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Further Afield Logo featuring a green table microphone outlined in black and black text which reads Further Afield. exploring art and disability in rural spaces.

Interview with Grace Currie

Writing by Sue Jones

“I’m not a child. That’s what I’m trying to make people think. I’m not a child.”

About the conversation

In the third episode of the series, Bella speaks to Grace Currie, an artist based in Baschurch in rural Shropshire. They discuss living in rural Shropshire and the challenges of accessing local creative community as a disabled artist, and explore many core themes of Grace’s work which interrogates and subverts society’s expectations of disabled women.

Accompanying this recording is a fantastic text written in response to the conversation by Sue Jones. You can read it below.

Further Afield Logo featuring a green table microphone outlined in black.

Further Afield interview with Grace Currie

Listen to the audio version here

“My persona [the sexy artist, the magic artist]… it makes me feel…. powerful.”

Accompanying writing by Sue Jones

Put Away Neatly

It’s the bleak days of late January, and I’m making marmalade. I’m surprised by how time-consuming a process it is, most of the morning has been spent squeezing juice, sorting pulp and pips, cutting the bitter peel of a large pile of Seville oranges into tiny strips, stirring, and pouring the thickly bubbling liquid into old jam jars. Held up to the grey winter light the marmalade glows reddish gold in the way amber does and reminds me of the small carved amber animals to be found in museum cases, rams and boars and lions, made as amulets to bring about luck or to ward off or cure ailments. Often seen across time as an almost child-like belief in magic, but almost certainly arising like magic does from knowledge, in this case that amber is a fossilised tree resin, and trees produce resin to heal their own wounds.

I hadn’t had enough energy for a long time for anything as unnecessary as making preserves. I’d worked for nearly twenty years (freelance) with artists at Whitstable Biennale. The ‘B’ word was tongue-in-cheek, and the event was a precarious and deliberately un-international vehicle for experimental work by early career artists slowly made in and with a small town. We organised a final edition, tidied up, and I walked away. I don’t like to leave things. I prefer to stay in one place, slowly re-treading the same paths, setting down layers and finding unexpected connections over time.

Whitstable Biennale had always been more of a practice than a job, until we started to put in place a more financially viable set-up that could withstand the tightening grip of austerity. In the process I gradually unraveled, running out of road for the DIY, slow, and often ramshackle way of doing things that had only ever made work just-about-work for me.[1] I could no longer find a way to fit my only recently reckoned with neurodivergency and long-standing chronic health within what institutional working practices seemed to need.[2] As artist Scottee noted recently in leaving Scottee & Friends he gave up security, a body of work, and sustainability, which is a lot, but sometimes change is essential for survival.

The conversation between Milroy and Currie is forty-two minutes long, and includes discussion of Currie’s work, and consideration of the impacts of disability and neurodivergency on her life and practice. Milroy’s approach to working with artists and writers creates a radically accessible, generous and generative space, and the interview meanders, as unscripted conversations do, and isn’t heavily edited to make it more acceptable to a neurotypical audience. Currie’s speech is fragmented, her off-screen personal assistant fills in gaps, and it’s hard some of the time to make out what she’s saying. Her answers sometimes sound unsure and are mostly brief and direct. This reflects the fragmented – direct and yet uncertain – form that (unmasked) neurodivergent communication often takes. We communicate differently. Held within the fragments of the conversation are Currie’s clear and insightful thoughts and views covering ground including ableism, freedom, and autonomy.

Writer and performer Hannah Gadsby talks about the surprise people often register when meeting her in everyday life. On stage and on the page the words of performers and writers have been painstakingly gathered together and translated into neurotypical, whereas adrift from that preparation in the moment we can struggle to talk at the same time as thinking, listening, and processing new information. And artist Jesse Darling talks about barely being able to perform the role of artist in public while at the same time being just able-bodied – and white – enough to appear on panels discussing disability without requiring fundamental institutional change. In this he reflects an unease that I’m increasingly seeing amongst disabled artists and activists, the dilemma of welcoming the increased visibility that high profile curatorial and institutional attention brings and at the same time knowing how easily ecologies of art and activism get watered down, de-fanged, and subsumed.

Currie is early still in her artistic practice, graduating from art school in 2020, ten years after a near-fatal accident resulted in a year spent in hospital, an acquired brain injury (ABI), and a newly neurodivergent way of experiencing and interacting with the world. Although her work is clearly in an intense period of development it has a confidence, a maturity, that can arise out of the experiences of trauma.[3]

One of a small number of works by Currie that include text references the accident. Her head appears in the middle of the painting, with small black stars for eyes and trailing green and blue blobs, perhaps representing the damage her brain withstood. Down one side of the painting she writes, with crisp concision, that she got on a bus in one life, and got off again in another, part of a series of tangled thoughts surrounding her head, that consider the violent displacement from her old life, find a solidarity in that with the loss of choices and control refugees face – ‘I’m a refugee in my own life’ – and reflect on the privilege her new life still enjoys despite the challenges. The disorientation in the painting reminds me of Audre Lorde’s writing in ‘A Burst of Light’ (on living with cancer) about living in an altered world with a changed temporality, “sometimes I feel like I’m living on a different star from the one I am used to calling home”. If, like Currie, you’re informed that you will no longer be able to make decisions about your life, it’s an act of great resilience and resistance to force past that and explore new ways to live and work.

