“A man has to stand a long time on the side of a mountain before a roast duck flies into his mouth.” Chinese proverb
Making opportunities, not waiting for them to find you, was the over-riding theme of the Prospecting symposium organised by Somerset Art Works. The Chinese proverb, quoted by Susan Jones in her opening remarks, set the tone for a day that championed empowerment, collaboration and activism.
Starting from the premise that artists’ development activity should be driven by the individual needs of artists themselves, this highly interactive exercise in co-learning set out to provide ‘space for independent and collective reflection […] and exposing fresh ideas’.
We began by pinning up pre-prepared images and text on the walls to introduce ourselves, and to raise issues and provocations in answer to the question: ‘What do we need to know?’. Then, with each artist paired with another they hadn’t met before, we set out to discuss ‘The things I must do to get to where I’d like to be in two years’ time’. The forty minutes allowed for this activity prompted relaxed, extended and often meaningful conversations.
A series of workshops followed: Artists & Writing with Lara Eggleton, Artists & Galleries with Kerry Harker and Artists & Resilience with Lydia Catterall. I attended Lydia’s workshop, a simple but very effective mind-mapping exercise that helped each of us recognise the connections we have, the skills and resources available to us, and the ways in which we might ‘top up our tanks’.
A fourth impromptu workshop on ‘Productive Relationships’ with Susan Jones was instigated in the afternoon in response to emerging questions around how Somerset Art Works might further connect and support artists through alliances with other disciplines and organisations. It also covered the way artists negotiate their own relationships with potential partners, funders, supporters, mentors and peers.
During afternoon presentations by Rebecca Chesney, Anna Francis and Nicola Naismith, we were joined by a handful of invited ‘virtual participants’, linked into the event by our smartphones. Though subject to inevitable technological glitches, it was an exercise that reflected the event’s wider ethos of openness, connectedness and communication.
Rebecca Chesney (also contributing remotely) talked about building her practice from scratch through following personal interests and working across boundaries. (She has no formal art school training.) Anna Francis shared her experiences of working and living as part of a community in Stoke-on-Trent, where she’s made both large and small changes in public space to transform the way people use it. Nicola Naismith talked about the rewards of working on self-initiated projects rather than trying to bend one’s individual practice to the requirements of commissioners. But she emphasised the importance of ‘building networks and unlikely alliances’ to make them happen – as well as the need to adopt ‘the long view’ as such projects may take up to a decade to come to fruition.
A darker theme began to emerge when Rebecca highlighted, from personal experience, the way that serious illness can overwhelm and isolate a self-employed artist. Anna and Nicola also offered a contrast to the morning’s optimism with their discussions of the pressing need to improve the working lives of artists. Anna drew attention to the value artist activists offer communities, and raised the issue of the personal cost of doing such work. Drawing on her current AHRC-funded research, Nicola asked ‘Who supports the artists working in arts and health settings?’ and explored issues around the precariat and the gig economy. The goodwill and gifting that is such a positive feature of most artists’ practice also makes us susceptible to exploitation.
The event and its lead-up were punctuated with a series of small tasks and questions, designed to prompt thought and reflection. A final session offered the chance to collectively map ideas, suggestions and queries that might take Somerset Art Works forward and help it better meet the needs of member artists in the future. The five minutes of quiet reflection that preceded this activity acknowledged that not all artists can think on their feet and may need longer to prepare thoughtful contributions. In fact, a consistent feature of the event was time to mingle, talk and relax but also to be quiet and think.
Inviting contributors with urban practices from the Midlands and North to guide artists working in a largely rural area of the South West carried a small risk for the organisers, as the issues artists face can be very different. However, the highly interactive and responsive nature of the workshops and discussions ensured this was not a problem for most participants. For me, the chance to connect and hear views from outside the South West was extremely welcome. I’d like to see much more cross-fertilisation between CVAN member regions at grassroots level. I also look forward to seeing what Somerset Art Works does with the rich set of learnings and ideas generated by this event.
