Last autumn I attended SAW’s Prospecting Symposium along with many artists including Luminara Star (a recipient of SAW’s Creative Pathway Bursary ’18). In a group with Kerry Harker we discussed utilising interesting spaces for art exhibitions and events – an alternative to hierarchical white cube art galleries. Since then, a seed has grown and blossomed into ‘B-Wing’, a site-responsive art project in Shepton Mallet Prison, which Luminara and I are co-curating for Somerset Art Weeks Festival, 21 September-6 October.
6 other artists/writers (Lucy Large, Lou Baker, Scott Sandford, Rosie Jackson, Geoff Dunlop and Alice Maddicott) join us in the collaboration. Our group is diverse but there are connections that keep the work cohesive. Set in the unique spaces of B Wing, Shepton Mallet Prison (SAW Venue 91), we are creating site-responsive artworks that range from large-scale sculptural installations to poetry, sound and performances to transform the space, reflecting its history, and confronting political and environmental issues.
We were both excited from the start about the potential of this magnificent space, hidden behind 75ft high walls. Light through windows and bars casts dramatic shadows; strong acoustics conjure imaginings of its past, summoning powerful responses. Historically, B Wing was a large male wing of the prison, which was built in 1610 – the oldest working prison in UK until closure in 2013. With its distinctive architecture and harrowing history, it is an emotive, unexpected venue for art.
We are delighted to be offering such an unusual project for Somerset Art Weeks Festival Silver anniversary, a specially curated show that’s a bit different and challenging. For visitors, B-Wing will be an immersive, poignant experience. There will be a sense of wonder and curiosity as each person makes their way through the labyrinth of cells and corridors, discovering unpredictable interventions in deserted spaces. B-Wing raises provocative questions about binary concepts: crime and punishment, life and death, constraint and freedom, power and powerlessness, fact and fiction.
Having curated step in stone, an ambitious ACE-funded project in Mendip quarries, held during Somerset Art Weeks Festival ’15, my experience in fund-raising was useful (though not my favourite thing). I have learnt that big ideas are possible with perseverance and a cheeky optimism.
We feel extremely fortunate to have been awarded several grants for B-Wing. After months of what seemed like never-ending funding applications, hard work and a long waiting game, June brought a stream of thrilling news. We received various grants in succession including an Arts Council National Lottery Project Grant. Supported by Somerset Art Works, we also gained grants from Somerset Skills and Learning and Somerset Community foundation. Other sponsors include Shepton Town Council, Hauser & Wirth Somerset, Cranmore Parish Council, MJW Architects, private donations and generous partnerships with Shepton Mallet Prison, Somerset Art Works and Ian Keys.
The grants enable us to pay our artists in a non-selling exhibition, and engage the wider community in free workshops, talks, readings, exhibition tours and performances. Workshops will come with free get-into-prison tickets for participants. We’re appealing particularly to Shepton Mallet residents, who can’t or don’t normally benefit from these opportunities.
Collaboration between ourselves, our partners and the community is key. We’ve been engaging community groups in free workshops making work to be featured as part of our exhibition. I really enjoyed working alongside Year 9s from Whitstone School and 2 adult groups creating collaborative pieces, while Luminara worked with local Home Ed families. Based around the theme ‘Possessions’, we focused on identity, marking time, time as value, bound, binding. The Year 9 students hadn’t made anything like this before, and the use of recycled materials made them ‘think more about everyday objects’, which they found ‘inspiring and surprising’. Adult participants valued the experience and ‘conversations became the threads that made our connections.’ During Art Weeks we’ll also be engaging schools and youth groups in free workshops/artist tours as part of the prison’s educational offer.
We’ve had numerous meetings at the prison in preparation, done radio chats, been as active as possible with PR and Chris Lee (SAW Area Rep for West Mendip) has designed our logo, posters and soon a leaflet. Zoe Li, SAW’s Programme Associate, visited us for curatorial advice, floorplans are now drawn up and artwork is well on the way to completion. I’m very excited to see how it all comes together! Artworks include an extensive red knitting installation, ‘Shadow Sacks’ and participatory wearable sculptures by Lou Baker. Geoff Dunlop’s immersive installations combining evocative image, text and sound will provoke; Rosie Jackson has written poems, one for an anchorite cell. She will also lead a poetry performance ‘18 poets in B-wing’ and a free writing workshop on National Poetry Day, 3 October. A paper installation in a cell by Lucy Large relates to the holding of trauma; Alice Maddicott’s companion text art piece will record ‘intangible and undocumentable’ details and atmosphere in the prison; a sacred cleaning performance by Luminara involves a range of senses including sound and smell; and a dark reflective pool by Scott Sandford will disrupt and reflect the architecture and artworks.
The prison kindly allowed me to take up an art residency in B Wing’s Servery to develop my large sculptural installations inspired by snakes and ladders and Piranesi’s Tavola VII, The Imaginary Prisons. This residency follows one earlier this year in the cells at Town Hall Arts, tackling notions of human exploitation of nature, violence, confinement, the human cycle of striving, greed, and suffering. Despite grim surroundings, I now feel almost at home in the prison. Chatting to visitors who’ve been there when it was fully functioning, I’m gleaning insights into what it was like: ‘noisy’, ‘depressing’, ’smelly’…
We are thrilled that John McCarthy, renowned writer and broadcaster held hostage in the Lebanon, will open our Special Events Day on 28 September. The day includes a performative ‘Join-in-the-Conversation’ with Lou and me, Lucy’s artist talk, performance by Luminara and Rosie’s poetry reading. On 22 September a diverse panel will be ‘in-conversation’ with Geoff Dunlop, discussing art in prison: ex-prison tutors Fiona Hingston, Adam Grose, Jo Taylor, Lucy Willis, Candace Bahouth, ex-prisoner Erika Flowers and ex-prison officer Elaine Culley. We hope this will appeal to a broad audience.
Other free workshops and talks will be spread throughout the fortnight, including a talk by Ian Keys about local history and geography in context, 29 September, and my Family Friendly sculpture workshop, 5 October.
During SAW Festival, the prison offers greatly reduced tickets (adults £10, children free, accompanied). B-Wing will be held in Shepton Mallet Prison open daily, 10-5, 21 Sept–6 Oct. For further information visit: www.b-wing.weebly.com For free workshops book: [email protected] And do follow us on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook @bwing2019
Kindly written by Fiona Campbell, SAW’s East Mendip Area Rep
Published on August 22, 2019 // Sarah Adey