Rhian Solomon: on residencies

Artist Rhian Solomon talks about some of her residency experiences, looking at ways to find and fund residency opportunities, and sharing some of the outcomes of the different residency programmes she has undertaken.

My practice is concerned with process more than product. Studying for a degree at Brighton University (BA Hons Materials Practice) in four differing materials has given me the opportunity to explore various techniques, substances and concepts, and has ultimately informed my love for cross disciplinary practices. I am interested in how craft techniques translate and can be applied across disciplines and most recently this has led to me down the strange pathway of developing a collaborative project between plastic surgeons and tailors.

This style of working is reflective of me as a person I guess…someone who likes to have their fingers in many pies at any one given time, who is enthused by relationships between people, profession, discipline and material and who is extremely inquisitive.

Sustaining this style of practice, which predominantly focuses on material research and has no set subject specialism has however been tricky.

One of the major means by which I have been able to work in this way has been through artist residency schemes which I have been fortunate enough to undertake over the 6 years since I graduated. Residencies have enriched my practice by allowing me to explore, contemplate and conceive new projects for exhibition. But they have also created more unexpected opportunities.

So I’ll start at the beginning, by talking about my first placement which came about in 2006 when I was awarded a year long residency at London Printworks Trust (LPT) in Brixton. Pitched specifically at new graduates, the Surface Bursary scheme was the perfect introduction for me to professional life in the creative industries, being based in a specialised printed textile facility used by an array of established designers and artists. I was also provided with my own studio at ASC Studios as well as  access to LPT’s facilities to realise a new body of work for exhibition.

Still inclined to combine the material processes that I had explored as an undergraduate with this textile specialism, I extended my residency to encompass fine art printmaking. This was made possible through developing a relationship with londonprintstudio another dedicated London production facility, this time with open access resources for printmakers. Here I was able to investigate specialist polymer techniques and was inducted on their wide range of courses in digital design programs – informing my skills in preparation for print.

At the time I felt that moving to London was an important step to take for my career. After graduating  I had returned to Devon to clear my debts  and the residency provided the perfect opportunity to make the transition to the big smoke. Another bonus was that this context offered me instant access to a network of extremely friendly colleagues, which made the move so much easier, as I didn’t know anyone in the city.

Being at both LPT and londonprintstudio allowed me to interpret my practice in different ways through experimenting with completely new mediums (printed textiles/fine art print) and it also focused my thoughts on professional development – something that I was clueless about upon graduation

I had studied for a degree in something that I was passionate about but didn’t have the first idea about how to apply this to developing a career. Confused about where my practice sat in the grander scheme of things, the staff at LPT and my designated mentors (Clare Twomey and Susie Macmurray) guided me to realise the varying avenues and possible applications for my work.

Looking back on the opportunity, I now feel that this residency has substituted for the fact that I have not gone straight on to do a Masters degree – allowing for such invaluable research and a focus on professional development at this very early important stage of my career.

I think it would be very helpful if more positions existed like this today, bridging the gap between graduation and professional life in the creative industries to support the successful progression of BA graduates attaining their chosen career without necessarily putting themselves into further debt.

This residency was a key stepping stone in my process of realising how I could develop a business model which worked for me and fitted with my practice; in my next blog I’ll talk more about finding and funding residencies.

Residencies can enrich your practice in many different ways. But once you have secured a residency post in support of your career, how do you make this opportunity work for you and how do you sustain it? Particularly as many of these positions exist on a skills share basis and may be unpaid.

Find

Useful sites to scour for residency opportunities include Artquest (of course), Transartists, I Send You This, A-n Magazine, ResArtis, and The Crafts Council (opportunities).   However, there is nothing to say that you cannot approach other organisations directly about the possibility of creating your own residency program.  Think carefully about how your host organisation may benefit from your presence, as well as how you will benefit too. And think beyond the obvious things such as access to equipment which may not be available in any case.  Be flexible, what other professional development opportunities could you secure and what can you offer?

Fund

The growth in recent years of artist residency options reflects the value they bring to host institutions, whether this is raising the profile of the organisation, supplementing skills of existing staff, promoting knowledge transfer or cultivating new audiences.

Residencies within further and higher education institutions are a prime example of this, whereby the teaching of students by resident artists is sometimes traded for valuable time spent in well equipped workshops. Artists Access 2 Art Colleges is a scheme promoting this model nationally and other institutions also operate their own in-house residency models.

I am currently undertaking a residency at the University for the Creative Arts which requires me to teach one day per week on the BA Textiles for Fashion and Interiors course in return for access to their extremely well equipped printed textile studios. There is no stipend for this role, materials are not included but consumables such as screen emulsion and binder are. I also have a designated studio space here, alongside the postgraduate students.

