Lowland tribe & Mountain tribe

Rebecca Spooner, Arts Development Manager, reports on a weekend visit from four studio artists based at Wysing Arts Centre, Cambridgeshire: Lisa WilkensLawrence EppsCaroline Wright and Rob Smith

Artists Stefhan CaddickPenny Hallas and Sarah Rhys welcomed the visitors with a weekend of conversation, walking and subterranean digital projection in the Black Mountains.

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Friday 8th May 2015

As the sky began to darken and the wind picked up Lisa, Lawrence, Caroline and Rob arrived at Net House, a red brick cottage poised on the banks of the river Wye, between Hay and Clyro, surrounded by luminous fields of oilseed rape.

Net House is an eccentric and wonderful place; it was disconcerting to see the river’s fast flowing water from every window. The house is a warren of vintage fabrics, family photos, paintings and mismatched china. The artists instantly relaxed in this charming setting and although it was the first time we had all met together everyone hit it off, helped along with plenty of red wine and beef chili.

Around the kitchen table conversation touched on the dramatic difference in the landscapes we inhabit, the lack of younger artists living and working in rural areas, the benefits of a studio on a shared site, the Expanded Studios Project (initiated by the studio artists at Wysing and Primary in Nottingham) and unexpected shared friends and connections.

After dinner we lolled about on the sofas in the cosy living room in front of a roaring fire. Penny had bought along her new digital projector (purchased with support from the Creative Network mini-fund) and we shifted a painting off the wall for presentations from each of the visiting artists.

Click on the artist names for more information about their work:

Lisa  / Rob / Caroline  / Lawrence

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Saturday 9th May 2015

We met the next morning at the Arts Alive Wales studio for coffee and flapjacks to fuel a trek to Llangattock Escarpment. We were joined by artist Richard Harris, artist photographer Toril BrancherGavin Johnson a freelance consultant who has assisted PEAK and Gavin’s partner Lisa Meredith. We downed another coffee while we waited for a heavy shower to pass then donned our anoraks and headed to the escarpment in convoy.

With Penny leading the way we walked along the footpath to the Craig y Cilau nature reserve. Crossing stepping-stones and squelching through wet vegetation we passed through the bog, Waun Ddu. There was some excitement as Stefhan pointed out the Common Sundew, a rare carnivorous plant at the edge of a shallow stream.

As we walked Rob created a live film of the day’s journey: Click here to see the film.

We ascended the old sheep tracks, surrounded by tiny violets and primroses and broke the cover of the trees for perfectly clear views from east to west, taking in the Sugar Loaf, Table Mountain, the Darren and Cat’s Back. We made our way along the tramway ridge to Eglwys Faen cave, one of the largest cave networks in Europe. We tested each other’s metal with gruesome tales of being buried alive and unearthly presences.

We reached the mouth of the cave and descended to the subterranean landscape. I first visited the cave in 2011 for Frederick J Fredericks, an event devised by local artists and poets which presented installations, performances, readings and improvised music in and around the cave as part of Powys Arts Month. At that time I had an uncharacteristically feeble reaction to entering the cave; I instinctively and emphatically did not want to venture into the dark, wet and cold. This time I was more prepared but I could not summon up the enthusiasm of our Wysing friends who bounced into the cave like puppies to venture as far as they could before being called back.

Stefhan shared his emergency packet of custard creams and Penny found a level spot to set up the digital projector. Each of the Black Mountains artists showed short film clips.

Sarah presented a film from an international artist project, Al Mutanabbi Street Inventory, in which hands slowly turned the pages of a burnt book. The film had a strange 3D effect against the uneven surface of the rocks. Rob mentioned Werner Herzog’s film, Cave of Forgotten Dreams; when illuminated by candlelight prehistoric drawings of wild horses would appear to gallop over the surface of the rock.

Stefhan showed archive footage of the Ebbw Vale steel works from the early 1900s; chimneys spewed steam and smoke and tiny figures battled against the filth and flames. In contrast he also showed a film created with 3D mapping data from NASA recording the surface of the moon. Stefhan made a connection with the archive footage of Ebbw Vale, which triggered his memory of Georges Méliès silent film A Trip to the Moon (1902) and the blurring of imagery between early science-fiction and documentary.

