Surviving or Thriving? How visual artists in Yorkshire respond to being called ‘resilient’

Sam Read, work included in exhibition with Craig David Parr at GLOAM Gallery. Image credit: James Clarkson

This text was produced as part our first collaborative publication with Yorkshire & Humber Visual Arts Network. It also features alongside contributions by Kerry Harker, Sarah Smizz and Thomas Hopkin in a print publication designed by dust collectiveResilience is Futile (launch on 1 August at The Art House Wakefield, 6-8pm – details here).

Introduction

I approached this residency by asking artists how they define ‘resilience’,1 particularly when they have been nominated by a peer as being exemplary of this austerity-era buzzword. One artist’s interpretation of resilience is different from the next, and may also be radically different from how funders, NPOs, institutions and the government define it in the arts and other sectors. Through a series of interviews, I observed individual characteristics and strategies that enable artists to survive and continue to make work with ever-reducing funding, opportunities and resources. Are there trends and commonalities in these practices or are they as fundamentally unique as the practitioners? Is the connectivity of a network critical to survival?

The research was designed to map a sample group of visual artists in Yorkshire, looking at the notion of ‘one degree of separation in the art world’ using chain-referral methodology. This involved ‘snowball sampling’, wherein I asked practitioners to recommend an artist or artists who they thought of as resilient in some way. They in turn recommend another artist or artists using the same criteria of resilience. The three starting points for recommendations were: YVAN’s Nourish event in Wakefield,2 the April edition of Art Lab at Dean Clough in Halifax, and artist Smizz’s recommendation of one of their own case studies, the Sheffield studio group WOMP. The geographic spread of the resultant recommendations is unsurprisingly South/West Yorkshire-centric, and says something of the proximity of communities and networks.

Each artist interviewed artist was a new contact for me and our interview was the first time we met. After I explained the context of the project and the output (this publication), each interviewee was invited to talk about their practice and how they make it work for them. What are their survival strategies? There is a very open and generous nature to these interviews, during which artists shared a lot of personal information and generously gave of their time. This went beyond a superficial kind of profiling, perhaps due to their desire to talk about challenges they face in sustaining their practices, and my reciprocal interest in hearing about them.

Bryan Tweddle

I visited Bryan in his studio — a large mill unit in Sowerby Bridge — and it was immediately apparent that he needs a lot of space for his large-scale sculptural work. With some humour he described himself as a ‘creative interventionist’, confessing that it’s taken him a while to feel comfortable with the label ‘artist’. In his own words, he is ‘a sculptor, designing and making for theatre, opera, ballet, street performance, television, film, animation, educational projects, exhibition and carnival’. He has a collaborative approach and observes that working in theatre is particularly collaborative, requiring several people with specific roles to work together to make the performance happen. The connectivity Bryan has with theatre networks has had a significant impact on his practice, which started with a chance encounter with Artistic Director David Wheeler that resulted in his working for IOU, a producing arts organisation based at Dean Clough in Halifax, for the following fifteen years.

We talked about pivotal and serendipitous moments — the chance encounters that have defined Bryan’s practice: ‘Everything leads to something else in one way or another’. He has a strategy of rarely applying for anything but is very open to new collaborations and taking on anything ‘if it’s got legs’, making an assessment of viability based on his knowledge and experience. We talked about success and he explained that, for him, it means accomplishing what he sets out to achieve or even more than he expected. This ability to recognise potential in the unexpected is part of his resilience. Bryan is also determined to ‘keep doing things’, what he likens to keeping an engine oiled. His practice comprises many different compartmentalised activities, which fosters cross pollination. The lull between shows or projects can be problematic and he recognises the important role of collaboration and external briefs — of being around other practitioners to keep him buoyant — to mitigate stagnation and creative block.

