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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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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