A New Angle: Heart n Soul shows just what creative people with learning disabilities can do

The charity is improving access to the cultural sector not only by developing the talents of aspiring creatives, but by giving platform to their voices and changing societal perceptions of what they can achieve.

2 February 2021
Reading Time
7 minute read

A New Angle is an editorial series that aims to give a platform to creative industry changemakers who make it their mission to disrupt the status quo. Each week we’ll chat to a person or team doing important work in the sector, making it a fairer place, championing vital causes, supporting underrepresented groups and tackling pertinent issues facing creatives everywhere.

This week we chat to Sandra Reynolds from Deptford-based creative arts charity Heart n Soul. The organisation has a long history of working with people with learning disabilities to develop their artistic skills and passions, and realise their ideas in projects ranging from illustration and animation to installations, music and apparel. Here, Sandra champions the great work of its artists, shares how its initiatives have adapted to the pandemic, and discusses how the industry can make the creative outlook more inclusive.

It’s Nice That: What is your mission, and what about the creative industry are you hoping to change?

Sandra Reynolds: Heart n Soul believes in the talents and power of people with learning disabilities. We provide opportunities for people to discover, develop and share this power and talent as widely as possible making a more fun, creative, open and equal world for everyone. We offer a range of opportunities for people to take part, train in a new skill or develop their artistic talents. Our desire is for society to change the way it sees people with learning disabilities – for there to be greater understanding of what people with learning disabilities can do and what they can offer everyone. We also like to have a lot of fun!

What we hope to change is to widen access to art and culture within the cultural industry, increasing the visibility of who is seen and heard in the arts.

INT: Tell us a bit about the background to the organisation, and what led it to this point.

SR: Heart n Soul is an award-winning creative arts company. We’re based in Deptford, South East London and have been running for over 33 years. From the beginning we wanted to explore new ways of music making and using art to make a difference.

Our programme includes regular taking part and skills development programmes, artistic development of our artists who work across a range of art forms including music, visual arts, digital arts and performance, plus we run popular inclusive club nights and have created a number of installations seen across London. We are also finding new ways for people to express themselves through the development of our radio project with a regular show on Soho Radio.

Our programme of work has always been very much led by the artists and participants we work with and they are increasingly taking real ownership which we want to see flourish.

INT: What are the major challenges you’re facing, and why?

SR: The most pressing challenge of course has been lockdown. It’s meant that we have had to change the ways we work. But it’s also been extremely positive as it forced us to think differently about how we work and connect with our artists and participants. All our programmes and events are now online and this new way of working has led to some really innovative new artwork being created. In the past year alone we’ve created creative packs, music videos and run a range of online events including club nights, EP launches and a month-long arts festival.

There are wider challenges for people with learning disabilities and how they feel they can access arts and culture – who is heard and invited into the conversations within the creative industry and arts world are opening up, but it’s still restricted.

The mainstream perception of people with learning disabilities is still poor, with very little recognition of what they contribute to society. Art is one way of doing this. It’s a way for people with learning disabilities to reflect their world view and to really contribute to society, so challenging this is very important to us.

INT: How are you tackling them?

SR: One of the ways we do this is through our collaborations with a number of different large organisations like Tate but also individual artists, musicians and small collectives like our upcoming project with The White Pube. This creates opportunities for our artists and participants to access, explore and influence the wider arts community at different levels.

Over the years we have worked with The British Museum, South Bank Centre, London Symphony Orchestra, South by Southwest, Goldsmiths, University of London and Battersea Arts Centre. We are currently in residence at the Hub research space at the Wellcome Collection. In the past year we have had collaborations with Arts Council England, Google Arts and Culture and BBC Proms. Over the past couple of years we have run a programme called Immersion where organisations get the opportunity to learn more about our work and the way we work with our artists and participants.

By working with such a range of organisations from niche to mainstream, we are able to introduce our artists and their work to a wider range of audiences, helping to change perceptions and hopefully reshape how things work.

We continue to run our own taking part programmes, events and projects shaped by our artists and participants. Lots of our artists are musicians. We support them to produce and release albums, EPs, make music videos and perform live. Check out a few of our recent releases here:

Electric Fire: Buzzin' (Filmed and edited by Jack Barraclough)

Danielle: Not My Problem (Song, set design and props by Danielle with help from artist Rosie Ridgway. Filmed and edited by Jack Barraclough.)

K-Dog: All I See Is Beautiful Girls (Filmed and edited by Hannah Mason and Lindsay Corstorphine.)

Lizzie Emeh: Softly Hearing (Video directed by Hannah Mason and Ben Connors.)

We also recently launched an online shop selling products, art and publications. This is another way to increase the visibility of the artists and reach new audiences. Our artists have told us they have felt really proud to see that people wanted to buy the things that they have designed or made. We have seen self-confidence really grow from this. We have had a really great response, it’s clear that people are thinking more about what and why they buy things, especially during the Covid-19 pandemic and are keen to support projects like this. But more importantly the artists are very talented, and the artwork and music is excellent and people want to buy it for this reason!

INT: How can the creative industry help your mission?

SR: Being more flexible and open to other ways for people to access and enter the creative industries. This could start with exploring routes that sit outside of norms of degrees and master’s programmes. Our artists don't feel like they can access things like traditional degree courses, that have a specific way in, involving lots of form filling, money/debit and are heavily underpinned by academic writing.

There have been some interesting developments over the last eight years or so for self organised alternative art schools in community settings like Open School East, School of the Damned, etc. This demonstrates that people are looking for alternatives and it feels like Heart n Soul and other arts charities like us also occupy this alternative space.

Obviously this is a very interesting moment as things are changing in society. Things have been changing over the last ten years, we could see the evidence of this in who was taking an interest in us, people volunteering or creatives wanting to work with us and the organisations wanting to collaborate. People loved the Museum of Everything and Assemble won the Turner Prize for a project grounded in the community. Most galleries and institutions these days have community focused education programmes and projects, so artists and designers might expect to work on some socially engaged projects at some point. So more interest and opportunities have arrived, things have shifted in the creative industries.

Things can go much further of course in so many ways. But maybe something that people could do easily is include artists with learning disabilities into the main programme of their exhibitions, publications or design projects, put them and their work on the front page and not just in the inclusive section (although it's great to have these spaces).

Continuing to amplify our message and the work of other organisations like ourselves who are working with artists with learning disabilities will also help.

Overall our artists and participants have told us that being more flexible, allowing more time, asking their opinions, basically including people with learning disabilities and shaping things together is vital. We have found that this ends up being better for everyone in society!

Share Article

About the Author

Jenny Brewer

Jenny joined the editorial team as It’s Nice That’s first news editor in April 2016. Having studied 3D Design, she has spent over a decade working in design journalism. Contact her with news stories relating to the creative industries on jb@itsnicethat.com.

It's Nice That Newsletters

Fancy a bit of It's Nice That in your inbox? Sign up to our newsletters and we'll keep you in the loop with everything good going on in the creative world.