Emma Sumner on 'What Grizedale Arts Means To Me'

Posted 2019/02/06 15:36
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Emma (right) takes a break in a jumpsuit

Emma was one of 2019's first volunteers, and we invited her to write about the experience:

"Grizedale holds a special place in the trajectory of my arts career. I was fortunate to be invited to begin 2019 at Grizedale Arts Lawson Park residency as a volunteer, several years after I originally volunteered back in 2013. A week of toil on the land—coppicing trees for fences, painting functional sculptures, cooking mangelwurzel soup, and fixing poly-tunnels—took me back to my roots whilst re-establishing my faith in the unbounded possibilities of contemporary art.  

I don’t know where it came from, I don’t know what triggered it, or if it was just my destiny (to frame it in a ridiculous construct), but I knew from a very early age that I wanted to pursue art. I don’t come from a family of artists, or visited galleries until my early teens, but I was around 7-years old when I declared to my parents that I was going to be an artist and around 8-years old when I opened my own private art gallery under the stairs in our family home. Art has remained an unshakable force in my life, it’s been engrained in everything I’ve done, it features in all my most vivid memories, and at times has disappointed me to the point of heartbreak, but my enthusiasm for it has only ever expanded. 

I was raised in an agricultural family with the freedom to run the countryside, to be inventive and creative through play. My family were creative, as a child the clothes I wore had been lovingly crafted by my Mother who had also made most of our home furnishings from scratch, my Father had packed our home with alternative technologies, heating our rooms with a system run from a coal fire which always had the latest batch of laundry drying above it. Outside, we grew vegetables, composted and recycled all our household waste. My family life was overtly different to the rest of my peers, but I never considered it to be creative until much later.

Art remained a common force in my life, and I eventually enrolled in art school, a grown-up version of the creative space I had occupied as a care-free child, just here, in the adult world, it was called ‘experimenting’and cost money. I spent my precious vodka money on expensive art materials—paint, canvas, readymade textiles, haberdashery—to produce art that was of a market-standard, ready to sell. I churned out painting after painting, but it always felt a little pointless producing rt that had no useful function once completed.  It went against everything I had learnt as a child; it felt wasteful. 

After graduating I entered the art world and continued to paint whilst earning my rent (and vodka) money working in the institutions who decided what artists work was worthy of public attention. I never really understood the system, exhibitions would come and go, people would worry about signage, ticket prices and what themed goods the gift shop should stock. This all felt so far away from the exhibitions I had hosted in my under-stairs gallery and I was left wondering if there was another way: then I spent week volunteering at Lawson Park with Grizedale Arts.

Lawson Park is a space where my old life and new life merge together into a heady mixture of agriculture and contemporary art. After my first visit, I was inspired to leave my institutional role and widen my exploration of art, heading out to South Asia, where I have lived and worked for the past four years. In South Asia I learnt how the art world operates outside Western institutional models, engaging with projects that have found alternative routes for creativity to flourish, including the inimitable Somiya Kala Vidya who provide design education to traditional artisans. I established projects with my peers, which put the power of art in the hands of those not usually given the freedom to explore their creative reflexes, such as Katab: Not Only Money, which recently brought the art work of female Katab (patchwork) artisans to UK audiences. 

I returned to the UK in October, and after taking a few months to regroup, I knew I needed to start the next chapter of my arts adventure at Grizedale. It’s an organisation which makes absolute sense to me and reaffirms my faith that art can affect positive changes within society, whilst also having a useful and sustainable function within it. Where my next career steps will take me, only time will tell, but I remain inspired by Grizedale’s example and have the motivation to carve out an alternative trajectory for myself with others who share my passion: to make art useful and to celebrate the ordinary as well as the extraordinary."

Posted by Karen Guthrie on 2019/02/06 15:36