Jason and the Argonaut: creating the Whizz Kidz Morph on a quest to make disability visible

We talk to artist Jason Wilsher-Mills about Argonaut, his Morph’s Epic Art Adventure sculpture made with Whizz Kidz’s community

No one could have a favourite Morph, could they? On Morph's Epic Art Adventure you might fall for, say, Stay Frosty’s arctic angles while journeying through Spitalfields Market, but he’ll only be your most-loved Morph for as long as it takes to encounter Swashbuckler in his gentleman pirate finery five minutes later. Or for your mouth to water at Mmmmmmmmmorph!’s chocolate hundreds and thousands haircut nearby. Because they’re all Morph and Morph always feels like he’s your friend as soon as you see his smile and want to return it. 

But although we wouldn’t dream of playing favourites with the original emoji, this smiley come to life in orange clay, we are understandably big fans of Jason Wilsher-Mill’s Argonaut. Standing proud and starry-eyed in Mexican wrestler motif Y-fronts and a psychedelic tank top, he’s got a powerful but charming public presence that delights everyone who sees it. We particularly enjoy catching stressed business people striding down the South Bank, who come across him accidentally but can’t suppress a chuckle and a grin as they rush past.

Fittingly enough for an artist whose work is deep piled with references to his 1970s childhood, growing up disabled, his Morph has as many swirling layers of history and pattern as a vintage curry house carpet. He wears callipers and boots for example, just like Jason did as a child, but here reclaimed from the pitiful charity box figures of 50 years ago and celebrated in batiked dots and argyle socks instead.

How Whizz Kidz’s young people worked with Jason

It’s not just Jason’s history that’s layered onto the sculpture. We would always have a soft spot for this Morph as he was created with ten young collaborators, aged 9-20, from Whizz Kidz’s community over Zoom sessions. If you find yourself in too many virtual meetings for work or study, it’s great to know something this amazing could come from them. 

This was no token collaboration. It was making magic together. Jason worked with Charlie, Eve, Isabelle, Jamie, Oona, Owen, Phoebe, Riley, Summer and Thomas. From flowers in the desert to a cat in a racing wheelchair, their lives and art are shown on badges worn by Morph, including affirmations - I am Great! on his chest - that this six-foot sculpture can easily carry off. Facing the Tate Modern, he looks like he could any minute stride through the doors into the turbine hall and show himself off to his fellow works of art too. 

What you need to know about Jason Wilsher-Mills

Jason Wilsher-Mills is on an epic adventure, too, a quest to make disability more visible. Based in the East Midlands but originally from Wakefield in Yorkshire, he studied fine art and traditional painting. He now embraces digital technology to create his paintings, sculptures and large-scale augmented reality experiences. He’s an enthusiastic collaborator, working on community projects to create art with thousands of children and adults nationwide, including groups of learning disabled and homeless people. In 2020, Jason received the Adam Reynolds Award from Shape Arts, the acclaimed disability-led arts organisation that he works closely with.

We caught up with him before Morph’s Epic Art Adventure started to learn more about his “adventurer engaged in a quest”, the meaning of the word argonaut, which dates right back to ancient Greece and the original myth of Jason and the Argonauts.

How Jason worked with Whizz Kidz's young people

How did you get involved with the Morph project?

Basically, I'm a disabled person myself, and I’m an artist who makes art with other disabled people and about other disabled people and about disability issues. So I have a really good relationship with Shape Arts, and there was a partnership between Shape and Whizz Kidz, and they said would you be interested in, you know, designing for this Morph sculpture trail, and we thought of you, Jason, we thought it would be a good fit. I jumped at the opportunity. It really intrigued me, and obviously, it was Morph! Because a lot of my work is about childhood memories because I became disabled as an 11-year-old, and there was nothing like Whizz Kidz, you know, in 1980, there was nothing at all like that, so it was a really good fit for me.

I went to a hospital special school, and there were no kind of role models that were disabled for us. It was really limited, and I liked the idea of working with wheelchair users, but in this kind of setup, it was the children that were wheelchair users being supported by Whizz Kidz, which I thought was brilliant really. 

So like I said, it’s Morph. I mean, who would not want to work with Morph? Again, it's such a resounding memory from childhood, watching Take Hart. Obviously, as a preteen in the 70s, I was taking the first steps with learning how to draw, and you get excited about what you can do with this kind of visual language.

