The First Few Paintings Back In The UK

A week and a day ago I landed back in the UK after a solid 24 hours spent getting taxis and navigating airport transfers and eating weird plane pasta. I was officially back home after spending 3 weeks living remotely in the north east region of Panama as part of La Wayaka Current artist residency.

All in all, the residency was amazing. I experienced things that I still can’t quite put into words and met amazing artists and observed customs and rituals that I will never forget. Whilst this was all great for my soul I was secretly a bit gutted that I didn’t get the opportunity to paint more.

A big part of me says that an artist can create work anywhere and shouldn’t need a designated studio space, the other opposing half says that of course an artist needs space and quiet time and enough natural light to get a composition right.

Whilst the atmosphere and sheer sense of adventure that came with La Wayaka was great (and one of the main reasons I pursued the residency in the first place) it was difficult to set up a studio space there. The wooden floors of the studio/community house were crawling with ants (and occasionally cockroaches) and the humidity meant that any paper left out in the open for any length of time would warp and wither.

Although on the flip side I got to work in an environment of giant hibiscus flowers and fireflies and coconut trees - so it’s difficult to complain.

That being said, it was surpassingly nice to be back at the kitchen table without bugs biting me or kids shouting or a perpetually sweaty face. I think I managed to distill some of the colours and shapes I absorbed in Armila, and made some paintings that I’m quite fond of.

I made ‘Polpo’ and ‘Polpo II’ with the intention of commemorating the memory of the warm salty water of the Caribbean beaches I was lucky enough to visit, with the sheer vibrancy of the Tropics.

What Is An Artist Residency?

I read somewhere once that cultivating inspiration is like keeping a pond filled with fish. Every new idea is equivalent to one of those fish, and each time you take one out, you need to put another one in, replenishing your inspiration pool.

Now I'm sure it doesn't take a genius to figure out that for artists, inspiration is like currency. Creative block is real, and scary, and the only real way to avoid it is to keep up a constant stream of images and experiences that stimulate the creation of ideas. We need an archive of memories and inspiration points to fall back on.

Artist residencies aim to do just that. They provide artists with a place to stay, a studio space (either shared or individual), and usually some sort of collaborative environment that artists so crucially need. Many artist-in-residence programmes have structured artist talks and open studios, to get artists engaged in talking about and showing their work. 

You could think of a residency as an extended work trip for artist, where the objective is to network, develop ideas and try out new techniques.

Structure

Artist residencies tend to straddle two separate ends of a vast spectrum. On the one hand, there's fully funded residencies, during which your accommodation, travel costs, food and unlimited organic teabags are paid for. These are usually offered by established institutions (like a university), or are awarded as part of a competition. Unsurprisingly, they're pretty hard (although not impossible!) to get, especially when you're just starting out. 

On the other hand, there's residencies that are funded entirely by the artist, meaning the artist has to source the funds to pay for travel, accommodation, food, and sometimes an additional residency fee to cover studio and admin costs, through personal savings, a loan, or a government grant. These are often organised by former or working artists, essentially as a small business venture. Participating artists are given a studio space, place to live, and a collaborative community in exchange for a fee. Naturally, the entry requirements for these residencies are lower and less specific, since the organisers are essentially running a business, and leave it up to you to decide whether a residency is a good fit for your career.

Aside from the living and financial structure, the day-to-day structure of residencies varies, too. I've never taken part in a fully funded residency, so I'm by no means an expert, but from what I've read on application forms and entry requirement lists, these seem to be a bit more rigidly structured. Artists are usually expected to donate a piece of work, hold a solo exhibition at the end of their residency, or develop a body of work that's in line with the residency coordinator's ethos. It makes sense, really, since an artists at a funded residency has essentially been hired by the institution to complete a series of work.

Self-funded residencies tend to be more open-ended or 'self-directed'. This means that the artist is free to work on whatever they wish, or for that matter, not produce any work at all. Residency organisers usually take into account the planning time that goes into creating meaningful and substantial work, so offer residency places as a chance for contemplation and concept development. 

