This bank holiday weekend has seen KIAC, the arts collective that I studio with, taking part in the OpenUp Sheffield event. This is 5 days over two weekends where Sheffield artists give open access to their studios to the public. At KIAC we have 16 artists happy to take part in OpenUp, and have a month long exhibition on our gallery, which should make the studios a popular destination, and certainly helps offset the ‘being stuck in the middle of a factory complex in an industrial hinterland that nobody knows about’ bit that we are constantly facing, as more than one person has commented after persisting against the odds it would seem to find us. Anyway, seem to have managed over 140 visitors over the three days, and it’s been an interesting experience for me, as well I hope as for those intrepid enough to cross the Don in search of art.
The great benefit of opening access to my studio has been the discussions it has led to. In the studio I have the paintings not out in galleries or on exhibition; the ones I am unlikely to show again but have been useful points of development, and the ones I’m working on now. The studio even has three left over unstretchered from my dalliance with linear figurative abstraction in the late 80’s, which one day I’ll get round to hanging. This is as far removed from the careful exhibition selections and sympathetic hanging that most of us hope for when exposing our work, and I suspect that the informality and unmanicured look of the studio and the space it’s in helps visitors to relax. As a result I have received a lot of feedback, both verbal and non-verbal. The non-verbal is easy. People coming in, glancing sideways and carrying on. Never nice to be ignored, but on the other hand none of us will reach everyone with our work, and responding to interest feigned out of politeness is uncomfortable for all parties, so after a couple of times I stopped noticing it.
The verbal feedback I have gained through the discussions I have had certainly justifies, for me, taking part in the event. The effect it will have on my work as it develops remains to be seen but – as it is happening in a period of intense development as I move ‘Industrial’ on – an effect it is sure to have. The response by visitors to the ‘Industrial’ paintings that remain in the studio has been very positive, and through more discussion than I usually get at an opening, has helped me understand the elements of my work that people connect with. This in itself is valuable, identifying those common threads that transcend style and mark the work as one of mine is particularly important as I develop it. I also enjoyed the interest visitors showed in the stories behind the paintings and the inspirations that led to their creation. As a devotee of John Martin since an early age, and an Intentionist, I was also pleased that it’s theatricality was appreciated.With several visitors coming in out of curiosity rather than following the art trial that OpenUp is, I was glad to find that Industrial had resonance with Sheffield’s residents, several of whom appreciated the relationship between the work and the industrial setting it was produced in.
I’ve had some interest in the newer pieces as well. Once again, responses have been useful, though less frequent. This worries me not as the newer work is less coherent, representing 4 strands I have been developing, which I now need to bring back together. I have been exploring abstract, constructive and rayonnist compositions, drawing away from the semi-abstraction of Industrial in search of the energy of the industrial landscape and the people that created and live in it. This process will lead to an exhibition of roughly 40 new pieces, opening in September, and the other benefit of Open Up is that several visitors have gone away interested enough to possibly come to that.
Of course, Open Up managed to coincide with the first sunny weather Sheffield has really experienced this year, and this may have made it less of a draw than the Peak District or the Yorkshire coast over the bank holiday. Open Up will run again next weekend (May 11th-12th) and I am looking forward to more conversations as a result. If you haven’t taken part in Open Up, either as a visitor or an artist, I thoroughly recommend that you do. It’s a very positive and interesting experience from both points of view.
I’ll sign off with a pair of my more recent works. These are two different approaches to tackling the subject of the Woodhead Tunnel. This was built between 1839 and 1852, and claimed 54 lives and 140 serious injuries in the making. It was built to provide a link between the coalfields and heavy industry of South Yorkshire and the Manchester merchants and Liverpool docks.