My contract indicates that I am based in this department – which I am for teaching purposes. However, I have also managed to infiltrate the fine art print and photography studios, allowing me to continue practicing across disciplines and to document my work professionally, notably through skills sharing with MA photography students.
This residency directly informs my opportunity to exhibit and develop my profile as an artist by allowing me the time and facilities to create new works. However, this is not the only means by which I support my career. My alternative streams of income are varied (as they are for most of us) and I apply for jobs that fit around the studio opening hours, as well as for positions that inform my thinking or making.  Previous jobs have included being a postwoman – starting my delivery at 4.15am (a perfect time to contemplate projects, when the sun is rising and you are the only person awake on the street) and finishing by 12 noon in time to catch the rest of business hours for the day. I have been a tour guide for museum collections – informing my love of objects and the stories that they tell, a barmaid, to be able to work in the evenings around studio hours (bonuses include a free drink now and again), and a charity fundraiser – which taught me something about pitching.

Other ways in which I have underwritten my residencies have been through sourcing additional funding from organisations such as the Queen Elizabeth Scholarship Trust, while funding for the residency at London Printworks Trust was obtained from The Leverhulme Trust through application by LPT on my behalf.

It really helps to have funding in place when you start a residency, but at the very least you need to have a clear plan as to how you will fund both the materials that you will require and your living costs. Valuable time can be lost if this isn’t thought about properly which can contradict the purpose of doing the residency in the first place. In my last blog I’ll reflect upon the wider influence on my professional development that following a residency model to support my practice has had.

Residency and beyond

It has taken me a little while to put together a practice that has some logic to it! By identifying three key factors that cause restrictions on my career (time, facilities, and money) I am now able to tailor what I do to overcome these challenges, with residency posts clearly featuring highly on my agenda.

I undertake residencies for any and all of the following reasons: to create new works, to boost my exhibiting opportunities, to create exposure, in turn developing my career and opportunities as a practicing artist. But the residencies that I have done have also indirectly created and developed additional opportunities in lecturing, business and research that supplement both my income and transferable skills.

So, I have jobs that support the residencies, and through perseverance I have gradually moved to a position where residencies  support types of jobs that are now more closely related to where I want to be in the future. Thank goodness…

For example, my current teaching role – part of my residency at the University for the Creative Arts (UCA) – has enabled me to develop my knowledge of teaching and learning within higher education. In turn this has led to lecturing opportunities at a number of other institutions. I have also been able to develop and apply my skills in the design and delivery of lectures and workshops, by creating and implementing sessions on the BA that further supplement the course content.

Additional bonuses of doing a residency in a university environment include the development of subject knowledge. I am working within an environment that is so diverse and rich in expertise; I am alongside other artists in residence in the faculty and also able to observe and share with both the technical and teaching staff. It is particularly important to note that residencies are not deemed as replacements for teaching staff in the organisations where I have worked and are purely supplementary to existing academic and technical roles.

The value to students is that they can gain access to a variety of specialists and knowledge within their discipline. However, there is a risk that artists and their skills may become undervalued in this scenario if they are treated as cheap substitutes for staff. The trade off must benefit both parties and responsibility needs to be pitched appropriately.

Another example of how residency roles have informed my practice include Think:Make:Do, a small business venture which I recently launched to deliver workshops and events in galleries, museums and art centres. This has been made possible by securing a grant from The Princes Trust to buy start up equipment and has given me access to focused business training and mentoring, which has been invaluable in planning my finances.

The residency at UCA has informed my understanding of how to develop this business model in an educational context giving me both the teaching experience and the resources to trial creative workshops and to develop the skills needed to deliver well planned and informed activities to my clients. I have branded this business separately from other strands of my practice to avoid conflict over identity, and eventually I envisage it being run as a cooperative, drawing on skills and expertise of myself and fellow artists to deliver Think:Make:Do workshops.

I like the flexibility that this style of working offers and it is also important to me to feel that my practice is giving something back to a society which has already underwritten my educational opportunities. To conclude this series of blogs, it’s paramount to go full circle and to return to my own practice as an artist in residence which sits at the heart of all of the other strands of what I do. I want to acknowledge the valuable role that residencies in UCA, London Printworks Trust and londonprintstudio have played in my professional development, without which I would not be pursuing the projects that I am today. For this reason I intend to continue building my practice around residency activity for some time to come.

Rhian Solomon is a Visual Artist whose practice is concerned with drawing parallels between skin and cloth, the body and dress. She is a visiting lecturer for a number of HE institutions and was Artist in Residence at The University for the Creative Arts, Farnham.


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