Cost

The costs of residencies can vary wildly, especially if they're not in your home country, as travel can start to form a big chunk of the fees. Also, it's worth bearing in mind that fully funded residencies often ask for an application fee upfront. As far as I know, these fees are non-refundable, so whether or not an artist applies for these really comes own to confidence and self-assurance. Of course, if you apply for a funded residency and are lucky enough to be accepted, you could potentially save yourself thousands, but if you're not so fortunate, these application fees can really rack up. That being said, there are still plenty of residencies that are completely free to apply. 

Finding the right residency for you requires a huge amount of effort and intuition. The key questions I keep in mind when vetting potential opportunities are:

 -  Will this residency allow me to experience things I never would at home?

 - Will I produce work or form ideas that could lead to interesting and experimental work in the future?

 - Will I get the chance to meet people who could alter my perceptions of art-making and the world in general?

As such, residencies in remote locations that require me to live with locals and experience the global trends of art-making, usually get my vote. One-week residencies at a local art college - not so much. Evaluate the structure and terms of each residency to determine which is best for you, and whether it will be worth the investment. I've found that, most of the time but not always, residencies in rural locations are less expensive as living conditions are more basic. 

Since my work at the moment seeks to explore the cross-cultural / universal trend of art-making, and I work best in quiet, uninterrupted places, these types of residencies suit me well. Some of the most expensive residencies I've come across are in London, Berlin and New York. Obviously these cities have established art scenes, and could potentially lead to spectacular opportunities and connections you simply wouldn't come across anywhere else. However if you're just starting out, as I am, these are perhaps better saved for further down the line when you have plenty of awards, patrons, and have perfected the art of selling yourself.

Personally I see residencies as investments in my future - like investing in a business course or a masters degree. Spending money on an experience which, from the outside seems like a long holiday, can feel really self-indulgent, and I definitely felt like this after booking my first residency in Iceland. 

This isn't helped by the fact that hardly anyone outside of the art world knows what an artist residency is. Chances are, whatever artistic adventure you decide to embark on, most of the people in your life will be genuinely curious and excited for you, but there will inevitably be people who think you're deluded. Please don't ascribe to the view that residencies are a waste of time, or that they're just long holidays. Just as some people pay hundreds of pounds to attend a business seminar, you're paying to develop your work and network with other artists, which I think is a pretty great investment. 

I don't have much/any money to fall back on (at least not yet), so by no means do I take opportunities lightly. Instead I place a huge amount of focus on using them to channel inspired and adventurous new work.

 

Why It's Worth It

Residencies may seem like a lot of money, but I always go back to that metaphor of the inspiration pool. Whilst visiting galleries and talking to artists in your home town is great, sometimes you need an intense experience to fill up that pool.

Ideas don't just materialise out of nowhere - you need to keep moving and exploring. Day-to-day routine can really kill your inspiration. 

This post is intended to act as a resource for other artists who aren't quite sure what an artist residency is or how they work, so I've tried to be as un-biased as possible, but I can't end the post without saying - my first artist residency changed my life.

Before Iceland I had maybe 0.01% confidence in my ability to be taken seriously as an artist. The concept of having work in a gallery was about as real to me as becoming an astrophysicist overnight, and I carried myself with the continuous anxiety of being labelled with the dreaded word, 'hobbyist'. 

Over the space of 2 months, the glorious independence of travelling alone, and having the physical and mental space to create whatever I wanted, combined to give me a completely new perspective. 

I learned techniques from other artists. I sold my work, and painted my first huge canvas. For the first time I saw artists taking their work seriously. There was absolutely no pressure to work smarter or harder, no judgement or comparison, no anxiety that 'perhaps this is a waste of time and I need to get a job in sales'. 

Shortly after returning to the UK from Iceland, my work was selected as a finalist in the Open Contemporary Young Artist Award 2018. I'm not adding that in just to gloat, but just to illustrate how my mindset and perspective did a complete 180. I went from believing I had no merit as I'm self-taught, to being proactive in getting my work out there and having work in a two-month long group exhibition. 

I gained a sense of confidence I never thought possible. 

Going Off-Grid @ Stiwdio Maelor

For the past week I've been an artist-in-residence at Stiwdio Maelor - a self-directed residency space in Corris, Wales. 

