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In conversation with Janet Ross, Director of Visual Arts in Rural Communities (VARC)

All Images courtesy of VARC

AA: Can you give an overview as to what VARC is about?

Janet Ross:  It was set up in as a Trust in the year 2000, principally to provide the main opportunity for an artist to spend 12 months and see all the seasons through, living and working in a remote, rural Northumberland landscape, and making work in response. There is a benefit to the community to have an artist living in their midst, particularly where they’re a long way from art provisions of any sort, whether its galleries or museums. We realised that people living in Tyneside don’t have access so readily, or find it easy coming out to Northumberland, so we could also provide arts, creative activity for those groups; particularly those marginalised for whatever reason. It’s a dual benefit to the artist and to community, so in the year 2002 it became a charity. Part of their contract is to spend time planning and engaging with people; that could be workshops or just be an artist talk or an open studio, with Lucy Schofield we did the Northumberland show with a table so people could come and have a go at something. It’s been one after another, and only one at a time, due to accommodation and we only have one studio. There have only been two 6-month residencies since 2000 but other than that it’s all been 12 months.

AA: There seems to have been quite a mixture in terms of the mediums employed by the artists during their residencies.

JR: Yes, we’ve responded to the applications we’ve had, but we try not to have one photographer after another, but they’ve all had different approaches and interests and brought diverse skills to the place.

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AA: I saw Zoe Childerley’s work at the Newbridge Project in Newcastle, a few years ago, which must have been just after her residency. It was an interesting design for the book, that mapped her walk along the Scotland-England border, how did that come about?

JR: Childerely was very interested in identity and place, and identity and belonging. Whilst here we had the Scottish Referendum and discussions were happening about immigration, movement of people across continents in Europe and then Brexit was rearing its head.  It was very apposite as this whole area is where the border between Scotland and England has continually moved over hundreds of years, it is what she calls the debatable lands. She wanted to walk the length of the Scotland border, taking photographs of people and place, interviewing and recording them about how they felt, whether that is Scottish or English or borderers. Then, because this project was the focus of her 6 months she created this book ‘The Debatable Lands’ of hand-drawn maps and photographic images of people and place, rather than VARC producing a catalogue looking back on a varied body of work.  It was all around the book. It worked really well as a product instead of having a catalogue.  The book folds out to 5 metres long, we had lots of problems in the printing of it, along with an hand drawn map of the reverse side with annotations for English and Scottish versions of the language for place names, and also history and headlines from broadsheets that was topical at the time she was walking along the wall. Childerley went away realising that she hadn’t really finished the work, she had all this audio material that she hadn’t used fully and she’s in the process of putting in an Arts Council application with the support of James Lowther of Berwick Visual Arts so that she can continue to do more work and do workshops, and have an exhibition at the Granary in Berwick, as a development of her work in this field.

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AA: Do you try to program an exhibition or something on similar lines half way through the residency?

JR: Nicky Coutts had an exhibition at Waygood.  And a group of artists from New Bridge Studios and Jenny Purrett had an exhibition in an empty shop unit in Newcastle, the culmination of an Urban/Rural Exchange project.  Imi Maufe packed her exhibition into her suitcase and cycled from here to Bellingham Heritage Centre and then onto Queens Hall in Hexham – at each place unpacking her exhibition for people to see the work and talk to her;  , and then on to Northern Print in Newcastle and she had an exhibition there. I think in an organic way things come out of conversations with the artist and with organisations.  For example the Holy Biscuit had indicated they wanted to do something with VARC and then we realised that the Late Shows in May would fall half way through Lucy’s residency and it snowballed from there. ‘Light Meditations’ displayed Lucy’s work to date and she led print-making workshops during the Late Shows.  That’s one of the real advantages of the artist being here for a year; you can have conversations about what they’re interested in and there is time for things start to develop from that. This can happen with regard to the groups the artist works with too. As part of the drawing festival a group of women from Sangini, a minority-led women’s health group based in South Shields,came up and did some brilliant drawings guided by Jenny Purrett.  Jenny unrolled a really long piece of paper down the drive and the women drew with long sticks with chalk at the end, and she got them to move around, it was like you were walking along a drive of trees when it was exhibited in the gallery.   We displayed the finished drawing in  an exhibition called ‘VARC in the City’ which was on the top floor of Bamburgh House, with Breeze Creatives where it looked wonderful.   ‘VARC in the City’was intended to be a selling exhibition. I got in touch with past residents and drew work together, and we had commissioned some work with Arts Council funding.

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AA: I think you tend to see more craft based work in rural locations than perhaps fine art based, do you think that helps the local community engage more with the artists here?

JR: Possibly, but I guess people generally have an appreciation of skills whatever they are, whether technical or manual skills that produce something, that’s everywhere, it doesn’t really matter what the artist does but what’s easy for people to access and understand is the skill level in whatever it is that they’re doing. That’s often related to craft, and the use of materials that they recognise more readily, but certainly people sense and appreciate the time and thought, skills and energy an artist devotes to their practice, it’s been a long time since the first artist in residence and I’ve been involved nearly from the beginning.  And over the years really recognised an increasing acceptance that art can be anything and can take all sorts of forms. There’s a genuine curiosity. There’ve been two points where I have particularly noticed it, one was when we had young artists, when Newbridge Project had just started, and we had a little group come up, Jenny Purrett was here, I had in mind that it would be really good to do a type of exchange where a group of younger artists might want to come and spend some time up here, and make temporary work up here, and Jenny would go into the city and spend some time there, to get this contrast between urban and rural. They came up here and made the most amazing work, and got really  into it, they were here two or three days and they made an exhibition at the end with Jenny’s as well and invited all the local people. You could hear conversations what individuals would say, and the artists are here listening, they said how amazed they were, they hadn’t been to an exhibition where they had genuinely been asked questions about their work, with “why did you think of doing it this way?”, and “what is this about”, not only did the local individuals have the confidence to ask an artist questions, but the artist were really gratified and pleased, they felt as if they were being taken seriously and that they were serious questions. The second point was when the Turner shortlist was being shown at Baltic, I was talking to the man that lives at the end of the road here, he said “we could do with a talk about what is contemporary art”, so I wondered how we could go about that, and actually we could base it around these shortlisted artists who are on show, so I got in touch with Baltic and could someone come and give a talk?  We booked the village hall and about 40 people came.  The artist residence here at the time, LEO, and someone from Baltic team each spoke for about 10 minutes and it  started off a lively  a discussion about what it was about.  It was great.   

VARC welcomed Joo-Hee Yang in October 2017 as it's newest artist in residence. Joo-Hee will be in residence at Highgreen till July next year. She has been living between Korea and France and has exhibited internationally but this will be her first time spent in the UK apart from a brief visit to London.

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