Considering an artist in residence

  • Categories: Blog
  • Date: 20th June 2012
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I thought I’d step away from wandering around galleries for a moment and have a brief look at what some artists are achieving outside an exhibition space. 
Imagine inviting an artist into your home, school or office, solely to create something unique and relevant. Not necessarily a partnership or a painting project-by-committee, rather one which creates an opportunity: for the artist, to work and learn (and live and eat) and for the ‘patron’, to engage with someone, possibly outside of their groove, who might take a different approach to life and add another dimension. Each might influence the other which may then be reflected in the outcome.

Wendy Murray private commission 2006
acrylic & enamel paint on wallpaper

Private patronage has many benefits for artist and patron alike. Life is meant to be interesting and should be filled with ideas and concepts that take us outside of the daily grind. Creative projects offer this opportunity.
We did it a while ago – in our family home. I met an artist whose work I particularly liked and which I thought could sit well in our home. Wendy Murray came to our home for 3 days, as our artist in residence, to draw and paint and spray-paint on prepared wallpaper, to create a large, site-specific wall piece. Her fee, materials, meals and beverages were covered and in return, we received what I still consider a beautiful artwork unique to our home. It was a particularly memorable experience for our kids and their friends – all of whom still speak with great pride about their involvement (minimal, thank goodness) in the resulting piece. A modest project yes, but with a long and very happy ending. Imagine the breadth of influences from a larger, more ambitious projects.
Sydney Grammar Prep in Edgecliff has a great residency program – the Master Artists Program. A generous anonymous donor bequeathed the funds to the School, for the purpose of bringing writers, poets, musicians, composers and visual artists into the classroom. The expectation is that the artists interact with the boys across all ages (to 12 years old) in the classroom, showcase their skills and develop a project in which everyone can participate either as individuals or as a group. This is not the standard residency program but one which crosses over into instruction and education in an informal way.

Alexander Seton Cats 2008
resin, 23x18x11cm ea
image courtesy the artist and
Sullivan & Strumpf Fine Art, Sydney

Art teacher Janna Tess seeks out artists whose modus operandi can be translated into a classroom situation and, importantly, artists who are happy to talk to lots of kids. The artistic skill set must be balanced with those of communication. The boys have been well nurtured in the art department by such luminaries as John WolseleyDel Kathryn Barton, a group of women from Walpiri (Central desert), Alexander Seton and Darren McDonald
Alex Seton commented that instructing and organising the kids was a “new experience; it was intense and challenging but thoroughly enjoyable and rewarding.” His art practice is fairly industrial, so it was pretty unrealistic to expect him to teach the kids how to carve Carrara marble. His approach was to create a project which was rooted in the elements and interests of his practice but was wholly achievable by groups of young boys, over a couple of weeks. They made huge inflatable creatures from recycled plastic bags. Janna’s recollection of the project is one of pure joy, seeing these large fantastical creatures, puffed into life with a generator, float and waft across playground. 
The idea is not necessarily to meet the particular needs of the curriculum but to enliven it. It is to stimulate creativity in the classroom and introduce contemporary practices to young minds. For the teachers, they find it equally as stimulating and refreshing, keeping their teaching methods fresh and new. 