Bryan talked about the importance of finding day jobs that are not creatively draining. In the years after leaving art college he took jobs that gave him time and thinking freedom to pursue ways of working as an artist. One exception was when he worked as a teacher for a few years, which tipped the balance but equipped him with skills that became invaluable much later when planning and leading workshops as one strand of his practice. Looking at his career history, it’s clear that Bryan’s adaptability is at the core of what he has achieved. Beyond chance encounters, his ability to collaborate with dedication and attention to detail allows him to make the most of opportunities as they present themselves. These skills and his enjoyment in serendipity seem to be an intrinsic part of how he has established and developed his practice.

WOMP/ Hannah Lamb & Lucy Lound

WOMP is a studio group and artist residency space in Sheffield run by Hannah Lamb and Lucy Lound. They set up the residency in response to an identified need for artists to have a dedicated space and time to practice outside of the pressures of everyday life. Their roles involve creating the infrastructure and facilitating the residency in order for artists to make the most of their time. The residency focus is less on maximum productivity or working flat-out and more on providing nurturing space and support. Some form of public outcome is encouraged and self-care is a central concern.

Image credit: WOMP

In early correspondence with each selected artist, WOMP shares Sheila Ghelani’s ‘Checklist of Care’ for the artist to consider before embarking on the residency.3 This includes questions such as, ‘Will engaging in this activity /event /performance / ‘act’ be nourishing and full of care?’, and apply to the artists themselves as well as others, the environment and society in general. Hannah and Lucy’s support roles, extending beyond the basics of providing a working space, including accommodating the artist at their home, cooking for them, showing them around the city and daily conversations centred around each artist’s needs. This provides a considerate and nurturing space where basic needs are met, allowing them
to focus on their work.

Hannah and Lucy both have full time jobs alongside running the studios and artist residencies, as well as maintaining their own practices. They received £4,000 from Sheffield Culture Consortium’s Making Ways programme for their three-part residency programme, but neglected to include a budget to cover their own time in the application. Recent graduates of Sheffield Hallam University, they didn’t realise it was possible to include their wages as expenditure. Whilst they’re chalking that one up as an important learning experience, they recognise that burnout is a potential outcome
of maintaining all their commitments.

The residency programme was in the final stages when we met and, whilst Hannah and Lucy hadn’t had a moment to sit down together to evaluate the programme at the time of writing, our conversation revealed their acute awareness of the precariousness of their current circumstances. Planning for future projects, they’re identifying accessibility and sustainability as key focus areas. Their critical concern for self-care as a modus operandus seems like an excellent survival strategy — as long as they don’t neglect themselves in the process. Their self-reflexivity and tenacity, evident in our initial meeting, convinced me they would find a way to make it work.

Jane Revitt

Jane is a Hebden Bridge-based artist and designer whose bespoke Talking Chairs I had encountered before our first meeting. We began by talking about connections, both the connectivity of the sector and the organic processes that led her to her current practice. She knows Bryan Tweddle (see previous) through IOU, a job that originally brought her to West Yorkshire. Her practice is collaborative and living in the creatively vibrant town of Hebden Bridge works well for her. It’s the kind of place where you bump into people, many of whom are creative practitioners, on the street, shop or cafe for impromptu conversations, and there is a perceivable enthusiasm for supporting one another and their town.

Residing in a small, well connected community is an effective survival strategy. It allowed Jane to outsource the complicated fabrication of her Talking Chairs for Chester Zoo. She approached Wood and Wire, a local company who make quality bespoke kitchens, who advised on the wood for the project and then agreed to construct the chairs. Jane also sought paint advice from a local mechanic who spray painted them with durable, weather-resistant paint. This skill of recognising and seeking out expert advice on materials or processes is made easier by having experienced tradespeople on her doorstep.