And to have a TV program like Take Hart or Vision On, that were quite eccentric and accessible but sang of the virtues of creativity and boy, could we do with that now on children’s TV, especially when art is under threat in schools. So yeah, all the stars aligned, and it was a really good fit, and I worked on a Sunday morning, can you believe, a Sunday morning. We did Zoom workshops, me and the disabled young people, and it was a fantastic connection because they shared their artwork with me.

I drew things in real-time, so we did our own little version of Take Hart. I was the sort of cut-price Tony Hart, you know.

But it's a really lovely way of working, and they supply me with some of the inspiration that went into the actual design of my Morph.

So he's got a disabled person that's designed him, disabled young people that have created these badges which represent aspects of themselves. We have kids that drew wheelchairs, kids that did their own little Morph and there are their favourite things like racing cars and even slogans, positive affirmations about who they are. So it's a real snapshot into these children's lives and the lives of disabled children at this point in time. What's really lovely, as I said, is that you've got a disabled artist working with disabled children and young people and out of that came some kind of magic. I think it's really lovely.

How young wheelchair users inspired this Morph

So the young people you worked with, their ideas are represented as badges?

Yeah, yeah, it's a way I like working. In my practice, I'm very influenced by pop artists like Peter Blake, and there's a lovely self-portrait of Peter Blake standing there in his denim jacket with lots and lots of badges. It's a really interesting way of creating a self-portrait. You use little bits of information to create the whole, and that's how I do it. I mean, I create massive sculptures, bronzes, and inflatable experiences, and they're all covered in and decorated with these badges, as I call them. It’s like a little insight, what you're doing is getting a little window into their lives, and there's a life there that’s being portrayed in an interesting way.

The thing with Morph is that, obviously, he's non-disabled, so I have to find a way of subverting that and making him look like he had a disability himself. I don't know if you remember, but in the 1970s and ‘80s, we have old charity boxes that depict children with disabilities. Really horrible things it's like a slot to put your 50p in their foreheads.

So I’ve taken that idea, that motif and brought it back for disabled people and reclaimed it. So Morph is wearing callipers. He wears callipers because, as a kid, I wore callipers. I wore these things that were quite sort of torturous. I’m making them celebratory, you know. He wears callipers and big boots like I had to wear as a kid.

He’s also a bit of a superhero because he’s got his Y-fronts on as well. I always say if it's good enough for Batman and Superman, it's good enough for what I create too.

He’s definitely about my childhood. He's contemporary but harking back to another age as well. He’s psychedelic and very colourful. He wears a mask, and again all my figures have a mask on because when I was a kid, my disability was so bad that I was paralysed from the neck down, so the only part of my body that I could feel was my face so my mum was obviously my carer as well. She used to paint my face, and we used to pretend. I used to say Mum make me look like this, make me look like that.

It's such a loving act and an incredible thing. It obviously resonated with me so much in every piece of art I create, there's a character wearing a mask. It's become part of the thing that I do, and it's a really lovely thing to be able to relate because every one of those kids that I met in those Zoom meetings has fantastic families supporting them.

These carers are the backbone of Britain, the back brace! If I could make a Morph that was made out of gold and 200 ft high and encrusted with jewels, it wouldn't be enough.

But it would be a fitting tribute for the work that goes on behind closed doors. Incredible people that perform miracles every day. That mask and that little story, it's a little note to carers and to compassion. What I believe a character like Morph is about, not to be too poncy, but it's about friendship and love. 

When you see Morph, you smile. You can't help yourself because you’re nine years old again. You’re waiting for your Findus Crispy Pancakes.

I think we’re a similar age because my childhood featured Morph and Findus Crispy Pancakes, and the charity box figure you mentioned of the little girl with callipers was on every high street...

And Damien Hirst took it upon himself to speak for disabled people by creating a 30-foot-high bronze, painted sculpture replicating that. He didn't speak to disabled people. He didn't know. There was no kind of authenticity. I always think when you look at a piece of work, it should have an authentic voice, and that didn't because it was, there's a very famous slogan within the disability rights movement, nothing about us without us. 

It inspired me to start making work and reclaim that and not just say, yeah, this is a bit of pop culture that I’m going to comment on. This is like a real person. The greatest thing is that everything that those kids have been through at some point in life I probably went through. I never had role models. I certainly did not have role models that were in their fifties. They didn't exist, and they didn't exist because of medicine [at the time]. It’s important to kids that there is a future and great opportunity; so they think if he can do it, I certainly can.

