Jon Adams – Active but Odd: an unswerving ‘compulsion’ to create


Jon Adams

‘FlOb Holotype – The first piece of writing expressing the ideas of Flow Observatorium calling for change in the arts landscape – October 2015′ written by Jon Adams

I was born with a pencil in my hand, or at least that’s how it seemed, but recently I have been usurped by my wife who has joined the growing ranks of the ‘pencil colourists’. To watch her using & choosing the right pencil or pen, always in the ‘correct colour’, matched to the ‘correct white space’ is a delight and has been quite revealing. I’m not jealous other than of her burgeoning collection of colours, not in the slightest, because we both ‘make’ for diametrically different reasons. She chooses to colour as a form of self-guided therapy and as her creativity flows, her pain goes. It’s like watching someone lift a heavy overcoat from her shoulders, released on a summers day, as her brain is distracted, switching to a more calming & effective analgesic. She is living proof, along with many others, that ‘making’ is physically and mentally good for you, sometimes seen as inferior to some nobler calling. No, as the nominated artist in the house it’s not about fame or fortune or even making me ‘feel better’, it’s about simply an unswerving ‘compulsion’ to create.

As a young child, intently curious but solitary, without recall to the reference library of experience I’ve now built up, my saving graces were few; those pencils, Lego, stones or maps, plus the wonder of laying in the garden watching the stars move. I’ve always known I was different, from my earliest memories, alongside the bump on my thumb or faint indented marks on an eternally ink stained finger. I realised I needed a form of base line translation to accompany my perception as the world around me seemed too fast or too slow, with always that unchanging few degrees of untouchable 1% difference. Instead at school I soon learnt to be wary of people, they seem to be my ‘kryptonite’ and like the ‘love of making’ that has never changed.

Aged 6 I announced I was going to be an artist in response to one of those typically childhood ‘adult’ questionings; ‘what are you going to do if you grow up’. For me this wasn’t my (as yet undiagnosed) autistic logic talking but a more holistic, enveloping feeling that there was no other choice worth considering. Being an undiscovered dyslexic meant as soon as the 3Rs were involved I revealed an exploitable weakness to balance any ability I may have genetically acquired. I did have my pencils; they made me popular, drawing cartoons but paradoxically I always found difficulty with the ‘draw what you like’ scenarios. I found school very difficult after a certain point was reached; in the era of shifting educational dinosaurs there was no mention of any support for my daily observed ‘staidness’. Then in the final primary year, the headmaster chose my picture to go up on the hall wall. For me that was the long desired dream of acceptance, negating any differences I may accidentally show. Now I value that difference, but at 10 I desperately wanted to fit in. It was not to be, that precious picture was torn into pieces, dropped into the waste basket in parallel with “You can’t even spell your name you’ll never be anything”. I learnt to

keep quiet, filling the pockets of my proffered overcoat with gifted stones as evidences to weigh my future down. Now, with the benefit of hindsight and that library of experience I’ve collected, I know why I then became an ‘outsider’.

An accumulated history of its making, albeit hidden

Leaving school I never even entertained entering an art college to train as the artist I said I would be, or engage with other like-minded people other than occasionally through music. I knew I wasn’t stupid, opposite to what I was frequently told, but it was often this disconnection that reinforced earlier issues. My other lover was geology, accepting oneness with the unseen landscape – so that’s what I studied. I seemed unnaturally good with visualising or touching time, arranging layers of stratigraphy, ordering and systemising. On leaving after a brief dalliance with ideas of a PhD, disregarding accidentally what others seemed to see in me, I soon found myself that solitary ‘artist’s niche’ in geological illustration. This soon widened into science, archaeology or historical book illustration. Seemingly made for the role with an obsessive attention to detail or repetition plus an honesty for each subject – if it wasn’t meant to be there it wasn’t included. All the clues were there, set in stone, undecoded, waiting for a possible later revelation that I was Aspergers and neurodivergent.

Always finding illustration unsatisfactory, I started wondering why. For me it was in the detail, how the page was laid out, the faint draft pencil lines, inking in or at a push the final colouring that brought joy, but to everyone else this was unimportant or ignored. For them a final finished polished image without the bonus of a told journeyed story was king. Even though my name was there I often felt anonymous, for me it was all about the work as representation, an accumulated history of its making albeit hidden, constantly rerun in my mind.

