I interviewed Gemma Lees who is a Romany Gypsy, disabled, neurodiverse performance poet and theatre maker.
Leslie: Tell us about your creative work as an ‘Art Agent’.
Gemma: Although the role is called ‘Art Agent’, we are actually tasked with creating an art piece or project to complement British Art Show 9 and its themes. One that will create change in our home city, mine being Manchester. I have chosen to create an interactive installation challenging The Vagrancy Act, publicised online with the hashtag #198istooold, as that’s the age of the outdated and punitive act which criminalises rough sleeping, begging and squatting in empty buildings. It has also been used to target fellow members of the Gypsy, Roma and Traveller community. The piece is a tent and sleeping bag which will be installed in an archway outside the Castlefield Gallery and people will be asked to get inside and technically break the law in the name of art. The tent and sleeping bag will be decorated with badges and embroidered words from participants of charity The Men’s Room in response to five questions which are both easy and hard to answer, depending on whether or not you’ve been homeless, as they and I have. The questions are: where have you slept? (the title of the whole piece), when did you last eat?, can you go to the toilet?, can you have a bath? and do you feel safe at home?
Leslie: Tell us about the creative process you go through as a poet and as an artist. What are the similarities and differences in your working methods?
Gemma: For every piece, I start with an idea which usually either makes me angry or laugh or usually both. I then do a tonne of research and then sit with the idea for a few days until the seeds planted by the research begin to grow a creative response in my mind. Only then do I sit down and write or plan out an artwork.
Leslie: How has your identity as a Romany Gypsy shaped who you are?
Gemma: We are incredibly creative and resilient people and both of these qualities have shaped who I am and how I express myself. We are also very family orientated people and it’s so important for me, culturally, to share my work with my 10 year old son. He attends as many of my events as possible and even helps out for some extra pocket money when he can!
Leslie: What unusual/distinctive qualities do you bring to the table as a disabled, neurodiverse person?
Gemma: A different perspective. I experience things differently, so I can express them differently too.
Leslie: How have you worked as a creative person to platform the needs of marginalised people?
Gemma: As a part of Graeae Theatre’s Beyond programme, I worked as a Peer-to-Peer Support Co-Ordinator in the run-up to the Showcase. This gave me a valuable insight into the needs of people with a plethora of different disabilities and in championing and communicating those needs, I grew my understanding of what true accessibility is. This is something I always try to bear in mind in my practice.
Leslie: Who are your guiding lights – why them?
Gemma: My son and my husband. My son because I want to show him that people, like us, with disabilities can achieve great things and my husband because he supports my work in so many amazing ways every day. From driver, to proof-reader, to the IT department, I couldn’t do any of it without him.
Next week I interviewed reverse-glass painter and quilt maker Melanie Hodge about her creative work and health needs.
ABOUT LESLIE TATE’S BOOKS:
- Love’s Register tells the story of romantic love and climate change over four UK generations. Beginning with ‘climate children’ Joe, Mia and Cass and ending with Hereiti’s night sea journey across Oceania, the book’s voices take us through family conflicts in the 1920s, the pressures of the ‘free-love 60s’, open relationships in the feminist 80s/90s and a contemporary late-life love affair. Love’s Register is a family saga and a modern psychological novel that explores the way we live now.
- Heaven’s Rage is a memoir that explores addiction, cross-dressing, bullying and the hidden sides of families, discovering at their core the transformative power of words to rewire the brain and reconnect with life. “A Robin Red breast in a Cage / Puts all Heaven in a Rage” – William Blake. You can read more about/buy Heaven’s Rage here.
- The Dream Speaks Back, written by Sue Hampton, Cy Henty and Leslie Tate, is a joint autobiography exploring imagination and the adult search for the inner child. The book looks at gender difference, growing up in unusual families and mental health issues. It’s also a very funny portrait of working in the arts, full of crazy characters, their ups and downs, and their stories. You can buy a signed copy of The Dream Speaks Back here