Ann, Amanda, Michelle, Kate and Donna, Peter Sutton, 2005 (detail)

Ann, Amanda, Michelle, Kate and Donna, Peter Sutton, 2005 (detail)

"This is what the last 30 years has been about; coming together, making art, sharing it through exhibitions, workshops and talks." Celebrating 30 years of Artists First.

Follow the story of Artists First, from its start as an art club in a day centre to an established group with exhibitions and projects across the UK and internationally. 


The Portway Centre opens

The Portway Activity and Day Centre, Bristol opened in 1985 and was a new kind of day centre: based within a community rather than ‘out of the way’. There were lots of activities, including art sessions. A report from the time states: "... members who attended regular time-tabled art activities, wanted to work on their art in a more concentrated way.... From the beginning, the direction that the group's work has taken has been initiated and motivated by the artists own wishes." 

Jane Sallis, with a background in hospital occupational therapy and a group worker at the Centre, helped the artists form the Art Club, supported by Sue Pratt, Manager of the Centre. Later on, Andy Harris starts work at the centre and works with the Art Club. Jane and Andy continue to work with Artists First for many years to come.

Below: Drawings of the Portway Centre by Sarah McGreevy. Right:  At Shirl's Bookshop, Shire Mall to help sell the 'Shire Cookbook' illustrated by Art Club members. From left: Sue Pratt, Portway Centre Manager, Carol Chilcott, Joan Goodyear, Steve Canby (all Art Club artists) and Shirl. 

Portway Centre drawing, Sarah McGreevy
Shirls bookshop
“What happened 30 years ago is still current today. It’s perhaps a different way of working and from a stronger position, but what we were looking for was an end to oppression, segregation, people being hidden away, and (to quote Brenda Cook) ‘changing people’s wrong ideas about us’. That hasn’t gone away. That’s something that we still need to be working towards today; equality, people being recognised for what they can give the world, what they can present to their world, and how much they can teach others about being more human.”
— Jane Sallis


Artists First: Origins

The story of the early years of Artists First featuring artists, people connected to the group and other experts. 11:28 mins. Made by Redweather Films (2018).


Outside Door Gallery exhibtions

From 1988-90 there were regular exhibitions at the Outside Door gallery, Jamaica Street, Bristol run by Paul O’Driscoll from his house. Paul organised exhibitions for anyone who made art but found it difficult to find places to show it. This led to artists meeting and working together, the start of Artists First as an organisation, including artists who lived in hospitals and attended other day centres in Bristol. 

Below: left: Nude  Right: The Lovers, both by Rose Mauchline, exhibited at Outside Door Gallery. 

Mauchline Nude
Mauchline The Lovers


Artists First on HTV (now ITV Wales and West).
Broadcast in 1988, this is a fascinating film featuring Outside Door Gallery and some of the artists. Note the conversation between Carol and Kathy (from around 4:40) about names for disabled people and the art they make, finishing with Kathy: "It's art - alright? Got that?" 6:00 mins.


Exhibition and conference at Watershed, Bristol.

Artists First were now established as a Bristol-wide collective group of visual artists. The focus for this Watershed event (organised with Outside Door) were five workshops with the overall title Help Us With The Future, each expressing the artists ambition for the future such as "I want to go to art college and do a proper art course" and "I would like more workshops away from our bases." Artist First members helped lead these sessions.

Below: My Dad's Works, Alan Marshall and Animals, Zara May and Simon Winchell, both shown at the Watershed exhibition

Marshal_A My Dads Works
Animals Zara May and Simon Winchell


Joan Underhill, Viv Baker workshop
Move into Redcliffe Studios.

Redcliffe Studios were the first studios away from the day centre for Artists First and the group held open studio days as well as host artist workshops.  Mike McGreevy (Sarah's dad and an artist) had been very involved from the beginning and continued to run workshops, along with others such as Paul Helliwell and Vivienne Baker who introduced new ideas and ways of working that influenced the members. 

left: Kevin, Alan and Joan Underhill at workshop run by Vivienne Baker. 



Artists First have always wanted to exhibit their work as much as possible. Nearly all of the exhibitions have been of all of the artists works, representing the collective. In this period they showed Recent Works: Artists First at 35 King Street Gallery, Bristol and an exhibition at Mivart Road Open Studios, Bristol.


