When Tony Heaton arrived at Lancaster University as an undergraduate he was 30, already a working artist, married with a child and had been a wheelchair user for 15 years following a motorcycle accident. For him, university was about acquiring the education he felt he needed in order to be taken seriously.
Now a disability activist and artist with an OBE under his belt, Tony has established his credentials and still continues to challenge public apathy about disability rights with major pieces of sculpture such as Gold Lamé- the golden covered mobility vehicle which hung above the roof of Liverpool Parish Church until Spring 2019. In many ways he feels Lancaster gave him his voice. He says: “It suddenly opened a whole world of people who were prepared to talk to you. It was a real game changer.”
This was the age of Andy Goldsworthy and environmental art. Within weeks of arrival Tony had made a creative link with two sculptors, his teacher - Paul Hatton (a fellow in sculpture only a couple of years older than himself) and recent Lancaster graduate, Robert Williams (now Professor of Art at the University of Cumbria) and began making environmental art works in Grizedale Forest and around Morecambe Bay.
His epiphany came after a chance remark by Paul Hatton, pointing out that he always knew where Tony had been by the ‘footprints’ of the wheelchair and crutches he left behind him. “This was the origins of my disability activism,” he reflects. “That was my experience of moving through space.” He made a plaster cast of the traces using sand and sea water and more pieces followed, including use of prosthetic limbs.
Preston-raised Tony says he’d felt a bit of a fish out of water on arrival at Lancaster, though he was delighted at how easy it was to get around the campus. His decision to go to Lancaster had been a pragmatic one governed by accessibility and convenient travel home to Preston. Accessibility has had to be a governing factor in most of his career decisions. His motorcycle accident put paid to a career as a rock drummer and following a turbulent time of recovery, he decided to develop his talent for drawing, eventually settling for an art foundation course at Southport, because it was accessible.
Even at Southport access was an issue, forcing him to opt for graphic design. This, however, enabled him to set himself up as an ‘arts odd job man’ and to work on commercial commissions in the evenings during his undergraduate years at Lancaster. He also ran a record shop. “I treated university as a job of work.” he says ”I was a mature student and I would come home at night and start painting signs and wheeling and dealing.”
Academically he enjoyed the challenge of being given a subject and researching it. He felt he almost had an advantage because was so focused in comparison to his younger fellow students. He started to make sculptures, knowing that this was what he wanted to do for a career. The first was in the University grounds - a new take on the comment by the artist Ad Reinhardt that ‘sculpture is something you fall over when you step back to admire a painting.' He made a man trap with spikes and put it in front of a tree on which he put a black square painting in the style of Kasimir Malevich.
By the time he emerged with his degree from Lancaster, Tony Heaton could justifiably say he was an artist. He was the regional finalist for a competition staged at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park and had sold a piece from his degree show in the Peter Scott Gallery He had also collaborated in several joint exhibitions with his lecturers.
Almost immediately he was offered job at RADAR (Royal Association of Disability Rights), as a field worker developing access for disabled people, later moving to the CAB (Citizens’ Advice Bureau) to look at social justice, all the while dedicating around three days a week to making sculpture. He was later appointed Chief Executive of Shape - the UK's first disability-led arts organisation.
He sees himself as a disability activist - a role he feels he has to undertake because of his tenacity and the agency he has gained. He says: “Thirty years ago I used to give people the benefit of the doubt, that they just had not thought about access, but now I do not think that they can claim that as an excuse, due to the amount of work that has gone into raising awareness. I just think some people do not think discrimination against disabled people is wrong.”
His passion to change attitudes continues. He says: “You have to accept that the first thing that people see when they meet you is the wheelchair, and the first thing that you have to negotiate with them is their attitude to disability.”
A measure of his success in getting his voice heard is his selection to create a sculpture outside the Channel 4 building to celebrate the 2012 Paralympics and to make sculptural lecterns for Lord Sebastian Coe and Sir Philip Craven based on the sculpture Great Britain from a Wheelchair for the Olympics.
He is happy to acknowledge Lancaster’s part in helping him fight for what he believes. He says: “Lancaster taught me not to accept things at face value, but to look beneath the surface.”
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