Author: Jonny Cotsen
Five years ago, in September 2015, I walked into the Arts Council of Wales and met with an officer. I told her that I wanted to create a cultural space led by deaf people in Wales. I asked her how she thought it might be possible. She was really negative about the idea.
In part her response showed a lack of understanding about deaf artists in Wales, our needs, our access requirements.
But if I’m honest with myself, I probably wasn’t quite ready, either. The mountain was bigger than I thought, and I needed to be better prepared for the climb.
I left with the feeling that my vision wasn’t possible. But that setback was also a turning point for me. A moment which propelled me into a new journey, to focus on making it happen.
So I learned sign language – something I’d never done properly in the past, despite being profoundly deaf since birth.
I spoke to lots of people in the arts sector.
I volunteered with theatre organisations.
I participated in workshops, even though they weren’t always accessible to me.
And then I got more proactive.
Despite the challenges, I began running inclusive workshops in schools, universities, drama youth clubs, wherever I could.
I even helped set up a deaf theatre club at a venue in Cardiff – the first in Wales.
And then I began performing. Telling my story. My authentic experience, not as a trained actor – which I’m not – but as an artist. That eventually led to the Edinburgh Fringe last year which seems a world away now, as does anything which happened before corona.l.
I only took that plunge to perform because I felt it was the best way to reach out to marginalised and disadvantaged communities, to begin a conversation.
As a deaf person growing up mainly around hearing people, I was never encouraged to perform. Sometimes, even, I was actively discouraged.
So I never had any self-belief at all when it came to performing.
Whether it be through performing or – now – consulting, I am finding outlets to share my story in a way that resonates with people. In a way that can inspire others, especially marginalised people, deaf people, people who feel very isolated.
I’ve been doing speaking events. I know stage fright is a big thing for everyone. But imagine for a moment how it might be for someone who’s very conscious that they sound different, alien even to those that never talked to a deaf person before.
The lesson, at least for me there, has been: ADAPT – find alternative ways to operate in new realities of closure, lockdown, social distancing.
The question I posed with you here a few weeks ago was almost to a tee the exact same one that I raised at the Arts Council of Wales in 2015.
It’s the question that has burned inside me for years.
I’ve long felt strongly that deaf people can play a greater leadership role in the arts world, in arts projects, and that this can offer huge benefits to the community at large.
The question in my mind was never whether this was a worthwhile pursuit, but only how to realize it.
One possible concept – which I developed further through my experience with Culture Reset this summer – is for a deaf-led café. I’ve often wondered whether there should be a café that is deaf-led in Wales, and what that might look like.
The café is not a café for deaf people. It’s not a cold canteen in a charity association.
It’s welcoming. It’s attractive. It’s accessible to the community. It’s a fun place to hang out. And because all the staff are deaf, it’s also a place to learn.
These coffee houses have taken off in recent years. They expose hearing people to deaf cultures for the first time in their lives. Perhaps they learn to say “Hi” or “Thank You” in sign language.
That brief murmur of what it might be like to live without a normal sense of auditory perception, that creates empathy.
So what I dream for, is far more than Starbucks for the deaf.
It’s a cultural bridge.
There’s an old Welsh proverb which says, “A fo ben, bid bont.” It means, “He who would be a leader, be a bridge.”
Disrupting the social divide between hearing and deaf people is the mission.
And making this happen in Wales, the place of my birth, would be my dream come true.
The Welsh Government is committed in principle to a more equal Wales, a Wales of vibrant culture and opportunity for all. It was among the first, I think even the very first, to introduce legislation on “well-being“.
One step towards getting there would be to create a cultural hub of the kind I described – full of cross-community interaction, bursting with artistic innovation, humming with spirituality.
Culture Reset has enabled me to begin transforming my dream into a project. Now, with clearer objectives in mind – investigating deaf art, creating a forum for artists that includes and supports deaf artists – I’m better equipped to move ahead, to consider the pros and cons of different partnerships, venues, and sustainable models for success.
This experience has opened up some deeper questions for me, too. Real personal and collective identity questions.
Like whether deaf art should be perceived as “deaf art” or “art by deaf people” … or simply as “art”.
And whether artists ought to be commissioned because they’re deaf? Or because they’re artists? Or both?
I’m not sure I have all the answers yet, but I think the notion we’ve discussed in this forum of developing a manifesto can play a crucial role in shaping possible answers to those questions.
What I am sure about is that I’m not looking back, not fearing rejection or failure like I once did.
I’m looking forwards.
I have clarity about where I see myself in five years from now, about the values I want to invest my time in nurturing.
On September 11th, 2025, I see myself waking up, drinking from a fresh brew of coffee, reading the South Wales Echo, my local newspaper. I stumble across a headline: “Artist commissioned to produce a major piece of work for Wales Millennium Centre”. The artist is a ‘graduate’ of my creative hub. The artist also happens to be deaf, but that’s no longer an essential point to make in the headline.
What a great start to the day.
I decide to switch off my phone for the day – the first time I’ve done so in as long as I can remember. I can do that now and stay calm. I trust my staff at the hub. I want a day of reflection with my family. I finally think I deserve it.
It doesn’t matter so much whether that’s what happens on September 11th, 2025. What matters is that I can live up to the values in my manifesto – inclusion, bridging social gaps, diversity, levelling the playing field, the experience of “otherness”, commitment, self-belief.
I’d like to end by echoing the sentiment of another deaf artist from this cohort, Ruth Montgomery. Ruth believes passionately about the need to think about the future of deaf leadership, the need to reach out across deaf communities, the dependents of deaf people – which is now closer to my heart than ever since my kids were born – and the overall role of deaf people in theatre, visual arts, and music.
We need to be more engaged and we need to be consulted as key players in thinking about the arts.
There is much to be done for us to be recognised as a ‘creative’ and ‘language’ minority, and I hope that my project will play a role in achieving this status.
This experience with Culture Reset has been an accelerator for me, enabling me to unleash some of the ideas swirling around in my head in a way that I now feel more comfortable talking about openly – with you and with others.
That’s a priceless asset and I hope this network can be sustained. It means a lot to me, especially at such an incredibly difficult and challenging time for the arts and for artists, both deaf and non-deaf.
Diolch – thank you and hope to see you in the first ever deaf-led Welsh cultural hub soon.