Eddy Hardy workshops, Greenway Centre.

By now, Artists First are based at the Greenway Centre, Southmead. Eddy Hardy ran influential workshops here, introducing new techniques and encouraging more political work. 

Below left: Eddy and others in the studio. Right Joan Goodyear in the studio.

1994 Greenway 2
Joan Goodyear at Greenway


Kathy, Mike and Sarah in St Ives..jpg
Visits to St Ives.

Around this time there were several influential visits to St Ives, led by Mike McGreevy. For some artists, such as Kathy Stewart, St Ives remained their main subject for artwork for many years to come. 

Kathy Stewart said about these visits, "I love making paintings about St. Ives. I like doing my art anywhere, though, as long as we are together."

Left: Kathy, Mike and Sarah in St Ives. Below clockwise: three paintings by Kathy Stewart and one by Brenda Cook, all from 2005-7, still influenced by the St Ives visits more than 10 years before. 

Stewart_K-0117.jpg St Ives
Stewart_K-0941.jpg St Ives
Stewart_K-4359.jpg St Ives Harbour
Cook_B-4387.jpg St Ives


art + power

Artists First, along with other arts groups formed at the Portway Centre began working under the umbrella name of art + power, which included theatre makers and poets.

High Time: Bristol's first disability arts festival

The festival was "an expression and celebration of the arts and culture of disabled people in Bristol. The common thread ... Disabled people reclaiming artistic power and place in society (and) Creative power against cultural prejudice."

It was a collaboration devised by the Disability Arts Agency, art + power and Artists First. It was based at Watershed and included open studios, multimedia performance, video diary and billboard art.


High Time video diary

This film was part of the High Time festival mentioned above. Bristol's first disability arts festival. Contributors talk about the importance of the disability arts movement and there is footage of Artists First including working with Eddy Hardy with him talking about Artists First and political art.

28.01 mins. Made by Redweather films, 1997.


Move to studio at Spike Island Artspace.

Artists First were among the first studio holders at the new studios in the former Brooke Bond tea factory, then known as Spike Island Artspace and now much larger and known as Spike Island. 

They met many more artists at Spike Island; people who ran workshops, supported the group and influenced them. They were here until 2005.

Below: the studio at Spike Island.

Spike studio
Groups like Artists First have proved that it can be done. They’ve shown us that disabled people can be active citizens, can produce things in their own right and have voices and can speak for themselves.
— Professor Val Williams, Professor of Disability Studies, University of Bristol


1999 This River Winding
This River Winding

This River Winding (Ideal Art Exhibition) exhibition at Bristol Old Vic, organised by artist Liz Crow and Lindsey Fryer, then Education Officer at Arnolfini. The exhibition took its name from wanting to make sure all the art was accessible, following guidelines that Artists First and others came up with in a series of discussions at Arnolfini.

Left: poster for This River Winding.



Postcard for the Freedom TV series
Freedom: This River Winding

A series of six television programmes were broadcast about art+power, the umbrella name for Artists First and other groups working at the time. This tells the story of a project they were working on at the time Made by Redweather Films for HTV (2000). 

Above: promo postcard for the Freedom series.


Year of the artist residency

As part of a nationwide programme of artists residencies, Eddy Hardy returned to work with Artists First, along with artist Penny Goater. As with all the residencies and workshops with the group, these brought in new ideas and techniques to Artists First. Eddy led sessions making large scale work by the whole group and Penny focused on paintings in the form of an opened-out box. 

Below left: Eddy with Artists First. Right: Penny with Brenda Cook. Bottom row: Opened-up box paintings developed as part of Penny's residency. 

Eddy again, 2001
Goodyear Mum and dad
Lane_L-5231.jpg Box
Artist unknown Box painting


Strength to Strength, Spike Island

The largest exhibition of Artists First work to date with 200 paintings and drawings plus an installation of This River Winding. It mainly showed work made during the Year of the Artists residencies with Eddy Hardy, Penny Goater and James Lake. 


This River Winding, Bristol Old Vic

Using the same title as a previous exhibition at Bristol Old Vic, this resulted from collaborations and cross overs between artists and poets. This kind of collaboration was the focus for art+power at the time.

