Corporate and community projects have always been a major focus for Sydney’s Studio A, but 2020 has seen its most ambitious to date come to fruition. Seven Studio A artists – Meagan Pelham, Emily Crockford, Jaycee Kim, Annette Galstaun, Catherine McGuiness, Lauren Kerjan and Mathew Calandra – were invited to collaborate with the Art Gallery of New South Wales on a mural covering the gallery’s entire entrance court. “It is the first such commission by an Australian State or Commonwealth collecting institution,” says Gabrielle Mordy, founder and director of Studio A. “It’s a remarkable milestone for the studio and our artists.”
Currently in its final stages of completion, the mural, titled Love Owls and Mermaids Singing in the Rainbow Pop, has seen the seven artists collaborate with mural artist Reuben Broughtwood to realise the commission, with the work on exhibition until late February 2021.
The mural is not only a massive feat for the studio and its artists, but is a timely and colourful reminder of the importance of togetherness, relationships and community at the end of a year that has tested each and every one of them. While the world shutdown and social isolation restrictions were enforced, Studio A and its artists were keeping busy – albeit in isolation. “While it’s been a challenging year for the studio,” says Gabrielle. “Its been inspiring to see how the creativity of our artists has given them a particular ability to adapt. Our artists haven’t missed a day of work. In fact, they’ve been more creative than ever.”
Reaching for great new heights is just the latest endeavour for Studio A, which has been leading Sydney’s community art scene for the past decade.
“Imagine you are a talented and prolific artist,” muses Gabrielle, “but you struggle with literacy and/or mainstream communication. How can you navigate the competitive professional art system? How can you network with galleries and curators, compose an artist’s CV and complete grant applications?” The answer to these questions is Studio A.
Gabrielle began Studio A in 2010 as a project-based initiative to help artists with intellectual disabilities gain professional development within the arts sector. She could never have imagined the success it would become. “Around 2008, I volunteered at Studio ARTES, a fantastic not-for-profit that provides recreational creative programs for adults with disabilities,” Gabrielle tells me. “I witnessed the compelling artwork some people were producing in this program and the focus with which they worked. I equally witnessed the lack of opportunity the participants had to extend their art skills, meet like-minded artists and exhibit in artist-run spaces.” While she has had no formal training in disability services, and admits she never intended to work supporting people with disabilities, Gabrielle’s career path has come as a joyous surprise.
Today, Studio A is a major not-for-profit company and social enterprise lifting the stereotypes around the capacity of artists with disabilities. It provides artists with a working studio space equipped with specialist materials and support staff; manages an annual exhibition program; and facilitates weekly workshops provided by invited contemporary artists. “We try to link our artists with established artists who can extend their art practice and also advocate for them in their specific arts community,” says Gabrielle.
“In this way we provide educational opportunities for our artists, but also for the broader arts community.”
Supporting dozens of professional artists, Studio A operates with a “for profit” mentality, where profits are re-invested into the studio to create further opportunities and social good.
While the studio receives income via state and federal government funding, donations, philanthropy, and corporate sponsorship, the sale of art and creative services such as workshops is crucial to its continuation. Purchasing a work of art from Studio A directly employs the artist through significant commission payments, but the value of each sale extends beyond financial gain.
For me, the most enlightening aspect of talking with Gabrielle was her necessary reminder that art and creativity does not work in a vacuum. “I will always remember the first time I saw Studio A artist Mathew Calandra walk up to a member of the public at an exhibition opening and hand out his business card,” recalls Gabrielle. “When Mathew shared his card his entire demeanour changed. He stood up straight, spoke clearly and he shared the card with a new confidence. Mathew had a sense of identity, ‘I am an artist’ he said.” The confidence and sense of belonging fostered by Studio A is invaluable for artists who are otherwise locked out of the professional arts sector. For many artists living with intellectual disabilities, their creative and social isolation is their primary hurdle. “The learning Studio A provides is twofold. Linking our artists with their specific arts network is a crucial part of what Studio A does.
The list of recent standout moments for Studio A and its artists is long. It includes an Art Bites documentary series profiling six Studio A artists, simply titled Studio A featuring currently on the ABC. Studio A artist Emily Crockford’s success in 2020 as an Archibald finalist with her work Self Portrait with Daddy in the Daisies watching the field of Planes. Thom Roberts’ inclusion in The National 2019 – the first artist with an intellectual disability to be curated into the show. A collaboration in 2017 of three Studio A artists – Meagan Pelham, Skye Saxon and Thom Roberts – with Erth Visual and Physical Theatre along with Mud Australia to perform a multi-sensorial visual arts feast at Carriageworks, which was a sell-out show.
When I ask Gabrielle what Studio A’s greatest strength is, it is not any of these glowing accolades but something much more profound: “Through Studio A I get to see what good art can do. Strong art has a force and it can create real change in the world. It can transform the ways people relate to each other. It can alter perceptions.”
Feature image: Installation view of Annette Galstaun, Catherine McGuiness, Emily Crockford, Jaycee Kim, Lauren Kerjan, Mathew Calandra and Meagan Pelham mural Love Owls and Mermaids Singing in the Rainbow Pop, 2020 at Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney. Courtesy: the artists, Studio A and AGNSW. Photo: Diana Panuccio.