I feel a milestone has arrived! Although it took quite some time to rewrite half of this interview due to computer problems, it would have been incredibly impolite to not write and publish my discussion with disabled artist, activist and administrator Ellie Page. After speaking with her, I only felt she’s been somewhat of an ongoing supernatural force for so many disabled people. I appreciate her, and am proud to say she seems to appreciate me too.
So many people should be grateful for the help Ellie has exploited during the pandemic era. It’s the period in which she’s grabbed my attention, although she’s been busy in the past and has picked up plenty of friends because of it. My memory damage stops me recalling a meeting we had before the pandemic took place, but eventually I hope to hang around with a friend made in 2020. Like me, she lives in Manchester, and sounds quite happy about it as well.
Here’s what Ellie told me about her life working for We Shall Not Be Removed as project co-ordinator. Interviewed back in mid-April, she had plenty of information to offer, which relate to events happening in the past, present, and future too.
Okay, Ellie. Well, there are so many possible questions… It almost seems a little crazy. But, the first thing I’ll ask you is regarding your background. Many people seem to know you, but can you still tell us all a bit about your more artistic background, perhaps?
Well, I was born and grew up in South-East London. I went to university at Oxford and lived there for four years, and then I lived in Berlin for roughly a year (including all “on and off bits”). But then my physical health declined, and I had to come back to the UK because I needed access to my doctors. So, I joined a friend on a whim; I’d never been to Manchester before.
I then worked as a youth worker for several years. I’ve always been a fan of art and have always been involved in the arts world. I studied English at university, I’ve always read lots, always been into art, had lots of arty friends, and obviously had lots of art activities within my youth work too. But it was only at the start of 2018 that I started doing anything myself. I was studying a masters in social work, and for my first placement I was placed with amazing charity named Arc (Arts for Recovery in the Community) in Stockport. They are a mental health and community arts centre.
So, I started working adult mental health wards and in their community projects. But I was working alongside professional artists as well, so it had a social work aspect and arts aspect – and through those artists I learnt how to play with different art materials with new techniques. And then, I started doing it at home, because at this point my health quite rapidly declined. I had to stop my work as a youth worker – I couldn’t run around on my feet anymore. I barely made it through this placement physically, because I don’t drive, I was very poorly, and I was working around two or three days a week. Full time, this placement tends to take people three months – for me though, it took around 11 months. But I’m actually quite glad, because I got to stay there longer and they seemed to love having me around!
So, that was when I started making any art for myself. It coincided with my career ending, and that social work placement. I then had to take a year out from my Social Work Masters, at which point I set up a local arts group on Sunday afternoons around the corner from my house. They let me use the pub for free, and it was wheelchair accessible, so that was the nearest thing that had both of those criteria. So I made some Facebook events, and got my friends round.
We always did small things, but they were always some of the arts activities I’d done in my social work. And then, at Christmas, I started a little pop-up stall selling work made by people who created the work. So, they weren’t “artists” as such, but my friend Suzy made some amazing earrings, and my friend Jane is the most phenomenal crocheter. After that, we had this local market running, and I’ve done loads of them since. It involves just selling things made by local people.
It’s around that time I started Still Ill OK as well. And, that’s when it kicked off: that’s when I set up an Etsy shop and set up some weird Christmas cards I’d made. A friend and I then set up an accessible arts practice called Nice Time Arts in Hulme back in 2019. But then, we sadly had to close down because of the pandemic.
Through that, though, I’ve made loads of arts connections in Manchester. We also ran three monthly groups. One was called Spoonie Artists, for chronically ill creative people, one was Queer Craft Club, which my friend ran anyway; she runs a really fantastic Zine shop called Pen Fight. And then also Zine Club. We did them at Manchester Art Gallery, at the space where my studio still is in Hulme – but it’s just me in the studio now. Lonely!
Wow! Anything else to mention?
