Under My Skin (2004-5)

Winner of the ‘One Small Step 2005’ – Museums, Libraries and Archives Association. Finalist in the Greater Manchester NHS Awards 2005.

About the Project

If you were to choose a fashion accessory that expressed your personality, what would it be? This was the question posed to six artists with learning disabilities as part of the award-winning exhibition project and teacher training scheme ‘Under My Skin’.

A partnership between Start in Manchester, BenchmarkManchester Art Gallery and Manchester Learning Disability Partnership, ‘Under My Skin’ enabled three Start students (service users) to train in teaching, through helping six learning disabled artists to make an exhibition of fashion accessories. The accessories, each of which expressed the personality of the artist, were inspired by items from the permanent collection at Manchester Art Gallery. They included an embroidered waistcoat, a hand felted scarf, two playful, embellished bags and two beautiful hats.

The accessories were the result of eight months of textiles workshops, during which each learning disabled artist made a range of sumptuous fabrics from which their final accessories were constructed. With help from project tutors, the artists designed their accessories to reflect their own tastes and styles. Students from Start’s Textiles Group then made the accessories up according to the designs – a truly collaborative experience.

The Start students on placement during the project worked both at the gallery as teachers, and at Start as part of the group making up the accessories. Two of the three Start students completed accredited teacher training courses and all three have successfully gone on to extend their teaching experience in other settings.

What was the project about?

This project was, for Start, about showing how art training can lead to employability skills, and to work placements. For this reason, formally accredited vocational training courses were an important part of the project.

For Manchester Learning Disability Partnership, the project offered an unrivalled chance for service users to enjoy an artistic experience in a gallery setting, and to see their work presented as an exhibition. For Manchester Art Gallery, there was an opportunity to demonstrate the potential of their resources and their historical collections to inspire and communicate.

Via the exhibition, the partnership group aimed to promote positive images of mental health and learning disability, and to educate the public about the differences between the two. We called the exhibition ‘Under My Skin’ to highlight this idea – mental health conditions and learning disabilities are literally under the skin and so there should be neither blame nor stigma attached – and to draw attention to the individual expressive qualities of the work.

Comments from the project partnership

“Following the development of the six learning disabled artists and the three Start students’ from the early stages of the project to the launch of the exhibition was rather like witnessing a flower bud opening out to embrace the sun and reveal its glorious bloom. It is this deeply personal transition, the invisible and quiet breakthrough, that the gallery is most delighted about. The learning experiences and the positive impact that they had on the lives and outlook of these nine individuals is exactly what Manchester Art Gallery aims to achieve through its creative education programmes.”
Morrigan Ellis, Curator: Outreach, Manchester Art Gallery

“I saw the amazing work of these people who I know and it made me really think about words like opportunity, respect, equality, and ‘valuing people’. In this project, I saw them not as clichés but as reality. The partnership which has enabled this exhibition to happen is inspirational.”
Peter Drummond, Lead Practitioner for Manchester Learning Disability Partnership

“Giving service users the opportunity to train towards a return to paid work is what this project was all about – it is effective social inclusion in practice. The project is an outstanding example of innovative multi-professional working that has had an important impact on service users and the wider community alike.”
Morag Musk, Service Manager, Manchester Mental Health and Social Care Trust 2002-2005

To read the full story of ‘Under My Skin’ click here

To read more about borrowing the exhibition, click here

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