Paint me in

Museum of Contemporary Art, Australia
The 2018 Jackson Bella Room Commission

Can artwork nurture and embrace its audience?

Sydney artist Lara Merrett thinks so, and her 2018 Jackson Bella Room Commission for the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia (MCA) is testament to this idea. Each year, an artist or artist collective is commissioned by the MCA to create an immersive, multi-sensory artwork for people with disability or access requirements. Paint me in (2018) is a space where audiences can choose their experience, enveloped in metres of suspended canvas and richly pigmented colour.

So, how do you get inside an artwork? MCA Bella Program participants are already experiencing the variety of ways this can be achieved within the newly installed work. The installation is composed of 3 large suspended loops of painted canvas that can be moved both laterally across the space and rotated vertically. This allows for a range of different configurations for the space, and audiences can engage with the work and the fields of colour in a variety of ways.

Bella Room launch. Image courtesy of MCA.

Breaking down barriers

In a gallery environment where strict ‘no touching’ rules persist, the artist has envisioned a work that breaks down barriers between audience and artwork. Merrett has pushed these boundaries and well-established rules of practice by inviting visitors to literally climb inside the artwork. The canvas takes on a supportive, nurturing role where participants can extend their experience – anywhere from gently touching, rocking and rotating the canvas, to sitting or lying inside its comforting folds. The artist has challenged the audience to not only touch and physically engage with the work, but to snuggle up inside it.

MCA’s team of artist educators are on hand to guide and safely facilitate this experience. The level of engagement is supported on a one-to-one basis, closely involving a participant’s companion, support provider or parent. Artist educators work closely with individuals or groups in the Bella Room to activate the space and lead interactive creative strategies. A range of additional resources are also available for use in the space and in the surrounding Creative Studios, within the MCA’s National Centre for Creative Learning (NCCL). This includes coloured drop-sheets supplied by the artist, which can be used to activate and connect the adjoining spaces. Bella Room–inspired resources include items such as cushions, wearables, and materials for cutting up during related art-making activities.

Central to the MCA’s commitment to access and inclusion, the Bella Room forms a core component of the Bella Program. Created for people of all ages with disability or access requirements, the Bella Program includes a suite of free, fully accessible programs and events. Programs are tailored to the individual needs of the group and delivered by MCA artist educators. Along with a visit to the Bella Room, a standard program includes exploring creative learning strategies in the MCA galleries and exhibitions, and art-making activities developed in in the NCCL.

Artist Lara Merrett’s Bella Room installation. Image courtesy of MCA.

Prior to submitting a proposal for the new commission to the Museum, it is significant that Merrett was able to meet and connect with Bella audiences through the Bella Program. The artist engaged with regular participants in Bella Plus Connect, a monthly participant-led program attended by over 100 adults with intellectual disability and their networks of friends, family and support providers. The program also presented a meaningful opportunity to observe how participants experienced the previous year’s Jackson Bella Room Commission. This level of connection and hands-on research contributed to the development of the new work, and the artist’s ideas and concepts were further developed through collaboration and consultation with the Bella team.

Paint me in is a response to the more traditional media of painting and it is exciting to offer this experience to access audiences in a supportive and visionary environment created by the artist and enabled by MCA’s team of Bella artist educators. The artwork will be in situ for one year and during this time the Bella team and our audiences will build a deepening relationship with the work and explore its myriad opportunities.

Bella Room workshop. Image courtesy of Jacquie Manning.

An expanding audience

While the Bella Room has been created for access audiences, a goal for 2018 is to increase exposure to the work for broader audiences. This has included creating spotlight tours for general MCA visitors, and opening up the Bella Room to audiences attending ARTBAR, an after-hours experience at the Museum curated by artists. Interest in the Bella Room is growing, and there is demand for increased access to the work for all audiences.

Bella artist, Lara Merrett. Image courtesy of Anna Kucera.

After a full day with Bella, plus connect participants, I learnt that time slowed down in the Bella Room. The space became powerful in its difference to the public gallery spaces. It was a unique environment where the whole body had a relationship to the work. It wasn’t just about looking at a work and trying to understand it, it was so much more. It was a place to unwind, talk with friends, daydream and just be. Participants already had a history with this space and brought so much to it. With this in mind, I thought about how my art practice might work best in the Bella Room. Painting has always been my sanctuary and go to place, and so I created the idea of a painting holding and embracing you and this became ‘Paint me in’ .

Lara Merrett
Bella Room artist

Susannah Thorne
Access Coordinator, Museum of Contemporary Art, Australia

The Bella Program was established in 1993 through the generosity of MCA patrons, Dr Edward Jackson AM and Mrs Cynthia Jackson AM, and the Jackson family, in memory of their late daughter and sister Belinda.