Well, I think that answers the art bit. I did a few graphic design courses, too. For me, art has just been a coping mechanism for pain and mental health, like journaling and playing with materials. Primarily, that’s what it is for me. I’m always quite shocked if I’ve made a design, managed to print it on something and people are actually buying it who I don’t know. But, that has happened! And, over the last two years, I have done paid graphic design work. I did all the design work for DaDaFest Translations Festival last year, and a few other bits and bobs.
And I will keep making stuff. But, in a sense, I’m making it for me, and I just want to do something useful with it. Out of preference though, I wouldn’t be seeking out design jobs. I don’t see myself as a graphic designer; that’s not what I want to do.
Okay. You’ve got a massive background! You’ve done a lot of things, Ellie, and don’t look that old to me…
28! Jeez… I feel like such a lazy t**t!
Well, a lot of problems are caused by burnout, because I just push myself too hard. It causes stress, so I wouldn’t recommend anybody go tornado-ing around like I was.
Okay, I see. Well, thanks for the info.
We’ll talk a bit about We Shall Not Be Removed now, because you’ve played a very important role in keeping the UK Disability Arts Alliance up and running. You’re always a person on camera during meetings. So, can I simply ask whether you have enjoyed working with other artists at We Shall Not Be Removed?
Yeah, absolutely. In the last year, I’ve made more “art-connections” than ever before. I’ve met and spoken with all sorts of people in all sorts of art forms. And, for the first time, I’ve felt like I have a career that’s centred in the arts world – where before it had always been a hobby or extra thing in the past. But, at the moment, I feel I work within disability arts.
I’ve met so many amazing people. And somebody even mentioned the other day, ‘Have you ever met anyone you’ve ever worked with?’ I said, ‘Oh, yeah… No. Not really…’ I mean, I think I might have met you at a workshop, via Greater Manchester Coalition of Disabled People.
So, I might have met you before the alliance began. But, I’ve never met Vicki, Jenny, Andrew, etc in person; I’ve met all these artists and found so many new talented artists I didn’t know as well. And, when I was younger, I was convinced I was going to become an actor or director. At school, drama was my thing, so I joined all the drama clubs, and I think one of the drama clubs won a competition at the national theatre. We got to perform on the Olivier Stage at the national when I was 16. And then, I got scouted for a film, and then that fell through. But, I thought, ‘Well, this is it! I’m going to be a director.’ And then I did loads of theatre at university as a director.
Since then, though, I’ve not been working in that industry. So another thing that’s been exciting for me over the last year has been connecting with disability artists who’ve been working in theatre. With them, I feel more at home! It makes me think, ‘Oh gosh, I might be able to work in the theatre, now!’ It’s got me thinking about things again.
Great! It sounds like you’ve made plenty of connections.
Well, when working as project co-ordinator, you do plenty of work. Can you tell us more about what it involves?
Well, I’m the only paid person at We Shall Not Be Removed, and I have to take care of all the admin duties. I sort out all the email inboxes, I organise and transpose any documents into accessible versions, I book all & host the meetings, I programmed all of the Zoom events, choosing who’s work I liked and wanted to use for We Shall Not Be Removed and showcased their work. I run the social media, the membership engagement, the mailing list, the blog, organising all the videos with Revell [Dixon], and in the conveners group we come up with ideas about what we should do next, adapting to how membership is engaging with others, and deciding what members want from us.
It’s a lot. It’s a lot more hours of work than it perhaps looks like from the outside.
Sounds like there’s lots of things going on. Do you enjoy doing it?
Yeah, of course I do! I’ve got to meet some many great people, and, although it’s taken a while, I’m looking forward to the next few months [of May, June, and July] so I can use some of my other skills so that it’s not just “admin, admin, admin”.
So I really enjoyed programming events with Raquel [Meseguer-Zafe], Rachel [Nwokoro] and Chanje [Kunda]. Chanje and I made that event together, and, although there were tech problems, we’re going to continue putting on talks together about invisible and mental health disabilities. I really like all the creative opportunities I’ve been given, and when I’m given the opportunity to be creative in the job, it’s great.
So, the first three months were quite admin heavy, because it involved setting everything up, we had to arrange all the meetings, and meetings take up a lot of time with admin on the side of it.