Jane Revitt, Enrichment Chair

Jane’s practice spans visual theatre, literary and poetry projects, curating, furniture and textile design (‘Who knew tea towels would be so popular?!’). When the recession hit in 2008 and jobs and funding drastically diminished, Jane saw her two main choices as either to upscale with larger-budget projects or downscale and become more self-sustainable. Due to personal circumstances she chose to downscale, to become more selective with the work she takes on and pursue a small-scale commercial shop model that showcases her best-selling products (such as tea towels).
Her commercial line of work now brings an unexpectedly regular stream of income she can rely on. Meanwhile, bigger, more demanding projects have become more infrequent. Jane’s case made me wonder whether an artist’s success is based on an innate adaptability, or whether their circumstances condition them to be so (perhaps a little of both).

Nuala Poe

Nuala wasn’t sure why her friend Marie had identified her as resilient, but it quickly became clear to me at her house and studio in Mytholmroyd. Our conversation began with Tracey Emin, whose work had created a heated debate at the Art Lab session (also where Marie recommended Nuala). Emin was the subject of Nuala’s dissertation for a degree that she was persuaded to embark on by her access course tutor, artist Mary Loney. Nuala has always drawn and made work as a form of self-therapy but finds the language and elitism surrounding art difficult to engage with, so was initially reluctant to enter into formal art education. She cites Emin as a major influence in making work about personal narrative and survival during her degree.

Nuala’s home is beautiful and filled with her art. Her cat Ronnie watched on nonchalantly as we pored over her sketchbooks of intricate biro portraits and Nuala told me about how most of the work in her cellar was destroyed in the Boxing Day floods that devastated the Calder Valley in 2015. Only a few of her sketchbooks survived (with water damage) and her kiln was destroyed. Some of her ink drawings have taken on a new life with blurred, colour-separated lines and Nuala commented on these and her relationship to them. Marie told Nuala that she recommended her due to her strength and adaptability to survive, whatever life throws at her. A flooded cellar is a recent devastation but Nuala is also a survivor of childhood abuse. Her work is a way of continually channelling her thoughts and processing issues — a strategy she has employed since childhood, unknowingly at the time.

Nuala Poe, She gave him a doormat to show him the difference between that and woman

Nuala has exhibited in group and solo exhibitions over the years, has had gallery representation and enjoys the external validation of selling work, but still doesn’t feel at ease in the art scene. She’s previously sold small-scale homeware editions but she found it difficult to meet demands and decided that commercial product lines are not really for her. Ultimately, her heart’s not in it. Nuala talked about working from the heart versus a profit-driven business model and taking a conscious decision to work a cleaning job to free her from the pressure to produce financially viable work.

Despite her modesty, Nuala’s humble self-awareness and strength are palpable. She suffers from imposter syndrome and has insecurities about people thinking she’s ‘talking crap’. She counters this by actively trying not to worry about what other people think and avoiding being a people pleaser (a ‘victim thing’, she says). Listening to her instincts is her core strategy. ‘Don’t attach yourself to expectations and allow things to just happen’, she advises, whilst admitting that this is ‘easier said than done when the overwhelming urge is to be in control’.

Sam Read

Sam hates the term ‘resilience’. It sums up austerity, he says; the neoliberal rhetoric of a divisive, government-led tendency to batten down the hatches and focus on self-preservation in the face of Brexit and worsening social inequality. He’s done his time in fundraising and curating roles, and avoids using ‘corporate speak’, where words like resilience are used alongside phrases such as ‘diversifying revenue streams’. Sam used to introduce himself as an artist-educator but found there was a lot of snobbery in the art world around the ‘educator’ part, which was often undervalued by institutions. Originally from the East Midlands, he decided to move from Leicester to Sheffield (whilst continuing to work in Nottingham) because he liked the culture of the larger city. He moved into GLOAM studios and later joined the collective Retro Bar, identifying the support and solidarity that comes with being part of a collective as vitally important. Having the studio space is also necessary for him (even if he has to wear thermals because there’s no heating through the winter), something he likens to having a gym membership: if you’re paying for it then you have to go.