Darren McDonald Wielding the willow 2010
oil on canvas

image courtesy the artist and 
Scott Livesey Galleries, Melbourne

In this Program the artists are paid a fee and, should they be from out of town and around for a duration (say 2 weeks), they can stay in nearby accommodation. At the end of the residency, an artwork by the artist is bought for the School’s permanent collection. Whoever set this program in motion for the School had great foresight into its potential benefits and influences, for boys, teachers and artists alike. 
Along similar lines, with public funds, is the artists in public schools initiative, set up as a joint venture between 
the state governments and the Australia Council. The process and the outcome though seem to be less fluid and fairly curriculum/ policy driven, which is to be expected I guess.
As I blog, Alex Seton is enroute to another residency, this time in upstate NY. Art Omi International Artist Residency selects up to 30 artists from world wide to “gather in rural NY state to experiment, collaborate and share ideas” for 3 weeks in July. 
Art Omi began as the vision of a major art enthusiast and philanthropist, Francis Greenburger, as a way to find meaningful connections with artists internationally; to circumvent the frustrations of international politics and develop a positive international discussion based on cultural perspectives. Lofty ideals but a great point to start with and test drive. It is cross-artforms, with artists working alongside other invited writers, musicians and dancers. Art Omi is also realistic in its approach, aiming to assist serious artists find a solid professional way forward: that what they are doing is not and should not be perceived as hobbyist or extraneous, rather as meaningful and significant contributions to a broader international community. Creative opportunities are balanced with critical appraisals from the Critic-in-Residence and introduction to professionals and experts in the field (gallerists, other artists, critics). This is good old-fashioned art patronage at its best – generous, long term, ambitious and engaged. 
Such patronage is also thriving in Malaysia. Architect Hijjas Kasturi and his Australian-born wife Angela have developed and manage 2 artist residency programs, one on a large estate just outside of KL, the other in Penang. Their first venture and main estate Rimbun Dahan began about 18 years ago and was born of a desire to establish positive cultural exchanges between Malaysia and Australia. It was about the time of Keating and Mahathir contretemps and we all remember that famous jibe: relations were strained. The program at Rimbun Dahan is well resourced and organised: artists are invited for a 12 month stay with accommodation, a stipend and travel support. A solo exhibition is scheduled for the end of the residency period, in the Underground Gallery (onsite) and a couple of works are purchased for the Kasturi personal collection. Currently Jonathon Nichols is in residence and from what I’ve heard, is having a fabulous (and productive) time.
I heard about Rimbun Dahan from Thornton Walker, a Melbourne- based painter who lived there about 16 years ago. He has also recently just returned from a residency at Hotel Penaga in Penang, the Kasturi’s 2nd residency venture. It is designed around a more informal and flexible program, offering a 6 week stay, but retaining the same sense of generosity and support as Rimbun Dahan. 

Thornton Walker surrounded by his work, in the studio at Hotel Penaga

Thorton Walker Georgetown V 2012
watercolour, ink & acrylic on paper, 76x56cm
image courtesy of the artist

On this recent trip to Penang, Thornton went with no preconceived notions or expectations of outcomes. I wanted to be completely open to new influences and subject matter during my time at Penaga as the artist in residence; to absorb the rich culture in Penang and respond to it as best I could, in the studio. After exploring the town for a week, what stayed with me were the old faded photographs of faces I saw on temple and clan house walls. They resonated for me as a window into the past, a nostalgic glimpse of a rich culture. I decided to do my best to recreate this feeling in paint. I took snap-shots of these photographs, often out of focus and partly obscured with reflections on their glass frames, and then set about interpreting them in watercolor, ink, acrylic and oil paint. Thornton Walker, 2012, on Hotel Penaga website

Thorton Walker Georgetown IV 2012
watercolour, ink & acrylic on paper, 76x56cm
image courtesy of the artist

Watercolour blots and softens the past. The portraits become romantic and intriguing, suggestive of alluring foreign lands and times, rather than records of particular individuals. The over-layed details of the ficus plant and bunch of lychees, so common in Penang, haul the works back into the present. The calligraphy is pure chinese, beautiful in its graphic feel but, in this context, absurd and out of place – lychees in heavy syrup! These portraits lure us in, though with tongue-in-cheek, toying with our own desire for the exotic.

And, beyond remaining just new work within a respected artist’s career, these works add to the tolerance and understanding of another culture – from both sides of the fence. 

Now all that is required is a residency in an equally enchanting location for well-meaning bloggers. 
I am taking a short break from blogging over the next couple of weeks. But you, dear reader, need not pause in your pursuit of meaningful art: there is so much going on. Check these out ….
The 18th Biennale of Sydney All our relations opens next week and looks bigger, brighter and better than before. In tandem is SafARI, presenting emerging artists during the Biennale.
The Commercial opens, a new gallery venture for Amanda Rowell; Ken Unsworth is at William Wright Artists’ Projects and Alfredo & Isabel Aquilizan: In-Habit: Project Another Country open at Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation
Go forth and enjoy.

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