So, exactly, just how ‘open’ is an ‘open studio’?
This was one of the initial questions I put to Outi Remes, Director of the New Ashgate Gallery in Farnham, Surrey, when she and Cara Flowers from DAiSY (Disability Arts in Surrey) were interviewing me for the opportunity of becoming Artist in Residence at the New Ashgate this summer, supported by a bursary and a mentor from DAiSY. “We’re generally very quiet in August, then it picks up in September, and gets super-busy around the Heritage Open Days”, said Outi.
For a town which has worked to conserve its historic fabric, understandably, Heritage Open Days (HODs) are a big deal in Farnham. Since the National theme for all HODs events this year was ‘creativity unwrapped’, the New Ashgate were keen to have me working there as much as possible, so that gallery visitors could see creativity happening in front of them, and could question a working artist about what they were creating. This intensive conclusion to the residency meant that there was no final exhibition, or expectation of me producing any ‘finished’ or ‘final’ works during the five weeks.
My question arose from the concern that I live with several chronic health conditions, all of which vary from day to day, and I didn’t know if I would be a reliable enough prospect for the residency. And though, if I’m well enough, I will merrily talk to anybody about anything, when I’m not, I can have huge difficulties with word-finding. Even physically speaking at all is too much when I’m severely fatigued by M.E.
For the last twenty years, I have missed countless coffees with friends, or outings, dinners, birthdays, weddings, funerals and family parties. It got to the point where everyone who knows me has had to understand that any diary commitment I make is subject to change, postponement or cancellation at the last moment. And there have been several long periods (months) when I have been particularly poorly, where I gave up having a diary at all, since there was no point in booking in anything ahead of time, as I couldn’t tell whether I had enough energy to enjoy/endure the next ten minutes, let alone the next ten
I hate how unreliable I feel I have become; it goes against all my values. So it was of paramount importance to me that I could pace myself well enough during the five week residency, so that I did not let DAiSY or the New Ashgate down.
We agreed that Outi would publicise one ‘at home’ day in the studio each week, Tuesdays, between 11am and 3pm, which would let regular supporters of the gallery know where they could most reliably find me, and then I would aim to be in the studio for one or two other days during the first four weeks. This would hopefully allow me to work up to spending try to spend a bit of every day there during the seven days which constituted the Heritage Open Days (HODs) in Farnham. One sensible precaution we made was that all the publicity – for the New Ashgate’s event brochure, the HODs brochure, the emails to subscribers, and the local press – should encourage people to phone the gallery to check if they particularly wanted to see me in person.
For my part, I knew that the residency presented me with a new opportunity for me to develop my creative practice, which meant deepening my commitment to manage my health conditions in the best ways possible to support my creative work. I was diagnosed with M.E. and clinical depression in 1990, and by 2004/5 I needed to use a wheelchair to get around outside my home. In 2015 I was diagnosed with having Non-Epileptic Attack Disorder (NEAD), and in 2019 as having a Functional Neurological Disorder (FND). So I have learnt lots of tips and tools over the years for the best ways to pace myself, and I know that I can aggravate my conditions by not eating properly, by not keeping good sleep hygiene, or not having proper rests in between times of activity, for example.
During the residency, It is up to me to put all those mindful strategies into place. So for example, if I know that my M.E. worsens when I am more stressed, then I have to be responsible for reducing the expectations I place on myself which often create that stress. If I know that adrenalin surges are the enemy of M.E., then it is up to me to plan out the creative work of a day in the studio so that I will not be putting a strain on my system. If I know that my FND episodes are often set off by loud, sudden noises, and the studio is situated next to a busy, town-centre car-park, then I need to ensure I take preventative medication, and my ear-defender head-phones, and be prepared to put a note on the door telling visitors I just need a ten minute break. It means putting in place an emergency signal with my PA that I need rescuing from this or that conversation or situation.
And just as importantly, if, during the last ten years, I have learnt that creativity is the keystone of my existence, that it is vital to my wellbeing, and that I feel most balanced when I have a daily creative practice, then being in an open studio, eliciting community engagement with my bright-+/well project (see my last post), and talking to gallery visitors’ needs must not stop me creating. So, I made sure that most days I was in the studio began with me making a quick (20 minute) gouache painting. Once I had mucky hands, the day felt right. Whatever was coming was out of my control, but I was in the best possible place – body, heart and soul – to welcome it.
It was a good job I was trying to put all these things into place: August and September turned out not to be quiet at all! During this residency, exactly how ‘open’ was my ‘open studio’? Wide open to all.