Interview with Teresa: Artist / Educator
I’m a multidisciplinary artist, and an educator as well – this is part of my practice.
How do you carve out space to create?
The space I’m going to move into, in Peckham, is about a third larger than the one I have now. But it’s going to be a shared space, so it’s not only going to be for me on my own. Though there is slightly less space, in terms of location, it’s a bit better. Because it’s a shared space, I will have to be slightly more attentive of the other person. I will have to be careful with using certain materials, like noxious resins etc. We will have to work together, to find out when we can use certain substances in the space, so the other person isn’t disturbed by it, and so that we can actually function well together in this shared workspace. The good thing about it is, that the other person I share with is a painter. So, potentially, she could be using the walls and I could use the floor space, because I work more with sculpture and installation at the moment. There might be a nice compromise there. I’m not going to store anything. I need to get rid of a lot of work. I’m in the process of shifting stuff to my house and giving art work away. I would prefer someone have it rather than me having to ditch it in the bin.
I have been piling up materials throughout the time I’ve been in my current studio, and even before, so I have quite a lot of stuff. I will have to go through all of that and leave a substantial amount behind. On one hand, it’s sad that these are good potential materials that could be converted into something else. But on the other, it’s time for a cleansing process. There is so much that you can hold on to, that you think you may use, as an artist.
I work at home, really only for computer-based work, which can be photo or video editing, but I mostly work in my studio, because I work mainly in installation. It’s good to have the discipline of working away from of house.
The really good thing about my new space is that it’s going to be permanent which is great because it gives me more stability. Also, if I’m offered a residency somewhere and I have to move somewhere else for my art, for a little bit, I can always sub-let it and then return to the space again.
The space I’m moving into is La Galleria near Pennack Road, just by Burgess Park. I think it’s been studios for a long time – almost 10 years. ACME are the lease-holders and¬ they have other spaces in east London. There’s another in Chiltern St, in New Cross. Most of the buildings that studio providers find now-a-days, are on a temporary lease which puts more pressure on artists as well as the providers. Finding sustainable working spaces for artists is now a huge issue.
What has been your experience as one of a number of artists to be evicted from a space, for redevelopment?
I was blessed to be at Stockwell Studios for 7 years. Other artists were there since the beginning. I think probably about 25 years. They started as live-in spaces, which were squatted in the beginning, with different artists coming and going. Sometime later, the people there formed a cooperative. When they formed the cooperative, they were then categorised as an art centre, and therefore the space ceased to be a live-in space. This is also why they were not ultimately able to keep the space, down the line. Something in the squatting law used to say that you can only use the building if there is no contract between the cooperative and squatters. The other thing about that site itself, is that embedded original contract was something saying that the Annie McCall building had to have some provision for artistic space, if I recall correctly. So, when they ‘regenerated’ the space – whatever that now means – they had to keep part of it for artists’ studios. Since our eviction, they have now built a few artist studios into the residential plan, which will be a lot more expensive than anywhere else. Plus, these will also be within a gated community of luxury apartments – this will pose issues in terms of noise, and there will be limitations on using various substances and tools. Probably, these will be mainly desk-based artist spaces. I think the plan is that these so-called artist spaces will evolve into office spaces, over time, which is a similar thing that happened to the ground floor spaces beneath the apartment block next to us, here in Bermondsey. In this case, the ground floor started as new ‘shops’, that no one bought, and now they have been converted into apartments. This will possibly happen over time for many properties – it’s a strategy for developers.
Before Stockwell, I was using small spaces here and there to make art, within various artist communities. In the past, I also worked mainly from home because I worked a lot with video. I think that was also the best alternative option while I didn’t have a permanent space to physically work with. From that point on, 10 years ago, I started looking for physical studio spaces. I had a space in New Cross for a year and a half, then Stockwell, then Bermondsey now Peckham. I had space at Area 10 in Camberwell. That was another example of a space getting pulled down, and nothing has been done with the space since. It’s crazy.
How do you reconcile or balance your art practice with your educational work?