Images by Léonie Hampton
by Georgina Conroy
SAW member since 2013
From the strict timing of each element of the day to the topics featured it was clear that Prospecting was going to be about the business of art. The welcome email asked us to bring along page about ourselves, something we were really proud of and some issues or provocations for a ‘this is me’ wall. We were also encouraged to invite another artist to attend the afternoon presentations and Q&A via the internet. I sighed at the prospect (see what I did there?) of homework but it was worth; looking at everyone’s description of themselves and their practice was an education.
There was a good mixture of familiar and new faces from around the West Country and further afield. After a quick introduction, we had to find a stranger to talk over and write up plans for the next two years. There was no time to be shy and it worked well, as both a way to get to know each other and a taster of the day. Too soon it was time for my seminars. Out of the three available, Artists and Writing led by Lara Eggleton, Artists and Galleries led by Kerry Harker, and Artists and Resilience led by Lydia Catterall, I chose Artists and Writing, and Artists and Resilience. Lara Eggleton led us through writing exercises that were all about information across clearly and concisely; it certainly added strategies to my writing toolbox. Lydia Catterall was the ideal person for leading a seminar on resilience; she was up-beat without being irritating. The mind map she led us through about ourselves and our connections – using the categories; Who do I know, What do I know, What communities am I part of, Who do I admire and What media do I interact with – definitely opened my eyes to my connections in the art world and the wider community.
Rebecca Chesney, Anna Francis and Nicola Naismith each spoke engagingly about their individual practice. Common themes running through their presentations were: persistence and perseverance as a necessary part of being an artist, honest communication and the need to be flexible. Themes segueing into the Q&A session where artists being paid (or not), working (or not) during illness: physical and mental, and the nature of self-employment, were discussed.
The whole day was well organised and interesting. I got the feeling that for many of the artists present it wasn’t providing much new information but acting as more of a refresher.
The generosity of the contributors was brilliant; they talked from a practical perspective rather than just a theoretical one, sharing their best practice and their lived experience. This is the first all-women speaker symposium I’ve attended which is surprising considering they’re the current majority of art students and arts workers. I’m looking forward to further discussions, talks and, maybe, conferences based on the topics raised during Prospecting.
ABOUT THE SYMPOSIUM
Prospecting: new directions and territories for artists’ practice
Date: Thursday 1st November
Time: 10am – 5pm
Ticket : £30 (Full price) / £25 (SAW members) / £10 (full-time students) Booking essential via Eventbrite
(Event is now fully booked)
Artists’ practices are characterised by persistence. Continuous research and development is punctuated and energised by creative interaction, provoked and inspired through multiple communications and dialogues, all the time gathering the momentum which drives and sustains them over a life-time.
This symposium offers the participating artists new conversations, skills, insight and resources, providing space for independent and collective reflection and learning and exposing fresh ideas about collaboration and activism.
Workshops and presentation from artists, researchers, writers across the UK.
Seminars & workshops
These are designed to be responsive to the particularities and interests of each grouping and creating an informal and interactive learning experience. By reflecting on each artist’s particular needs and interests and improving their skills and capabilities, they will help artists to sustain their practices over the long-term.
Presentations and Q&A
Presentations by artistsRebecca Chesney , Anna Francis andNicola Naismith focusing on what drives their practices, the productive personal and professional relationships and their aspirations for the future.
(Join us the presentation and discussion via Facebook Live at 2.35 – 3.35pm https://www.facebook.com/somersetartworks)
Symposium developed through a collaboration between arts researcher Susan Jones and Anna Best, artist and initiator of Prospectus. Produced & organised by Somerset Art Works as part of the Artist Development Programme, in partnership with Visual Arts South West and University Centre Somerset. Supported by Arts Council England.
Susan Jones is researcher and commentator on contemporary visual arts and artists’ matters. She is a mentor and adviser to individual artists and artists’ groups, and contributor to programmes including Boosting Resilience: Survival Skills for the New Normal, Castlefield Gallery Associates, ELIA NXT Project, Mark Devereux Arts, New Bridge Project and Somerset Art Works. The Director of a-n The Artists Information Company 1999 – 2014, she was awarded an MBE in 2015 for her contribution to the arts. She is a Board member of Redeye: The Photography Network. Her doctoral research at Manchester Metropolitan University 2015-2019 explores new rationales for the interrelationship between arts policy and artists’ practices and livelihoods.