Sam talked about making the choice to avoid an institutional career and becoming a ‘jobbing artist’,4 taking up a part-time job as a cleaning supervisor. For him, working a full-time day job and maintaining an art practice is just not feasible. He muses about a utopian Universal Basic Income for artists, in contrast to the difficult reality of having to make a living somehow. Sam outlines the options as he sees them: the boredom of invigilation roles (unless you are permitted to read on the job); the anxiety of relying on freelance work to pay the bills; or the misery of unskilled, barely-above-minimum-wage jobs. He does value the regular income of his day job, and being able to choose which and how many paid art roles he takes on, but there’s a sense that the situation is still suboptimal. He also mentions the stigma of artists working low-paid day jobs, as if they are not successful enough to secure jobs matched to their level of expertise (made worse by the scarcity of skilled art sector jobs), with employers unaware of the negative impact working hours can have on creative practice.

Critical theory plays an important role in Sam’s practice and he’s written a lot of notes in preparation for our conversation. He’s suspicious of the funding systems and finds it ironic that funders are reluctant to take risks on applicants while at the same time expecting applicants to take all the risks. His recent attempts at securing professional development funding have been unsuccessful, so he is focussing on more DIY and collaborative projects. This strategy seems to be working: ‘Now I’ve stopped chasing funding I’ve been the busiest yet’.

Sam tells me about his current project, Neo-Grotesk Realism, which melds his interests in feudal history and technology. He says he might put out an open call for collaborators, which he does shortly after our meeting. Sam is impassioned when talking about his Neo-Grotesk Realism ideas and apologises after ‘going off on one’ but this is inspiring and revealing of his current interests. Aside from the practicalities of surviving as an artist — of making deliberate, conscious choices to afford himself time, space and networks — he recognises appreciation and recognition from his peers as essential for maintaining and developing his practice.

Mandy Payne

Visual art is Mandy’s second career after spending decades as an NHS paediatric dental practitioner in deprived areas of Yorkshire. She nearly did an art degree (and also considered architecture), as she enjoyed both art and science A Levels, but her dad, a scientist, advised her to get a ‘proper job’. Despite this, parental influence, Mandy took art classes and, encouraged by her tutor, enrolled part time on a three-year HND at Sheffield College. Realising that art was actually what she wanted to do, Mandy then enrolled on a part-time BA at Nottingham University. She planned her exit from dentistry for many years, gradually building up her arts practice. She worked hard to pay off her mortgage so that when she finally quit the NHS in 2012 to work as a full time artist, she was able to live on a less consistent income.

Mandy has lived in Sheffield for thirty years and is inspired by urban landscape, gentrification and Brutalist architecture. During her art degree she became ‘mildly obsessed’ with Park Hill — making daily visits as an unofficial artist in residence. The architecture inspires her paint and print works on concrete. Mandy began using dental plaster and concrete, set in crude wooden batons and mixing the concrete by hand. She sought advice at a Preston-based workshop where she learned techniques such as making vinyl moulds and using an electric kitchen mixer to increase mixing speed. The dentistry skills she practised for decades have been a source of inspiration and, as it turns out, very transferable. Mandy conveys with a wry fondness that during her twenty-three years in the NHS she has built up a lot of resilience. The job was physically and emotionally stressful and she has developed a tendency to find something positive in a situation even when things don’t go to plan.

Mandy Payne, Aylesbury Estate

Mandy is thankful for her support network of friends and family as well as her collective activities with other artists, which range from sharing lifts and ordering materials in bulk, to DIY, self-organised group exhibitions. She’s in the process of preparing for a solo exhibition at Huddersfield Art Gallery in the Autumn which she’s finding quite daunting with the focus solely on her and without the group dialogue. Mandy received an Arts Council grant for the show, which she reveals is largely thanks to curator and arts consultant Matt Roberts supporting her through the grant application process. She was put in touch with Roberts through a Making Ways small grant for the Sheffield City of Makers: Confluence Exhibition
(15–27 October 2018), and consequently signed up to his membership programme. He helped Mandy through the onerous grant application, especially to make sense of the sometimes oblique language of the funding world. He prepared her to expect three failed attempts so Mandy was delighted to be successful the first time around. Her solo exhibition of concrete paintings and stone lithographs Out of Time will be on show at Huddersfield Art Gallery from 5 October until 30 November 2019.

