Ann Young journeys into the heart of the Norfolk countryside to find the man behind the poet, artist, performer and activist Vince Laws. He reflects on his life and work, and touches upon a recent series of paintings he has done for Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC).
I find Vince and his dog Badger waiting at the gate of their rustic cottage nestling on the edge of a small gathering of homes. I’m greeted with his usual warm hug as Badger wags his tail, and leads the way in.
Vince talks about his formative years and his artistic origins:
I have always been creative; I just never had the idea that I could use my creativity as the main focus of my life.
I was in the army for eight years. I left largely because I knew I was gay or bisexual and at that time, it was illegal in the Armed Forces. It was still illegal when I was a kid and then it was okay. It had been decriminalised although was still very frowned upon.
I’d been a sub-editor for about four years when I tested HIV positive in 2014, on my 43rd birthday. I realised then that I couldn’t wait for retirement. So, I decided that I was going to be a poet and an artist and from then on I’ve worked towards that aim. I started doing work against the stigma of HIV and that slowly developed into Disability Arts. I didn’t really know about Disability Arts but I completely get it. If you do Black Art and Gay Pride and all those things, it’s exactly the same.
I struggled with the gay thing for a very long time and then I moved to Brighton and kind of felt accepted. It was only then that I learned to love myself. So, when I got HIV, I just said, ‘right, I’m not going to hide it like the gay thing. I’m just going to it say how it is.’ And so when I got my mental health problems I wasn’t going to hide that either, I’m just going to shout it out loud!
This led Vince into the world of protest and he became active in disability rights campaigns.
I can’t contain my ‘shouty outy this must change-ness.’ I’ve always been like that, actually.
It can be really hard to hold on to your sanity with all the cuts and deaths. It’s gone on for over six years now. People know what’s going on and I can’t get my head round that, really. I made a banner that said, ‘Dead People Don’t Claim!’ and ‘Iain Duncan Smith in Court Now’ around the same time as DPAC’s #RightsNotGames week of Action 4th -10th September, during the 2016 Rio Paralympics.
The banner was put up around Norwich, including Grapes Hill Bridge and outside St Mary’s House, the local health assessment centre. When I saw the photos I thought I’d like to oil paint those as a way of recording the protest. It’s kind of like recording the things we are putting up with in our time. So, I imagined one more scene; that was to put a banner on the Queen’s Balcony. I liked that idea and so I painted it.
I was once asked, “Do you want to insult people?” I said, “No, no, I don’t want to insult but I do want to provoke people.” I am a provocateur, perhaps. I put, ‘Support the Troops, start another War’ on a wall once, to make people think. Well, I mean, nobody would sensibly believe that you would want to start another war! I had some complaints, which was great. It made the front page of the Folkestone Herald.
Sometimes, you just feel absolutely hopeless against it all because there seems to be so many different things you have to fight at once; so I tend to pick my battles. That’s why I stuck with Disability Rights and in particular, working alongside DPAC on the DWP deaths and the work capability assessments; because they are so close to home.
I feel like I’m one slice away from being chopped. But when people are actually dying, as much as I can, I try to protest. I use art to say what’s wrong. I can’t always deal with the people or the travel but from here, I can make a painting or a banner that I can send or put online.
It’s interesting that, as an issue-based artist, Vince likes to mix things up and make his work accessible to a wider audience.
You stand on any platform you can stand on. It seems to me a bit pointless to take my so called ‘Disability Art’ and stick it in front of disabled people only. Because I also think there are a lot of people who don’t have impairments who can get a lot out of it; the same as we can with all art if it’s interesting. I founded Dandifest with the art collective the Norwich Dandies in 2010. That’s the epitome of what I like to do, really: bringing all kinds of people together to make something bigger.
I just think it’s healthy − society isn’t just a little group of people here and a little group there. That’s the gift of an artist; you can take a community’s work and help them see how beautiful it is.
When people come to the Dandifest Dressing Up event, to dress and pose and paint as a Dandy, it is such a fun thing to do. Why wouldn’t you have fun doing that? I’ve got a painting upstairs that’s framed. I don’t even know who did it but it’s the most beautiful painting that a member of the public did of somebody dressed in a feather hat. I like encouraging people. The actual process of being creative is great for your wellbeing.
It’s stimulating to me, to see what other people are producing. It gives you another perspective. I do a lot of participatory art, in a way where you try and galvanise people and get them working on a project or donating towards an outcome.
That’s what I did with the ‘Umbrellas of Love’ project; I fundraised on Facebook and got £500 to paint 100 white umbrellas with the names of all the 86 countries around the world where it was illegal to be homosexual. The umbrellas were seen at the Common Wealth Games; carried in Norwich Pride; hung outside a pub in Brighton; and were even invited to a wedding.
You take people on that journey with you. Come and carry an Umbrella in the Pride Parade. That’s a very powerful piece of artwork. It’s not necessarily something you can stick in a book but it’s a ‘happening’, you can record.
2017 will mark 50 years since the decriminalisation of homosexuality and I intend to do work around this important milestone with as many groups and individuals as I can.
Vince Laws will be exhibiting at: ‘Art of Norwich 46’ Enlightening the Eye’s Mind,’ showing at St Margaret’s Church of Art, St Benedict’s Street, Norwich, NR2 4AQ from 12-24 December. Open daily: 10am-5pm. Free entry.
Everyone who makes a donation via the ‘Donate’ button on DPAC’s website between 24 November and 24 December 2016 will be entered into a free draw, and one random donor will win the Debbie the Sunflower painting pictured above.