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Today marks the tenth anniversary of Blue Room, Bluecoat’s inclusive arts project for learning disabled artists. Head of Engagement, Bec Fearon, talks about how Blue Room started and how you can get involved in celebrating this milestone birthday.

When I started working as Participation Manager at Bluecoat, fourteen years ago, the organisation’s support for the development of socially-engaged practice was at its core. Artist Leo Fitzmaurice, now a studio artist at Bluecoat, was collaborating with a group of learning disabled adults from two Liverpool City Council Resource Centres in L8 and Fazakerley. Together they had created a short film piece, The Journey, which reflected the individual’s journeys from their homes to Bluecoat each week. The making of the film had been preceded by a lot of time spent in exhibition spaces across the city and beyond. The group had been given time to get to know these spaces, spend time with contemporary art and take part in discussions facilitated by Fitzmaurice from an artist’s perspective.

This became the heart of the Blue Room model, supporting a cyclical process where members regularly move between three roles in relation to contemporary work: audience, critic and artist. Bluecoat has become an important place for members of the project and they have become a vital part of the community. This process was initially led by a team of artist facilitators (Andy Weston, Adele Jones, Louise Wood, Jane Forster, Bernadette O’Toole and Sally Olding).

Now supported by Becky Waite, an experienced Artist Facilitator, Blue Room members explore exhibitions in Bluecoat’s gallery, using them as a starting point for discussions and creation of new work. Our programme of contemporary visual arts has provided rich territory. A huge range of concepts are covered, including ground often left untrodden by people with learning disabilities. Blue Room has given members a place to express opinions and feelings, often through their artwork.

Blue Room artists at their exhibition

The groups explore a range of materials and processes to encourage experimentation and skills development. This has included printmaking, sculpture (using traditional and found materials), film, animation, mark making, installation, performance art, drawing and painting. Members often work collaboratively with each other and often with guest artists.

In 2010 Sonia Boyce worked with the group to create Like: Love, a multimedia piece exploring the meaning of love. Like: Love revealed some of the challenges faced by people with learning disabilities in developing relationships, especially when barriers are imposed by other people, often with the best of intentions.

In 2012 Wendell McShine, then based in Mexico, spent six weeks in residence with Blue Room, leaving behind a legacy of skills and enthusiasm for animation which are evident today. McShine’s residency was also used as the testing ground for became Out of the Blue with Blue Room members collaborating with primary aged children and some learning to co-facilitate.

In 2014 Anne Harild, London-based Danish artist, received the Alexandra Reinhardt Memorial Award which funded a residency with Blue Room and Out of the Blue. This resulted in a stunning colonnade piece We Approach, situated in the front courtyard at Bluecoat.

In 2015 Jade French, as part of a Collaborative PhD between the University of Leeds, Bluecoat and Halton Speak Out, facilitated Art as Advocacy, enabling three Blue Room members to experience the role of curator and present an exhibition at Bluecoat.

Blue Room and Mary Prestidge collaborating for Pool

In 2016 Mary Prestidge from Liverpool Improvisation Collective initiated an improvisatory dance project with five Blue Room members as part of Inhabit, resulting in a performance piece, Expanding the Picture and an ongoing inclusive artist development programme.

There have, of course, been a host of other artists involved including Laurence Payot, Christopher Kline, Tmesis, Jo Blowers, Paula Hampson, Tanya Raabe, Dave Evans, Fittings MultiMedia Arts and Bisakha Sarker to name but a few.

Through these collaborations, members have developed their critical and artistic practices and started to explore new roles as performer, curator and facilitator. We are now raising funds for some members to develop an individual studio practice which will add another strand to the programme.

Blue Room are currently working with Alice Odgers and Louise Waller from Baltic Clay on an anniversary ceramics collection to be revealed later this year. Members will be involved in our upcoming Family Weekend on 9 and 10 June and we will shortly launch the Blue Room archive as part of our My Bluecoat website. Look out for further special events as we’re planning to celebrate all year!

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Bluecoat is Liverpool’s centre for the contemporary arts, the oldest in the UK. Our landmark building, located in the ...

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