It began with a jointly written poem by Roy Tanner and Jacky Long called Dormitory Beds. By coincidence, an artist at Spike Island, Kate Herbert had made an installation called Colony based on rows of beds, made from metal rods and wire. Kate and Artists First developed a joint project to combine the poem (in recorded form), Colony, related projections and a performance by Firebird Theatre and [resent this in the cellar at Bristol Old Vic. 

Also this year, Artists First de-registered as a company and a charity to come under the banner of art + power community projects ltd.   


Residency at Tate Liverpool.

Artists First had been interested in Marc Quinn's work for a while, following his sculpture of artist Alison Lapper, who is disabled. The group went to his studio in London. Marc had an exhibition at Tate Liverpool, where Lindsey Fryer, who had supported the group when she worked at Arnolfini, now worked. From this came the opportunity for the residency alongside Marc's exhibition. 

Below: Exhibition at Tate Liverpool of work made during the residency and (right) Joan Clews at work.

2003 Tate
2003 Tate (2).jpg
REflections of ourselves Claude
Reflections Of Ourselves

This project was initiated by Artists First to work with students at Hengrove Community Arts College (now Oasis John Williams), New Fosseway School and artist James Lake. The following year Artists First presented work at the New Art Gym at Hengrove Community Arts College.

Left: Claude and a student working together on a James Lake-inspired sculpture.


Working with artists

Inviting other artists into their studio, residencies and visiting galleries are very inspiring and influential aspects of Artists First's programme. This film explores why. 7:52 mins, Redweather Films (2018). 



This year there were two related exhibitions, Into the Light at Thelma Hulbert Gallery, Honiton and Into the Fire. at Faith House, Holton Lee.

Below: Claude and Jane at Thelma Hubert Gallery and Self portrait as a young man, David Conn, exhibited at Thelma Hulbert Gallery.

Claude and Jane, Thelma Hubert Gallery
Conn_D Self portrait as a young man


Artists First leave the umbrella organisation of art+power, move out of Spike Island and are temporarily based at Shirehampton Public Hall. The group name of Artists First is re-established and they produce a series of images for their newly named 'sister' theatre group, Firebird Theatre. 

Below: Firebird paintings by various artists.

Firebird 10


Artists First work as advisors and collaborators with On The Line, a group of disabled people living and working in Midsomer Norton. They also take part in Space Between (On the next level) touring exhibition organised by Art Shape, Gloucester and lead a workshop for disabled adults with learning difficulties from Frocester Manor at Slimbridge Wildfowl and Wetlands Centre as part of Space Between.

This year Artists First also presented artwork as part of a group show of work by disabled artists at the Brewhouse Theatre and Arts Centre, Taunton.     



Artists First re-register as a charity and company limited by guarantee. They run more workshops for Art Shape, this time for a conference at Circomedia, Bristol.

The group are also part of Art While You Wait, artwork in Health Centres and GP surgeries in the north of Bristol, organised by Bristol City Council.


Further exhibitions this year

Artists First also had exhibitions at the Whole Baked Café, Old Market, the Vassall Centre Trust as part of the Vassall Centre and were part of Boundless. Boundless - Connecting Artists featured ten artists from Artists First and was at Bankside Gallery, London.


Opening at Lawrence Weston Farm
Bringing People Together

Bringing People Together was an Artists First exhibition at Lawrence Weston Community Farm with five workshops with Henbury School, Kingsweston Special School and Bluebell Valley Nursery.Bringing People Together

"It was great to have an exhibition that friends and family could visit. It was great to sell our work because it tells us how much people like our art. We learnt a lot from the children. They were very focused and helped us to think about being an artist."

This year, artists also ran Big Draw workshop for Fresh Arts at Southmead |Hospital and the Boundless exhibition came to Grant Bradley Gallery, Bristol.

Left: The opening event at Lawrence Weston Farm.

Outside In and Pallant House

The Outside In programme at Pallant House, Chichester had started in 2007 and in 2009, Artists First artists Carol Chilcott, Kathy Stewart, Tom Hodson, Brenda Cook and Joan Clews were part of their second group exhibition. You can view the catalogue here

Later that year, Artists First had a group exhibition of their own at Pallant House. It featured all the artists, including new black ink portraits. You can read an essay about Artists First by Marc Steene, here.

