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> > > Interview: John O'Donoghue talks to Tony Heaton, Shape CEO
painting of tony heaton looking askance, with a big smile on his face

Tony Heaton portrait © Tanya Raabe

John O'Donoghue interviews Tony Heaton, Shape CEO at the Shape Office in Kentish Town on the 18th September 2012.

Tony sports a light brown beard, wears steel framed spectacles, and has a Northern warmth to him all his own. We meet to discuss his own art, his involvement in Shape, and his views on Unlimited, the recent series of commissions given to disabled artists as part of the Cultural Olympiad.

John: What I wanted to talk about first and foremost was your own practice and your own calling as an artist. When did it all start for you?

Tony: Well, I went to Southport College to study art. I had two goes at it, which is always good. And what I needed was a real art college, you know, where we didn’t do any art. [Laughter]  We hung out on the beach and did interesting stuff. And it was at a time in the early 1970s when nobody made any art anyway. We just talked about it. It was all painted stripes from America, what I used to call the brick-and-knicker-elastic brigade. So, yes. It was awful. And then I went to Lancaster University and studied art in a more formal way.

John: So when you say ‘more formal’, do you mean something more traditional?

Tony: It was more structured. I studied sculpture and psychology, and I specialised in sculpture at university. And that’s when I really started to think about Disability Arts.

There was a lot of environmental art at that time, Andy Goldsworthy, Richard Long. I made a lot of work out at Morecambe Bay, on the beach. And one of my lecturers said, “I can always tell where you’ve been, because your footprints are different from everybody else’s,” because I used to walk with crutches and my feet used to stick out, so my footprints were very distinctive. So he said, “All the other footprints are footprints, but your footprints are different, and that might be something that you want to explore.” So that’s where I started making Disability Art. This was back in the mid-1980s. There probably was Disability Art then; there certainly was disability politics. But I think it was isolated pockets of things going on.

And I only really found out about Disability Arts when a woman called Joyce Morris, who worked for North West Shape, came to one of my exhibitions. And she saw my work. She saw I was a disabled person and she told me about Shape and the work that they did. They were based in Manchester then. And she asked me if I wanted to get involved.

So I found out a bit more about it and they gave me work, which I couldn’t afford to turn down in those days. So it was great. It was the sort of work we give people now. Freelance work.

John: That brings us to Shape. Perhaps you could fill me in a little on that moment for Shape. Had Shape began going very long at that point?

Tony: Shape started in 1976, so about ten years.

John: And it was always focused on Disability Arts then?

Tony: It started in London, by a woman called Gina Levete who was a dancer. And she set up Shape because she thought that everybody could dance, that it didn’t matter whether you were disabled or non-disabled, that everybody can express themselves through movement and dance.

She wrote a book about it, called ‘No Handicap to Dance’ and she inspired other artists to adopt the Shape model, which was then adopted in other regions. So there was a Shape in the North West, East Midlands and South West. So the model was adopted far and wide.

John: It’s interesting to hear that the organisation was founded by dancers, because from what you were saying, your own practice has origins in movement, where your footprint was different to the fellow artists on the course?

Tony: Yes. Never thought about it like that. Certainly, yes. Certainly about movement. And my early work was plaster casts of my footprints and the marks that my sticks made in the sand. I simply made a plaster cast of them, and would lay them out across rooms.

So there were installations from one doorway across a gallery to another doorway. And they just occupied a bit of the floor. And people would step over them or step around them or perhaps some of them would dance over them.

John: Did you mainly make sculptural work from time at university onwards? Had you been working in other media?

Tony: Quite simply it was always sculpture because I can’t paint and I don’t understand colour at all, so painting is a mystery. I like painting. I like to look at it, and I like to do it sometimes as well, but I think with sculpture you don’t have to worry too much about colour. You use the material and whatever the material is, that’s what it is.

John: So you’ve worked in a variety of materials then, such as wood and stone. How did you start?

Tony: I started out by making assemblage, really. Because if you look back to, say, the sculpture ‘Shaken Not Stirred’, that was made out of 1,760 red charity collecting cans it was an object and it was really about reorganising those objects into a different form. So in that case it was a pyramid and a performance piece.

John: Any particular reason for the pyramid?

Tony: It was about hierarchy, the hierarchy of charities and called ‘Shaken Not Stirred’ because I like puns. So it was a bit of a pun on James Bond. You know the old martini, “shaken, not stirred”. But the fact that it was a charity collecting can, was about people who shake these cans but they don’t stir anyone’s conscience. You know, people drop a few coppers in and walk past - they don’t actually think about it.

