On 21 March, World Down Syndrome Day, the global Down’s Syndrome community unites to celebrate and raise awareness of the condition. As a mother to a child with Down’s Syndrome and the founder of Heart & Sold, a collective of artists with the condition, Suzie Moffat tells us what art has come to mean to her – from both sides of the canvas…

Heart & Sold was born not long after my son Max arrived, 11 years ago. A lifelong interest and degree in the arts meant that, when we were told the news about his Down’s Syndrome, my internet research into the condition led me – not down the traditional Dr Google route (thank goodness) – but to the works of some amazingly talented artists with Down’s Syndrome.

My heart was healed. When Max was first born, I was in slight denial. I had never met anyone with Down’s Syndrome before and didn’t know what life could bring for him. But seeing some of these incredible pieces, I began to perceive all the things he would be able to achieve. However, I was not only inspired for my son’s future, I was energised by what I had seen and felt a real compulsion to help these artists reach an audience and appreciation for their work.

Heart & Sold at the Menier Gallery

Heart & Sold at the Menier Gallery, London

A small pilot exhibition followed, and then soon after, more formal launches in London, Salford and New York and a website selling the works of our incredible team of painters, photographers and illustrators from around the world.

From the outset, we recognised that Down’s Syndrome does not affect our artists’ abilities to create spellbinding works – their portfolios stand testament to that – but it can make getting their art to market more challenging. Our purpose for being is to level the playing field a little in that respect.

While we’re incredibly proud of what our artists may have had to overcome to create their art, their Down’s Syndrome is very much an aside. We don’t want to pigeon-hole our team into the ‘outsider’ art niche, nor do we expect special concessions because our awesome artists have an extra chromosome. Art lovers buy pieces not based on what condition the people who created them may or may not have but because they make their heart sing.

Of course, singing hearts are not solely the domain of those viewing the pieces. For many of our collective, art has been the source of untold joy, confidence, a sense of independence and, in some cases, the thing that really connects them to the wider world.

Artist Charlie French at work

Artist Charlie French at work

When I told our artists that I’d been invited to write this blog, they were keen to share the impact that art had had on their lives. Art as a channel for expressing oneself was a theme that came through very strongly. Rory Davies, a filmmaker with Heart & Sold, explained how making a film ‘helps people understand how I feel’, while Andrew Weatherly, a painter, photographer and poet from New Jersey, described how creating art ‘allows me to feel a glowing freedom of self-expression. Art removes barriers.’

I was, however, most moved by an account from the mum of one of our abstract artists, Charlie French, who described how art became a literal lifeline to her son after the onset of Adult Regression Syndrome 11 years ago.

Charlie had begun to lose interest in the world around him and within 18 months was a shell of his former self: he stopped talking, listening to music and reading, and was no longer able to perform basic self-care skills.

While Charlie has never fully returned to the independent and engaged individual he once was, art has offered him an opportunity to find joy in his life again. During his darkest days, art was one of the few activities that could bring him a little focus, interest and opportunity for expression; and painting continued to play a vital role as he began to move through his regression disorder and regain not only some basic skills but also an enjoyment of life.

As time went by, he started to choose brighter colours to work with rather than blacks and browns that had characterized his earlier pieces and, after he started taking classes and visiting art tutors in their studios, he began to refer to himself as an artist.

Today, Charlie can be found almost every day in his art studio, a renovated garage at his family home, where he paints whatever he sees in his imagination and feels in his heart.

Suzie Moffat with her ‘anxiety wall’

Suzie Moffat with her ‘anxiety wall’

I think this story perhaps struck such a chord with me, as I feel I’ve recently been ‘rescued’ by art for a second time. Just over 15 months ago, I was diagnosed with breast cancer, which is every bit as horrendous as you imagine; bringing with it not only a series of unrelenting investigation and treatments but also a whole barrage of fear and anxiety.

The day after my first chemotherapy session, I did something I’d not done in years and picked up my own brushes again. Rather than paint on a canvas though, I opted for something on a slightly grander scale and created my very own ‘anxiety wall’ - in the lounge! If ever I needed proof of art’s therapeutic qualities, this was it. I was able to lose myself in the act of creating, while at the same time giving shape and form to some of my deepest worries.

I have always been evangelical about art, particularly through Heart & Sold, but since the advent of my anxiety wall, this has reached new heights – one of my Macmillan counsellors even suggested exploring art to another of her clients after seeing and hearing what a great outlet it had been for me.

It is no surprise to me at all then that Paintings in Hospitals is still going strong in its 60th year. As I’ve learnt from my own experiences, art – both in its creation and appreciation - can uplift, challenge and provoke, and its positive impact on our wellbeing should never be underestimated.

For more information about Heart & Sold, or to purchase some of the work from its artists, visit: www.heartandsold.org.uk. To find out more about Charlie French and his work, visit: www.justcharliefrench.org.

Find out how Paintings in Hospitals uses practical art workshops to help service users, carers and their loved ones…

60 years of Paintings in Hospitals

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Header image: Love (detail) by Charlie French