Normal is just a setting on our dishwasher

Things changed inevitably, which as an aspie [Aspergers] is difficult, and it struck with becoming temporarily unemployed. It’s not that I wasn’t successful in what I was doing, quite the reverse as I had just been offered a contract with my own book. I had developed unconscious coping strategies for my dyslexia which involved not relying on letters but personal visits to discuss the design and images needed. This was to make sure I understood what they wanted from me so I wouldn’t slip up embarrassingly. It was all part of my ‘camouflage’ at the time and

unbeknownst to me vital for my autism. Although I chose this path I did find people hard to get to know and I wasn’t very good at self-promoting other than letting the images speak for themselves, so when I found a company who were happy with what I did I stuck with them. The flaw was not predicting the company would split into two and the staff I evolved the ‘different way of working’ with went one way and my book contract went the other. I couldn’t cope with building up relationships again due to my low self-confidence so I not so much gave up but stalled. It was one of those serendipitous moments which seemed bad at the time but was really just sending me on the better path.

There had been times in my life where I’ve almost realised that I see or experience the world very very differently, but I mistakenly assumed that other people ‘saw’ in the same way too. When I was 15 I went to see Tangerine Dream and could run my fingers through the moving intertwined sequences but tended to keep such intimate secrets silent. Then becoming unemployed, I happened to mention to someone that when I read it looks like the words were being viewed underwater as in a rockpool; they almost immediately told me this was not normal. Now I realise that ‘normal’ is just a setting on our dishwasher, but then it did make me feel outside, deficient or faulty, different to what people expected I should be. Neurodominance is a social construct of the many not us few.

‘Solutions at a moment’s notice’

I was summarily sent for a dyslexia test. However the prospect was quite disturbing, I was sure that after the five or six hours it would take I would just be declared ‘terminally stupid’. This was not to be and when I was called back in she spent an hour explaining what the geological looking graph with its many mountainous peaks and troughs meant. It did confirm I was not good at spelling and writing, I knew that but I was good at drawing, finding patterns and verbal comprehension. I guess that came from always being able to talk my way out of a situation which I had to do on so many occasions at school, showing an alternate creativity, finding ‘solutions at a moment’s notice’ in countering the abuse I often received. But I did love words, words tasted right in the right order, they would seem to physically ‘slot together’ and letters tasted or rather seemed to have personality.

On being told I was thoroughly dyslexic, my first response was to rebel against everything I’ve been told previously, that I couldn’t write, was to write poetry. I had tried to draw, express myself on paper but it seems so one-dimensional whereas words had life. Although I did win some international poetry competitions which

boosted my confidence I was very reclusive and became very solitary and separate from people. It was hard to come to terms with being dyslexic, not the stigma, far from it; I had researched why some people call it a gift; I was mainly dealing with the aftermath of realising it wasn’t my fault. I was proud of being dyslexic it enabled me in alternate ways such as the 3D drawing and cutaways I had been making for 20 years.

It wasn’t until London 2012 was announced that I made the decision to break free, ironically not knowing I would find myself in a couple years working on Olympic inspired arts projects. At the time I was reclusive, unemployed, living on a council estate but I knew inside I had something to offer and to prove to myself. I don’t know if it was the tone of the announcement, but something ‘captured’ me and I thought “well if that’s coming why don’t I do something?”

Spurred on I applied for an AA2A residency, grants and competitions, soon finding myself working as Artist in Residence for a train company mapping people’s journeys. Also, preparing for a solo show at Pallant House displaying a geological interpretation of my life story. Eventually both these projects were ‘seen’ and evolved into a new commission to document creatively London 2012 events and projects in the South East in geological metaphor. This played right into my strength as autistic as the final outcome was a geological map compiled from ‘field notes’ taken over 3 years obsessively recording each day’s journey.

Also there were ‘open weekends’, opportunities for artists to make celebratory work, placed in the public realm inviting people to join in. My ‘Dysarticulate’ project was one, encouraging people to make flags out of redundant book pages plus kebab sticks. An open invitation to plant them in open local spaces, draw them, dance with them, becoming the ‘lead artist for the day’.

I guess working within the Olympics gave me much needed confidence and was where I first realised my autistic traits of ‘connecting’ and ‘collecting’ could be a positive advantage as an artist. Yet somehow I didn’t fit the mainstream without support or encouragement, and I didn’t necessarily fit in with the disability arts world either. I inhabited my own no man’s land which enabled me to choose one or other side if and when I wanted to as if the distinctions didn’t exist. For me, even at this early stage, I knew it was about the work plus the story, not about what other people perceived may or may not be wrong with me. I didn’t want people to judge me or my poetry as “he’s dyslexic and trying his best”. I would often keep it hidden within, letting the work standalone; if they liked it they liked it and if they didn’t they didn’t, each was a validity.

