How to be a Dyslexic Artist & Other Stories

A person standing against a plain background. They are wearing a huge turquoise costume and mask, which extends their shape to appear like an arrowhead.
Photograph of Alicia Wallace in costume. Exhibited as part of How to be a Dyslexic Artist & Other Stories, The Tetley, 2019.

Currently exhibited on the second floor of Leeds’ Tetley Brewery is a collection of newly compiled images depicting individuals with costumes and props. These images have resulted from a short course for adults exploring their personal experiences of being dyslexic in our text heavy world.

An exploration of artistic expression based on dyslexic experience, How to be a Dyslexic Artist & Other Stories is a project delivered by artist/consultant Benedict Phillips and his team, Linda Tomlinson, Ros Lehany and Kelly Culver. The value of the team consists in the wide-ranging skill-sets that they bring to the endeavour including: creative writing, sculpture, photography, costume design, production and performance art. The team engaged a group of eleven participants over eight weekly sessions, which resulted in the creation of a personal manifesto, as well as props and costumes. During the sessions the participants contrived a series of ‘alternative personae’ culminating in a series of photographic studio portraits of them inhabiting these personas.

A costumed person against a plain background. The costume is all white, including a dress, gloves and shoes. Over their head is a white scarf with metallic details. They hold a bunch of pink flowers in one hand.

From the perspective of appreciating pure artistic skill and craftspersonship, the element of the overall exhibition that leaps immediately to the fore is the innovation employed in costume design and production. Many of the participants portrayed in the photographs are dressed in ungainly and awkward exaggerations of physical discomfort. The fabrics employed are stifling and restrictive, limiting ease of movement and dexterity, and forcing the wearer into contorted and physically limiting poses. In approaching the subject of dyslexia in this way, the images elicit empathy in the non-dyslexic viewer for the frustration experienced by the participants on a daily basis. Other facets of the exhibition heighten the overall sense of frustration by highlighting through titular explanations, participants’ statements and prop-use, how the non-dyslexic world engages negatively with participants. In their statements, participants speak of feeling infantilised or patronised, and their wish to challenge the false assumptions that somehow people with dyslexia are less intelligent or simply lazy.

Though the images are successful in invoking empathy in the viewer for the frustration experienced by the participants going through the world as a dyslexic person, I feel that the images would have more impact and power if they were produced on a larger scale. Nevertheless, they achieve their purpose. What this exhibition demonstrates is that there are many ways to communicate, not only verbally or in written form. And that ultimately the visual expression that results from the encouragement of lateral and metaphorical thinking can produce something far more powerful.

How to be a Dyslexic Artist is a laudable project, revealing a broad array of perspectives on an experience shared by many, helping to bridge the gulf of misunderstanding that seems too often to exist around this condition.

A costumed person on a plain background. The costume consists of white overalls splattered in paint. On their feet and hands they wear long red armatures that end in a point. Over their face they wear a mask with tentacles falling like a beard.

The project participants are: John Arnison, Alessandra Cali, Ollie Getley, Fran Hennessy, Eve Miller, Emma Roberts, Rabhia Saeeda, Laura Taylor, Alicia Wallace, Mara West and Lo Whitehead.

How to be a Dyslexic Artist & Other Stories is at The Tetley, Leeds. 17 July  – 10 November 2019. The exhibition is part of a larger ongoing two-year project ‘How to be a Dyslexic Artist’ supported by Arts Council England. A publication and exhibition at Gallery Oldham will follow in summer 2020.

Published 30.08.2019 by Holly Grange in Reviews

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