As a facilitator, I teach fine arts in a participatory way. More and more, what I’m starting to do is art projects that are closely linked with my current art practice e.g., I have a commission at present, to work with young people – which is my strength – to do an art publication. We will collate all the artists’ skills from different people in the area of Kensington and Chelsea and put this information into book-form. The project is based from a youth centre as informal education. I have worked before with Age Concern, linking people with elderly and doing intergeneration projects. I also work extensively with secondary schools throughout London. But I teach fine arts: drawing, sculpture, not so much painting but watercolour – it depends what the need is. I’m trying to all this as less technical-based, and more thought-based or issue based practice, and in terms of things that are related to my own works as well, so that the practice becomes a whole, cohesive thing rather than scattered bits of work.
It becomes difficult to juggle all these ways of survival, as an artist: how to come up with sustainable ideas for community engagement while looking after other practical areas of your life. You also need to be able to connect with groups of artists with similar motivations, energy and input to make things happen or you end up doing too much on your own. There are huge compromises.
I wish it wasn’t so much of a struggle to get to grips with ones work, make positive changes in the community and find space, but it’s a reality.
What is your experience of how art is or isn’t included in education?
Schools often relay to me that there is a lack of support from the government, and people complain a lot about this. There’s been a lot of funding cuts in recent years, in the arts, and down the line, secondary schools have realised there is a fault there, because people are not taught problem solving and all the ‘soft’ skills that teaching brings into it. Problem-solving, creativity, imagination – all the things that people sometimes think are unnecessary are really key. If you don’t have these skills you cannot become a healthy individual. It applies also to sciences and maths. So, I think people in schools are starting to realise the importance of art. This is an interesting paradox. Something will have to shift in terms of the government strategy to fix this because schools are now realising that this is too important. Different artists have conducted campaigns for art education, including Bob and Roberta Smith. Drawing is as important as writing. There is no difference in the importance – these are ways of expression. More people are realising the fact, that if you disregard it from education, you will not have a healthy society because you will not have people who are creative.
In terms of all the technology these days, such as computer games, mobile phones, television (which can dis-inform, more than inform), there is a shift in young peoples’ attention spans, which is a shame. More time spent on these things means it detracting from manual, practical tasks. I see that the students that consider themselves less talented are the ones that actually do better in art.
Sometimes it is the ones who aren’t doing so well in other subjects that really excel artistically. It is something to do with a process of thinking in an additional way and how different people understand information and process their thoughts. The ones who are creative, artistic thinkers can problem solve, and they deliver better. Finding out how certain young people see this way, has lot to do with having contact with a facilitator who can pull these skills out of them. Quite often, what I see in schools also, is a bit of a stigma because the kids are seen in a certain way and sometimes teachers don’t invest in them, anyhow. There’s not a lot of funding for schools and so schools are more concerned the statistics and doing well in terms of the set curriculum, instead of providing any other extra support for the pupils who are under-achieving – it’s another loophole. I think it’s very important to have artists in schools because somehow, they help deal with a gap, and they can provide a valuable source of inspiration for a section of young people that are lost, and do not know how they can fit in – these are students who need to think and communicate in alternative ways. Art can be a good way of trying to find yourself a path.
Why practice art?
The path of art for me is an act of necessity. It is not something I thought about choosing, if that makes sense. I couldn’t see myself doing anything else. I’ve been doing it such a long time. In terms of a job, well, it’s not very ‘regular’, which can be a problem. Being and artist is a struggle. But, I think it makes you younger. I think this is absolutely true because somehow your mind is always working, posing problems and creating solutions – it makes you wiser. It makes you more ethical, depending on the type of art you do and your mindset, towards others and spaces etc. I think it also brings you great pleasure – the pleasure of making and doing. People forget about this, but it’s actually a very primitive thing which many people loose contact with, because we live in a society where everything is pre-packaged. Art making is a mind-expanding mechanism.
What unusual art initiatives do you know of, that add value to shared public spaces?
