Marcus Mason-Williams tells us how he was inspired by Henri Rousseau, why he loves to work outside, and how his art sets him free.
How do you identify as disabled, and what does it mean to you?
I have autism, which gives me some challenges, but also some unique abilities. I have had my share of ups and downs, but I believe in keeping going no matter how tough things get.
Tell us a little about your business.
I am a multi-talented artist. My business, CoolArt2021, showcases my passion for wildlife and nature and is influenced by my autism. I design and sell greetings cards and other merchandise such as tote bags, cushions, canvases, T shirts, and posters. I have a lot to contribute and want to be the best I can be.
Why did you start the business? Share your story so far.
Art and performing sets me free, and art, together with my stories and my performances, help me to communicate and connect with others, especially the young and the old.
I started drawing when I was about five. Henri Rousseau’s animal paintings, especially Tiger in a Tropical Storm, inspired me to learn to draw animals. I am now learning how to use digital software with the help of Exceptional Minds in Los Angeles, USA and online tutorials, such as those by Aaron Blaise. I want to be a storyteller and a storyboarder/animator one day.
My introduction to creative work came from being a student at the Glasshouse College, Ruskin Mill Trust. This gave me the opportunity to try metalwork, leatherwork, willow work, glass blowing and glass engraving.
After college, I became a trainee crystal glass engraver under the tutelage of Kevin Barry Adams, a well-known craftsman. We created a special design called “Ice” and as a result I became known as the “Iceman”. We displayed our work at a conference run by National Grid to showcase their work experience programme – as it happens, the organiser of the conference is the CEO of a national charity, who are now one of my CoolArt2021 customers! Unfortunately, my traineeship did not lead to permanent paid employment, so I focused more on my interests in nature and the environment.
I like working outside as it gives me fresh air and exercise and helps me to experience my surroundings. My love for the environment came from some of my other heroes: Sir David Attenborough, Bill Oddie, Chris Packham, and Johnny Kingdom. I worked one day a week at Cofton Plant Nursery, part of Birmingham City Council, and one day a week for a local gardener, Chris. I like working with my hands and at my own pace. I liked the people that I worked with as they were caring and didn’t put me under any pressure.
I then got the opportunity to do some work experience with the internal CREATE (design) team at KPMG. They helped me develop my digital art skills and develop a portfolio of my work. I made friends with the manager, Gary Twine, who set up his own design business called 575 Studios. He helped create my CoolArt2021 web site and has offered me advice.
I then decided to set up my own digital art business at the beginning of 2020.
I have been lucky to have the support of my Mum and Dad, who help with the logistics (order processing and P&P) and the finance and marketing. I focus on the creative side and I am the front man for photos and direct selling.
I have been helped by a number of organisations including the Special Olympics of GB; Genius Within, the Shaw Trust and DFN Project Search. They have become active customers as well as mentors.
I am currently promoting my business locally. My work has been showcased by a number of local organisations and my cards are being sold in a local gift shop. An article about my business is planned for publication in a magazine for Barnt Green and neighbouring areas.
Special Olympics of GB and DFT Project SEARCH both published stories about me on their websites in 2021. Genius Within included my story in its 10 Year Impact Report and Stephen Frost (ex London 2012) included an article in his company newsletter, FrostIncluded. I have also appeared in social media campaigns run by Mencap and Genius Within. I was also short listed for the Learning Disability Leaders List for 2021 and am working with fellow Special Olympics of GB athletes (Michael Beynon, Niall Guite, and Katie Day), who have also set up businesses.
What do you see as the main challenges facing your business and its continued operation or growth?
For my business specifically, my profit margins are low, which means that I need to increase my sale volume. However, the current economy has reduced discretionary spending. Meanwhile, there’s a lot of competition from a large number of online arts and merchandise providers, as well as direct competition from charities, who often produce their own cards.
In terms of my autism, there’s a lack of support for disabled entrepreneurs. Job coaches are helpful, but some adopt a rather generic business consultancy approach which some autistic people find confusing. There’s also a lack of UK-based autism-friendly training providers for digital art similar to Exceptional Minds in the USA.
Finding a celebrity or other well-known sponsor would be helpful.
What can we do to encourage more disabled entrepreneurs to start businesses – what is holding them back and what can we all do to help change that?
Keep doing what you’re doing, showcasing what some disabled entrepreneurs are doing.
It would be beneficial if you could put disabled entrepreneurs in touch with each other, in some sort of club or network.
Taking away some of the admin/finance/logistical tasks would allow us to focus on the creative or technical sides of our businesses.
We need to educate the Department of Work & Pensions to value self-employment as much as employment and to understand it better.
It would be useful to have direct help setting up a business website, which can be expensive or difficult to do by yourself.
What do you consider your greatest achievement or the proudest moment in your life so far?
I can think of a few! Performing in public with Birmingham Rock School and with Anna Kennedy for Autism’s Got Talent. Winning a gold medal for slalom at the 2020 UK championships for the Special Olympics of GB Winter Games in Switzerland in an advanced category. Galloping on the beach at Ogmore, South Wales, with my riding club. Filming the wildebeests crossing the Mara river in Kenya during their great migration. Creating and recording children’s stories.
If there was one thing you could change about peoples’ perception of disability what would it be and why?
Some people seem to think that autism is a curse, but in my opinion it’s not: it’s a gift. It can also help make you strong. Despite some people’s feelings and misunderstandings, I feel that autism helps me find a way to bounce back and make my life easier.
Who or what inspires you?
Singer songwriters like Bryan Adams and Elton John, naturalists like Sir David Attenborough, Bill Oddie, Chris Packham and Johnny Kingdom, and animators like Aaron Blaise.
Do you have a recommendation for a book or a podcast which has helped you along your journey?
12 principles of animation by Ollie Johnson and Frank Thomas, and the art of Aaron Blaise.