Penny screened footage taken from the window of a moving car driving past never ending road works, traffic cones and orange safety nets along the A465 Heads of the Valleys road. Eglwys Faen cave is part of the limestone quarry that served the industrial furnaces of Ebbw Vale and is one point within a network of historic tramways, railways, canals and pathways that link the Black Mountains with the Valleys. The film reminded us of those links which were perhaps more direct in the past than they are today.

After the films, boys and girls were allowed fifteen minutes to play in the cave.  I’d had enough and picked my way through the rocks to emerge blissfully into daylight and clean air.

We returned to the studio for lunch and presentations from Stefhan, Penny and Sarah. It was evident that the landscape and people of this region are integral to the artists’ work. What is sometimes mistaken as insularity was perceived as a strength by the visiting artists. Each artist had a genuine connection to place in which they travelled deeper rather than wider  – there is something universal in that approach to the local or regional.

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Sunday 10th May 2015

Sunday morning we were joined by artist Justine Cook and Project Assistant Emma Balch for coffee and cake at the home and studio of Richard Harris and Sally Matthews in Rhosgoch. We gathered in the self-built warehouse surrounded by Sally’s magnificent menagerie of animal sculpture.

As we eyed the wolves and stags we had conversations about the lack of studio space and visual arts community in Cambridge. It seems Wysing is the only organisation of its kind in the region. We also touched on the problems that affect the majority of artists (wherever they’re based), balancing artistic work with paid employment, caring responsibilities and the need to continually apply for opportunities.

The household’s three dogs were a welcome distraction from too much art talk. An informative conversation about the ear care of spaniels will always bring you back to earth. We said goodbye to Richard and Sally and sent four happy but tired artists on their five-hour journey back to Cambridgeshire.

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For me, the weekend highlighted our lack of access to artists outside of the Black Mountains, let alone outside of Wales. The visit demonstrated the importance of meeting in person to share experience, generate ideas and articulate practice.

The weekend reaffirmed the unique perspective of the artists we work with in this region. A genuine connection to place and people (past and present) is often central to their work. The visiting artists were responsive to the distinct qualities of our location and the attractive proposition it offers to artists outside Wales as a site for making new work.

We hope to arrange a reciprocal artist visit to Wysing Arts Centre later in the year. It’s so important for artists in Wales to build connections elsewhere. Sometimes you need validation outside your immediate circle to remind you that you’re on the right track.

– Rebecca Spooner

Photo credit: Toril Brancher

The visit was supported by  a ‘Go & See’ bursary from a-n, The Artists’ Information Company.

Rebecca Spooner and Artist Morag Colquhoun visited Wysing Arts Centre in July 2014 as part of a research project funded by Arts Council of Wales. Click here for a response to the visit.

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PEAK at Hay Festival 2015

Helen Sear image by Lua RibieraPEAK at Hay Festival 2015 : Thursday 28th May, 10am

Artists Clare Woods and Helen Sear (who is representing Wales at the Venice Biennale 2015) will discuss the importance of their location in the English/Welsh borders, creative approaches and international practice.

Chaired by Emma Geliot, Editor of CCQ magazine.

This event is sponsored by Creative Europe Desk UK – Wales

Tickets available from www.hayfestival.com SOLD OUT!

(image: Portrait of Helen Sear by Lua Ribeira)

Creative Europe Desk Wales

Curator Visit to the Black Mountains

Axisweb’s Alicia Miller, responds to a Curator Visit to the Black Mountains, meeting selected artists in studios and venues across the region.

24th September 2014 

PEAK practice in the Black Mountains

Arts Alive Wales’ new PEAK programme gives valuable support to artists working in the Black Mountains, helping to better network them with arts professionals and the wider artistic community at large. It also works to engender artistic exchange and explore opportunities to bring attention and support to the immensely talented community of artists working in this very rural setting.

I was really pleased to be a part of the first curator visit of the project. It was just my kind of day out – travelling through the countryside in beautiful sunshine, visiting a fascinating array of artists’ studios and houses, meeting a generous and friendly group of artists and seeing a lot of work I hadn’t encountered before. The company was good as well – including Kathryn Campbell Dodd, my west Wales compatriot who travelled back with me on an unending train journey plagued with mayhem and mishaps; the gentle and insightful Amanda Roderick from Mission Gallery; Bristol-based critic David Trigg whom I hadn’t seen in years; Ruth Cayford, who took time out to make the visit in the busy run-up to Cardiff Contemporary; and ACW‘s Louise Wright who somehow manages to be omnipresent across Wales at all times!