The reason it was a pyramid, is that there is a hierarchy of charities. And there certainly was then. Well, there still is now. So we know which charities are right at the top of the pyramid. You know, the big ones that have got teams and teams of fundraisers. And we know which ones are at the bottom.

A black and white photo of an x-ray of the lower torso and pelvis with two metal springs

Springback 1990 © Tony Heaton

John: Do you want to name any names?

Tony: Well you know, they usually have the word “Royal” at the front of them. The ones at the top and the ones at the bottom usually have something that’s about equalities and human rights, I suppose.

John: Will there be a time when a Royal will lend their patronage to one of those at the bottom of this hierarchy, do you think? Would they want to?

Tony: I doubt it very much. [Laughter] I can’t see it happening. But that won’t be the fault of the Royals, will it? So I built this pyramid which stood about just over seven feet tall. And I used it as part of the protest against Telethon. So it was part of the Block-Telethon Movement.

We had a press day in the Diorama, and this pyramid was in the centre. The press was sat round, and we were talking to the them. Then, at a given time, I burst into the room carrying a false leg, a full false leg, with steel toecap Dr Martin boot on it. Everybody looked round when the doors burst open, and this very hairy man, swept into the room. I just threw the leg into the pyramid, and all the charity collecting cans – because they’re really light, flimsy things – they just flew all over the place. And it was very, very noisy. Because of the stone floor in the Diorama and the marble floor and the tall ceilings, so it was fairly dramatic. Then I just wheeled off and left all the debris on the floor.

It was a performance piece. Disability Art was different then. I mean that. I once described that time as a sort of pure Disability Art, where politics and art were fused together and there was a very clear purpose, which was to get Civil Rights on the agenda for disabled people, because we didn’t have any real rights in law. We had the 1970 Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons’ Act, but we didn’t have any real equality legislation at the time.

John: So did you feel then that your art was being taken in a direction you’d seen yourself going in when you were at art college, when you were at university? Had you started to develop a political sensibility in terms of your practice?

Tony: I think the early pieces were about exploring difference. I made a piece called ‘Spring Back’, which was an x-ray of my spine, which has got springs in it and  used the springs from a motorcycle suspension unit. So there’s an x-ray, it’s back lit. You can see the springs in my spine and you can see these motorcycle springs that sit out at the front of it.

And it’s called Spring Back, because again it’s a pun about springing back into life after a fairly traumatic motorcycle accident. And the idea of springs in your back, you know, ‘Spring Back’. So that was quite a personal piece. ‘Shaken Not Stirred’ was a political piece, and ‘Great Britain from a Wheelchair’ was also a political piece.

Great Britain from a Wheelchair sculpture by Tony Heaton

Great Britain from a Wheelchair 1994 © Tony Heaton


John: Tell us about that Tony.

Tony: It was made out of two old condemned National Health wheelchairs. It was at a time when some disabled people were making much better wheelchairs, sports wheelchairs, a lot more lightweight wheelchairs and flexible wheelchairs. But you couldn’t get them on the National Health. You could only get these awful big, heavy, horrible, grey wheelchairs. And I just felt it said something about the state of Britain at that time and the fact that there was a monopoly by these two firms that supplied the National Health Service with wheelchairs, which was not going to be broken up.

For instance, I knew of a couple of young, disabled people who were making customised wheelchairs for sports purposes, because what they were being issued with in hospitals were completely inappropriate. But they just couldn’t get contracts to supply the wheelchairs they made because of the monopoly.

‘Great Britain from a Wheelchair,’ was making a statement saying, “Look at these crappy old, grey wheelchairs! This is what it’s like in Britain right now if you are a wheelchair user.” This is what you get. A life of greyness and heaviness.

John:  So were you through your own practice similarly meeting up with people in Shape quite early on then. And did that then continue? Did you start to feel you were part of a movement here?

Tony: Yes. I mean, what you say completely echoes with what I was thinking because I did start out making sculpture. I made the plaster casts. I made a number of those. I utilised false legs, again to walk across rooms, so they started out with false toes, and the first step would be a set of false toes; the second set would be a foot; the third step would be a foot and ankle; the fourth step would be foot, ankle, below knee; you get the picture. And it would end up with two full legs. And I just go to ALAC, the Artificial Limb and Appliance Centre, and just say, “Have you got any false legs? Have you got any old wheelchairs?” And they would just give them to me.

It’s quite poignant really because they’d have peoples’ names written on them. Alice Brown, or whatever. You know. False leg. And Fred Bloggs. Just in felt pen. Probably people had died.

John: Yes. So you were, to some extent, maybe commemorating them?

Tony: I never thought about it like that at the time. But they were just utilitarian – these were objects to use in my sculpture.