Shamefully, I've lived in Wales on and off for 24 years, but have never really explored the country. The residency is situated just south of Snowdonia National Park, and since visiting Iceland my adventurous spirit has amplified, and I find myself craving wide open spaces, mountains and time in nature.

I've also reached a point in my work where I feel like a change of direction is imminent. Recently I've been painting on larger canvas, become infatuated with clay and ceramics and have been toying with the possibility of attempting sculpture in the future, so thought this residency would be an opportunity for some creative thinking time, rather than actual production. 

So after hauling my over-packed backpack onto two trains and a bus, I arrived in Corris, a small village framed by high-reaching hills and cliffs, covered in pine trees. Of course I've heard that, despite being a small country, the cultures of Wales vary greatly depending on region, but Corris felt like the instant polar opposite of my home down South. 

The village was around 6 miles away from the nearest town. The only cash point was inside the post office (which opened sporadically for a few hours on select days), and there was no shop, except the cafe-cum-corner shop, which stocked a surprisingly vibrant array of snacks and local produce (although this was lovely, most things were a little out of my price range!). However, the residency building was directly next door to the local pub. Every cloud.

Before heading to Corris, in the spirit of constantly challenging myself and simply out of the want to experience a different way of living, I set out to go completely off-grid - no internet, Netflix, make up or straighteners (okay those last two aren't really 'off-grid' but you get my point. I was going back to basics), just plenty of music, podcasts and reading.

 The Maelor building didn't have WiFi (a common trend at artist residencies, I think), so a digital detox seemed to be a given. To add some preemptive spookiness, during the journey my phone's data ran out, even though it was only half way through the month and I usually make it last. I chose to see this as a sign to disconnect, rather than pure bad luck. 

The building itself was very old, and to be honest, a bit run down. The walls were decorated with art donated by previous residents, which I loved, and my bedroom/studio was much bigger than I expected!

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Since this was a micro-residency, I decided not to start a new body of work, or attempt an ambitious new piece, instead taking a lump of air dry clay which I'd use to make pinch pots and practice getting used to handling the medium. On my first night there I made up my pots / dishes in one go, not wanting to risk the opened packet of clay going bad, then left them to dry (for 3-4 days). 

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With my pinch pots steadily drying, no way of wiling away the hours on Instagram, I officially had nothing to do, so set out walking. I've always found that walking is when I get my best ideas, so was excited to fit in some hardcore thinking time. There were loads of walking routes around the village, and I soon got used to the unforgiving hill walks. 

Now I have to admit, about 2 days into the residency, I was completely fed up. I was getting great head space and great creative ideas whilst out walking for most of the day, but for some reason I couldn't sleep. It didn't feel like I was exercising particularly strenuously, but every night I was kept up by insane leg cramps, and the house was just so quiet

Without TV or internet to distract myself, or even any work to be getting on with, I felt like I wanted to keep moving and leave the residency all together. I've realised now this was just due to lack of sleep and frustration with my life in general. I was feeling stuck in my creative work, and this translated to feeling literally feeling stuck when I couldn't sleep and had no way of leaving the village. 

Luckily, the next day was really sunny, which greatly helped my mood, and I decided to take advantage of the good weather and head to Cadair Idris - a popular hiking peak in the Southern portion of Snowdonia National Park. This is where blissful naïveté served me greatly. I'd never hiked a mountain before, or even researched much about the trek, but threw myself in and tackled the climb anyway. I'm so glad I did, as this was the real turning point of the week for me. 

I hiked up via the Minniford Path, apparently the quickest way to the summit, but also the one with the greatest ascent. Since I had never attempted something of this nature before, and since I admittedly cannot read maps, I decided from the outset that I would follow the trail as far as Llyn Cau, a mountain-side lake at the halfway point of the path. 

The first portion of the walk was adjacent to a waterfall and nature reserve that frames the very steep path up through trees and forest. Never before have I felt so sick from exercising as I did after 20 minutes of climbing huge steps. I was wearing proper hiking boots so at least had that practicality on my side, but it became clear that the hike was way more exercise than what I was used to.

I took 1,000 breaks. 10 year old kids passed me. It was tragic.