This direct and yet nuanced exploration of vulnerability and freedom, and how we connect with others, runs through Currie’s practice, which includes painting, sculpture, video, and performance. The paintings, often portraits and self-portraits, call to mind Philip Guston, Rose Wylie, and Tschabalala Self. There’s an apparent simplicity in the almost cartoony characters, who appear out of single colour backgrounds, often bright pinks, oranges, reds, purples, sometimes flat, at other times energetic bursts of jagged brushstrokes. Untethered from any context and often a solo figure, Currie’s wide family of people take up most of the room in their frame, exploring up-close how we create an identity, self and other, of lives whole and fractured.

Painted with a skillful economy, there is a tension in the work between being deliberately child-like and an insistence on the right to be adult, unashamedly sexual, self-assured, and to cover issues that are complex and uncomfortable. In the interview Currie eloquently describes a moment in her practice where she had to push back to make a work – a ceramic cat – in the way she wanted to, in words that are powerful and land like poetry, “I made a sculpture I did. With a ceramicist. And I wanted to make…. she want to make it cute to cuddle her. I wanted to make it angry and vicious like, like Billy is”.

In 2022 Currie collaborated with a law academic on ‘In the Shadows of the Institution’ a film made about the deprivation of liberty for those who require care, continuing her interest in how disabled people are spoken for, supervised, silenced. More than 2,000 people who are autistic or live with a learning disability are still held as inpatients (some sedated or restrained), and much larger numbers of people who live in the community are controlled and effectively detained. Currie’s work in the film includes painted masks, gilded cages, and intense and disquieting paintings including a figure floating in a murky brown background, their torso a bright white triangle shape suggesting a straitjacket, hair standing on end, and face a mask of orange with brown pits for eyes and mouth.

Although forthright on issues of justice and liberty, Currie’s work has a lightness of touch, and is often funny. The series ‘When My Right Arm Won’t Listen’; and ‘Party in My Leg’, a huge self-portrait with twigs and tiny jester bells attached to one leg, wryly address the unruliness of her own post-accident body. And the performance ‘Put Away Neatly’ is shot through with a sharp humour as it deftly examines power relationships, vulnerability, the desire for autonomy, independence, and self-determination.

‘Put Away Neatly’ was staged at HOME, Manchester in July 2022, part of a wider and high-profile project led by disability arts organisation DASH to explore the creative and anarchic legacy of Dada. The absurdist spirit of Dada is often invoked when words lose their meaning, and Currie’s performance, improvisational and experimental, employs phrases describing care with words which are often well-meaning, coming from a place of kindness, but experienced as ableist and demeaning.[4] In the interview Currie comments that the work “was about love and support and kindness it was. Giving, people giving me too much love and claustrophobing me”.

For the performance Currie stands in the gallery and allows herself to be carefully wrapped by two performers wearing tabards, round and round, in layer after layer of shredded cardboard packaging material and gaffer tape. Eventually she resembles a cumbersome flightless bird with just her lower legs sticking out beneath a large sculptural bundle. While the process of enfolding Currie into this protective cocoon takes place, other performers hold up signs, and use a loudhailer, to bombard Currie with the everyday ableist phrases she encounters, ‘that is inappropriate’; ‘you should not post on the internet’; ‘that is dangerous’; ‘did you manage that all by yourself’. With Currie immobilised and helpless, she is lowered to the floor, and rolled away to a corner, to be left neatly, safe, and silenced.

Marmalade is apparently falling out of favour.[5] It’s the bitterness. Contemporary palates have become accustomed to the unremitting sweetness of processed foods, and our fruit and vegetables are also becoming less bitter through selective breeding and other industrial processes. Astringent, sour, and bracing are slowly being replaced with mild, sweet, and mellow.

Bitterness awakens the senses, warns us of poisons, reminds the primitive, so-called lizard part of our brain to be on our guard, uncompliant, whereas sweetness is a comfort to sink into, an analgesic flooding us with soothing chemicals.[6]

Seville oranges aren’t native to Seville. They are a bitter orange (Citrus x aurantium), probably a cross between the pomelo (Citrus maxima) and the mandarin orange (Citrus reticulate), thought to have originated in the foothills of the Himalayas around 8 million years ago and travelled slowly towards Spain as trade routes opened up in the 10th century, arriving in Seville and cultivated by Amazigh people who had arrived from North Africa as refugees.[7] Now the 50,000 bitter orange trees that line the streets of Seville are under threat from yellow dragon disease (HLB), a well-established and devastating botanical pandemic that has travelled extensively with globalisation.