The day started with a visit to the house of artist Penny Hallas and poet Lyndon Davies, to see work by Philip Watkins and Catherine Baker, both unfamiliar to me. Watkins admitted to not being particularly proactive in raising the profile of his work, though he has in fact shown quite widely. His stark and unforgiving paintings of industrial sites, deserted streets and other banalities of landscape have an arid beauty. He admits to ‘trying to reconcile living in such a pretty place with my penchant for council estates and underpasses.’

Throughout the day, there is conversation between artists and curators about the context of the work – the impact of the rural locale on the artists’ practice and career is of varying relevance and there is some sense that the relationship to the place of their work is anything but direct. What rurality does afford is quietness and space – Morag Colquhoun‘s studio on the Penpont Estate may be small and compact but it breathes in the breadth of its surrounding countryside, making it impossible to feel cramped. With nature a constant companion, there is always room.

Talking with Pip Woolf at the Arts Alive Wales studio, we discuss the definition of contemporary art. She questions where her work ‘fits’, and I ask if it really matters? It seems to me that ‘contemporary art’ is a wide sphere of practice whose only definition might be a commitment to interrogate its past, present and future in some way. The studio space offers a place to crack this open – it is a test bed for the imagination where process meets practice. The studios we saw during the day were particular and idiosyncratic, most especially that of Susan Adams and Chris Nurse. Built in their garden, it houses both their diverse practices, which sit beside each other with a strange familiarity. Adams’ oversized automaton crouches in the corner making the space feel more than a little off kilter, and it crackles with creativity.

It’s quite important for curators to be gathered up and taken off to see work – it gives them license to walk away from the administration they are often trapped in and spend crucial ‘looking’ time that reminds them why they love what they do. Vital as this is, it can get squeezed out in the pressure to get the next show up or the next grant written. Making it easy is so valuable to these art professionals. Rebecca Spooner‘s careful coordination of the day, meant there was no rushing. The schedule gave ample time to see and talk and have a valuable exchange. Though some of the group knew the artists visited that day, most admitted there were a few they weren’t familiar with. Several curators commented that it had given them a better ‘mental map’ of artists working in the region and some overview of their practice. These kind of meetings may not have concrete outcomes for the artists involved but they are important in increasing a sphere of awareness of their work. Getting work seen is as important to artists as seeing work is to curators.

– Alicia Miller

Artists:
Catherine Baker
Philip Watkins
Stefhan Caddick
Pip Woolf
Morag Colquhoun
Tessa Waite
Susan Adams
Chris Nurse
Download details of the artists: PEAK Artists

Artist Photographer: Toril Brancher (photo credit)

Visitors:
Louise Wright, Portfolio Manager, Arts Council of Wales
Kasia Howard, Education Officer, The Landmark Trust
Kathryn Campbell Dodd, Gallery Assistant, Oriel Myrddin
David Trigg, freelance writer and critic
Gavin Johnson, Regeneration and Development Manager, Ffilm Cymru Wales
Alicia Miller, Axisweb Associate in Wales, Axisweb
Amanda Roderick, Director, Mission Gallery
Louisa Mayor, Assistant Curator, Meadow Arts
Ruth Cayford, Project Leader, Cardiff Contemporary
Download details of the visitors: PEAK Visitors

Rebecca Spooner, Arts Development Manager
Emma Balch, Project Assistant

During summer 2014, PEAK organised a curator visit to the Black Mountains as part of a research and development project funded by the Arts Council of Wales.

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To The Lakes

Rebecca Spooner, Arts Development Manager, reports on a PEAK research visit to Grizedale Arts, Cumbria.