My new freedom of expression led me eventually to be officially diagnosed as Aspergers in 2013 when I worked with Professor Simon Baron-Cohen in

Cambridge, and then Sir Peter Brook within the research for the play The Valley of Astonishment. Previous to this I’d been indoctrinated into feeling the way I ‘thought differently’ was wrong, faulty or divisive, never divergent, but these people recognised an inherent expression within the work I made and encouraged me.

I guess I’m more relieved with my earlier diagnosis of dyslexia because most of my life I had sat under the impression that I couldn’t read and write; the Aspergers diagnosis was a ‘completion of my complexity’ and a statement for support. It’s not necessarily the categorisation that’s overtly harmful but the attitudes and assumptions that go alongside it. It’s not the autism or dyslexia that are the problem but attitudes to the difficulties they may bring fitting in with society’s demands.

Strictly speaking ‘neurodiversity’ should embrace all human variations that have the potential to enrich society as ‘biodiversity’ does our planet. We need people who think radically differently or perceive the world in a totally different way but often difference can be scary. Neurodiversity is about a human variation rather than the medical pathology of say, Autism, Aspergers or dyslexia. We are ‘wired’ differently, some would say distinctly and its this value we can bring with our own lived culture, custom and creativity. Rather than continuing to be ‘a shoe horned fit’ it could be argued we need our distinctiveness recognised in the arts just as other diverse groups have been, we should indeed call for neurodivergent organisations led by neurodivergent people.

This is why positive awareness of any neurodivergence, support and adjustments are so important, but often to gain support you need proof and that proof is ‘labelling’. It’s almost the next step beyond the social model of disability and until we get society supportive or not to associate connotations of negativity, we will still need the duality of ‘not being labelled and being labelled’

Touching Time

Personally I’ve never really believed my dyslexia or Aspergers ‘disable me’,
socially , but it’s mainly people with their rules, attitudes, misunderstandings or advantage taking that do so, leaving a legacy of frustration which often reinforces depression or worse, which I do ‘suffer’ with. I don’t need to state I’m dyslexic or autistic, it should be about the work. I’m an artist, I’m not an autistic artist because that implies that I am doing it ‘despite being autistic’. I know that I am different to other people with autism in that I am happy to talk about the way my autism works with me, but doing this, wearing the mask of ‘perceived normality’, takes up most of my energy. In essence, to be in public and perceived as ‘fitting in’ I have to pretend

to obey an imposition which wouldn’t be that hard to change. This effort is often a double-edged sword, I’ve often had it said “but you’re so clever what do you need support for?” It’s how you put your vulnerability in front of others that counts. It shouldn’t be left to a series of accidents or a chaotic pattern of events that enable neurodivergent people to show or have the opportunity to make work, nor segregation into ‘special’ ring fenced events; we need an intelligent debate with action for nurtured understanding environments to give our best. But then isn’t that true for everyone?

I am also a synaesthete; I can touch time and music and personify number, and this also informs my working practice. I was once asked what it’s like to be synaesthetic. I stood for a minute before I answered “well what’s it like not to be synaesthetic?” I have no experience of not being synaesthetic so wouldn’t really know how to describe what I perceive as my lived experience in someone else’s terms.

For example, I demonstrated this once in Tate Modern having the rare chance to play in the Turbine Hall. Every time I’ve been into that cathedral like space I ‘hear’ seagulls as if I’m ‘by the sea’ where to me the high cliff is ‘my cathedral’ and the seagulls being the sung litany. What I wanted to do was replicate that in the simplest of forms so other people could experience it as an aural interpretation. I already had recordings of seagulls which were slightly edited and played through a small amplifier representative of the size of a seagull. It would not have honest played through big speakers as it had to sound like it belonged. I represented a beach tide strand line with yellow tape, playing the sound on the hour between 11 and 3. People looked, listened and sat as if on ‘their beach’ as the sound echoed it also filled the space. To me it was very strange to hear this outside of my head but it also made complete sense.

