This is founder Helen Ralli and collaborator Oliver Clarke of Hart Club, a South East London gallery championing neurodiversity within the Arts. To be more specific, Hart Club inclusively represents neurodivergent artists so that they can make and exhibit work as a means of building confidence, community and wellbeing. And yes, it’s as amazing as it sounds. We recently got the opportunity to talk with Helen and Oliver while touring the Hart Club gallery and studio, and here’s some of that conversation:
Helen: Hart Club is a volunteer-led gallery and project space that is dedicated to championing neurodiversity within the Arts. We’re trying to create a platform and visibility for artists who think, see, communicate and create in a different way – and who so often don’t have a space where that output can be seen or recognized. We also have a ceramics studio and a screen printing studio, and the idea is that these resources feed into the practice of the artists. We can offer these studios as facilities to our artists we work with but also open them up to the broader community. Because the people we work with are often quite socially isolated, we’re really focused on collaboration and we try to engage people in working with others with whom they wouldn’t ordinarily have the opportunity to interact. That’s something that’s really important to us, because ideas and creative output can be so much greater when you’ve got these meetings of very different perspectives and minds. It’s been a profoundly life-changing, eye-opening and heart-opening experience to have the privilege to work with such a broad and diverse group of people.
We have relationships with lots of different organizations that specifically support neurodivergent artists such as people who are autistic, have learning disabilities, dementia and in particular this year a charity called Headway East London that supports people with brain injuries. Our relationships with all these organizations means we can form individual relationships with the amazing artists they support, and try to connect their work with a broader audience. The work we have the privilege to engage with is extraordinary. We are all at a loss if more people don’t get a chance to experience it, as well as have the opportunity to spend time with people who think differently from us. We are trying to create space for that to happen.
Helen: The catalyst for Hart Club came about when I was running a gallery around the corner where each month I would curate open-submission exhibitions around various community-focused themes. One month, we hosted an exhibition celebrating neurodiversity in collaboration with an amazing organization called Exceptional Individuals. The work was so incredible. It was one of the first times I had felt truly invigorated by the work that I was seeing in the 10 years since I had left art school – maybe ever. I was really excited, and all of my usual criticism kind of fell away. This group called the Camberwell Incredibles that we featured had been working together for over twenty years, but they’d never had an exhibition in a gallery setting until that point. That was the real indicator that something was missing. I felt that with the experience I had running more commercial art spaces and advertising exhibitions, I could play an important role there and connect the dots. It is often challenging to self promote as an artist and a lot of the people we work with can’t advocate for themselves in that way. Hart Club is about people working together and collectively having a bigger impact. We live in a society that seems to increasingly focus on the individual, and there’s an expectation that you have to do everything yourself – but how can one person be good at everything? When you work collectively, which is what we are trying to cultivate here, you can lean on each other in different ways.
That gallery job unexpectedly came to an end after doing that show because the building was knocked down and turned into a hotel. There was something in me that didn’t want to stop engaging with this group. Each artist was amazing in their own way, but one of the people in the group is my favorite living artist. I mean, what a privilege to actually be able to have contact and communicate with your favorite living artist. That’s pretty big. So I wanted to keep going with it. It’s been almost 2 years now. It’s still very new, but we’ve done a lot. Meeting Ollie was big. When I first started Hart Club, it was ultimately just me, and that’s a huge amount of responsibility. Then, Ollie and I met by chance. He is a printmaker and also went to Camberwell art school and was talking about how he had all this screen printing equipment in his living room, and I was like, ‘Well, I have a basement that’s empty.’
”People are trying to find ways to feel a sense of community and to do something that comes from a place of love rather than being driven from a place of doing it because you need to get a certain amount of money.”
Ollie: It was a bit of a wild card that I found my place within Hart Club. For the first five years after art school, I was kind of isolated, trying to produce my own work and get things going. It wasn’t until I started working here that I felt properly nourished again in a creative environment, where I can work with someone as passionate as Helen as well as my friend Adam, who works here in printmaking. We have a lot coming up and we’ve been so busy, but I woke up this morning feeling so naturally grateful that I get to go and work in a space in London, and work with these really talented people. I haven’t felt like that since I was in art school, where you’re surrounded by thirty or forty like-minded people and you get to come in and see each other’s work. It’s not really work, it’s more like a nice thing to do today.
Helen: It’s been so hard starting this alone because we have no funding. But the people who have supported us and helped us get here have been really amazing. People are trying to find ways to feel a sense of community and to do something that comes from a place of love rather than being driven from a place of doing it because you need to get a certain amount of money. Whilst we are striving to become financially sustainable, Hart Club is currently a volunteer-led project that has been born from the generosity of people’s time and efforts and therefore feels a lot less transactional than other projects have. It feels like there is a lot of giving and receiving and it’s really beautiful to be part of.
Ollie: We’ve had two or three shows since I met Helen, and the response has been incredible. The crowd that comes is a really diverse and interesting group of people. Hart Club is a community interest company, not a charity, and it feels as though people are coming with a genuine interest in the work being exhibited. David, for example – at age 71 he had his first-ever exhibition at Hart Club recently, but his gift is undeniable. So when people come in to see his work, their response is the same as if they’d seen it at a more well-known gallery. The fact that he had all of his work in a cupboard in his house, but allowed us a chance to exhibit it at a high standard, was just incredible. People come in asking who makes all of this work, and they don’t know the back story of the artist, so when we have these events, it makes it all worthwhile.
Ollie: I personally would like to do some work around mental health awareness. Next year, we’re going to try to do more work in this area, such as sessions with people who have experiences with obsessive compulsive thinking. I’m hoping to create a session where people are able to express how they think and feel, and also come away with something valuable that they’ve learnt.
Helen: Right now, there’s really nothing that I do outside of Hart Club and I’m trying to work on that. I had an interesting conversation with an artist about this yesterday. Our society is so geared around your production and your output. Even though we feel as though we’re quite outside of the system in a way, because we are doing something that is unconventional and creative and aren’t sitting in an office, there is still a lot of pressure to achieve. It’s important to take the time to really enjoy what we are doing rather than just feel so stressed all the time.
Oliver: I’m trying to get a lot healthier and exercise more. You realize that when you work so hard at something and forget to fulfill your basic needs outside of work, you start to get a bit rocky. I have OCD, and not doing enough meditation, yoga or exercise makes it hard to manage. I’m trying to find balance between being at work and my life outside of work. Even just spending ten minutes meditating in the morning before I rush to the train – those ten minutes of meditation can last for hours and help you take a step back, find a rhythm again and re-position yourself.
Helen: If I could change one thing in the world, I think I would want there to not only be an acceptance, but an appreciation of difference and an understanding that our differences are what make us remarkable and interesting. I think we live in a place where there is a lot of pressure to conform, and that means very different things for different people. I think a lot of people spend a lot of time trying to figure out what it means to conform, and then they put themselves in that box – and that’s really unhelpful. If we were all a bit more accepting of ourselves and others, we would probably be further along on all kinds of issues because we would be happier.