Artists Richard Harris and Morag Colquhoun joined me on a visit to Grizedale Arts, Cumbria for ‘another epic art speak trip’. This trip was different because it revealed the artists’ personal connection to Grizedale Forest and how their experience in the Lake District profoundly affected their lives. Proceeding northwards, to Coniston Water, we retraced roads travelled by younger selves…

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Morag served an apprenticeship as a horse logger in the forest in the 1990s after time spent as an archaeologist in Peru and the Hebrides. She still owns her first logger horse, Molly, now grazing in the fields at Penpont, Brecon. Molly was a gypsy horse, unused to hard work but soon developed the discipline and muscle needed to rear against the weight of enormous logs as the horse teams determinedly set to shifting their heavy cargoes. Horse logging has always been difficult and dangerous work. The loggers kept sharp knives with them at all times to quickly free horses from their collars to prevent choking. Morag’s stories from that time created a picture of the forest as a living and working place.

Richard was the first artist in residence in Grizedale over thirty-five years ago. As an artist he worked alongside the foresters who once supplied the UK with timber, which is now imported from across Europe. Richard lived in a caravan in the woods during his six-month residency, with a break during the worst of the winter weather. Richard also met his future wife at Grizedale, sculptor Sally Matthews. We visited the original work he created in 1978. Grizedale Forest has changed enormously, the car park has doubled in size, a café and visitor centre now replace the redundant sawmill and timber yard. I came across Richard’s sculpture in a small dell just to the right of the forest track. Layered slabs of stone poised on hinged posts of wood – the materials merging together in my mind as I think back. The structure is a path, a slim, curving arc creating a transition, connecting one place to another. Cracks had started to appear in the stones and green moss had gathered. The sculpture made me aware that I’d not taken any notice of where I was – no attention paid to the trees, wet earth, stones – and my relationship to it all.  Richard carefully walked back and forth across the structure, filming his journey. It felt like a rare moment to witness an artist revisiting a work they created at a formative age, free of life’s responsibilities. Richard explained that the themes and concerns he explored then are the same now. Artistic progress isn’t linear, perhaps it is more cyclical or seasonal. We subtly and continually repeat ourselves.

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29th  July 2014

The car crawled through the forest up a winding gravel track to Lawson Park, a RIBA award winning converted foresters cottage and home of Grizedale Arts.

We were met by Director Adam Sutherland and it quickly became clear that the directorship is no day job. Adam lives in a small cottage on one side of the building and Grizedale is clearly driven by his vision and energy, he almost has a guru-like status and the resident artists seem reverential towards him. Adam is immersed in the village life of Coniston – dealing with anything from local politics, issues concerning the impact of tourism, second home ownership and planning applications, to villagers fiddling the honesty shop.

We met Fernando, a Spanish artist in residence who was working on a project to lease a cheese-making machine to local milk producers and we were introduced to Jin and Jina, two Korean curators researching the history of artist residencies at Grizedale.

We had a guided tour of the garden terraces of home grown fruit and vegetables – raspberries, artichokes, beans, lettuces. Indoors, the house felt intense with a display of the Grizedale collection of modernist and post war design – glassware, pottery, furniture, prints, books. A visual overload of charity shop treasure.

The ever-changing household of resident artists and curators live communally, allocating responsibilities for cleaning, cooking and gardening. We shared an evening meal, a fusion of dishes, beetroot gratin, stir-fry and sticky rice, seaweed broth, blackcurrants. Exhaustion and wine started to take over. I felt speechless. Maybe I could manage a day here, I thought to myself, then I’d have to leg it – escape through the woods. “Want to watch a video about Japanese pottery?” No thanks. I sloped off to the twin bedroom, a vase of sweetpeas on the chest of drawers and fell asleep in my cold, creaky single bed.

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30th July 2014

The next morning we visited Coniston Institute. Grizedale got involved in the management of this village hall in 2011, to renovate the building and develop a cultural and educational programme. Originally built in the mid 1800s with a quirky façade of arts and crafts architecture, the institute houses a reading room, library (designed by artist Liam Gillick), kitchen and large hall. The honesty shop offers an eclectic range of homemade products created by the villagers – knitted hats and teddies, drawings, candles, ceramics and cakes.

Conveniently the Ruskin Museum is next door to the Institute. John Ruskin (1819-1900) spent the last twenty-eight years of his life at Brantwood (where he suffered several mental breakdowns), overlooking Coniston Water. Ruskin’s critical writings on art, architecture, aesthetics and his views on social justice and educational philanthropy were an inspiration to the Pre-Raphaelites and the Arts & Crafts movement.