Claye Bowler

Claye is in their third and final year of a textiles degree at the University of Huddersfield and when we meet they’re busy preparing for their final degree show. We meet in their shopfront studio space in Huddersfield town centre, also known as KiN studio collective, part of the East Street Arts empty-space network. Claye is a KiN studio member but appears to be the only artist currently using the space. Initially rent free, they have now been asked to pay rent on the unit but Claye has negotiated occupancy until the end of their degree.

Claye’s work spans the academic divisions of textiles and fine art and they are currently making sculptural forms in response to collections and archives of queer and trans histories. They speak positively about their choice to undertake a formal qualification in textiles as a way to learn technical aspects such as colour theory, but the journey has not been without its challenges. They have had to develop additional skills, such as plaster and cement casting, individually and with the help of artist friends. Choosing to work with less traditional textile materials has also meant that they’ve had to purchase materials that would have otherwise been supplied as part of the course. They have learned to be self-reliant, well supported by a network of friends and colleagues at Yorkshire Sculpture Park where Claye works (they know Sam Read and Hannah Lamb from working there).

During their second-year placement, Claye worked as an unpaid intern with a London wedding dress designer specialising in lace. They describe this unpaid internship as basically slave labour: nine hours of hand embroidery a day, for months, just to get a reference. After quickly realising this ‘opportunity’ was counterproductive and elitist, available only to those with access to private funding, Claye embarked on a self-directed internship, visiting up to ten exhibitions a day in central London. They say the University has generally been supportive of their approach, despite repeated requests for gender neutral toilets not being addressed, and they are consistently achieving high grades.

Having had a taste of life in London, Claye much prefers Yorkshire and access to open, neutral spaces like the moors for walking and making work in. Occasionally they feel a need for an industrial-strength dose of art so they visit London and power through twenty-four exhibitions in two days. However, the daily constitutional of walking and taking care of their emotional wellbeing is a greater priority. Their dream is to move to a two-bedroom house in Marsden and run artist residencies or retreats in the spare room. The financing of this brilliant sounding project has not yet been ironed out and, understandably, there are more immediate deadlines to meet. Claye acknowledges that they will need a rest after this intense period making for the final degree show and I’m grateful they’ve made time to talk to me about their practice in the midst of it all.

Conclusion

This small group of case studies feels like just the start of a more comprehensive piece of work. The research phase was very short and the brief was for a ‘snapshot’, not a complete mapping of the diversity of the visual arts sector in Yorkshire and the Humber. However, this snapshot exemplifies a large percentage of artists who are not represented by major institutions in the regions. Whilst major institutions have been mentioned in interviews, they are more often in the context of employment in non-artist roles than for showcasing their work as artists. When we talk about the ‘resilience’ of the visual arts sector, major institutions are notably absent.

Instead, the survival of individual artists seems largely dependent on collaboration and peer networks. It also seems that within an apparently nepotistic sector there is also an altruism of non-expectant generosity that reverberates through the networks.5 These interviews map a kind of micro network within the visual arts sector, and were made possible by the generosity of artists’ time, expertise and recommendations. The connectivity of this sector is complex and ever changing, but there is a strong sense that our survival depends more on each other than the funding bodies whose remit is to support artists.

Support, appreciation and recognition from peers and tutors are commonly cited as necessary to the survival of arts practice. Mandy and Nuala specifically mention their tutors’ encouragement as pivotal in their trajectories and Sam identifies peer validation and collaboration as being primary factors in his continued development. Seeking out expertise and different kinds of support within networks is frequently discussed, expanding artists’ capability and capacity. Especially for artists who have a more self-directed practice, awareness of and connectivity with these networks emerges as a form of self-care. Peer-led, reciprocal support helps to meet a range of emotional, practical and developmental needs that would not be met otherwise, and is essential to a surviving (if not thriving) art sector.