Anna Best’s work explores a range of forms, including live event, text and publication, and more recently, moving image. The work explores complex networks of relationships, and layers of collaboration. Process is important in all its messiness, with all its failures (Occasional Sights 2003 with The Photographers Gallery and The Subject Index, for Peckham Platform 2016). Large scale projects have considered and interpreted the commissioners agenda (eg error 404, e-2.org in 2000 and Mecca, with Camden Arts Centre 2000). An ongoing thread within her practice has been creating autonomous education and artist/curation projects (eg Shave Artist Workshops, 1991-7, Road for the Future, 2012, Prospectus, 2017). She hosts an artist residency The Mothership, in Dorset, UK, and belongs to artists’ peer groups in London and Dorset.
Through all she does, Lydia Catterall aims to reveal, support and champion creative brains, transforming the make-up of where we live. Whether operating as an artist, researcher, collaborator, writer or facilitator, she works for the recognition of the inherent value of artists across sectors and the deepening of a strong artistic economy. She is based in Leeds.
Rebecca Chesney’s practice examines our complex relationship with the natural world, by engaging with issues of culture, politics and power. Her artworks, which take the form of installations, films, interventions, drawings, maps and walks, are often created in response to specific places, and are underpinned by environmental research. She is based in North West England. Recent projects include Distance (2018) at Springhornhof in Germany, Alla Breve (2018) at Museo Casa Rurale di Carcente in Italy, a Lucas Artist Fellowship (2016/ 17/ 18) at Montalvo in California USA, Snapshot (2016) residency and commission by Peak with Brecon Beacons National Park Authority and Death by Denim (2015) Harris Museum, Art Gallery & Library. www.rebeccachesney.com
Anna Francis’ practice aims to rethink city resources through participatory art interventions, curatorial projects and city development and investigate the impact that artists can have on their environments. She creates situations for herself, the public and other artists to explore places differently, often experimenting with leading and instruction by creating manuals, kits or leading guided tours. Recent projects have included garden developments, and the transformation of a disused pub into a community space and social enterprise. She is Director at AirSpace Gallery, Stoke-on-Trent’s contemporary, artist led exhibiting space and Associate Professor in Fine Art and Social Practice and course leader on the BA Fine Art course at Staffordshire University.
Kerry Harker is the Founder and Director of the East Leeds Project, which is positioned at the intersection of contemporary art, urban green space and concerned with sustainability. She is a PhD candidate at the University of Leeds, where her research focuses on artist-led initiatives in the UK’s visual arts ecology. Formerly she was Co-founder and Director of Vitrine and Project Space Leeds [PSL], which led to her being Co-Founder of The Tetley, a centre for contemporary art and learning which opened in Leeds in November 2013. She was inaugural Artistic Director until 2015 and subsequently Interim Director of the Art House in Wakefield 2015/16. She lives and works in Leeds.
Nicola Naismith is a visual artist based in Norwich. In 2017/18 she was Visual Artist fellow on the Clore Leadership programme supported by a-n The Artists Information Company. During this, she wrote The Autonomous Artist blog exploring topics including failure, the precariat and universal basic income, diversity in trustee boards, and portfolio working and mental health. Her currently AHRC-funded research explores support available for practitioners working in the Arts for Health and Wellbeing sector. Her practice is focused on Context is Half the Work and she has collaborated with professionals from science, engineering and architecture on self-initiated residencies and collaborative investigations. She worked in further and higher education for a number of years and is now a visiting lecturer, mentor, coach and action learning facilitator.
Lara Eggleton writes for art journals and publications, and as part of creative and collaborative projects. She is Managing Editor at Corridor8, a contemporary art and writing platform for the North of England, a Tutor at the Open College of the Arts and a Visiting Lecturer at the University of Manchester. In 2011, she received a PhD in History of Art from the University of Leeds and has since published and presented extensively on the subject of the Alhambra palace and its historical re-imaginings.