Adam guided us through the museum collection of watercolours, crystals, plaster moulds, drawings and personal objects. Ruskin’s life and work clearly informs the curatorial approach at Grizedale Arts, which has evolved from a genuine place, from artistic and social principles that were sincerely practised at Coniston during Ruskin’s time – an effort to connect people, art and craft in a relevant and useful way.

Sometimes this process works, sometimes it doesn’t, but maybe attempting it is enough. Adam told us a revealing story that illustrated this thought. In 1874, as a Professor at Balliol College, Ruskin instigated a project to repair the main road of Hinksey village, Oxfordshire, which was regularly flooded. Ruskin was joined by twelve of his students including Oscar Wilde (“entrusted with Mr Ruskin’s especial wheelbarrow”), historian Arnold Toynbee and painter WG Collingwood, in an attempt to improve the lot of local residents while educating themselves in the nobility of manual work, much to the hilarity and scorn of local labourers and the fops of Balliol. Wilde summed up the initiative, “And what became of the road? Well, like a bad lecture it ended abruptly—in the middle of the swamp.” Although this project failed in the short term perhaps the mere attempting of it was able to instigate a modest shift in Victorian social attitudes and values.

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On our return to Wales we stopped to see Richard and Sally’s sculpture studio at their cottage in Rhosgoch. I stepped into a rough barn and was confronted by an extraordinary menagerie of greyhounds, horses, wild boars and sheep alongside drawings, paintings and maquettes. It was refreshing and stimulating to observe the essential forms and materials in the studio. The space was evidence of two artists totally dedicated to their work, living and breathing it, through productive and fallow periods, combined with home and family. What the Black Mountains have, that is not so visible in the Lakes, is a resident community of exceptional artists.

I still feel unsure of what I think about Grizedale. Morag and I have had several conversations about it since. The one thing you can’t feel is indifference and I’ve taken away the importance of ensuring PEAK’s creative projects are genuine and distinct to the place they originate and that they sincerely attempt to communicate with people.

– Rebecca Spooner

With thanks to:

Adam Sutherland

Artists and staff at Lawson Park, Coniston Institute and the Ruskin Museum.

During summer 2014, PEAK visited rurally based arts organisations across the UK as part of a research and development project funded by the Arts Council of Wales.

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A Visit to the Lowlands

Rebecca Spooner, Arts Development Manager, reports on a visit to Fermynwoods Contemporary Art in Northamptonshire and Wysing Arts Centre in Cambridgeshire.

Artist Morag Colquhoun, was at the wheel as we made a four-hour trip east, to the flat fields of Bedfordshire. Our mutual friend and artist, Jackie Chettur, kindly put us up for two nights in her beautiful home, Gardener’s Cottage, on the Woodbury Hall estate, near Sandy.

Jackie and I met on our Fine Art MA in Cardiff in 2003 and she now has a studio at Wysing Arts Centre. Jackie had done a great job lining up introductions for us over the next two days.

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9th July 2014

We met Yasmin Calvin, Director, Fermynwoods Contemporary Art (FCA), at their shop front office in the small town of Thrapston in Northamptonshire.

We chatted over a cuppa, sat round a large table in their resource space, which is available for artists to meet, read, talk and present. The space had an array of journals and catalogues to pore over. FCA’s promotional print was more than a well-designed booklet, it was a hand held platform for presenting their artists and projects; a mini exhibition space and archive.

This small organisation developed from ecologically concerned beginnings, encouraging artists to directly respond to the rural environment. As well as an ongoing programme of projects, FCA manages Sudborough Green Lodge, a site with two cottages, owned by the Forestry Commission, one of which is used for artist residencies. Since Yasmin’s appointment as Director in 2009, FCA has shifted its focus from responding directly to the rural situation, to one which supports artistic practice through opportunities for reflection, research and play. This fluidity of ideas and creativity was to run throughout the next two days.

Artists work with the organisation to develop local audiences for projects and events. Many of the artists that work with FCA have a socially engaged practice but this isn’t an explicit requirement. Projects are always driven by the artist’s practice, and a huge amount of trust is, quite rightly, bestowed up on the artist. Yasmin is interested in people and responding to the social environment is as relevant (if not more so) as a rural/urban environment.