Are there any hidden details on your design that we can look out for?

Everything. Even in the weave, there are things hidden all over. You can look for five or ten years, and you won't see everything. In fact, I've just been thinking now about the stuff I've forgotten about where it is, but there are definitely things hidden.

It looks a bit messy. What’s nice is that he will stand out from the crowd. I think there's an authenticity about him. There's a lot of history that has gone into him. I'm looking forward to meeting the kids that we involved face-to-face. I think they're going to absolutely love it. I think it's going to get a lot of attention. And that's a good thing because this sculpture was designed in such a way that it would make people think and ask questions. It's not nicey-nicey, it's provocative, it's interesting. There's depth, and there's real history. There's a life lived there that's under the surface. It's brilliant to have a Morph that represents disability because he's a non-disabled character.  

How important accessibility was to this project

The trail's step-free as well. Was that an important consideration?

Yeah, it's brilliant, absolutely amazing. I mean, every aspect of wheelchair users’ life is difficult. Getting on a train, difficult. Going on a plane, difficult. So this, no steps, amazing. The fact that everybody who took part in this, who has a disability, a physical disability, I should say, will be able to do this and be able to be part of it. I've done pieces about disability way back in the past where the work was positioned halfway up the staircase. Which kind of defeated the purpose somewhat. But this is going to be seen by a lot of people, and it's going to be enjoyed by the kids themselves. I'm really proud of it. It's like a kid saying, it's Morph! It's exciting that Aardman okayed the design, so they've seen what we did and liked it.

I love the idea that these heroes that I had as a kid liked it. You'll see a lot of Wallace and Gromit in the work. There are a few kinds of subconscious nods to Wallace. There's a tank top and stuff. It's very northern as well and influenced by my West Yorkshire heritage.

When you collaborated with the young wheelchair users, did you go in with a blank sheet of paper, or did you already have these ideas for some of the stuff you wanted to do?

Some of the stuff, but it was very much a blank sheet of paper. Because of the nature of the project, I had to hit the ground running. The design is a long process because you’re designing it on a flat surface, but then it has to be moulded into a three-dimensional design. But essentially, it was right; what can you guys give me in terms of information? So visual information, and they were brilliant. The kids, I mean.

One of the girls, she was only about eight and was reading Frida Kahlo. That is amazing. I didn't discover Frida Kahlo until I was 22 or 23.

And I thought to have a lifetime with Frida, you know that's she’s going to grow to this really cool person. And I thought, blimey, that was brilliant. What a role model to have.

How you can be an artist: Jason's tips on creating art

What advice would you give to young wheelchair users who aspire to become artists?

Well, it's really – that they're fine to do it. Do it with a pencil, do it with paper, do it with bits of card that you fold up, use an iPad, draw with an iPhone or Samsung or anything you can find to be creative, do it. And the key is doing it. You’ve got to do it instead of thinking about it and thinking of reasons you shouldn't do it. 

Just the best bit of advice I'd say that ever was given to me was just do it, just do it. So every day, I set myself a task doing a five-minute finger painting on the iPhone. I do it when I get up in the morning, one of the first things, and it sets me up for the day. 

Being an artist, at the moment, I'm balancing the books and doing lots of very boring tasks, and being creative is the greatest gift ever. It enabled me, as a disabled kid, to escape, to imagine and to experience things I was missing out on. We need more representation, and it's great that kids growing up now who want to be artists are going to find it so much easier to do that than I did because of all the barriers that were there.

I remember vividly being refused entry to cinemas, for instance. I was a fire hazard apparently, that used to happen.

I remember having to be lifted up flights of stairs to get into a meeting room. So we've come a long way; we need to keep on going. Any kids that want to be whatever, and it might be that they're inclined to be a dentist or a post person or it's doing it because the more people that are doing it and showing that it's possible for others to follow. There's always got to be the first one that does it, and then that you look over your shoulder, you've got people following you, so that's the important thing.

How to make Trojan horse art that changes attitudes

You use humour and positivity a lot in your work. Is that important for shifting people's attitudes?

I've just been watching the news because I've got a piece of work that's my first bronze sculpture that's been unveiled and caused some controversy, inadvertently.  It's a disability that was, you know, deemed controversial.