The subject of financial sustainability inevitably comes up in each interview, but often in the context of affordable studio spaces, compromising on materials, and working around the time constraints of day jobs. Taking the decision to work a day job to free practice from financial worries and pressure to make commercially viable work is one strategy (e.g. Nuala and Sam), however, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach and some arrangements work better at different times for different artists. Mandy and Bryan both quit their day jobs to concentrate on full-time practice. For Hannah and Lucy of WOMP, day jobs are currently taking up too much of their time and energy, but they are at early stage of career and more choices may well open up to them.

The places where artists live and work, and their ability to access local networks seems integral: Jane’s access to tradespeople in Hebden Bridge; Sam’s move to Sheffield to be part of a bigger city of makers; and Claye’s day job at Yorkshire Sculpture Park, which provides an informal artist-invigilator peer network, all serve as examples. It’s possible these artists would survive in any environment due to their open approach and adaptability, but it’s clear that they are thriving because of their environment and networks.

My ‘snowball sampling’ approach has allowed new relationships to form; I’ve shared Sam’s Neo-Grotesk Realism call for collaboration and asked my local network to recommend research sites in Huddersfield for Mandy’s upcoming exhibition. Now that I have a good understanding of their practices I can signpost them, add them to my existing networks and perhaps call on their expertise in the future. The generosity of platforming and supporting each other sustains us and gives us agency when there is limited or non-existent support elsewhere. Transcending nepotism by extending generosity beyond our immediate networks (on the basis that we’re all in the same boat, struggling to stay afloat), is our collective strategy of care. ‘Resilience’ in the visual arts, then, might be better defined as self-reflexive adaptability within supportive networks, bolstered by the serendipity of non-expectant generosity. Or in other words, everything leads to something else in one way or another.

Alice Bradshaw is an artist, curator, writer and serial collaborator based in Elland, West Yorkshire. She was the YVAN/C8 writer-in-residence, part of the Corridor8 2019/20 writing residency programme funded by Arts Council England.


1. Resilience: (1) the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties; toughness. (2) the ability of a substance or object to spring back into shape; elasticity (Oxford English Dictionary Online)

2. One recommended artist didn’t respond (which is perhaps a form of resilience in itself, in terms of workload management) and one cooperative studio group responded very tardily due to their administrative process, and in the end was unable to participate within the publication timeframe.

3. Will I be looked after? Will I get paid? If travelling where will I sleep? What will I eat? When will I eat? Will I be fed or is it self-catering? Will I get per diems? Will I feel safe? Who will I be hanging out with? Can I bring someone with me? If something goes wrong who do I contact and what is my exit strategy? Do I have any special health needs at the moment and will they be catered for? Have I informed anyone connected to the activity about these needs? Will there be any language barriers?/ How can these be overcome? Am I insured — health, belongings, public liability Have I got a contract? What press/PR will I be expected to do and does this feel ok? Where is the funding coming from? What’s the overall environmental cost? What do I know about the location / area in terms of human rights / politics? What do I know about the organisation? https://sheilaghelani.blogspot.com/2017/10/checklist-of-care.html

4. An artist who changes their practice to fit the project brief and who is continually seeking public funding.

5. I visualise this as a rhizome structure with the lateral roots and shoots of non-expectant generosity growing outwards and sometimes taking root. The main stem of the artist’s core practice continues to grow upwards (given the right conditions for growth) and the roots and shoots may lead to nowhere or may develop into a stolon (a creeping horizontal stem or runner that takes root at points along its length to form new plants) of new activity or opportunity for growth.

 

Published 30.07.2019 by Lara Eggleton in Explorations

4,833 words