Learning Disability Today
Supporting professionals working in learning disability and autism services

Art attack

starburst picJulie Penfold reports on Starburst Arts – a visual and performing arts initiative for people with learning disabilities who want to explore their creativity and engage with their local community through the arts:

For Phillip Judd, art is a passion, and he enjoys creating works that can be seen in public. “It feels good that someone can see my work, I get more out of it and it makes me want to do more,” he says.

Thanks to his participation in Starburst Arts, Judd now gets regular opportunities to have his work on display at exhibitions in his local area. “When it’s out there in the community and everyone sees it, I feel like an artist. I think it’s important that people can see what I can do.”

Starburst Arts is based at the Wrenford Centre, a day centre for adults with learning disabilities in Chichester, West Sussex. The centre boasts a range of facilities including a dance studio and three art studios. Starburst works with people of all abilities and provides a range of creative outlets to participate in. These include painting, sculpture, textiles, pottery, craft making, filmmaking and photography. The initiative also has a thriving dance, drama and music side. It is part of West Sussex County Council.

Many of the artists attend the Wrenford Centre on a daily basis and are onsite to participate in Starburst Arts sessions and workshops. Other artists that do not attend the centre drop in specifically to take part in sessions. Starburst has about 60 artists that participate in sessions at various times of the week, with ages ranging from 18 to 82.

Being creative
Sessions and workshops are designed to enable each artist to work at their own pace in their preferred art medium. Taking a person-centred approach is fundamental to how Starburst operates. “We do not decide what an artist should do, they tell us what they want to do and we work around that,” says Sally Christopher, Starburst Arts’ co-ordinator. “For some of our artists, this can include working on commissioned pieces. Our pottery department is currently working with Fishbourne Roman Palace [Sussex Archaeological Society] to create a new tiled mosaic piece. This is a wonderful project for our artists with more complex needs because of the tactile qualities of clay.
“St Richard’s Hospital in Chichester also recently commissioned us to produce six paintings. This was a big project for us and our artists worked very hard on that. Commissions can also come from individual people too; a local gentleman has commissioned us to produce a painting of his boat.”

Outburst project
Creating artistic links with the community is a key aim for Starburst and it works to find outlets to showcase the artists’ work and promote inclusion in the community.
Partnership working with local galleries, community groups, libraries and heritage organisations has been invaluable. For instance, Outburst is a Starburst project that aims to promote the work of artists and get their art into public spaces such as local libraries. Last year, Starburst’s largest exhibition to date was held at County Hall North – West Sussex County Council’s offices – in Horsham.

Seventy pieces of art created over a three-year period were on show, including paintings and textile work. A number of Starburst’s artists also contributed to a permanent installation of ceramic hand casts at Chichester District Council.

Starburst would like to expand the reach of community locations that exhibit their work and are hoping to get more artwork into Chichester County Hall in the future. “It’s fantastic for the artists to see their work displayed in the community,” says Christopher. “I’ve been to County Hall North with the group and it’s wonderful to see how they take ownership of their work. There’s a great sense of this is what I do and that one is mine! We have a big wall hanging in Fishbourne Roman Palace, a project we participated in around three years ago, and it looks beautiful. It really is a significant piece of work and the artists always talk about this whenever we visit.

“It’s really important to get their work out there. We want all of our artists, whatever their abilities, to be able to show their work within the community and have it valued by the community.”

Using technology
Starburst has also sought to help its artists use technology such as iPads, iMacs and Adobe Photoshop to create art. In 2012, Christopher devised the 20ME12 project with funding from Arts Council England and West Sussex County Council, working in partnership with Pallant House Gallery and WRAP community outreach group.

Participants were asked to create a piece of art on the theme of ‘Me, at this moment in time’. They were also invited to share their resulting images and post their thoughts on their art on the 20ME12 Starburst Arts Facebook page.

This project proved to be a success and gained funding for a second year and a follow-up initiative, Art Out There. This enabled more Starburst artists to develop their digital arts and technology skills and promote their work through the internet.

But using the internet brought with it some risks, so prior to the start of the 20ME12 project, Starburst set up user guidelines and a safeguarding protocol, working alongside West Sussex County Council’s media team, to allow the artists to be part of and run the Facebook page.

“We’re really proud of how we have established the guidelines and have never had any issues at all,” says Christopher. “It was really important to enable our artists to communicate via social media, while being supported by us. It was imperative that we could rigorously ensure their safety. The artists can update Facebook pages, post comments and upload images of their work. It is very much their domain and I think that is something our followers really respond to. Social media is our best promotional tool; we’re also on Twitter, YouTube and flickr. It has been really significant in helping us to network with other organisations and create awareness in the wider community around what we do.”

As part of the Art Out There initiative, a Weebly site has been set up to act as an online gallery for the artists to promote their work. Each artist has their own Weebly page.

Selling work
It quickly became apparent that some artists wanted to sell their work via the Weebly site. In the first instance, a protocol had to be established to enable artists to receive money. The Starburst team also helped the artists to understand the process of what would happen.

“We have a great protocol in place now to help interested artists to sell their work via Weebly,” says Christopher. “It ensures every artist receives a fair amount from the sales of their work. We have sold a couple of pieces already and it’s wonderful for them. It really adds value to what they’re doing. For a lot of our artists, the money does not have any importance at all. What’s more important to them is the fact that someone likes their work and wants to buy it. They feel included as an artist in the arts community and they take great pride in their work.”

One of the artists who has sold a piece of work via Weebly is Marc Talmage (pictured right). “It makes me feel good that somebody has bought my painting,” he says. “Making money is fantastic; I’m going to use it towards my holiday.”

Coming up
In March, Starburst will launch a new exhibition at the Pallant House Gallery, titled 20ME12 and Beyond. This exhibition will incorporate work from the 20ME12 and Art Out There projects and include new pieces. The art on display will also be on sale.

Additionally, Starburst has a number of exhibition bookings from local libraries to run throughout the year. These include five exhibitions at Chichester Library and two at Worthing. Fishbourne Roman Palace’s mosaic commission will also be completed in late spring and this will incorporate an installation and launch event for the artists to attend.

“Starburst provides a real opportunity for people with learning disabilities to show the public at large what is possible through their art,” says Peter Catchpole, cabinet member for adult social care and health at West Sussex County Council. “I had the opportunity to meet some of the artists at County Hall North and their excitement and enthusiasm for what they are doing was staggering. It really underlines the importance of this initiative.”

For more information on Starburst Arts, contact Sally Christopher at the Wrenford Centre on 01243 788544, email [email protected], or visit Starburst’s Weebly site, http://starburstartoutthere.weebly.com.

About the author
Julie Penfold is a freelance journalist. This article first appeared in the March/April 2014 edition of Learning Disability Today. For more information on the magazine visit

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