Morag spoke about her experience with an artists’ residency project in the Elan Valley, instigated by a partnership between theArts Council of Wales and Dwr Cymru Welsh Water. Morag has been encouraged by the approach that ACW has taken, offering artists a reflective period of working on site, in exchange for their feedback to develop the future residency programme. This demonstrates a confidence in the artists selected and the need to offer artists a sincere experience in order for creative practice to evolve.

FCA is a peripatetic organisation, with a small staff team based in the shop front office, delivering projects in alternative spaces and venues throughout the region. We spoke about the challenges of not having a gallery space. Negotiations to develop art for a partner venue take considerable time, effort and energy as well as a skillful balancing of competing priorities.

Working off-site, you may not only have to impress an indifferent audience but indifferent partners and their associated staff and volunteers. Jackie shared an unfortunate exhibition experience with a national institution (that shall remain nameless) in which much of an exhibition by contemporary artists was dismantled in favour of more lucrative craft fairs and a dinning club, much of the work wasn’t reinstalled and some of it broken.

Yasmin reiterated, the most important resource is time – time to develop relationships, to communicate and to invest in the artistic process. Articulating our opinions and feelings, and having our preconceptions challenged, are all part of the messy subject of contemporary art.

Yasmin whisked us away to the Lodge, FCA’s artist residency facility, set two miles down a track through Fermyn Woods.

[A surreal aside – Fermyn Woods is one of the few places in Britain where rare Purple Emperor butterflies grace us with their presence for a week every July. The ‘most attractive of nature’s children’ had chosen this as their week. We sat in the car for fifteen minutes patiently waiting for an eager crowd of spotters to snap their photos of a specimen sunning itself on the track ahead. These out of the ordinary encounters are one of the joys of working in the countryside.]

The lodge is comprised of two cottages, one leased to a family (which contributes to the Forestry Commission rent on the Lodge) and the other is used as a work space and accommodation for residency artists. As the forest opened up and we passed though a wild flower meadow we become aware of how remote the Lodge feels. There’s solitude and then there’s isolation – it doesn’t suit every artist. FCA are careful how they describe the Lodge and its situation before an artist arrives for a stint in the sticks.

It’s important to FCA to maintain a balance between local/regional artists and international artists. It is the local artists that have a strong understanding of the context the organisation is working in but diversity is hugely valuable – and this includes artistic diversity. The ideal of ‘artistic diversity’ was one of the essentials I gained from our visit to FCA and feel it’s important to encourage this in the Black Mountains.

10th July 2014

Wysing Arts Centre is situated nine miles south of Cambridge and comprises of ‘ten buildings including studios, live-work space, specialist new media facilities, a large gallery, education facilities and a 17th century farmhouse used as accommodation for residencies and retreats.’

We spent the day meeting staff members, Louise Thirlwall, Operations Director, Gareth Bell-Jones, Artists and Programmes Curator, and studio artists Erica BöhrSoheila SokhanvariCaroline Wright and Lisa Wilkens.

Wysing delivers a contemporary programme neutral to its rural situation. As exhibition audiences are slim in this neck of the woods, the large gallery space focuses primarily on research and experimentation. Large-scale events such as this year’s music festival, Space-Time: The Future, are promoted heavily via social media, e-bulletins and online networks, attracting a large London audience. In addition to visitors from the capital, Wysing broadens its reach with local audiences through a broad programme of public talks, embracing history, politics, science and ecology, as well as accessible family workshops, youth projects and creative apprenticeships.

Wysing’s website gave me the impression of an organisation that was rather cool and austere. However, meeting the studio artists in the informal ‘window room’ at Wysing with coffee and conversation flowing, the artists were welcoming, open and articulate about their work.

Jackie told us she appreciates the commeraderie, peer support, the level of ambition amongst the artists and the intellectual/artistic stimulus of the Wysing experience. Discussing the fraught business of art is also important – the financial and professional practicalities, mistakes and challenges.

The opportunity of leasing a subsidised studio at Wysing (around £160 a month) warrants a competitive application process and studios are offered on a maximum five-year lease. This time limit ensures that artists remain focused, however, it can be unsettling to know this is a temporary situation and Wysing supports artists to develop opportunities in order to move on when their time is up.

