Sue Austin is a pioneering artist who is challenging how disabled people are perceived through the use of live art installations, performance and any media necessary to share her message. As Artistic Director and Co Founder of Freewheeling she “recognises the power of starting at the ‘personal’ and finding archetypal, numinous images that ‘communicate’ through connecting with universality of human experience”. Sue is based in south west England and has been an artist for over two decades. Sue has exhibited her work globally and received multiple accolades and recognition for the startling originality of her work. I am stoked Sue spoke with me for this article and there is no doubt she embodies the Liability spirit of no grit, no pearl.
Sue’s life experience has been punctuated by ‘unexpected coincidences’ and she is very tenacious. And she regularly refers to the access policies (providing PA support) and kind people she has met along the way, which have assisted her to become successful in her career. Sue has completed multiple courses including a degree and a master’s whilst learning to manage her own condition. Many people have tried to talk Sue out of her inventive projects saying they were impossible and as Sue puts it ‘acquiring an impairment aged 29, is a basic gift. This intense pressure has created something of value. Stereotypes are fatal, should a newly disabled person only receive negative messages this could lead to doubts about their future quality of life. A wheelchair is a symbol of the process but gives you the freedom to re-engage with life again. We need to value the difference’.
This is the iconic underwater wheelchair from the ‘Creating the Spectacle!’ (Film still from ‘Creating the Spectacle!’ © www.wearefreewheeling.org.uk Videographer:Norman Lomax), which looks to dispel myths and barriers by a fantastical underwater dive and sashay through the beauty of a coral reef. Sue looks graceful and amazing, I expect I would be more like Ursula from the Little Mermaid. Wheelchairs and water don’t often mix and Sue is showing us that SCUBA (and the gear required) is considered exciting and adventurous, taking humans to places which are difficult to navigate. ‘Our wheelchairs provide us the same freedom and flexibility, instead of the fear, limitations, restrictions which are often the first thoughts which come to mind when people speak of the physicality of a wheelchair.’ This reminded me of a quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson — ‘The mind, once stretched by a new idea, never returns to its original dimensions’. This is a massive education project in new thinking. ‘Creating the Spectacle!’ was the first of three art installations, to smash public conceptions. Please see Sue’s TED talk here.
Film still from Flying Free: Fledgling Flights © www.wearefreewheeling.org.uk
Sue then decided a flying wheelchair was required, and why the hell not, go big or go home I say. ‘Flying Free’ is a visually captivating digital artwork that aims to create stunning imagery of a wheelchair soaring high in the air, flying through dramatic scenery in a graceful, triumphant expression of freedom and adventure. Sue is aiming to create a linking visual narrative to enhance the conceptual understanding of the power that disability gives us when we look from a different perspective.
While starting trike training with Paul Mahoney in France, Sue also worked with Paul Bailey
© www.wearefreewheeling.org.uk Photo: NASA
Having conquered sea and air (and social preconceptions) that leaves only space, the final frontier. Yep a geek reference of course. As a major space geek myself, this makes me unbelievably happy. I am trying to convince Sue to join me on a parabolic flight, to experience weightlessness, maybe with cake.
Susan travelled to the Johnson Space Centre in Houston, Texas in 2013. Sue was invited to speak to NASA Employees and Contractors as part of the Technical Innovation Speaker series. Their trip was covered by the Houston Chronicle
I hope you can share this article and it facilitates discussions, new thinking, adventure and pride from one disabled person to another and beyond. I’ll keep you posted on Sue in the future and for more details please find her .
The final words come from Sue herself (via Meher Baba), love is above all and always triumphs.