Also, I think it’s really important that we archive this at this moment in time. This is an important point in disability rights history in the UK. No matter what happens with funding and WSNBR as a community group or in the future, it’s important we’ve got a record of all the great things we’ve been doing over the last 12 months; whether it’s the seven principles, or that all of our members have done such amazing campaign work in their own time. We want to collect those stories from them so we can share all the hard work we are all doing, all the time, within our own fields.
But I really enjoy engaging with the members when we’re having a chat. When we have a meeting like the other day – a coffee table chat – I love hearing what everyone’s doing. And over the next three months, we’re going to put on less events, less Zoom meetings, which means we’ll be able to do some more creative things, project-wise, so we’re going to get submissions from We Shall Not Be Removed members to put on a really beautiful online e-Zine document. It’ll be something to show the arts council that’s a colourful record of what we’ve been up to.
I think that’s something that non-disabled communities don’t realise. Most of the time when disabled whether it’s as an artist or activist, everything is a bit more exhausting. You’re always doing a job, and you’re also having to educate people around you, and advocate for yourself and any additional adjustments you need. There’s so much extra work we’re doing that’s unpaid. It involves quite a lot of emotional labour, because that’s just part of trying to access the arts world in the same way that non-disabled people do.
Yeah, I totally agree with that.
So, I want to put a nice colourful document together, and get submissions from people, and I want to embrace the creative, artistic side of our members as well. We’re not just a disability rights alliance, we are a disability arts alliance, so I want to get something together that celebrates the artistic side of it.
Well, that sounds great. Sounds like something I’m definitely in support of, because everybody I’ve interviewed this year has told me about work they’ve been up to. It’s been happening: there’s no doubt about it.
You’ve got all this work that you do. Would you say life’s been more challenging for you over the pandemic era? I know everybody’s struggled, but, job-wise, do you think it’s bothered you?
Well, if the pandemic hadn’t happened, I’d maybe still have the shared arts practice, and other things I had planned. But, financially, I’ve ended up a bit better of because of the pandemic. Because we had to close down previous things I was working on, like Nice Time Arts, which were reliant on chronically ill & disabled people meeting up, I was forced to look for different types of jobs. And I also run a stationary shop, which bizarrely did really well at the start of the pandemic, and that was bad for me.
I think you might well have noticed I have a tendency to make myself busy. So, I think in “pre-pandemic world” there are things that would make me busy but would be good for me. This might include going to the theatre, to the cinema, seeing a friend, or going for a pint on my way back from the studio. That stuff is good, you do want it in your life, but once you take those things away I think turning inward just meant I put more pressure on myself to do something with my time.
So, financially, I’ve done much better. I mean, I’m still on Universal Credit: I’ve been on Universal Credit for about two-and-a-half years. But, ethically, things definitely aren’t very healthy at the moment. It’s been difficult.
So, it’s better in one sense because I’ve been busy with more paperwork. It’s bad in another in “well-being” sense. My health has always been paused, stopped, and delayed because of the pandemic. Last year I was in and out of three different cancer clinics which was really stressful, and it was going on alongside of the pandemic. We were eventually getting all the government orders if you’re really vulnerable to stay indoors, order your food, and I had loads of health problems. I had to go for emergency cancer referrals, and I had surgery in October that I should have had in the previous October. Some of my other specialists have just dropped off the radar.
I think it’s important to talk about this, because I’ve seen statistics in the news about how delayed things are in the NHS now. They’re saying there’s a two-year delay on surgeries people have been waiting for because of the pandemic. I think it’s really important to note that anyone who has been involved with the NHS with multiple conditions knows that the original waiting lists and waiting times before admin set up before the pandemic was not fit for purpose.
So, there are the delays you always experience, then add a year on it. With the pandemic, they use it as an excuse. They say “because of COVID we forgot to send you that letter!”. But, it’s not – it’s deep seated problems with how the administration is working. So, health-wise for me, it’s been bad because I’ve had extra problems, alongside all the other healthcare where you have to self-isolate, etc.