Some of the artists had experienced inactive and apathetic studio groups in the past and a dire lack of studio space in nearby Cambridge, where house prices are high and redundant spaces limited. Artist Caroline Wright, travels over an hour to be in her studio, because there really is nothing like Wysing elsewhere in the region.

We also spoke about the perception of Wysing by regional artists outside the organsiation and there was an acknowledgment that some felt Wysing was a ‘closed shop’. However, I was impressed by how the studio artists proactively worked together to develop exchanges with other artist groups via their Expanded Studios programme, which is due to partner up with Primary studios in Nottingham. Naturally we posed the suggestion of an exchange with artists in the Black Mountains and a meeting of the lowland tribe and the mountain tribe was enthusiastically welcomed. We then spent a wonderful hour trawling round the studios speaking to the artists individually. I only wish we had more time – but I think we can look on this as just the start of further meetings and conversations.

Our afternoon conversation with Gareth Bell-Jones, was hugely informative and motivating. Gareth sharpened our focus and asked the question – who is PEAK for? Who are the artists we are aspire to work with and who are our potential audiences? Gareth encouraged us to explore various models and ways of working by looking at other examples across the UK – from artist studios, to exchanges and residencies.

The most recent artist residency opportunities at Wysing attracted 300 applications for 4 places. Gareth feels that artists are increasingly attracted to residencies in order to have complete freedom to do what they want – it’s something they can’t get elsewhere. A residency with undefined outcomes offers the opportunity to break out of the pressure that an artist can feel to constantly deliver, to exhibit, to sell. It’s a limited period to make mistakes and fail if necessary. Wysing spends time with an artist to prepare a residency before they arrive and develop an ongoing relationship after the event, tracking an artist’s future practice (and audience figures), recognising that a project with Wysing can lead to many other opportunities.

We bought it back to PEAK and considered the existing resources available to us in the Black Mountains: a diversity of active and interesting artists, the unique landscape, accessible location (roughly within an hour of Cardiff and Bristol), large festival audiences, Hereford College of Arts on the doorstep – I could go on.

How can PEAK make the most of those resources and contribute something vital and relevant to the mix?

We also talked about piloting new projects in a reflective and sensitive way to gain valuable feedback from artists to shape the future of PEAK.

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The two days were inspiring and invigorating. I felt we’d learned a lot from conversations with artists and curators – about new approaches to how we work with artists, how we respond to the particular environment of the Black Mountains (social/environmental/cultural) and how we could develop PEAK with consideration and confidence. Taking the time to visit established organisations across the UK has given me a certain self-assuredness that we can learn from other people’s successes and challenges when developing our own projects. Putting in the time and effort to get it right is worth it.

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 – Rebecca Spooner

With thanks to:

Yasmin Calvin

Gareth Bell Jones

Louise Thirlwall

The Wysing studio artists

Jackie and Ben

During summer 2014, PEAK visited rurally based arts organisations across the UK as part of a research and development project funded by the Arts Council of Wales.

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Visit to Stroud Valleys Artspace (SVA)

Rebecca Spooner, Arts Development Manager, reflects on a visit to Stroud Valleys Artspace (SVA) and Site Festival – a festival of artist-led projects in Stroud and Open Studios across Stroud Valleys.

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Sunday 11th May 2014

Artist, Penny Hallas and Poet, Lyndon Davies were my travelling companions for the day. We set out cross-country via Ross-on-Wye and Gloucester through rolling Cotswold villages toward Stroud, only one and a half hours from the Black Mountains.

We stumbled upon our first gallery of the day in an empty retail space in a generic shopping arcade. Painter, Peter Stiles presented a large solo show, Ourselves We Find At Sea, containing uniquely shaped, hand-made canvases, depicting beautiful forms and compositions in a Bloomsbury palette, of familiar motifs of west country landscape – waterfalls, shady lanes and rolling hills.

Peter explained about the relative ease of acquiring an empty shop, assisted by a lease template produced by SVA, who act as a go between for artists, the council and retail landlords. Landlords benefit from rate relief while the empty shop is occupied and artists gain access to a large, neutral space with good footfall. We picked up our Site festival programmes and headed for the next stop.

