Artist residency programs come in all shapes and sizes. From those that provide a chance to escape from the normal stresses and pressures of daily life solely to focus on creating art, to research residencies enabling artists to undertake further reading on a specific topic, to collaborative residencies which focus on the interaction with fellow artists, and many others. But few focus on enabling the interaction between artist and public, like the artist residency at Great Art in Shoreditch London.
As somebody who has been used to working in my own art studio in Wimbledon Art Studios for nearly three years, or at home, I am one of those people who loves the solitude of creating artwork. When creating new work, I’m most often found at the end of headphones playing music – from the upbeat to classical and rock and everything in between. It’s all about me – my mood and my emotions, my connection to the paint, my seeing of the light, my interaction with the materials. It’s a very inward focused experience. And most often, that’s the way I prefer to work. For me, true creative work fundamentally needs solitude. Otherwise, how do you notice and hear the direction in which your intuition takes your work?! It’s focus, it’s flow and it’s being alone in the moment with the spark that ignites when we create something new.
As a nature inspired artist, I’m often asked if I paint outdoors or plein-air. Painting outside conjures images of painting watercolours on an easel with passer-by’s free to look at what I’m doing and how I’m doing it. With strangers able to pass judgment, offer their unsolicited opinion, or maybe even praise. Nothing fills me with more dread than this idea. And so I have avoided working outside in the real world for years. But slowly, things have changed…. As I strive to incorporate more of the natural world into my work, I am met more and more by people when creating my artwork. I meet people when I collect plants and leaves, people notice me with curiosity doing graphite rubbings of interesting textures, and they might glance at me when I’m taking photographs of seemingly random things that interest no one but me. Often, I feel a sense of embarrassment when I notice people noticing me doing those things because let’s face it, they are not particularly normal. It’s not “normal” for a grown adult to be picking leaves off the ground for an unknown reason. It’s not “normal” for an adult to be doing graphite rubbings of rocks and bark. And it’s not “normal” to be taking photos of puddles and ditches, and rain drenched train windows.
It’s this obsession with normality that I continue to struggle with as I become more me and fully immerse myself in my art. We spend years growing up trying to not stand out and trying to be “normal” and not draw attention to ourselves. But as Maya Angelou so eloquently put it, “if you’re always trying to be normal, you will never know how amazing you can be.”
And so, over the past few years, I have started having looking up and taking my headphones off. When somebody asks me what I’m doing, I have started answering honestly. Mostly… I’m an artist, and I’m making art. Or I’m an artist and I’m getting inspiration. Or I’m an artist and I’m gathering elements to incorporate into my artwork.
You can guess what’s next, I’m sure… It turns out that interacting with people in this way is not as scary as I initially had thought. People are mostly curious and intrigued. Even if a bit bemused. But they are rarely judgmental or negative. And yet, even as I’ve grown more comfortable interacting with others while doing some art, I am still reluctant to have an audience.
My reluctance will be challenged over the next two days as I complete my artist residency at the Great Art Superstore in Shoreditch in East London. You see, the artist residency experience there is very much front facing. There is no closed off studio, no hidden away room, no quiet dark corner to work in alone unseen and unheard. The workspace is right by the windows. It’s in the store. There is no hiding. Anyone can walk by and look at what I’m doing. They can engage me in conversation. And I have promised myself that I’ll do my best to engage them back. I hope that this interaction while creating my artwork will help make it richer. More meaningful. More impactful. Normally when I’m creating artwork, my focus is on the materials drying too slowly or too fast and I put a lot of pressure on myself about creating spontaneity and working quickly, not to miss the serendipity that paint can create when no one is looking. But this time, I want to take my time. To be thoughtful and to talk to people who want to talk to me. And to learn from them.
The focus of our conversations? Art of course! But also nature - a topic that is very dear to me. Specifically, I’d like to lean more about how we all carve out little interactions with nature in an urban environment. As somebody who worked in the City area of London for nearly 9 years in an office environment, I often found myself searching out green spaces. Be it some greenery in a church yard, or a little garden space, or further up in the gardens of the Geffrye Museum or even along the Regent’s Canal. It’s finding those green spaces that helped keep me calm and gave me peace during difficult moments. As part of my artist residency, I want to better understand how others create their own connection with nature in a busy city such as London. It can be as simple as having a favourite tree (I did – it is a specific sweet gum tree right by Liverpool Street station that had the most amazing autumn colour leaves), or embracing additional green planting areas that are springing up in the city, or maybe seeking out open areas to be able to see some green grass or flowers, or strolling through a plant shop, or making a pilgrimage to Columbia Road Flower Market, or even simply noticing the publicly planted green hedges and other small green spaces and gardens in London.
And with that in mind, I say, let’s talk! Let’s talk about art, let’s talk about nature, and let’s talk about how we all carve out moments of peace and connection with the natural world when we can, even in busy urban environments. Thank you to the amazing team at Great Art for making this artist residency happen! I’m delighted and looking forward to learning more from you all!