John: So would you have these standing? Would you have them walking?

Tony: Yes, they would stand, they would just look like legs walking across a room.

I don’t know what people thought of them. No idea what the response was.  At that time I did workshops with Shape and then I eventually was invited to join the Board on the grounds that I was younger than   everybody else. And then I became the chair of North West Shape in about 1991. We got rid of all the non-disabled people on the Board, and turned it into disabled people and older people. So it was a political time. And I thought it might appear to people that I wanted to make things in a creative way. But I was very happy that the work was utilised by the political movement. Because there was more than one way to try and force change.

One is to chain yourself to buses, one way is to write some evocative words, or create a piece of art that again says something about the condition of disabled people who are powerless in a powerful society.

Don’t forget, we couldn’t get on buses in those days. We couldn’t get on trains. You know, if you went on the train, you were in the goods carriage.

It’s quite amazing to think about it now. Because I often say we’ve not really forced any change, but we have. It’s not gone far enough, and we keep going back a few steps, but when I started my journey in a wheelchair in 1970, I very clearly remember going up to Glasgow in the goods van, no toilet facilities, no warmth. Just in there with some mail sacks, me and another guy in a wheelchair. You could see the track and the snow on the track through the wooden floor boards.

And you’re thinking, “I hope they remember to get me out of here!” [Laughter] Others could walk down through the train but you were pretty much in a cage.

a sculpture of a four which incorporates the figure of a wheelchair athlete throwing a discus

'Monument to the Unintended Performer' by Tony Heaton outside Channel 4. Photo by Dave Kings


John: You’ve been a sculptor, an artist, for quite a while now. Do you feel you have arrived at a point where you have, as it were, an oversight, an overview into what you’ve been doing? Do you think of your own work in Heatonesque terms or is there a broader vision to your work?

Tony: That is an interesting question. Because I don’t think I work like an Antony Gormley, who has a clear focus to his work. I just meander quietly along, doing stuff. And I didn’t think at the time, “Wow! I’m involved in the Disability Arts movement!”  I just felt a connection.

I was invited to exhibit in an exhibition called ‘Out of Ourselves’. I think it was probably one of the first, if not the first exhibition of work by disabled artists, Adam Reynolds was in the show. At the time, I remember thinking, “What the hell am I doing here?” Because, I didn’t think of myself as a disabled artist. I just thought of myself as an artist. And I was really a bit nervous about being put in a pigeon hole.

Then I saw Adam’s work, and I thought his sculpture was amazing. I suddenly felt that I could exhibit alongside him and there was a certain sculptural integrity in what I was wanting to do and what he did. We had some great conversations over the years. We worked together and we talked to each other about the work that we were doing.

And so I exhibited within the Disability Arts Movement. I’m not sure there is a Disability Arts Movement now. I think there is more of a sense of individuality around those artists. I don’t think there is a collective.

John: Why do you think that’s happened?

Tony: I think the politics changed. We got this pretty toothless bit of legislation, which was called the DDA. It’s been even further watered down with disability being turned into something called ‘equalities’, whatever that means. Whatever the reality of that will be. And then people talk about us as being diverse. You know, and I know, John, when I wheel down the street nobody looks at me and goes, “Oh there’s a diverse person.” They just say, “Oh there’s a disabled person, poor bugger.” So in that sense, nothing has changed. [Laughter]

John:  What about, then, a disability aesthetic? Is there such a thing?

Tony: Yes. I think there is a disability aesthetic. Absolutely, but don't think everybody would spot it. So I think you’ve got to be in the club to go, “Ah yeah, that fits within this disability aesthetic.” It says something about the condition. I don’t mean the medical condition. I mean the sort of oppression disabled people have long faced.

John: Yes. So those who are in the club know it at a glance, don’t they? Now this may bring us on to Unlimited and the Cultural Olympiad. And even perhaps the wonderful summer we’ve had. Now there was a moment when suddenly Britain was this tremendous place. Where for the first time, in sporting history, the Paralympics actually got its own closing ceremony. Usually it’d just been tacked on. And that it wasn’t just an afterthought.

How did you feel about all of this, and how did you feel about Unlimited and maybe you could also speak about your own involvement? Shape were consultants down at the Southbank. And so what’s your take on all of that and the legacy?

Tony: I think some artists were too edgy for an Unlimited commission. Too beyond the comprehension of the selection panel probably. Broadly I thought the work was pretty safe. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with saying that. I think there was a lot of good stuff, and I think that people did rise to the occasion. But you know, it wasn’t particularly about cutting edge art. It was really about celebration and a festival.  

