Started back in 1997, Project Art Works (PAW) is a Hastings-based organisation whose influence reaches across the country and out to Australia. It finds new ways of teaching and enabling social inclusion for neurodiverse people, many of whom have had their needs and behaviours described as ‘challenging’. These are people who struggle in ordinary school systems and other, unaccustomed social settings. PAW engages with its participants through the arts, helping them to communicate with others and to better interact with the world around them.

Project Art Works EXPLORERS project at the De La Warr Pavillion

Participant-led creative processes can also help develop a broader understanding of neurodiverse worldviews and attitudes, which are not often adequately publicised. Co-founder Kate Adams is constantly inspired to build on the organisation’s work and influence by her neurodiverse son, Paul Colley, and in 2102 was awarded an MBE for her contributions.

PAW is currently running two substantial three-year projects: Propel and Explorers. Propel is a programme of workshops and mentoring, running every Tuesday-Friday, and centred around a specialised studio space in Hastings. Recent developments include project participants achieving the Silver Arts Award, equivalent to a GCSE: no mean feat for people who otherwise can’t access traditional academic awards or learning systems.

Explorers communal art on display at TATE Liverpool

PAW’s website explains Propel’s studio-focussed method of working: “The studio environment is recreated wherever a project takes place…where events and happenings unfold revealing the essential abilities and nature of all those involved. Artists and makers work together and, where possible, talk about the studio and what takes place there. If someone does not use language to communicate, interaction is expansive rather than reductive utilising gesture, sound, signing and empathy”.

Local Neurodiverse makers at work for Explorers TATE Liverpool

The Explorers project is now in its second year, and will be running into 2020. Where Propel focuses in on the needs of neurodiverse people local to Hastings, Explorers pushes out of town in a highly collaborative programme of workshops, exhibitions, cultural events and other activities. A recent Explorers event was held at TATE Liverpool, showcasing the PAW film Illuminating the Wilderness in an installation that evolved as gallery visitors and local neurodiverse groups contributed to communal artworks. Comments on the installation included: “the drawings are like a forest….there’s something ancient and primitive about them that moves me” and “moving and insightful, it was an open look at how neurodiverse people can bring fresh insight and observations on the world.”

Illuminating the Wilderness film still (Ellen Prebble)

Shifting our gaze back to the South East, Explorers will be continuing to co-operate with Photoworks in Brighton until September, and has co-commissioned an exibition at Fabrica (also Brighton) from July-August, and another exhibition at the De La Warr from September-January. It’s a packed schedule, and with much more than that besides – like a Sydney showing of Illuminating the Wilderness, with workshops. 

Explorers was initially made possible by a number of partnerships and a healthy dose of Arts Council funding. In 2018 PAW was awarded further funding from the Paul Hamlyn Foundation to expand the final year of Explorers and ensure the project’s lasting legacy with a proposed new gallery in Hastings town centre. The gallery, aiming to open in 2020, will be an innovative showcase of work by neurodiverse artists and makers, and will be realised in partnership with Heart of Hastings Community Land Trust.   

Aside from its two major projects, PAW has responded to the needs of families, carers and others, creating a Peer Support Network for those working with neurodiverse people to pool resources, experiences, and build their skills. PAW also has extensive film and artwork archives, which have been used and shown around the country in collaborative efforts to raise awareness and understanding of neurodiversity. 

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