So, it has been really hard. I’ve also missed people a lot. I realised I’m a people person, but I’m very bad at keeping up with people via long distance and technology. I don’t like it and can’t do it! That means I’ve lost touch with even more people over the past year, because I can’t keep in touch with people that way. I like to use things like Zoom for work, but for me, my non-work time is reliant on me not being on a laptop! People ask, “don’t you want to chat via Zoom after work?” and my answer is “No, I want to use after work to play video games, watch TV and not use my email!”
I see what you’re saying. It’s good to take your mind off it, isn’t it?
It’s been a bit of a pain for me too, but there are so many things worse than my condition. It could be a while before I head back to the hospital. I’ve got an epilepsy specialist who happens to be the nicest guy in the world. I want to spend time with him – he’s more like a buddy, you know?
Yeah, I miss my Neurologist as well!
Okay, moving on-
–oh, I’m also doing a masters in psychology…
You are, aren’t you! [Laughter] My God… Okay, are you looking to expand your career in the future with that? Is there a job role in particular?
I want to work with young people again. My first job when moving to Manchester was as a Childline counsellor, and I just miss working with young people, so I know eventually that’s what I’d like to do. But obviously I’m experienced in arts- and health-related tasks.
I see. Well, you could do quite a lot of interesting things with that. Blend them together, perhaps.
Yeah, although it is very difficult because I need to re-learn, as the world changes again, what my abilities and work hours are. You get used to one thing, and then the pandemic happens, and now it’s different. Narcolepsy, in particular, is what makes it very difficult. Whether or not I’ll be working from home or not, we’ll have to see. I get worried that I won’t be able to do the jobs they ask for because they’re full time, and you need to drive.
I know – I’ve got epilepsy, and can’t drive either.
Anyway, moving on. When it comes to your own arts, I see you’ve made your own visual art. Is that your favourite type of art, would you say?
Well, I’ve been trying to write a bit more again during the pandemic. I make a lot of art, and do a lot of journaling, which is creative too. On my to-do list, as part of developing my own practice, I need to showcase the art I make because I don’t put it on the internet. It’s all, by necessity, off the screen. As I said, when I’m not working, I don’t want to be using my laptop. So, it’s all in notebooks and sketchbooks, that I haven’t had time to scan into the computer.
In the studio, I’d like to do linocut block printing. I’ve really enjoyed it, but I’m really bad at it, so I need to practice! I can’t use that material at home either, because it would just stain everything. At home, I’ve used drawing inks which I love, as well as collage and making zines.
So, I’ve been writing more recently. I remember, a few months ago, staying up all night writing a completely insane story. My partner woke up, and I was in a corner, with a light and scribbling out this completely nuts story I wrote. I gave it to my brother the next day, and said, “What do you think?” He said, “Well… Obviously, it doesn’t make any sense. You’re not going to do anything with this, are you?” Little does he know, I probably will do something with it!
You know, we could probably write a documentary about you Ellie! I’d find it interesting; I think many people would. We should do another one about We Shall Not Be Removed too.
Okay, well, I’ll round it all up here. When the COVID-19 era comes to a close, what do you see yourself enjoying most?
A pub bench, outside, sunshine, with a cold pint of Guinness, and some friends or even just the locals next to my flat being about and chatting. You know those inane conversations you have with people you don’t really know that well? That’s what I miss!
Ellie is quite a character! After reading this interview, I imagine you understand my reason for describing her as a “supernatural force” in the introduction. In my eyes, she’s almost been a disabled roadrunner, actively involved with so much different work that’s been professional, academic, voluntary, and has rarely lacked quality.
One of her most recent pieces of work is the final completed e-Zine released in July 2021. It’s available to view on the We Shall Not Be Removed website. Click the link to take a look, and review the story of events involving the disability arts alliance over the past 15 months or so.
It was an honour to be mentioned in the e-Zine too. The Disability Issue was advertised, and generous respects were made for my efforts to interview and write up the discussion between myself and three fellow disabled artists on their website.
Ellie’s work just seems impressive to me. Here are just a few links to websites involving her efforts I recommend checking out.