Art by Johnny Carroll-Pell: exploring inclusive curation

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Coinciding with Autism Awareness Week last month, ‘Art by Johnny’ was a fabulously vibrant exhibition held at Phoenix Studios in Brighton, comprised solely of Johnny Carroll-Pell’s paintings. Johnny is a 20-year-old autistic artist who has been a member of the Rocket Artists studio for two years. In this time, he has honed his paint, brush and oil skills to create work in a variety of styles. Emma Robdale investigates.

Johny Pell and his parents

Johnny with his parents, Henry Normal and Angella Pell, in front of one of his paintings. Photo from johnnycarrollpell/Instagram.

Johnny’s father, Peter Carroll, is more famously known by his comedian name Henry Normal, and his mother, renowned screen-writer Angela Pell, both wholeheartedly support Johnny’s artistic career. “I’m pretty sure that through his work Johnny is doing his bit to educate people about expectation, expression and communication,” writes his father. Despite much success as a TV producer Carroll claims his best achievement so far is his book, A Normal Family which depicts Johnny’s experiences growing up.

Throughout the process of curating the exhibition at the Phoenix Gallery Johnny was helped by members of Rocket Artists  – a group of artists with and without learning difficulties who explore inclusive collaboration and curation. Lead member, Jo Offer, lectures in Inclusive Arts Practice at Brighton University, and has been working with Johnny for over two years developing and collating his work:

“The studio is a wonderful mix of focused individuals who share energy and creative ambition. I work with Johnny on Fridays. He usually has an idea of a subject for his paintings, although sometimes he responds to a photograph or image from a book.”

Johnny is a man of few words, his mother Angela Pell, explains: “He is able to speak in one or two-word sentences and can get most basic needs met, but he isn’t able to hold a conversation.”

Black and white painting of a panda

Kung Fu Panda by Johnny Pell. Photograph: johnnycarrollpell/Instagram

Rocket Artists decided that the exhibition would have no labels or descriptions, as Johnny himself did not name the artworks. In his recent book, A Normal Family, Henry Normal writes about why having an artistic outlet has been so valuable to Johnny:

“The practice of engaging creatively became a shortcut, a way to put across meaning and built human connections that don’t rely so heavily on spoken language.”

While at the gallery Angela Pell spoke about why she believes her son enjoys painting:

“I think he likes to paint because he is interested in colour and loves the texture. Each painting only takes him about 20 minutes and during that time he’s very engaged.”

Because of the speed that he works, Johnny has produced a vast amount of art. At his family home in Brighton “his work is everywhere,” remarks Angela “it’s on the walls, leaning against the walls, by the sofas and chairs, rolled up in the shower and in piles.”

Only a selection could fit into the Phoenix gallery’s two wings. The right wing exhibited the bulk of Johnny’s paintings. Nestling on the walls were exhibits that ranged from Kung Fu Panda and David Bowie, to landscape art. One of the largest paintings was Mountains, an acrylic piece on paper involving thick lines and a bold abstract use of shape.

In the left wing the walls and floor were covered in coloured tape overlapping in zigzags and curves. These lines represented the ‘Yes/No/Maybe’ game that Rocket Artists played with Johnny to encourage communication. It involved kicking a ball to locations and asking ‘Yes’ – orange, ‘No’ – blue, ‘Maybe’ – green. Rocket Artists traced the ball’s trajectory with tape to represent the game visually.

Exhibition shot, with walls and floor covered in coloured tape

Right wing of gallery depicting the ‘Yes, No, Maybe’ game. Photograph: Emma Robdale.

While at the gallery I asked Johnny’s mother what his main themes were:

“Hills and trees, our villa in Portugal, figures of men and the [Brighton] Pavilion because we live nearby. He can be encouraged to try something different, but these are his four favourites.”

Johnny paints images from his everyday life. He also tends to paint the same themes in set places; at home he paints hills and trees, but at Rocket Artists’ studio he mainly paints figures.

When starting his paintings Johnny tends to do the outlines in yellow first, then adds other colours. Angela spoke about how Johnny became interested in art when he was about four years old. “I remember he drew a rainbow on the wall. That was the first time I got really excited that he’d done something using pens unprompted.” Since then he has just kept going.

Around the gallery it was evident that Johnny enjoyed using a large array of distinctive styles and materials. According to his mother, his preferred method is “painting large images on paper. But, he also likes canvas too. He’s been learning to stretch his own canvas. He likes paint best, I think.”

Not only were the paintings on the wall designed by him, but also the stools, the cushions and even the speakers! The whole place truly embodied ‘Art by Johnny.’ And Johnny, adorned with ear defenders because of his sensitivity to noise, clapped his hands in excitement while striding around the gallery accompanied by relatives and friends.

Cushions, stools and speakers desinged by Johnny pell

Stools, speakers, cushions from gallery. Photograph: johnnycarrollpell/Instagram.

During the month-long exhibition Phoenix gallery hosted weekly talks on Johnny’s influences. Amongst them was Dido Fisher, a horse whisperer.

“Dido has been integrating practices of Horse Whispering with Learning and Developmental Coaching to create a unique method for supporting her clients to change and learn.”(Phoenix Gallery)

She spoke about her work with Johnny over several years and how she had watched his communication skills grow while bonding with her two horses, Magpie and Dylan.

Henry Normal reflects on this within A Normal Family:

Vibrant, semi-abstract painting of mountains

Mountains, on canvas. Photograph: ‘Art By Johnny’ Facebook.

“He walks them and he feeds them. Sometimes he cleans their stables. One of the main things he’s learnt is to be gentle with them. He has gained such a lot of confidence around these quite large animals. As someone who is still a little nervous around horses I find it inspiring.”

‘Art by Johnny’ is just the start of his showcase with the work being exhibited in Belper and Keynsham. However, his mother was clear that they would only pursue his artistic career as long as Johnny himself was interested:

“The main thing is that Johnny keeps enjoying it. As long as he does, we’ll keep making sure he can access places to work and gets the resources he needs. But I wouldn’t want him to feel pushed into doing something so it no longer felt joyful.”

If you would like to view more of Johnny’s work visit his Facebook page, or his Instagram. Johnny Pell is showing ‘Art by Johnny’ in The Space, Keynsham from 8-12 May 2018. His father Henry Normal presents his book A Normal Family – Everyday Adventures with our Autistic son on Saturday 12th May at 8pm
Tickets available at Keynsham Tickets