually does (apart from coming to Pyramid of Arts), is to watch videos at home and to go to the pub in Rothwell with people from his house.   When I told him that you can go go-karting and paint-balling in Leeds (speed-boating I’m not too sure about) he claimed that he didn’t know these activities were available.  He plans his activities in conversations with his key worker but that she has never offered, and he has never asked about, the option of doing paint-balling or go-karting in the city.

Pyramid of Arts

B. likes socks with clocks. Socks with clocks on them. They are his favourite pair of socks.  I suspect he might have been taking the mickey out of Leanne a little bit.  Once he drew us his socks with clocks (see picture) he went on to explain that he likes trips out, to Blackpool, York and Harewood House, and that he loves music and films – particularly Daniel O’Donnell and Jason Donovan.Pyramid of Arts

C. is a really talented artist. His paintings have been sold at exhibitions and sculptural piece was purchased by Dean Clough Gallery. His favourite project with Pyramid of Arts was making a giant sheep for Light Night. We asked whether he would like to do more painting.  He said yes.  We asked whether he would like to do painting at home.  He said yes.  We asked whether he likes going out shopping with his Mum and to the pub with his housemates.  He said yes. We asked whether he liked visiting the gallery for British Art Show 8.  He said yes. C is very accommodating, grateful for any activity provided for him, and eager to please.  This makes it difficult to be entirely sure he truly does like these things. We think he does, based on knowing him well. But are there things he would enjoy more, given the opportunity?  And would he do more of this stuff at home, if he had the confidence to ask staff outside Pyramid of Arts to support him in creative activity?

Pyramid of Arts

I found myself getting confused and frustrated at the fact that I was unable to put questions in such a way that would allow A & C to even say that they wanted anything to be different from the way that it currently is.  I feel like I know these guys reasonably well.  The Eden Group was the first Pyramid of Arts Group I met.  I volunteered with them before I worked for the Charity.

I realise that they are keen artists, that if we put paper and paintbrush in front of them, they will create something within the framework of the group, happily and with talent and enthusiasm.  But the fact that members are enjoying themselves doesn’t mean that, given a proper choice, proper information, and asked in the right way, they might chose to do their artwork differently or with different materials, or even chose to do something else entirely.

And so I decided to speak to the chair of Pyramid of Art’s board of trustees, Thomas Chalk, who works in learning disability services. His particular focus is on giving people opportunities to have their say. He said that “for some people with a learning disability, it can be quite a challenge to say they don’t enjoy something, for all sorts of reasons. These might include a sense that there is a ‘right’ answer, perhaps because the person asking the question is seen to be allied to the topic. It could be hard for some people to say to Pyramid of Art’s Director that they don’t really enjoy the sessions they do!

A different issue for some people might be around having difficulty imagining alternatives – if the question is ‘do you enjoy this?’ and the alternative that you can think of is ‘not doing this’, rather than ‘doing something else’, then you’ll get an answer that is about ‘enjoying having something to do’ rather than about whether they enjoy that particular ‘something’. A conversation about something so abstract and broad as ‘culture’ is a difficult one to join.”

The final artist we spoke to said something similar about the importance of getting the questions right…

D. likes bands, music, singing, venues and gigs. He enjoyed walking around the gallery for British Art Show 8. He loved visiting Luxembourg with Pyramid.

Pyramid of Arts

He likes being part of meetings where people decide what they want to do.  But he also thinks that it is hard to be independent if people don’t give you the information that you need about choices available to you.  He finds that people often lose patience with his communication and don’t wait to listen to what he has to say, which he finds very frustrating.  He also finds it frustrating when people tell you what to do rather than waiting to find out what you want to do.

‘People’, says D, ‘have got to get on with each other and support each other.  It’s like, you’ve got me, and I’ve got you, and everybody’s got everybody.’

Walking in Our Shoes Part II will be exhibited as part of ‘BEYOND – Learning Disability and the Arts in Leeds’ which will run from 10th – 23rd June.  For more information see


Image: Plan by David Rushworth of the Eden Group, oil & canvas, 2013

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