Jason Wilsher-Mills: ‘I reflect disability in everything I do’
With a new commission on show as part of the Creative Folkestone Triennial 2021, digital artist Jason Wilsher-Mills describes the humour and activism at play in his colourful sculptural works.
Who is Jason Wilsher-Mills?
Born in 1969, Jason Wilsher-Mills developed chronic polyneuropathy, a neurological disease that affects the blood cells, at the age of 11, which, for five years, left him paralysed from the neck down and still affects his mobility today. Following a period of remission, in which he studied fine art and made paintings, Wilsher-Mills bought himself an iPad and began using technology to help him make large-scale – often inflatable – sculptures and work employing augmented reality (AR). The fibreglass sculpture I Am Argonaut, commissioned for this year’s Creative Folkestone Triennial, is installed opposite the town’s statue of William Harvey (1578-1657), the Royal Physician credited with the first description of the human circulatory system.
Q. How has your experience of disability informed your creativity?
I got the Triennial commission in part because of receiving the Adam Reynolds Award from Shape Arts – a disability-led arts organisation. I come from the ‘Mel Brooks’ school of making art. He is a Jewish American comedian, who was greatly affected by the Second World War, and, as a result, decided to take on the Nazis and fascism with comedy and film. He said you should put the thing that ails you in a tutu and make it ridiculous. I take things one step further – I want to make it beautiful as well.
Becoming a digital artist was, in essence, a pragmatic solution to not being able to make large paintings any more. I wear glasses because I can’t see very well; I use a wheelchair because I can’t walk very well. By embracing the pixel, I entered a new universe where I started making sculptures and working with AR. I thought it was cheating, almost immoral, because I used to make my own paint and be really committed to the craft of painting. It all had to be pure. When the disability meant I couldn’t do that, I got an iPad and ran away with the circus!
I always say my work is the Beano meets I, Daniel Blake [between comic strip and social-comment film], and I am in the middle somewhere, between the two art forms. I can honestly say this sculpture is the most personal thing I’ve ever created. With William Harvey, the connection was almost personal. There’s a lot of history in it in terms of Harvey, merged with my own biography as a disabled artist. The sculpture is cut down the middle: half of it looks like a tattooed guy with a mask and psychedelic Y-fronts; the other half shows the interior anatomy of the body. I’ve shown where I’ve had operations, and I’ve written a diary in the form of tattoos, reflecting what happened to me as a kid, and what’s going on now. It’s serious, but I want it to make you smile.
“I like to keep my mistakes, all my little jitters, in the finished piece. That’s what shows it was made by a person” Jason Wilsher-Mills
I was designing the work during lockdown, when I was shielding. I was questioning what life is about. I thought about a beating heart, because Harvey discovered how our circulation works, and the heart is something that is in all my work in some form or other. Between Harvey and my sculpture, there’s going to be this AR experience, available via a free, downloadable app. Basically, your camera phone picks up points that get reflected on to an AR heart, which appears as if out of thin air. Then these AR arteries wrap around my sculpture and Harvey’s statue in a snake-like movement.
I work with a company called Hot Knife Digital Media. I commission them to build what I need, but I orchestrate everything on my Wacom tablet or iPad Pro. I do all the sketches and choreograph it. I wear mo-cap [motion capture] gloves and send videos and mood boards. I work on the tablet in the same way I used to paint. All I see is about three square inches of the image because I have it really zoomed in.
I Am Argonaut took 123 hours to design. I like to keep my mistakes, all my little jitters, in the finished piece. That’s what shows it was made by a person. Digital art tends to be very precise, so really I should be called an analogue-digital artist. Hot Knife understand that. I always acknowledge their role, but they are the first to make clear that it is my work.
I was named after [mythological Greek hero] Jason from the story of Jason and the Argonauts. For me, ‘Argonaut’ has become shorthand for both ‘hero’ and somebody with a disability. I reflect disability in everything I do because it’s part of my life, and there’s a lot to be vocal about, particularly when nobody bats an eyelid at 60 per cent of the people who died from Covid [during the first wave of the pandemic in 2020] being disabled.
My work contains a lot of references hidden in plain sight. I call it ‘Trojan Horse art’. People think it’s one thing – colourful, funny etc – but don’t realise it’s a form of activism. Theatricality and humour are a big part of it. I don’t want to live my life in anger. If you’re angry, you lose focus; if you’re laughing, you’re living.
Interview by Anna McNay.
A version of this article first appeared in the summer 2021 issue of Art Quarterly, the magazine of Art Fund.
Creative Folkestone Triennial 2021: ‘The Plot’, various locations, Folkestone, 22 July to 2 November. Free to all.