I’m very drawn to derelict spaces and spaces that are like potholes in the middle of nowhere – areas that have the potential for things to be built there. I think it was last year I went to see an Artangel project in a fantastic place, in the middle of Tottenham Court Road. It was on the back of a very busy road with a little gate. There was this massive and fantastic empty space. The commission involved a mix of wild-space with grass, soil and make-shift construction erected with scaffolding. Things like that can be quite successful, even as a temporary thing. But it’s a shame that things like that are not done in a more sustainable way, for a longer term. We know that space is at a premium now-a-days but if there was some commitment and a more cooperative approach form the councils and local inhabitants themselves to come to some sort of agreement that if there are no plans in the short term, people can use it for something.
There’s another interesting paradox where artists are moving out of London because housing expenses are unbearable and workspaces are not available. But then, with this speculation you have the fact that London will cease to be known as a creative area, with the artists gone. Also, you have this other situation where there are unused areas that need to be more developed – housing is being built – but then you end up with a ‘dead city’ if art isn’t within it.
What do you think solutions might be, in terms of how artists are valued and provisions for artists’ spaces?
There is a stigma attached to artists as being whimsical and unusual or too ‘arty’, by people who are not artists, but also, artists sometimes put themselves in this place. I think it is important to de-stigmatise this and artists need to be more involved with communities. In some places, this doesn’t happen at all. So there’s a two-way thing that needs to happen here. If this can happen more often, then the general public will see the benefit that arts can bring to everyone in the long term.
There needs to be more art centres in vacant spaces. Even recently, in Brixton, there was the shop Joy that became vacant and its been empty for months now. It was squatted for a short while, by a group of young people to do some workshops on socio-political issues and various other things. They weren’t there long – about 2 weeks. What I don’t understand is what is the point of evicting people who are using the space in a good way, when there are also no plans for the space at all. The old Joy space is sitting vacant again now. In terms of government policies, there should be a provision of empty space for the community to use. When I say community, I mean community and artists involved together. This for me, is what community engagement is. It makes a lot more sense and is important to keep, for a healthier society. And I think that these are art centres not just for watercolour painting and drawing but also as meeting places to talk about issues that are relevant for them and for the community as well – so, a melting pot for artistic development and relevant social issues, and political issues.
Before I found my new studio, a group of us looked into moving from the Bermondsey studios to other buildings, thinking we would run a space together. But we came to terms with the fact, pretty quickly, that it’s a huge administrative mission and also, some of these spaces wanted three months rent in advance. We could not afford this substantial deposit, nor the time away from our art practices to run a building. It’s quite complicated. Is there a way to mix a space with artists and non-artist businesses to share the burden? This could be quite fruitful.
The thing with landlords, most of the time, is that there is a need to make profit. I was reading an article the other day, which made a good point, stating that the only way for artists to be able to do similar things would be for artists to have money themselves. However, most artists struggle themselves, financially. Art isn’t necessarily associated with money. There are a few artists who have started to initiate art centres and art schools but I think some of these can be quite elitist and exclusive, and they are not very grass-roots. Grass-roots people don’t have the funds. On this basis, there has to be some sort of policy that offers up spaces and some sort of mechanism for mutual agreement, that money can be made from the space eventually, perhaps from events, so that the spaces can be kept active. So many people lack spaces, but there are a lot of vacant spaces not used in a productive way. There could be opportunities for artists to also work with small business. Cross-disciplinary thinking is needed. There are lots of studio providers seeking affordable space for artists to rent. But there is not actually a lot out there in terms of proper community integration, which is a shame. This is something to be initiated.
1 Stockwell studios existed in the old Annie McCall Maternity Hospital. Annie McCall was a pioneering maternity doctor, deeply involved in research into the death rate of women during child birth, and made life-saving and educational advances in the area of women’s health throughout pregnancy and post-natal stages. The hospital closed in 1970.
Lambeth Council allowed the dilapidated building to be used by squatting artists on the provision that artists maintained the building, provided free events/activities for the local community and establish a community garden. Stockwell studios achieved this brief and ran for 26 years as a collective of community engaged artists, until artists were evicted to make way for a scheme for residential apartments.
2 Bob and Roberta Smith, the artist, has undertaken an ongoing campaign to address the government on the pressing need for a greater presence of art and design in schools.