Neurodiversity not Neuroadversity

My autism not only informs my working practice, but the way I engage with life every day, and I embrace it as a hidden ability, not a disability. I make work because I’m an artist and I am compelled to ‘make’. I can’t say if the compulsion is an aspie thing, I’m often told by fellow neurodivergent artists that it’s not about the fame and fortune, but about that deep compulsion to make. I don’t make work to fit in with other people’s contexts, my library of experience is contained within the work itself

Neurodiversity in here

Unfortunately I’m often still expected to demonstrate my ‘neurodivergent talents’ but leave the autism at the threshold so they don’t have to make accommodation, as if they’re two separate entities or I can choose to ‘be’ either when I wish. One problem is people don’t ask us what we need either they look towards experts or make assumptions – assumptions don’t make safe spaces, safe spaces are attitudes that start in the mind, because people can make or break us; there is no space in between. We are experts in ‘us’ and we’re all different – one formula won’t work it has to be individualised. Neurodivergent people need to take the lead. The case is creative plain and simple, if you want to experience ‘performance’ that is different you need to commission makers who ‘think differently’ and look towards an ‘undiscovered country’, but then you will also need to think differently about how you interact with them.

Jon Adams, Research fellow and artist has established in collaboration with The New Theatre Royal Portsmouth and Threshold Studios, ‘Flow Observatorium’ to curate, campaign for ND acceptance and create safe space for neurodivergent practitioners and makers in the arts

Appendix one Formulaic diversity

Diversity should be people centric not a formula applied generic……No matter what new option you start with unless we change the ‘formula’ we use we’re always going to get to the same answer eventually – you can show this with a simple mathematical game – take a number – if it’s even halve it, if it’s odd multiply by 3 and add 1 (3n+1) and no matter what number or diversity ‘option’ you start with as you work through applying this formula you will always end with the same repeating sequence – tortuously in some cases even though we invest a large amount of time getting there.

Option 5 leads us to 10 5 16 8 4 2 1 4 2 1 4 2 1…….
Option 7 to 22 11 34 17 52 26 13 40 20 10 5 16 8 4 2 1 4 2 1 4 2 1……. Option 17 to 52 26 13 40 20 10 5 16 8 4 2 1 4 2 1 4 2 1…….

People mistakenly see switching the number option as the agent of change and not the formula. For realistic meaningful change to happen there has to be total change, in this case at the start of the equation with the formula, the mindset we apply.

To achieve change using the formula you just cut out the ‘division’ – better still don’t apply a formula at all…………….

Number option being the ‘diversity’ or route options ideas etc The formula being ‘but’ or ‘the way we always do it’

One thought on “Jon Adams – Active but Odd: an unswerving ‘compulsion’ to create

  1. I loved hearing your story. Ben is my only child, and he has gone through the ringer at school and at work and life…but at the same time he is novel and exciting to me, very clever, very different in a way that makes me wonder if he will be able to persevere and arrive at his dreams…he is to machines as you are to art. I also have a friend, recently passed, who was a brilliant artist, knowingly Dyslexic, and wondered if he wasn’t autistic, too. (He was extremely agoraphobic,) I was just thinking, for those really talented artist’s…you know, the ones with a true gift beyond anything typicals could attempt in their dreams, the compulsive ones?….Well, there used to be a name for it, it was called “artistic temperament”. It’s so common, maybe it could be “autistic temperament.” No lie…no artist worth their salt is typically wired.

    Also, having had a teaching background, I studied the way my son’s mind worked. (Maybe it was moreso my love of patterns and deep desire to teach the way he learned.) When one moved away from the medicalization, I saw with few exceptions people with Dyslexia considered themselves “slow” when compared to their peers. Dyslexic Advantage saw a very slow working memory (aka, “deficient” in medicalization terms) in their clients. I think that is the gift, strangely. How many people could slow down enough to draw in the brilliant way you and Mr. Carroll Jones III do (did). What if people were judged by their “drawing deficit” or their “mechanical deficit”? What would the world be without artists, inventors, mechanics…take the creatives out of the picture, those who have the minds to stick with it? What about the part of Dyslexia that sees things immediately that other people are blind to, or must attend years of college to begin to get a clue? Forty percent of Entrepreneurs are Dyslexic, they say. They just “know” trends and cycles…an intuition rather than book knowledge. They see the brilliance in others and surround themselves with people who can complete what is needed to be successful.

    I know of a rocket scientist who is mechanically oriented. Think of it. Not everyone can be a wizard at math…somebody had to be able to built the rockets or all those eggheads are kind of useless. I think there is more of that in life than we know. Typicals don’t realize they NEED the neurodiverse.

    Oy…I do go on….anyhow…thanks. You make the world a better place.

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