Today I attended a symposium on Dirty Practice, at the Arena Theatre in Wolverhampton, run by the Wolverhampton School of Art. This symposium was a culmination of a three-day art workshop open to art practitioners, academics and students. I couldn’t attend the workshop but I could just about take a day off the treadmill of children and work for the symposium. I nearly didn’t make it thanks to a poorly child. But I’m so glad I did, not just because of the fabulous lunch at Zuri Coffee which was divine. But because of the papers that were presented, the thought they provoked and the resulting discussion towards the end of the day.
I’m not going to go into detail about all of the themes of the day, of which there were many. Although two presentations stand out for me: Andrew Bracey and Elizabeth Wright talking about (and demonstrating) the idea that ‘the doing of thinking is not a hands free conversation’ which was essentially about the benefits of kinetic learning and how the hands may actually guide the brain, rather than visa versa. Also, Holly Crawford’s obscurely titled ‘Ants on a Shrimp, Thoughts’ for which Holly read out, or invited members of the audience to read out, snippets of a narrative taken directly from a short video written on postcards. The narrative (or the chosen phrases from it) were relevant to the age-old creative dilemmas of lack of confidence and self-identity. Some were oddly relevant to the people to which they were given (I had ‘Normal persons do not understand what we’re doing’ – that fear bugs the hell out of me all the time – and ‘Whatever’ which perhaps is the best response to the former).
Both presentations were utterly brilliant (as were the others). I have always been a kinetic learner. I’ve always been bedeviled (no irony intended) with a need to fiddle constantly. I hate that people think if you doodle, fiddle or play you aren’t listening. and Andrew Bracey and Elizabeth Wright’s presentation gave me some affirmation that I am normal. Holly’s bizarre yet effective way of expressing an idea was engaging and amusing. I’m going to keep the postcards I caught and picked up off the ground to give me hope on days when the ideas don’t flow.
However, the day’s thought and discussion in its entirety gave me the chance to think about my own working practice and reflect on whether I make the most of the ‘studio’ space and what it might mean to me to engage in ‘dirty practice’. There was a lot of talk about the studio environment and how it has changed in the digital age and the age of social engagement. It has also evolved to account for the modern not-quite-yet-post-capitalist notion of a degree as consumption for future economic gain rather than as personal exploration for exploration’s sake. These essential questions were oft asked: how is the studio perceived by those who use it and how does it function for them?
Since I began my rather late art education I have been given the opportunity to have a studio space. Firstly, at Shrewsbury College of Art and Technology. Here, between four people we were given a huge room with lots of white walls to fill with art. The result? Nobody put much, if any, art on the walls. I don’t quite know why. We all worked hard. We all fulfilled the criteria for the course. But for a long time, we didn’t fully utilise the space given to us. I don’t think we ever really did. We didn’t realise how lucky we were (sadly, we were the last students to take the course – no explanation needed). Then, last year at Wolverhampton Art School, I was given a small corner. At Wolverhampton, space is precious and fought over. Going from an enormous room to a precious corner had an interesting effect on me. I went from hardly putting anything on the walls to filling the tiny space with art and piling my desk with paintings, drawings, and bits of clay and plaster.
However, before I went to SCAT, I didn’t have a studio space. I worked at home. I worked wherever I could at home. Being given a designated studio space made me much more conscious of my output. It focussed my mind and forced me to think more deeply (this was A Good Thing).
At both SCAT and at Wolverhampton, I have tended to use my studio time more for thinking than creating (although to date I have done more creating at the latter). The time I spend in the studio is perhaps forced, but as a consequence, it is productive. I would love a world where I could spend hours and hours in the studio (what the tutors crave from their students). But, I can’t. I have children and a job. So the times spent there are precious and focused.
So my conclusion from today is that my studio lies in many places: it is in the physical art school studio with white walls and a grey floor (fairly generic and this description probably fits most art schools in the UK), it is on Arriva Trains Wales (the 8.33 from Shrewsbury and the 15.42 from Wolverhampton), it is here where I am sat now (on the right-hand side of the sofa in front of the TV and to the left of the ironing board), it is on the school run, it is in the car, it is at Zumba (where the best ideas come to me), it is in bed, it is in the bath and it is in Ginger & Co. coffee shop. It is especially in Ginger & Co. coffee shop. My studio is everywhere. It follows me around. It doesn’t even let me sleep. The studio doesn’t have to be a physical space. It is a movable feast. It is in the mind.
So does it matter what the physical art studio looks like? Does it need to be dirty? I suspect I could do with a bit more dirt and chaos in my mind and physical space. So long as that space inspires, whether it have clean white walls, dirty floors, be a train full of people going to Butlins, be an Americano with milk, or be my semi-conscious state, that is the most important thing.