Below: Clock Face, Nick Selway; Portrait, Sarah McGreevy, both shown at the Artists First exhibition at Pallant House.

Clock Face
Clock Face


Artists First move to Bristol Centre for Music and Arts, Southmead (later to become Bristol Plays Music).

This year they exhibit Working Together at Brewhouse, Taunton (part of Flux Disability Arts Festival). The exhibition was also shown at Hip Space, Southmead Hospital.


Portents was a weekend-long installation at College Green, Bristol displaying art in the form of tent-like structures. Portents was organised by The Pierian Centre.

Linked to Bristol as a Sanctuary City, the organisers wanted Portents to "acknowledge the fundamental importance of sanctuary, security and diversity." Artists First contributed to four tent works, with images and words reflecting on Home, Histories and Hope. Artists First said, "Home is about needing a place to do our art in. History is about some of us remembering our past and living in institutions like hospitals. Hope for us is when people come together, support each other and work together for the future."

The Nine Lessons of Caliban

In September, Firebird Theatre performed poetry inspired by The Tempest at Arnolfini, Bristol. Readings were accompanied by cinema-sized projections of Carol Chilcott's evocative line drawings of rehearsals. "This performance was dedicated to the memory of our wonderful friend and Artists First artist Claude Rimmer."

Below: Three of Carol Chilcott's drawings used in the production.

Carol Chilcott's drawings of Tempest rehearsals
Carol Chilcott's drawings of Tempest rehearsals
The tempest


Artists First presented their Uninterpreted exhibition at Shape, London and at the Royal United Hospital, Bath and also had exhibitions at Greenway Community Centre, Southmead and at Whole Baked Café, Old Market. .


Outside In

Liz Lane and Peter Sutton show work as part of the third Outside In survey of UK outsider art at Pallant House, Chichester.

Below: Brian in Shorts, Liz Lane and Penny, my ex girlfriend, Peter Sutton, both selected for Outside In in 2012.



Outside In: West and Parlour Showrooms

Outside In: West shows at Museum of Somerset, Taunton and includes work by Liz Lane, Nicholas Selway, Stacey Fish, Stephen Canby and Tina Kelly.

Artists First also show new work and limited edition prints at Parlour Showrooms, Bristol, an empty shop used at the time as a pop-up exhibition space on Park Street.

This year, Artists First are also awarded funding by Esmee Fairburn Charitable Trust for three years.

Below: Artist and Easel, Stephen Canby and Old Lady with a walking stick, Tina Kelly, both shown in Outside In: West

The Breadhorse

In March,  Carol Chilcott worked as artist in residence with Firebird Theatre, as they developed their performance, The Breadhorse. Her watercolour was used on all publicity for the show and many of her drawings were projected on a large screen during the performance. A print of Breadhorse is available via the Gallery and contacting us. 

Below: the image used for publicity and two other paintings for the performance, all Carol Chilcott, 2013.

Breadhorse - Carol Chilcott

2015 -16

Jane Sallis, founder co-ordinator of Artists First retires from her role. 

Wills Charitable Trust fund Artists First to run workshops for new artists and support them to become members of the group.

Southmead Hospital, Bristol

32 artworks by Artists First were bought by the Fresh Arts programme for long term display at the new Brunel Building at Southmead Hospital. 

Below: Myself and Penny when we were together, Peter Sutton and Sun Trees, Sarah McGreevy, both  selected for Southmead Hospital.

Perceptions 2016: The art of citizenship, Cork, Ireland

Five artists from Artists First were selected to be part of a survey of work "selected from worldwide submissions from artists working in supported studios – spaces offering opportunities to artists who may previously have been unable to develop their arts practice." You can read more about Perceptions here


Past, Present, Future

Artists First embark on one of their most ambitious projects to discuss and record the stories of their 30 years together and share them through films, donating all the records to Bristol Archives, a new website, a book and events. This was funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund.

Below: sorting out the studio archive, writing the history and running a workshop at Glenside Hospital Museum.

2017/8 studio
2018. andy discussing all the artists
2018.JPG sarah running workshop
Visit to National Portrait Gallery, London

To commemorate Artists First friend and long time supporter, Ann Pugh (many of the films on this website are made by Ann and Redweather Films) Artists First used donations given in her memory to make a day trip to the National Portrait Gallery, London. Ann's daughter, Ruby, artist James Lake and photographer Kamina Walton, came along as well.

