8 May 2007
Tony Heaton Squares a Circle
Joe Bidder profiles Tony Heaton, a leading artist and major figure within the Disability Arts movement
A £50,000 Arts Council commission to make a large scale sculpture sited at the University of Portsmouth is a significant new achievement for disabled artist, Tony Heaton. His five-piece 25 foot diameter sculpture constructed in Portland stone will be the permanent centre-piece of squaringthecircle?, a Dada-South collaborative arts project in partnership with Diablo Arts, the University of Portsmouth, St George's Beneficial School and the Portsea community.
The project, managed by Zoe Partington, includes other disabled artists Signdance Collective, Jon Adams, Joolz Cave-Berry, Mark Ware, architects, staff and students, school children, and monumental masons based at the world-famous Dorset quarry. Squaring the Circle is a complex partnership but one relished by Tony Heaton as he develops the design, carving, finishing, placement and dedication of this massive eleven ton installation. The artistic vision is rooted in disability arts: an irregular circle of five carved stone seats - its inner sanctum inaccessible to wheelchair users. The largest piece of disability art ever erected in the UK, it will stimulate discussion, learning and controversy.
Winning competitions is nothing new for Heaton who has public art work standing in Beswick, Manchester (Flying Mares), Yorkshire Sculpture Park, and at other locations. Born in Preston in 1954 and taking inspiration from his father, a coppersmith who had designed and built a sailing boat out of a teak plank from a bar-top, Heaton, an admirer of the ambiguous poetry of Leonard Cohen, has described himself somewhat self-deprecatingly as a fiddler of bits.
Impaired by a spinal injury at 16, he switched from a comprehensive school to a local arts college at Southport but made a decisive move in 1972 when he opted for self employment as artist, sign writer, disc jockey, record shop (punk and new wave) proprietor, progressive rock band member and painter of murals. Heaton gathered enormous expertise and self-reliance whilst appearing to drift aimlessly. In 1986 he changed direction once more when he enrolled on a visual arts degree at Lancaster University whilst earning a living as a sign-painter.
A contemporary of Andy Goldsworthy, Heaton experimented with environmental sculpture on the seemingly endless sands at Morecambe Bay where his work could be seen for 15 miles. Observing his tracks in the sand, Lancaster's head of sculpture, Paul Hatton, urged him to develop this sense of difference into a rich source of unique work. Heaton states, “A chance comment about how the marks left in the sand by my feet and crutches made my tracks immediately identifiable became the catalyst for a whole series of works relating to disability and my interaction with the environment.” Heaton exhibited a plaster cast of his feet and stick imprints, his first piece of disability art although at that time he had no knowledge of its existence nor of the emerging disability arts movement.
Significant sculptures followed - many with witty punning titles, such as Wheelchair Entrance, Spring Back and Great Britain from a Wheelchair. These caught the attention of LDAF who commissioned him for Euroday '91 to construct Shaken Not Stirred, a seven-foot high pyramid of 1,680 charity collection cans which Heaton demolished theatrically with a Doc Marten boot attached to an artificial leg. The performance was repeated to great effect at the Block Telethon event in London, filmed for BBC2 and reported in the national press. [See reviews of Heaton's work by distinguished disabled artists/critics Adam Reynolds, Allan Sutherland, Katherine Walsh and Deborah Williams published in DAIL and DAM magazines].
From 1989 to 1997, Heaton developed a leadership role in the arts and voluntary sectors in the North West whilst winning sculpture competitions and becoming a leading disabled artist/activist. As Development Officer for RADAR, then NACAB, he assimilated the skills and expertise of management, financial planning, partnership creation, human resources development and fundraising. During this period he led the transformation of North West Shape into Full Circle Arts, now one of England's most successful Disability Arts agencies.