At that point, still trekking through the forest path (without any mountains yet in sight!) I seriously wanted to turn back. I felt stupid for believing I could hike a mountain having never done it before. I had visions of having to call Mountain Rescue to come get me 200 meters into the trail. But somehow, I kept going, and told myself to just go at my own pace, one step at a time. 

Finally the ground evened out a bit, at a clearing overlooking the waterfall and stream below. There was no one else there, it was amazingly sunny, so I sat there and let my legs recover. Thankfully, after a break, and seeing how small the road was below, and how far I had actually climbed up already, the sense of achivement hit me and I wanted to keep going. 

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After that I got a brand new surge of energy, and it was a further steep climb to curve around the base of the mountain. I was out of the dense forest path and could finally see the ground opening out to create the open space I had originally set out to see, so I decided to embrace my newly hench legs and storm ahead. I even put on a fucking bandanna. There was no stopping me. 

After another 45 minutes or so of hiking, I reached a dip in the ground which lead to the lake. It was so quiet, deliciously breezy, and I managed to navigate the path which was getting steadily more precarious, which of course added to my sense of achievement. 

I soon made it to the small lake. It was so worth it. It looked like a space where water didn't belong. It was so blue and clear, despite sitting at the bottom of a cliff face, and the whole area was serene. I sat there for about an hour - listening to Sigur Rós and eating my makeshift expedition lunch of an avocado smushed into pitta bread. 

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At this point, I realised that most people didn't stop to sit by the lake. Instead they pushed on, curving to the left towards the summit. I know I didn't reach the summit, and maybe they were on a time schedule or something, but all I could think was - what's the point? Why climb a mountain if you're not going to stop to look around? This scenario is blisteringly applicable to everyday life - so many people charge ahead, take their whole environment for granted, to reach the goal at the end, rather than to embrace the journey. At the start of the trek I'd felt down about people charging past me with ease - storming up to the summit, probably just to run back down again (yes, people actually run down for reasons I will never understand), but at that point I no longer cared. I realised that since I struggled so much, I more than likely got much more out of the whole experience. I finished eating my pitta, smugly.

I did toy with the idea of going all the way to the top or Cadair, but my thighs were getting wobbly, and I soon realised that getting down required way more concentration that going up (easier to slip and fall), so decided to cherish my achievement of achieving my goal of reaching Llyn Cau, resist the urge to 'move the goalposts' and push myself further, and headed back down the trail. 

Whilst recapping my expedition over a recovery KitKat and cup of tea at a local cafe, I realised that by the end of the day, my mindset had completely shifted. I'd gone from doubting myself and feeling completely useless, to feeling an immense sense of achievement and feeling like I could do anything.

The next day I walked home from the nearest town, Machynlleth, after going on a hunt for coffee and books. It was about 6 miles - in the rain. I'm an outdoorsy person now.

To be honest the rest of the residency was fairly uneventful, but after my hike up Cadair my mindset was polar opposite to the beginning of the week. I realised that this residency was intended to teach me to stop doubting myself, and to never give up. If I had turned back at the start of the hike, when I was convinced I was not fit enough to reach the lake, I never would've got the confidence and sense of achievement that I realise now I so desperately needed.

Full disclosure, I did cave slightly on the digital detox - after discovering that the cafe down the road from the studio had a pretty strong WiFi connection, I downloaded some things off Amazon Prime to watch when I couldn't sleep ... but I didn't check my messages, emails or Instagram for the entire week. Nor, for better or worse, did I read the news, or read any blog posts / articles, as I usually would so often.

Being able to disconnect like this also allowed me to become profoundly aware of the amount of self-comparison I do via Instagram. For the whole week I didn't feel pressured to get work done, didn't feel less accomplished than anyone else, and frankly, didn't care what anyone else was doing. I'm grateful for deciding to go back to basics, and actually came to appreciate my diet of oats, lentils and crackers & cheese. There's something about just making do and being able to adapt to a completely different situation than what you're used to, that makes you so much more confident about challenges in the future.

I left Maelor, to be honest still not 100% sure about the future direction of my art, but more confident, with a much more positive mindset, and a budding resilience against the pressure of keeping up with everyone else. 

Turns out, hiking, fresh air and no internet can really transform your thinking. Who knew.

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