My work is Trojan horse art. People are conned into thinking it's colourful and jolly, and then I'm through the gates and my little activists are out there doing the work and challenging perceptions.

And I have people laughing their heads off at my work. I've had people crying. I've had people coming up to me afterwards and saying, "No, this has changed my life. This has been quite powerful.” 

There was an electrician at the exhibition once, and he was doing a job at the gallery. And he was really quiet when he was doing work, and then he left and returned a few hours later. And he had tears in his eyes, saying, "I just want to shake your hand.” He said, "I used to have to wear callipers when I was a kid. And seeing your work brought it back”, and he said, "I feel proud of what I went through and what I experienced, and it's really important that people know about it.” And he said, "I just want to say thank you.” And he was quite overwhelmed.

I'm sort of imagining that I work for the Beano or Aardman. So it's very PG, but within that, you know, I wear my heart on the sleeve. And it's very direct. I can say quite difficult things. I would even go as far as to say it's political work to a certain extent because you've got to choose which side you're on sometimes. You know, be accounted for. But it does that using humour. Mel Brooks did that well. He’s a Jewish man but has made many comedies about fascism and the Nazis. He said if you put tutus on them, you take the power away, and I've always taken that to heart. 

How Jason creates art that you can walk through

So what are you working on next?

I'm working on a giant inflatable, I mean, I say giant, I mean absolutely giant inflatable, that you can walk inside. There are different rooms and that will hopefully be touring the world. I've got the bronze sculpture being unveiled in July.
I've got, obviously, more coming up. I've got exhibitions coming up. And there's going to be a big one next year. All I'll say is it's a very well-known gallery in London that makes you feel very welcome. That's all I'm allowed to say about it.

You embrace a lot of interactivity in your work. I understand you're working with augmented reality and virtual reality. How do you go about creating art with interactivity?

Well, I think, again, it's a disability thing because disabled people tend to be early adopters of technology in order to make their lives a bit easier. Because even in 1980, they had a thing called a possum which was a machine that I used to suck and blow into that would open the windows and curtains. It was amazing. It was really basic, but that was like cutting-edge technology.

I decided early on that I trained as a painter, but because of my disability, it became harder and harder to do the painting. I decided that technology was a way of broadening my canvas. So because I've embraced technology, I was able to do, like, I've made games and created bronze sculptures, and it's limitless what I can do now. Because it's so mobile and accessible. At Christmas, for instance, I had COVID, and because of my condition, I was quite bad. I'm still able to work from home and work through being ill as well. I have creative partners as well who support me. I give them the designs, the kind of things I want to do, and then they put it together, so it's that factory approach to making art, but for me, it's fantastic and a really good way of operating. So digital technology allows you to do a lot of stuff you wouldn't be able to do otherwise.

So by embracing digital technology, it's allowing you to work in new ways?

Yeah, in unbelievable ways, like using virtual reality and augmented reality and face filters for Instagram. It’s broadened the way that I work so much. I think there's a real correlation between being a disabled person and that willingness to embrace new technologies.

So what do you think the future of art will be, and what would you like it to be?
Well blimey. We’ve got to keep AI at bay. One because I think it's limited, and you can always tell. I‘m gobsmacked when people get taken in by an image that's artificial intelligence generated, just look at a little clue. So we look at the hands. It can never get hands right. And the eyes as well as slightly out.

I mean, there's some stuff I've seen that's absolutely terrifying because it’s so way out.

I think there's always going to be easel painters, oil paint’s always going to exist, marble’s always going to exist, bronze is like the most amazing thing to work with because it lasts forever, it's beautiful, and people are always going to want to touch stuff and know that kind of experience. Technology is going to be in tandem with us, but it's not going to be ahead of us, if you know what I mean. It's something that we use as a tool. People want to go out doing watercolour landscapes, and you know I miss the smell of oil paint.
It's a very human thing. I mean, a digital tablet doesn't give you that thrill, but the digital tablet is the gateway to doing the bronzes and all that kind of stuff. So yeah, it's complicated.

Jason on the importance of collaboration

You collaborate a lot with groups that have been marginalised by society. How important is that for you?