Alice Fox’s exhibition, Tide Marks, in Lansdown Hall & Gallery presented works on paper and cloth responding to coastline. Thin, skin-like shrouds hung from the walls, stitched, dyed and printed with rust and tealeaves. The show was part of the Select Trail – a showcase of Stroud International Textiles. We were getting a feel for the quality of the artists involved in Site and started to get excited about potential for exchange with artists and makers in the Black Mountains.

We headed for SVA, which “provides studio space for professional artists and presents a year round artistic and educational programme with the Site Festival as an annual highlight.” The festival orbits round this central hub of creative energy. Writer Keith Mitchell, who has a long association with the venue, told us more about the history of Stroud and its prosperous textiles industry (the town produced red coats for the military) and the derelict warehouses it offered up to artists, ripe for renovation.

I spoke to Neil Walker, a founder member and Co-Artistic Director (alongside Jo Leahy), who explained how SVA gradually developed over the past 18 years from a maggot infested shell to a site of over 20 studios, offices, café bar and brand new gallery space. SVA is one of Arts Council England’s National Portfolio Organisations and receives around £70k annually towards core costs, as well as support from Stroud District Council. Local press reported that Site Festival contributes an estimated two million pounds to the local economy.

SVA Studios are offered at a subsidised rate from £108 per month. The standard of artists in the studio was high and I assumed there was a tough selection process. Neil put me straight – the only condition for artists applying for a studio is that they get involved. Artists proactively organise events, talks, open studios and gigs. Spending time working alongside good artists breeds more good artists.

A successful organisation like SVA doesn’t operate in a vacuum. Neil tells me there is a well-regarded Art Foundation course in Stroud College, which primes students for GoldsmithsCentral St Martins and the Slade. A proportion of these post grads gravitate back to Stroud for its close proximity to Bristol and London, and for employment opportunities. Damien Hirst’s Science Ltd studios once-upon-a-time employed up to 200 artists and Pangolin Editions, specializing in casting bronze sculpture, is a regular employer for artists.

I tried to relate the SVA model to the Black Mountains. I’ve met creative practitioners (writers, musicians, artists and makers) who’ve located here to deliberately work in solitude. That suits some practitioners but not all. Again, art is not created in a vacuum and whether we actively get involved or not we all benefit from being connected to other creative people.

Clearly there are differences between the arts scene in the Black Mountains and Stroud. For me it’s about recognising and making use of the distinct resources we have available; the incredible landscape, the excellence of our creative practitioners, the community spirit of our towns and villages, large festival audiences and a strong tourism infrastructure.

One of the most exciting aspects of SVA is the artist-led activity it encourages. This way of working, a more DIY approach, could be embraced in the Black Mountains. Artist-led projects have the potential to create a freshness, playfulness and a sense of artistic ownership in a way that activity generated by organisations – and particularly local authorities – find difficult to achieve.

Penny and I considered the need to develop studio space that is sustainable and based on demand. Is there a need for creative studio space in the Black Mountains? Do practitioners have adequate studios in their spare rooms and sheds at the bottom of the garden? Comments welcome. The empty shop model is certainly intriguing. In a town centre location (Talgarth, Abergavenny or Brecon for example) a retail space could provide an opportunity to experiment with a temporary studio and a related series of public workshops, events, exhibitions, screenings, etc.

We continued ticking off venues from our Site festival guides. After being led a merry dance by the programme’s dodgy map, we finally discovered SVA’s Goods Shed – a large, old warehouse near the railway station (similar in scale to g39, Cardiff). We enjoyed five billboard size film screenings of work by John Wood and Paul Harrison. We chuckled as we stood detachedly watching a model car plunge, slow motion, into a constructed woodland lake; and smirked as a perfect scale, pier building was consumed by flames. We were hopeless to intervene in these pathetic disasters. “Isn’t it fun being an artist!” said Penny.

– Rebecca Spooner

Stroud Valleys Artspace (SVA) www.sva.org.uk

With thanks to Grace Davies, Regional Development Co-ordinator, Visual Arts South West

Information about setting up artist studios can be found at the National Federation of Artists’ Studio Providers

During summer 2014, PEAK visited rurally based arts organisations across the UK as part of a research and development project funded by the Arts Council of Wales.

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