Somebody described it recently, at an independent theatre company event, as a massive piece of community art. They didn’t mean that in any derogatory sense. It was about the community getting together.

I thought, in the opening ceremony that Jenny Sealey and Bradley Hemmings did a fantastic job of bringing disabled people in at every level to make that such a success. Particulalry with a much reduced budget compared to the budget Danny Boyle had.

They really pulled it off, and I was delighted to be involved with it. I made the lecterns for Seb Coe and Phil Craven based on ‘Great Britain from a Wheelchair’ which hangs in Graeae’s Theatre. They said "how would you like to update this and use sparkly wheelchairs and the blades of Oscar Pistorius?" And I thought, “Yes, I’m happy to do that.” So I made the lecterns and I was really chuffed with them.

It’s been great, actually. You know, if you’ve got to give it an overall qualification, I’d say it’s been brilliant. We’ve been on the Southbank and everything has been a sell out. I’m sure the Arts Council, the Southbank Centre and LOCOG were as surprised as anybody to see that people were fighting for tickets to get into events.

John: Yes, just look at the Paralympics: 80,000 in the stadium for every event. We went to the last event, the men’s seven a side football and took the kids with us – to see those athletes play such brilliant football. Well, it was, the kind of thing that just takes your breath away.

Tony: And look at Channel Four. They moved stuff off the scheduling to put more sports on.

John: You’ll remember way back at the start, the conference where we first met: ‘Headlining Disability’. Channel Four came in for quite a bit of criticism, didn’t they, in some parts of that?

Tony: Oh yes, they did, absolutely. I think the criticism was reasonable. You know.

John: Yes. They’ve had got some funny programme titles, haven’t they?

Tony: I think whoever criticised them, fair enough, but it wasn’t my job to support them, big them up or knock them down. It was my job to bring to a fair platform for people to have a discussion on the issues of the day. So I was fairly comfortably on the fence for that discussion. But Channel Four got the biggest audiences that they’ve ever had. And I think that probably took them by surprise as well. But good on them, I’d say.

They commissioned disabled artists to make the sculpture for the front of the building, which I ended up making. And then you look at LOCOG and the Tate Gallery for the posters for the Olympics and Paralympics and that all went to non-disabled artists. So we got six non-disabled artists – Tracey Emin, Bob and Roberta Smith, Michael Craig Martin, a couple of others, I can’t remember. You know, they designed posters. Have you ever seen them?

John: No.

Tony: Look at them. They designed posters for the Paralympic Games. Bob and Roberta Smith had the words, “You are inspirational” and I think Tracey Emin said “You are brave and inspirational.” And you just think, “Oh, no!” Here we are having this patronising rubbish thrown at us. And they’re awful, awful posters as well. And I know if they’d commissioned disabled artists to come up with those posters, they’d have been brilliant.

John:  I think what we need is Crippen to redesign them, and put his own tags on them.

Tony: That might be a really good piece of work for DAO to commission. Perhaps we should commission him. Maybe that’s the really interesting piece of work that we should do, to say that now the Paralympics are over and we didn’t get the opportunity to design six of these posters for the Paralympics, let’s have a retrospective design of posters. There’s no money involved, obviously. But let’s see what we would have come up with.

John: I think people would do it just for the gas.

Tony: It would be great.

John: Yes. Now you mentioned the Unlimited season. Perhaps we can focus on it a bit more closely now. Were there things you were really enthusiastic about?

Tony: I thought there was some interesting work, and I think the big thing for me was that if you invest in disabled artists, and allow them to be ambitious, they’ll come up with some really good stuff. And we’ve never had that investment before. People have never been given the opportunity to fly. And I think that after 20 years of people making great work that either has never been seen by anybody, because there’s never been the money or the will to promote it and push it, at last here was a moment when disabled artists were finally given their due. 

But I’m not surprised at all. Because I’ve seen fantastically gifted artists in the last twenty years, who had they been given budgets or allowed into the clubs, they would have made some fantastic work.

John: Did you see pieces there which you felt, “Ah. Here is the disability aesthetic?”

Tony: Not particularly. I didn’t see anything different than I’d been seeing over the last 20 years, except it was more ambitious in the sense that they got bigger budgets.

Susan Austin was the poster girl of it. But don’t forget I showed that piece of work, maybe five or six years ago. In a gallery, which a few people saw, and which won the Open Competition. Which got her the prize of a residency and solo exhibition at Holton Lee. And it’s a good piece of work. You know, something then that gave her confidence to stretch and push further on. So it’s not new, and that’s not to demean the work. But for a lot of people that’s the first time they’d seen it. They were blown away but we’d been familiar with it for the last six years probably.

