Making Art In Cornwall’s Edgelands – practicing art in precarious times
Picture the Cornish art scene and you might imagine romantic splashy paintings of waves hung on walls of white-washed galleries. That is one view, but there is so much more to living here and surviving as an artist at the toe end of Britain.
25 years ago I moved to Launceston, a town slightly off the tourist trail on the border between Devon and Cornwall. Once the capital of Cornwall, Launceston has a Hobbit-like Castle, and historic houses perched on vertiginous streets, together with much deprivation and wealth inequality.
But what is it like to work as an artist here? I have learnt to find niches to work in, that link people, place, and ecologies. Lately I am collaborating with the local museum on The People’s Herbarium Project. This was postponed due to the pandemic and the state of the Museum building, but the project is gathering pace (or moss) now. I am taking people on walks in the local lanes, printing from plants, making sun-prints, connecting people with nature on their doorstep.
Another project, a self-initiated residency in Dunsland Park, Devon, has allowed me to build partnerships with the National Trust rangers. I now feel I can use this wonderful ancient site with its 700 year old trees as a space to evolve my ideas and collaborate with others. I have found that informal networks are a fruitful way to nurture my arts practice in North Cornwall’s edge-lands. I like to see this as weaving art into the everyday fabric of life, finding ways to connect my practice with the community I am a part of.
I have a studio building in my back garden, it provides a good base for devising my place-based participatory projects. However, I am aware I can get lost in the margins and forget to emerge and re-connect with the wider art scene. Maybe it is the nature of the rural geography that means that 30 miles along narrow Cornish roads is a very long way, or maybe I find it hard to justify the traveling, but the reality is I tend to stay local. The pandemic has meant a shift in this, with zoom meetings narrowing distances, and the opportunity to connect digitally with artists from all over the country, if not the world.
Since settling here, I have tried my hand at many jobs from teaching to care work in order to survive as an artist. A few years ago, I was a Mencap support worker for people with learning disabilities, a role that involved part time shifts and on-call nights. I found that the sporadic nature of the work didn’t sit well with the focused attention I needed to make art work; it also came with a fair amount of stress and dissatisfaction with the broken social care system. This work led me to do a Foundation in Art Therapy, in Exeter with ‘Insider Art’. I learnt that my own anxiety is a big disrupter to my own working life, and this led me to build more of a culture of care in the work I do with others and myself.
The lockdown has revealed artist networks and support systems, some surprisingly close to home. CAMP (Contemporary Art Membership Plymouth), which I joined in lockdown 1, has connected me with artists in the region through Hyper Space House Parties, live walks and other events. This has broadened my view of my own work and shown me how it cross pollinates with other practices and disciplines. This network has provided critique, conversation and support as well as the opportunity to showcase work at the Plymouth Art Weekender 2020 and British Art Show 9 amongst others.
In her ‘How to Freelance’ workshop for CAMP, fellow member Rachel Dobbs shared the Precarious Workers Self Care Checklist, (based on Sheila Ghelani’s Checklist of Care) which I now consult when taking on new work, and find is a really useful tool for building a sustainable and holistic arts practice. Ghelani and Dobb’s checklists go from questions such as ‘will engaging in this activity/event/performance/act be nourishing & full of care?’, to ‘how does this gig align with my politics & beliefs?’ I often find that the simple act of asking the questions is enough to highlight which applications or opportunities I should be spending my time on, and which ones are a distraction.
Maybe in these precarious times having a holistic art practice is even more essential, and maybe I am now seeing my edge-land is not so disconnected after all. As an artist I can see it is important to create sustainable support networks and share knowledge. In doing so we not only help to support and sustain a community of artists but also the communities we are a part of.
Karen Howse is an artist explorer who likes to get lost. She makes drawings, prints, and walks, she also draws people together, engaging their creativity through place based project making. She is interested in noticing the patterns that connect our minds with our local wild. Her drawings and prints are both meditation and experiment.
Karen Howse has an MA in Fine Art from Falmouth University, and a BA in Textiles from Winchester. Karen has been artist in residence at a paper factory and a poet’s home. In Spring 2021 she launched The People’s Herbarium, a Bright Sparks project, connecting people with place, printmaking and plants funded by FEAST and Cornwall Museums Partnership. She is presently guest artist at the National Trust Parkland, Dunsland (North Devon) where she is using walking and drawing to practice the art of attentiveness.