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Tony Fowler


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Audio interview with Tony Fowler

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Fowler , Tony (Subject of)


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Interviewee: Tony Fowler

Date: 12/03/2012

“I’ve been working in Hackney since December 5th 1983”

[Changes from 3 to 6 projects…]
The major changes to the service prior to now took place in ‘96/’97 – moved from having the Trowbridge Centre, the Homerton Day Centre and the Peggy Edwards Centre – broke service up into 6 distinct projects:
- The Sports Ability Project (opportunities for sport and leisure),
- The Performing Arts Project (drama, music and art etc),
- The Arts and Crafts Project – of which he is a member (explores all areas of the visual arts and crafts),
- The Me & My Life Project (dealt with health issues and political issues around men’s and women’s groups),
- The Food and Drink Project (cooking opportunities, eating out – often about partaking rather than just doing)
- The Homes and Gardens Project (deals with aspects of gardening, decorating and home crafts).

[Experiencing art in museums and out in the natural environment…]
“As well as actually supporting people to make things, to paint picture, to make sculptures, to take photographs, we’ve also tried to expose people to the richness of the visual art world that’s out there – be it the natural environment or those things you can see within museums and galleries. So supporting people to explore the natural environment and museums and galleries has always been an essential part of what we’ve provided in the Arts and Crafts Project – particularly with peple with higher support needs who have perhaps been unable to manipulate materials themselves due to their physical disabilities. That’s not to say that people with profound disabilities haven’t been supported to manufacture art, or be very active in the manufacture of art.”

[Epping Forest sessions…]
“Places like Epping Forest, local canals, they’ve always provided us with venues, destinations, which we can support people to journey so can actually – say within Epping Forest – experience how seasons change, colours change, leaves and that, the different birds and merge with the changes in the weather, the flowers that erupt in Spring, and reach full bloom in the Summer. So these are things that have been part of the experience of people who’ve attended the Arts and Crafts project.”

[Making visual records of their experiences…]
“Often it’s me who’s taken photographs of people having the experiences, but we’ve kept visual records and we’ve put them in a little portfolio for people to take photographs home, so they’ve got a record of those experiences. Because so many of the people that use our service don’t have access to everyday speech, and so a lot of their experiences are locked inside their head, and without myself and my colleagues keeping a record – either writing it down or with photographs – these things will stay locked inside their heads. So that’s been a very important part of the Arts and Crafts project – trying to establish some sort of history, and maintain a history that people can take with them so when they encounter new people, or move to new environments they can bring that with them and they can say – look this has been part of me, this has been my experience, this has been part of my life.”

[Arts and Craft project – 4 elements…]
“What emerged from the Arts and Crafts project was 4 elements that often overlapped or worked in parallel.
[1. Fun]
The first of these was that it is fun to work with materials. It’s fun to throw paint around, it’s fun to squeeze clay – you can just have fun with the materials and it can be just a jolly good jape to get your hands mucky, to spill things on the floor and to laugh with people while we’re struggling with these materials. So having fun with these materials and enjoying the sensory qualities of materials, that was an essential element of what we provided.
[2. Working with complex processes]
And this goes back to my concern about the art that I’d seen at the Tate Modern that distinctly looked like Primary school art – it was my contention that if you supported people to engage in a manufacturing process that had a number of steps, you could actually come up with a finished product that was complex. Allied to that I thought, well, many people here have very limited, or had great difficulty with hand-eye co-ordination. I didn’t have the time to teach people how to draw, or processes and techniques that require hours and hours of practice, so I was looking for processes that I could show people once and they could then replicate, copy with a view to manufacturing an original piece of work. For example, plaster casting – if you can make yourself a cup of tea, and most of the people who use our service, with a bit of support can make themselves a cup of tea – if you can make a cup of tea, you can make some plaster. I show them that once and most of them can do that for themselves thereafter. So, we can make plaster; now we need to make a mould. So if we get a lump of clay and a rolling pin, we can roll the clay into a nice flat slab of clay. And if you use two thin bits of wood on either side, you can get a nice even thickness on it. And so then you can put a bathroom tile on top of that, get an ordinary kitchen knife that most people would use to eat their dinner with, and just trim around that 6 inch tile and then you have a 6 inch clay tile. Then if you get your hand, even better go to the garden, get yourself some leaves, you can place them on top of the clay tile, place a piece of cardboard on top of that and gently roll back and forth with the rolling pin. Take the card off, peel the leaves off and then you have a beautiful impression. Stick four pieces of wood around the tile – one on either side, mix up your plaster, pour it in, wait for it to set. Then you can just wash a few colours backwards and forwards on that – pour some red on there and then wash most of it off – carry on until you have built up a rich patina of colours. Then you’ve got this beautiful sophisticated 6 inch tile, and you can probably get that achieved in two, three hour sessions. And somebody who’s never made a piece of sculpture in their life – has a learning disability that perhaps limits their ability to manipulate materials in a sophisticated way – they can make something that is stunningly beautiful, and that will get acknowledgment from any audience to which you expose the tile. Similarly we use printing, screen printing they are all processes, all types of printing processes allow you to introduce people very quickly to a manufacturing process that has lots of steps, but no step requires highly honed skills. Hence if you look around the walls at Trowbridge you will see prints that are very complex, but require people to do no more than tear bits of paper and maybe cut pieces of paper up with scissors and place them under a screen and drag some ink across it. So working with complex processes that was the second idea.

[3. ‘Re-Present’ not just represent]
The third idea to which I nearly alluded to earlier, was actually working with our own bodies. Again if you walk round this building you’ll see plaster casts of hands, feet – you’ll see whole bodies done in chicken wire. But the idea was that there was a direct correspondence between the person who’s made, or been involved in making the art and the thing made. This is my hand, this is my face etc. And this inadvertently led me to realising that part of what we were doing and what I was attempting to do was - you know my egos at play here as well as that of the users – I wasn’t trying to actually represent people with learning, supporting them to represent themselves. I was forcing them to re-present themselves.

[4. You don’t have to manipulate the material yourself to be the author…]
This was the fourth idea that underpinned the art we made, or drove the art we made. This was just borrowing from the world of contemporary British sculpture… you don’t have to manipulate the materials to be the author of a piece of art.”

“People with learning difficulties have very, very little control of their lives, decisions that we take for granted, decisions that we take on a daily basis are not afforded people with learning difficulties – what you eat, when you eat, what you wear, who you see, who you live with. Many people with learning disabilities have no say in this matter whatsoever, no say at all. Coming back to the Arts and Crafts project if I can, so that they can make their own mark, and be in control of those materials, or the direction those materials are moving, it may only be small, but at least, they’ve got some control over one element of their life.”
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