Below: James and Peter; Nick at the NPG (Photos: Kamina Walton)

2016.jpg NPG
2016 (2).jpg NPG


Alternative Visions

Peter Sutton’s work Trip to National Portrait Gallery, inspired by the visit made mentioned above, is selected to exhibit in Alternative Visions, opening at Bristol Museum and Art Gallery and touring to Falmouth, Cheltenham and Poole. Artists First are commissioned to make the audio guide for the exhibition.


An evening with Artists First, Arnolfini

Following workshops at Bristol Museum and Art Gallery and Southmead Hospital, Artists First held a workshop, pop-up exhibition and celebration of the Past, Present, Future project at Arnolfini Front Room. 

Below: Stephen showing images at the presentation, Charlotte helping to lead a workshop, people looking at the pop-up exhibition.

Stephen at Arnolfini event
Charlotte at Arnolfini event
Arnolfini event 3
book inside 5
Artists First publication

A 40 page book combining images of key artworks and information about Artists First 30 year history. It is available to buy and also 150 copies are mailed out to friends, supporters and artists' families. 


Move to a new studio in Henleaze.

Building work at Colston Hall meant our studio at Bristol Plays Music in Southmead had to be used for storage and we had to find new premises. So we moved to Trinity-Henleaze Church & Bradbury Centre. In Spring 2019 the artists are meeting there 2 or 3 times each month, with the other sessions used to visit exhibitions and other studios and organisations. In March 2019 we visited the Albert Irvin exhibition at RWA, a group show at Centrespace Gallery and PROPS who are based in the Vassal Centre, Fishponds, which has a long history of running workshops and support for disabled people. 

Below: Steve playing the art at Centrespace, Emily and others making collages in the Henleaze studio, visiting the RWA, visiting PROPS.

Steve Centrespace Gallery March 2019.jpg
Henleaze studio1.jpg
Albert Irvin visit RWA March 2019.jpg
PROPS visit March 2019.jpg


Group decision is taken to begin preparations to close the charity

In 2020 - 2021, the Covid19 pandemic put a halt to many of Artists First usual activities. Coupled with funding challenges, a lack of regular studio space and a dwindling size group (due to retirements and bereavements), the group collectively decided that Artists First would begin preparations to close as a charity.


Amelie & Sarah
'New Ways Forward' work begins ...

To enable individual artists to continue their creative journeys beyond the closure of Artists First, it was decided that a New Ways Forward strand of work would begin, coordinated by Amelie (Artists First Development Artist Associate) . 

Andy and Amelie began work to identify funding opportunities for individual artists such as the Arts Council Developing Your Creative Practice Fund. They also explored whether artists might like to join similar organisations such as Arts In Motion and PROPS, who each support artists with learning disabilities. 

Throughout this time, Andy and Amelie also sat down with each artist to talk about their time at Artists First. The audio files and transcriptions are available to access on the Artist Pages.


Photo with Alex at Bricks
A visit from the National Disability Arts Collection & Archive

As part of our work to capture the legacy of Artists First over the past 30 years, we approached NDACA ( the National Disability Arts Collection and Archive) to explore whether we might be able to feature in their collection.

On the 17th November, Alex Cowan, Project Archivist at NDACA, met some of the artists at BRICKS Studios and confirmed that NDACA would be delighted to hold one piece of artwork per current artist as well as one piece of artwork from each of our past artists.

This is a huge achievement as Artists First will be the first collective of artists with learning disabilities to be featured in the archive - a real testament to the contribution that Artists First has made to the disability arts movement since the 1970’s.

More online resources

If you like this, you might be interested in these:

The National Disability Arts Collection and Archive has films and stories about art made by disabled people from the 1970s to the present day. 

Struggle For Equality is a project by People First Bournemouth about the history of people with learning disabilities in and around that area. 

History Of Place explores the stories of disabled people over connected to 8 places in England, including Bristol and the Guild of the Brave Poor Things. 

Emily in the studio

Stay in touch

Stay in touch with what some of the artists are doing now on Instagram @artistsfirstbristol.

Contact info