John: You know, I was keen to see Survivors say to people, “You may think the tradition of English poetry is this, but actually there is this tradition as well, and there is also an international tradition.” Because I felt it was important that people realise that their lives could be turned into poetry as much as anyone who liked phoenixes and turtle doves and nightingales and greek urns. So I suppose what I was trying to get at, is do you think that although maybe you felt that there wasn’t art that was maybe that new or cutting edge, that at least there was a kind of consolidation made?

Tony: Yes.

John: And as you say, a celebration. I think that’s a very important thing to focus on: it was a celebration. It was a festival.

Tony: Yes, absolutely. And the work was great. People had risen to the occasion. But look at Graeae who have been producing fantastic work for 20 odd years. The fact that some people haven’t seen it was by the by. They produced some fantastic, cutting edge work over the last 20 odd years!


John: But what I was wondering is: are disabled people going to go mainstream now? They’re already saying that women’s football is getting a lot more airtime and the stadia are filling up. I think women artistically have been ‘catching up’, let’s put it like that, at least with men.

Tony: Well in Disability Arts, I think women have been at the forefront. I mean, for the Adam Reynolds bursary last year, all the shortlisted artists were women, and it wasn’t because we thought, “Oh, let’s have an all women shortlist.” They were just the best artists.

John: Is disability art going to cross over, Tony, is that going to happen?

Tony: I don’t know whether it will or not.


John: And is it going to be the next big thing at the Venice Biennale?

Tony: Actually I’d like to take work by disabled artists to the Venice Biennale. If we critically analyse what we saw at Unlimited, we saw Disability Art – well we saw work by disabled artists pretty much like the work we’ve been seeing for the last twenty years. I don’t think there was anything there which presented a new aesthetic. What I thought was that we saw people who’d been doing work, and doing it far better because they’d been resourced.

So as I said: Graeae, they’ve already been doing it for donkey’s years and they got to do a really good piece. And David Toole, he’s been dancing for years. He’s an outstanding performer. He’s doing what he’s doing but was given an opportunity to do it on a scale he’d never attempted before. Rachel Gadsden as a painter has done an interesting thing with a group of people living in South Africa, living in a township with HIV. And what she’s done is pull together their experiences and her experience and made something interesting out of it. But Rachel – I gave Rachel a show at Holton Lee six or seven years ago because I saw then that her paintings were expressive, beautiful, emotional, you know.

John: So you would like it to push on now, Tony, basically? What would you like it to become?

Tony: I think there are a whole bunch of other artists out there, who, given that investment, would do just as well  — I don’t think the Unlimited artists were necessarily in the vanguard. Look at Mind the Gap, they have been doing this work for a long time. They’ve done some great work. They’ve got respect. They were given extra money and the opportunity to do something a bit bigger.
Simon McKeown, of Motion Disabled, he was there. He did very well.

Every project you looked at, they were already there. They were given some money to step up a gear. And there are a whole bunch of other people doing interesting stuff out there so that you could give them a vast amount of money and say, “You go and do it now.” What I want is a salon de refusés. I’m actually interested in the people who didn’t get the commissions.

painting of tony heaton looking askance, with a big smile on his face

Tony Heaton portrait Tanya Raabe

John: You’d like that to be the biggest legacy?

Tony: Yes, I’d like to see  a salon de refusês, like all the Impressionist painters in the French salons, the Van Goghs and Degas and Renoirs, the Picassos, all those artists who are great now, they could not get in the salon because it was full of the painters who had already made a reputation. So all the new and exciting stuff – well, it didn’t get in.

John: I do think this idea you’ve got, because of the condition of disabled people, this sense of being oppressed, that this is something that if you’re not careful can define you. I think that this is very powerful and I think that this is a place where a lot of very powerful art has and will continue to come from.

I think artists are capable of recovering traditions that can get lost. And I think disability art has been around in one way or another almost since the dawn of time. I mean in my own field, Christopher Smart, John Clare, Ivor Gurney: they’ve been around for a long time. And I’m sure that’s the same for disabled visual artists. These recovered traditions must inform, I believe, our practice.

Too much of contemporary poetry relies on a slapdash and rather hurried use of language. English poetry in particular: there’s too much use of rhythms derived from the street and not from gentler and more graceful times. At least, that’s how I see it.

Anyway. I shall leave the last word with you Tony. So I’m going to ask you a very serious question to close the interview. If you could bestow one thing on the nation, what would you like to see?

Tony: What would I like to see? I’d like to see Tanya Raabe’s portraits of disabled people in an exhibition of their own in the National Portrait Gallery. And I would like to see a curatorial context that said what these people have done and the influence they’ve had within our culture.