Skye Shadowlight tells stories. Sometimes in words or text, but more often through found installations, objects, sculpture, performance and film. Her most recent work is Stinkadena, created as the recipient of the Square Peg bursary which is awarded to a disabled artist in the North of England. The artist talked to Gill Crawshaw about the opportunity created by Artlink Hull
The bursary is part of Artlink Hull’s disability and diversity programme and Stinkadena is currently exhibited at their premises. And this is how I first became aware of Shadowlight’s work. Stinkadena led me to research her previous projects, powerful work which often addresses trauma and its effects.
We met in Leeds, as we are both based in West Yorkshire, and I wondered why I hadn’t discovered Shadowlight’s work earlier. She points out that she graduated just last year with a BA (Hons) in Fine Art, so hasn’t been on the arts scene for long.
This achievement was one of several significant events that validated her decision to become an artist. The Square Peg bursary was another.
The experience was “awesome”, says Shadowlight. “It was the first time since I’d left university that I’d had any kind of support, the first time anybody had paid me to make any sort of art or gave me money so I could create work. I had time, I had the support of people at Artlink Hull who were amazing. It gives you time and of course resources. You try to think that money’s not very important, but it meant that I could realise the work as I wanted. So now the work exists.”
This is exactly the outcome that the Square Peg bursary was set up to achieve, to support a disabled artist to make work that they wouldn’t otherwise have been able to create. But Shadowlight might not have applied, had it not been for revelatory conversations with other artists and workers at Shape Arts, who drew her attention to the social model of disability.
Shadowlight’s large-scale installation, Shade School, was accepted into last year’s Shape Open exhibition, despite greatly exceeding the size limit for submissions. A Victorian schoolroom with desks representing how the education system often disables pupils, by failing to meet different needs or restricting pupils’ aspirations (shown as literally clipping their wings, for example), Shade School was developed from Shadowlight’s anger and frustration at her daughter’s schooling.
“It was archaic. She has autism and the teacher made her sit under his desk. They didn’t know what to do with her. All the tools were there, but they weren’t given to her to use in the right way”.
Thankfully, her daughter now attends a different school where she is getting a much better education. But her earlier experiences were a clear reminder for Shadowlight of her own time at school: “I struggled and my needs weren’t met”.
Following the open exhibition, Shape Arts had listed Shadowlight as a non-disabled artist who made work about disability issues. She’d avoided being labelled as a disabled artist up to this point, not wanting to be pigeonholed, nor wanting to take an opportunity away from a ‘genuinely’ disabled artist. But ‘non-disabled’ didn’t seem to describe her either.
She talked to other disabled artists about her experiences, particularly the lack of understanding of ADHD and post-traumatic stress disorder which she’d faced. Her instinctive understanding of disability as a social problem rather than an individual one: “I’m not the one who’s disabled, it’s everyone else who has a problem”, was met with “that’s the social model of disability, of course you’re a disabled person!”
Once the penny had dropped, Shadowlight says: “I applied for the Square Peg bursary on the basis of the social model”, which is the definition of disability that Artlink Hull uses.
The Spare Peg recipient is not required to make artwork about disability, and Stinkadena is concerned with a number of social issues including domestic violence, alcoholism, poverty and above all, social mobility. It harks back to Shadowlight’s Texan roots, being the nickname of the city of Pasadena.
“I purposely applied with something that I thought wasn’t disability related, but if you scratch the surface, then it’s probably there”, says Shadowlight. There are certainly parallels with disabled people’s lives and the restrictions they face in Shadowlight’s narratives of broken dreams, low expectations and the effects that these can have on individuals, families and communities.
This is the mark of a good storyteller and a feature of Shadowlight’s work. She takes events from her own life, often difficult or traumatic, and through her art makes them relevant to others with very different experiences.
A performance which took place over six weeks in 2016, Monster saw Shadowlight dragging a wooden cot around her home town of Hebden Bridge: “symbolising the trauma I carried around with me. But at the end I made it smaller, I burned it and made it into an icon.”
This resonated with many people, some said that her work has helped them to deal with their own trauma. Others have commented that making the work must be cathartic: “but I don’t think about it like that. Making work that’s so autobiographical, I need to think about how other people understand it. I really try to open it up, I try to make it so that other people can relate”.
Audiences in Hull saw much to relate to with Stinkadena, in terms of industry, landscape and working class culture. A group of learning disabled artists created a drama piece based on the exhibition. While Stinkadena may be about “being stuck in a place, having nowhere to go”, it is actually opening up conversations about being proud of your culture and about dreams and aspirations, about having somewhere to go.
The square peg analogy is very apt in Shadowlight’s case. Art is the means through which she has found somewhere she fits, where she can tell stories and reach out to others. As she says: “All my life I had such trouble communicating with people, then I found a place I could communicate.”