Today is Albinism Awareness Day (13th June). Albinism is a rare inherited life-long condition that occurs worldwide across all races and ethnic backgrounds. In the UK it is thought that Albinism affects 1 in 17,000 people. People with Albinism do not produce sufficient melanin (pigment), and this affects their eyes, skin and hair. It can cause vision problems such as photophobia, nystagmus and astigmatism.
In honour of Albinism Awareness Day, we spoke to London based artist, Jonathan Huxley who himself has Albinism.
Jonathan Huxley first burst onto the London art scene in the early 1990s after graduating from the Royal Academy of Art. Since then, he has been both making small- and large-scale pieces, commercial works as well as guerrilla pieces in public spaces (such as this one). His Albinism means that he is very short sighted, and his eyes are sensitive to light.
His paintings are characterised by representations of the human figure in constant motion. The figures often seem as though they are dancing or embracing, and the works features bold uses of colour and shadows, conveying excitement and energy. He is trained as a painter, and most of his work is drawing and working with graphic materials, chalks and pastels.
Born in Surrey in 1965, Jonathan started drawing as a child, initially inspired by his father who also enjoyed drawing and painting. Drawing cartoons and creating little worlds of his own through his art allowed him to escape his parents’ fiery marriage and unhappy home life. Art and drawing also provided a refuge when he began to experience bullying because of his Albinism at school.
Despite a previous aptitude for education, the constant bullying in his primary school caused him to fall seriously behind in his schoolwork. His headteacher at the time suggested to Jonathan’s father that he move to a school better suited to his needs – his Albinism meant he was very short sighted and photophobic – recommending Exhall Grange School in Coventry.
Exhall Grange School
Exhall Grange was established in the 1950s as a school specifically designed for children with vision impairments. As well as Jonathan Huxley, the school has many notable alumni – including several Paralympians, authors and actors. Exhall Grange’s teachers and staff encouraged pupils to excel as much as possible and worked to put in place the adaptations and support pupils needed to achieve that aim.
It was at Exhall Grange that Jonathan’s passion for art flourished and he was set on a path that eventually led to the career he has now.
He was the first student at Exhall Grange to apply to art school. According to Jonathan, “Exhall Grange was a very academic school, and it was considered a dead loss to be working in a visual field such as art. I was discouraged from applying to arts schools by the careers officer – even encouraged to take up cartography instead – but everyone telling me not to go just made art school seem even more attractive!”
After a foundation year, he got in to study fine art at Trent Polytechnic in Nottingham. In his last year there, a Royal Academy of Arts teacher came to campus and encouraged his to apply to the RA. According to Jonathan “he had about three good paintings”, but they were enough to get him in. He then went on to achieve a Diploma at the Royal Academy of Arts, in London, graduating in 1992.
The 1990s were an exciting time for artists, with the YBAs (young British artists) making big waves in the London art scene. Galleries were willing to take more risks, and “working class kids were interesting and given opportunities they wouldn’t be given now”. Jonathan found gallery representation in only his second year at the Royal Academy and won the Royal Academy Young Masters Prize upon graduation in 1992.
Later career works and teaching
The Young Masters Prize kicked off his varied career, which has mixed large scale works – such as early public murals for Bermondsey Council and more recent architectural work such as a piece for Paul Hasting LLP at 100 Bishopsgate – with regular gallery exhibitions and teaching. Some of his “most satisfying experiences have involved teaching – particularly outreach work with people with special educational needs and vulnerable groups”.
He studied enquiry-based learning as part of his rigorous academic training at the Royal Academy, and this is one of the key methods he has used in teaching outreach programmes. He finds this form of teaching “the most accessible and inclusive method for working with vulnerable people. It is a form of active learning that starts by posing questions, problems or scenarios. Unlike traditional teaching, which relies on the teacher presenting their own knowledge about the subject, enquiry-based learning leaves the power with the students at all times, while helping the student find the information for themselves”.