It's really important. I mean, I just went to the local co-op. I saw a front-page headline on one of the main newspapers [about migrants], and it was very confrontational, it was unbelievable, and it's basically about putting people in boxes. I think Terry Pratchett said this, if you start calling people “them”, they marginalise “them” and put them into this huge ball of “them”, it's really easy to stop treating “them” as people. And the way we look at, that some people look at immigration, that some people look at disabled people and people with different skin colour or a different religion, what's missing is a bit of compassion, and there's the father, there's the mother, there's the son. The way that people who come along in boats are talked about, it's really sad because they're people, they're their husbands and wives and children, you know, and it needs challenging.

You have a government that says this is what people want. I don't think people want to be cruel. I don't think anybody ever signed up for that.

And I think this is true of all the parties, but we’ve lost our way, really, we're not treating people like human beings. It’s adding up how much people cost as opposed to what their value is. It goes back to one of the first things the Nazi party did was send out a leaflet saying this is how much people cost. And I've always found that interesting because that was very cruel and designed to be so, but we sometimes haven't moved on that much, and we just need to be a bit more compassionate and start treating people as people.

How art is becoming more accessible

You said you want your art to make disability visible, but how do you plan to do that?

Making more of it and being ambitious about it and saying, you know, the work should be seen in the best galleries. Nye Bevin is one of my heroes. He once said, “Only the best for the working classes.” And to paraphrase that, only the best for disabled people and the marginalised. But I think I'm breaking down barriers. And, you know, I want, and I am actively working very hard to make sure that my work is seen in the national galleries, and this year, my work was purchased for the nation, which is a hell of an accolade.

That's just the start. I want to challenge the Damien Hirsts of this world and say, mate, you’ve been there too long.

And that's when art works well when we have these little revolutions. It's the only way we can change things if we have disabled artists actually at the head table, and I've been very fortunate that I've been asked to go on the regional board for the Arts Council and things like that, which is massive, it's a big deal.

Do you think the art world is getting it more in terms of accessibility and inclusion?

Yeah, because our voices are getting louder. The thing with it for me with the disability arts, he has a ring fence put around it. And all the disabled artists over there, all the female artists over there, I think we're going to keep those fences down a bit. And again, we see people as people and their strengths.
It's really lovely, for instance, so it's a daft thing,

but Doctor Who, the new series, is coming out later this year, we're going to have a wheelchair user, and the TARDIS has got a ramp now…

As well as Morph and Doctor Who, is there anything else from your childhood or from popular culture that inspired you? 

Yeah, it's the interior design of the ’70s. Everybody would say, where did you get inspiration from Jason and I'll show them a photograph of our front room because that comes from a very working-class background, so money wasn't too freely available, but Mum had crazy wallpaper and carpet, and we were dressed in a bizarre way. TV was a big thing. I'm unashamedly a TV fan. I love it and was brought up with it. Grayson Perry said it's okay to watch TV, so it must be. But we were spoiled because we had Doctor Who, we had really good animated stuff like Hannah Barbera and crazy stuff like Captain Caveman. 

The key things when I was a kid were one, reading Alice in Wonderland and thinking, yes, there's someone who's created a world that didn't exist; isn’t that amazing? Two, hearing Strawberry Fields Forever by The Beatles. Not understanding what it was, but understanding completely what it was, if you know what I mean. Because it's a song, I think, about the other and the other being creativity and self-expression and a kind of mirror on oneself, like the sort of stuff that you think about when you're making art.

Even before I knew I was an artist, I knew I was an artist, I felt like an artist, but I just didn't have a name for it, and something like that bit of music summed it up for me. I thought, blimey, there are other people that feel the same way. 

What would your message be to young wheelchair users?

I think it's absolutely wonderful that there's an organisation that's so proactive in supporting young people and children who are wheelchair users.

When I was a kid, there were two choices of wheelchairs, and that was it. You had the green one or a grey one, and they were horrible.

They were absolutely horrible, and I think it's incredible that there's your organisation because wheelchairs are expensive. 

But the thing is, see the chair as part of you, but it doesn't define who you are. It's a cliché, but you can do whatever you want to do. It's up to you, and there's so much support for people like you. There are a lot of people. I gravitated towards Shape Arts because they were a charity that does the equivalent of Whizz Kidz but for disabled artists. So, I continue to work with them and alongside them and support them because we need people that can make those changes.

Jason Wilsher-Mills' Morph Whizz Kidz Argonaut, sponsored by Kids Industries, can be found at Tate Gardens, Riverside until August 20th 2023. 

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