'Sharing and Support' with Somerset Art Works
Paul Newman of SAW looks back on recent ‘Develop and Create your Project’ session and the ways in which these workshops help members develop ideas.
It’s a damp, late afternoon in February and, as many people are starting to head home from work, Somerset Art Work members are making their way to SAW’s office in Langport to attend a workshop with SAW’s Programme Associate Zoe Li. ‘Develop and Create your Project’ is one of a series of current workshops set up in response to feedback from the last member’s survey in 2018 where members had asked for more support around certain topics including sales, curating and statement writing. In line with its current Arts Council England National Portfolio Organisation remit, Somerset Art Works has developed an ongoing programme of artist support which addresses the needs and requirements of its broad membership. Ongoing discussion and planning eventually led to the development of a series of monthly Sharing Sessions, with six themed workshops planned for the first half of 2020. I decided to attend the recent ‘Develop and Create your Project’ session to see how this work would help SAW members develop their project ideas and find out more about Zoe’s work.
Despite the dark wintry mood outside, members congregated and chatted in the warmth of the Town Hall building before the start of the session. Workshops like this are not only an opportunity to learn useful skills, but they also encourage networking and are a useful information exchange. In such a large rural county, an opportunity for those of us who lone work to get together and share ideas is vital, although in the current situation, we’re now looking at ways that we can do this online. Workshops also allow newer members, or members wanting to know how to progress their practice, to meet up with other artists with similar questions and learn from each other, as well as from the Somerset Art Works team.
The Sharing Session programme has been put together by Zoe, with workshops on statement writing, curating, collaborative working, finance and portfolio building. As Somerset Art Work’s Programme Associate, Zoe has responsibility for planning and delivering commissions, project work and bursaries (including the successful Creative Pathway Bursary programme), as well as providing mentoring, support and guidance. The bursaries are important in the development of many artists’ careers, providing tailor-made support as well as a peer-to-peer and group support environment, financial assistance and the platform of showing the finished work in either the Festival or Open Studios event. For the 2019 Festival, Zoe extended the range of bursary support so as well as the Creative Pathway Bursaries, which are normally aimed at artists in the earlier stages of their career, Project Development Bursaries were provided to help artists develop particular ideas or lines of enquiry. Three of the artists who benefited from this support had prepared presentations to share with the workshop attendees.
First of all, Liz Gregory talked about the work she showed at Cotley Barn near Chard for the 2019 Festival. Liz elaborated on the challenge of producing an enormous (8 x 4 A1 panels) and time-consuming drawing, telling the story of its evolution,- hours and years spent observing and recording the myriad folds of a large piece of bailer plastic. The sharpenings from the 270 pencils used to make the work formed the cover design of the 2019 Festival guide. Attendees were clearly intrigued as to how such a large piece of work finally came to a conclusion but also inspiring was the effort and care that Liz had taken in meticulously documenting her working process. A scrolled bar chart recorded the exact amount of time taken to produce the work, including the way the time was divided, mirroring the work itself. This evidenced the technicality and execution of the achievement of producing such an ambitious piece of work. Comments in Liz’s diary, documenting personal and world news unfolding in time with the progress of the drawing brought an additional, insightful element to the story. “Holding hands with myself through time”, as she put it. As with many artworks, the story of the journey to the finishing line can as compelling as the work itself, intertwined with the development of the work. Liz elaborated on questions from the attendees, explaining how the bursary, along with a defined end point, provided an incentive to complete the drawing. The questions pulled the presentation back to the purpose of the workshop as artists heard how mentoring, peer-to-peer support, collaboration and a deadline combine to take individual creative impetus to a conclusion and realisation.
Lotte Scott then delivered a presentation about her bursary project, A Long Hundred. Her development needs from the bursary were different to Liz’s but we saw how the bursary support could be successfully tailored to the artist, depending on the dialogues between artist and collaborator/mentor. Lotte gave a sense of how the elements in her work, deeply rooted in material and place, needed to be brought together, and speak to each other. The Abbot’s Fish House in Mere had long held a fascination and interest for Lotte with an idea to show sculpture and installation work based on 120 peat turves. As with Liz’s presentation, Lotte showed how the work developed, and we were given an insight into the richness and history of Lotte’s process and use of organic matter, tracing a path through the history of the levels and its inhabitants via pollen, wood, peat and charcoal, back to a prehistoric trackway.
As well as the development of the work, there is also the development of the artist’s needs to get the work realised. Lotte had applied for a grant from Arts Council England’s ‘Developing your Creative Practice’ fund to support her project but this was unsuccessful. She decided instead to Crowdfund the project, rather than resubmit and despite some nerves, had an incredible response, meeting her target. It was clear that she was really touched by the personal nature of the support- this gave the project added impetus. What followed was an energetic burst of production, working towards the Festival deadline. Lotte mentioned other challenges, such as producing the work around her other commitments and considerations with the presentation and invigilation of the work in such a cold, damp place. However, the opportunity to share the work over the 16-day Festival and directly engage with her audience, hearing the stories of local peat cutters and other visitors curious to know what was in the Fish House, made the whole thing worthwhile. Lotte finished by reflecting on what the next steps were for this body of work and her ideas, announcing that she had recently won the Gilchrist-Fisher Award, a biennial prize for artists under 30 who whose work explores the broad theme of landscape.
After a short break, Zoe talked about project bursaries for 2021. Pennie Elfick gave a small presentation about the change of direction in her work in response to receiving similar bursary support. Pennie showed a new body of work at Clayhill Arts during the 2019 Festival, revisiting sculptural pieces which could sit out in the landscape. After contacting Zoe, going through the interview process and then embarking on the new work, Pennie revealed how she had learnt about welding, acquiring new skills which allowed her to develop her ideas. Pennie talked about not being too fixed on an end point, to be flexible, go with the change and don’t be frightened of this.
Each project revealed the personal ambition of the artists’ determination to push their ideas and the physicality of the work as well as the network of support which surrounds us all- project partners, collaborators, families, technicians, curators, confidants, all helping make the difference between an idea remaining on the studio walls and it actually daring to become reality.
Once the attendees had heard about the three projects, the last part of the session provided practical support, looking at a project development template. There were many things to consider, such as how to submit a project proposal, submitting a suitable CV, addressing the opportunity, how to provide supporting images. The practicalities of putting together a coherent proposal and then making sure this was presented in a suitable format were explained- giving the proposal the best chance of being understood by the interviewer, such as fixing word and images into a professionally-formatted PDF document rather than a Word document, as the different elements can ‘shift’ around as the document is shared.
Throughout the session the attendees had chances to ask questions and other issues were discussed such as a realistic timetable for the delivery plan. Zoe took everyone through other areas to consider such as a detailed budget, liability insurance, contracts, emails to evidence what has been agreed and also thinking about partnership work- what does this look like? What about scoping and developing your proposal- do you have the right skills and experience? How do you focus your ideas?
The attendees were left inspired by the creativity and ambition of the projects but also better equipped to start thinking about how their own projects might take shape and understand what support was available to them. The second part of the session had certainly revealed some of the challenges we face as we plan changes to our work, but also how planning and preparation can overcome some of the issues we face as we seek to develop our work, experience and practice.
As we all set off home, back to different parts of the county, it struck me how members had left the isolation of their studios to gather, learn from and support each other and as they returned home I hoped they would now feel more empowered to bring their ideas and dreams closer to realisation.