That statement, made in the first couple of minutes of a conversation with Jennifer Gilbert, summed up everything that we subsequently talked about.
Jennifer runs the Jennifer Lauren Gallery, which champions self-taught, evolving and overlooked artists from around the world. And a brief look at the origins and nationalities of the artists that Jennifer represents demonstrates that ‘around the world’ is an accurate phrase.
Add to that another location ‘from Whalley Range’ and the picture begins to emerge of a woman who has dedicated her education, career and fascination to Outsider Art, a non-categorisable category of art as discussed in a recent feature on Manchester’s Finest, about Venture Arts’ exhibition at the Whitworth.
So, let’s step back and track Jennifer’s route to where she is now. A degree course at St. Martin’s in London, a foundation course on art therapy at Birmingham University and then on to a Masters in Arts, Health and Wellbeing.
“Although I studied graphic design and illustration at St. Martin’s I don’t think I ever wanted to be a practising artist. I’m surrounded by artists, that’s enough for me. I was fascinated about the importance of art to people who had disabilities, who were disenfranchised in some way. I wanted to be a voice for them and introduce their work to others around the world.
There has to be something in their work that moves me and then usually I contact them and ask if I can exhibit it in pop-up shows and art fairs. For the majority of artists, they have never even considered showing their work publicly. It’s intensely private for them. Made just for themselves.”
And that surely is the point.
Jennifer went on to say, “It frustrates me that the UK shows very little commitment to Outsider Art. The Whitworth has the Musgrave Kinley collection, but MOMA in New York display works alongside ‘recognised’ artists all the time. There’s an Outsider Art fair in Paris, Folk Art museums all over America. I think in the UK we’re living in the past.”
Jennifer mentioned a disabled arts organisation in Brooklyn, so I Googled. The site has a lovely opening phrase: ‘Where artists showcase their talents, not their disabilities.’
A year long contract to Venture Arts brought Jennifer to Manchester from her native Birmingham. Now Jennifer, through her gallery, represents over sixty artists from around the world.
The work of twenty-four is currently featured on the Jennifer Lauren Gallery website and I encourage readers of this short piece to spend some time reading their biographies. Each has a fascinating story about breaking down life’s barriers.
So, in this time of lockdown (let’s hope that there’s still time and opportunity to see the Whitworth/Venture Arts show in June) Jennifer is shouting out for submissions to an online exhibition open to national and international artists who self-define as disabled and/or deaf.
The exhibition will showcase the work of twenty-five artists, whose work will be chosen without selectors knowing names of the submitting artists, by an artist with mental health issues and a curator from London. Scores on several criteria will be completed on each piece and selections made on the totals of those scores.
The initiative is supported by Manchester International Festival and their funding has helped with what will be the online exhibition and a downloadable Zine.
Worth keeping an eye on, I certainly will be. Meanwhile I’ll be reading the fascinating interviews on the Jennifer Lauren Gallery website news section. Particularly the ‘Meet The Collector’ features.
In this time of lockdown that’s another idea to fill some time and learn a little more about Outsider Art and its global reach – all from Whalley Range, Manchester.