“There are many ways of communicating…”

Emily Woodruff reflects on her Work From Home Nest Residency:

My artistic practice had always been somewhat loosely defined, dabbling in acting, performance art, spoken word and music. After receiving an ASD diagnosis in my late-20s I found new ways of working. I developed a better understanding of how I process information, allowing me to start the transition from bedroom-headspace-artist, brimming with ideas but lacking the navigation system to see any through to completion, to an early career artist with an active practice.

When I saw Talking Bird’s Nest Residency programme it seemed like the perfect first step into a more professional practice. The knowledge that the Talking Birds team regularly work with and offer mentorship to disabled artists gave me a sense of freedom and confidence in approaching them. Not only would it give me the opportunity to work alongside a team well versed in the arts sector and local arts community, but I would be given the space and time to develop ideas in an environment where I knew I’d be able to communicate any additional needs I might have.

By the time the residency rolled around the world was operating in a significantly different landscape. I was given the option to postpone my residency or continue as planned on a work-from-home basis. I decided to focus on an alternative project I had been developing in order to allow me to get the most out of my time with Talking Birds, whilst working at a distance and in the smaller space of my spare room, and pushed on.

I’ve always been intrigued by biology and how our anatomy plays a role in how people see their own role in the world. This has developed into bigger and more cohesive ideas about the dance between corporeal reality and our inner narratives. How do our bodies inform our sense of self and shape our identity? With neurodivergence salient in my mind I began to think about how experiencing the world through a ‘different’ neurotype might also hold its own geography for how an individual experiences their identity and how the world reacts to their bodily (neurological) configuration. It had become increasingly clear to me that there was a phenomenon to be further explored in relation to receiving a late-in-life diagnosis of neurodevelopmental disorders and shifts in an individual’s identity. I wanted to explore people’s experiences of this and identify key patterns or changes that seemed consistent throughout these experiences. In doing so I hoped to gather the qualitative and emotional data required to produce an artistic response.

The mentorship I received was invaluable. The advice encouraged me to approach my time management with a view for longevity. This is something I’ve often struggled with, so to have someone to check in with now and then really helped me to stay on course. I started to think about how to incorporate a dialogue that extends beyond the final display of a piece of artwork into the development phase of a project.

With this in mind (and having found that questionnaires often don’t translate well for neurodiverse individuals), I started to have conversations! I put out a call online and directed it towards the neurodivergent community. Fortunately I already had a few contacts who were happy to have a discussion with me and explore their own experiences of late-diagnosis of autism. I dipped into artist Rees Finlay’s book ‘Reaffirmation: Coming to terms with an autism diagnosis’, (title says it all really) and had a great extensive call with Rees to really dig into these experiences. I also discovered the video performance by artist Kimberly Gerry-Tucker (with credit to her son Silas for filming and producing the work), Mime Project: Masking. The piece deals with autistic masking and finding acceptance, and one line really stood out to me, a thread that runs through many of the conversations I’ve been having; “I paint the squelch of Broken Sounds and TRIBE, upon my face”.

TRIBE! A word that kept seeming to float to the top of these conversations, along with a sense of transformation in finally ‘finding your tribe’. I started to further explore these patterns.

I found L.A Paul’s book ‘Transformative Experience’ and started to delve into the nature of significant shifts in identity, or, transformation. In one passage Paul discusses how some members of the Deaf community do not support the use of cochlear implants in young children. Some feel the implants alter the sensory landscape that the child was born with and prevent the child from truly experiencing the world as a Deaf individual, a unique way of being in the world that allows shared knowledge and experience as a member of the Deaf community. I considered how this distinct sensory configuration for perceiving the world, and the value that is found in knowing others have this experience too, is akin to being neurodiverse. Just as “a deaf child constructs her world in a different way, perhaps radically so”, so do ASD individuals. Therefore, just as “participating in this unique and valuable community and culture gives a deaf person a unique and intrinsically valuable experience and fosters a community that provides support for a historically oppressed segment of society”, being able to access the knowledge that you are neurodiverse may provide similar experiences to such individuals. TRIBE!

After reading of published works that deal with the subject matter and some rich conversations about first-hand experiences I began to see several phrases/key concepts arising: tribe, grief, transformation, self-acceptance, revelatory experience and vindication.

I knew I wanted to capture these ideas in a visual way – neurodiverse individuals are often very visual thinkers and communicators, sometimes better able to capture emotionally complex responses in swashes of colour than structured sentences. I also wanted my depictions of these key concepts to both connect to the real-life human experiences I’d been exploring, whilst being relatively ‘faceless’. These are almost archetypal journeys that can be accessed through a wide array of human experiences, and I wanted a wide array of experiences to be able to be brought to the table by the viewer.

As such I started to experiment with abstract portraiture, capturing gesture and emotion, not ‘pinning down’ too many distinct facial features:

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I also spent some time researching colour psychology. I drew inspiration from scientific data on the effects different wavelengths can have on the brain, historical artistic uses and regional/cultural associations to play with colour to create different sensations. For example, an overabundance of yellow can give a sense of sparseness, isolation and distance from society; it’s often been used to depict outcast figures. Green is often

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considered to imbue a sense of peace and a higher preference for it is seen in ASD boys compared to ‘typically developing’ boys, it’s speculated for its calming wavelength.

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With my mentor’s advice about thinking ahead ringing in my ears I put together a preliminary plan as to how I could produce the response, including potential funding sources and how the work might eventually be displayed.

After playing with some quotes I’d selected from my research by adding breaks in the sentence to create alternative or multiple interpretations, I produced a ‘sample’ that incorporated the abstract portraiture and colour techniques I’d been developing.

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I spent a lot of time during my residency contemplating my own artistic practice, how I operate, what works well and what changes could benefit me. I had time and ‘space’ to explore and play with techniques I may otherwise have struggled to carve out the time for. Through this reflection and my mentor’s guidance I am also taking away a very clear understanding. Dialogue with the world and potential viewer is an inherent part of the making process, not a final event.

However, I’m also taking away a sense that there is still a hegemonic narrative, a script, for how these conversations should be conducted. These scripts won’t work for everyone. Some may deal with cognitive overload in face-to-face coffee mornings that doesn’t allow for authentic expression to take place. Some may be non-verbal. Some may not be able to physically access the designated space. There are many ways of communicating that are as rich and ‘on par’ as a spoken engagement that may not be accurately translated into language. When thinking about the experience of distinct neurological configurations, L.A Paul suggests it may “…give them a unique and untranslatable, hypervisual cognitive style…”

As access to the ‘art world’ is changing, we need to reconsider alternative modes of being, processing information and constructing dialogues to provide that access.

I’d like to thank Talking Birds for the opportunity and support, and my mentor for crucial and enlightening conversations!

Rees Finlay’s ‘Reaffirmation: Coming to terms with an autism diagnosis’:
https://www.amazon.co.uk/Reaffirmation-Coming-terms-autism-diagnosis/dp/1527251128

Kimberly & Silas Gerry-Tucker’s ‘Mime Project: Masking’:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C1BYBxInZUg

L.A Paul’s Transformative Experience
https://www.amazon.co.uk/Transformative-Experience-L-Paul/dp/0198717954

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