Calming my nervous system and finding new ways to work is taking time. I feel somehow too much and not enough at the same time (hyper and hypo), awkward and uneven in a world that seems to run more smoothly than I can usually manage. Slowed down by the need to construct highly elaborate workarounds to navigate the everyday, frequently overwhelmed by a world that is always rushing to the next thing, shrugging off underlying questions and doubts.

But having time has meant I’ve managed to start reading again after a long hiatus. I recently re-read Octavia E Butler’s ‘Parable of the Sower’. Written in the late 80s it is set in the ‘near future’ of speculative fiction, a dystopia that I suddenly realised catches up with us this summer, with a timeline starting in July 2024.

In the book the journey of Lauren Oya Olamina, a young Black woman, across a ruined and chaotic world towards a complex critical utopia is guided by her hyper-empathy which is presented as being at once an ability and a disability.[8] It is this hyper-empathy that supports a profound change within the world of the book, redefining kinship, community and relationship with the environment. I saw recently that Currie had embarked on a new series of works, exploring love and fragility. It felt like a shift in her practice, and I’m excited to see where it takes her. Everything changes. We are all vulnerable, we are all connected, we are all inter-dependent. [9]

1. Employment statistics for disabled people are low at 54% (compared with 82% for people without disabilities), and lower still for neurodivergent people at around 22%.

2. The SARS-CoV-2 pandemic is an ongoing global mass disabling event the long-term impact of which is predicted to be “so large as to be unfathomable” (recent study published in ‘Nature’). While at the start of the pandemic institutional working practices quickly became more inclusive, they have now mostly reverted to the ableist ‘back to normal’ agenda promoted by government and media. This forces many of us (disabled and chronically ill together with other marginalised people) to be either put at risk or effectively excluded from civic life.

3. After suffering a similarly catastrophic road traffic accident at the same age as Currie (around 17/18) Frida Kahlo wrote that “most of my friends grew up slowly. I grew up in an instant”. Kahlo was planning to study medicine, Currie psychology. Both turned to art when their previous lives came to a violent end.

4. Many instances of Dada-esque tactics to highlight where meaning is lost or obscured came immediately to mind, including Ian Dury’s 1981 ‘Spasticus Autisticus’ highlighting what he saw as patronising media messages about disability, a song banned by the BBC at the time, and climate justice activist Greta Thunberg on the world stage at COP26 sardonically railing against empty political environmental slogans, “Build back better. Blah, blah, blah. Green economy. Blah blah blah. Net zero by 2050. Blah, blah, blah”.

5. Although generally falling, there was a brief but significant spike in marmalade sales in autumn 2022, following the death of Queen Elizabeth II, when stuffed bears, pots of marmalade, and marmalade sandwiches were left at royal palace gates ‘as a tribute’ to a fantastical relationship between the (fictional) Paddington Bear and (supra-personal) Queen (as Hilary Mantel wrote, royalty are at once “gods and beasts”). The Paddington Bear stories are well-meaning with a pro-refugee message, but you need only scratch the surface to uncover a deeply colonial narrative.

6. Humans are apparently able to detect bitter-tasting compounds at molecular concentrations that are a thousand times lower than sweet-tasting ones.

7. There is evidence of bitter orange preserves being made and written about in Persian poetry by the 13th century, and bitter orange peel is used in to regulate qi in Traditional Chinese Medicine (which dates back over 7,000 years), the movement of poetry, bitter oranges, and recipes part of the long and complex story of people exchanging goods and knowledge, of colonialism and resistance, of gradual globalisation.

8. It is a common misconception that neurodivergent people cannot feel or express emotion, something that Currie was told applied to her after the accident. In fact, hyper-empathy is a common neurodivergent trait. It is particularly associated with autism, and for me is part of a wider unevenness spectrum, from too much to too little, from hyper to hypo.

9. The artists and writers quoted in this essay identify as (or were) neurodivergent or disabled, or both.

An artist draws with pencils onto white paper at a desk in front of a window.
Grace Currie

Grace Currie works in mediums of paint, clay, video, and performance. She feels that her social identity – as a disabled woman, reduces her in some people’s eyes to child status… an identity she resists but draws attention to in her childlike portraits of figures or faces. By paring down her portraits and self-portraits into simple shapes she shows how people’s complex identity gets simplified.

Grace has recently had her solo exhibition, “I got on a bus in one life and off on another” displayed at Level Centre, Rowsley, Derbyshire.

A headshot of a person. They have grey hair swept behind their shoulders. They wear a white shirt and some brown beads.
Sue Jones

Sue Jones is based in Ramsgate Kent, and has worked in the visual arts for more than 30 years, specialising in commissioning new work and supporting early career artists. She has been Director of Whitstable Biennale (now Cement Fields) for 17 years, and stepped down in March 2023 to set up a new organisation. She was previously Curator and then Director of Chisenhale Gallery. Sue is especially invested in considering how arts organisations can be truly accessible to disabled, neurodiverse and chronically ill artists.

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