Art & Development, Travelogue

Hip Hip Hooray for Barrow: Fly Eric

I had become pessimistic. Maybe it’s the economy, the dreary Mancunian skies, or the feeling that I was spinning my wheels as an artist. But reading books by Fareed Zakaria and Barack Obama made me want to be an optimist again.

Changing outlooks takes effort. Good luck also helps.

When I heard about an art symposium in a seaside town two hours away by rail, I hardly considered making the trek. I’d been in Manchester for almost a month, and had already settled into a routine. Perhaps, set adrift from familiar places, people and responsibilities, I’d latched onto the studio for security. I told myself, It’s too far. What if the symposium was a waste of time? What if I missed the last return train? (When I think of “seaside town” and “art” I think of Morro Bay, glass dolphins and watercolor landscapes.)

I realized I had traded in my sense of adventure for a little security. So I gave the symposium a shot. And things couldn’t have turned out better.

Morecambe Bay, I think. The photo doesn't do it justice. I looks dreary, but it's actually a spectacular landscape. It may be grey, but it's a hundred shades of grey.

Morecambe Bay (I think).

Today’s symposium, called “Changing Perceptions of What Artists Can Do,” was great. It featured four dynamic artists/architects — they were all great speakers, with interesting practices. In particular, Verity-Jane Keefe, an artist working with muf architecture, seemed to be at the cutting edge of how art practices can shape urban design dialogues. David Cotterrell was also a great speaker. He further proved my theory that university professors are the best art lecturers, because they construct and effectively convey the narrative of their own development. I was really moved when he talked freely about “making art I could no longer afford to make” and maintaining a commitment to his art-making, even if there isn’t a readily identifiable core practice. It re-affirmed my own struggles; the inquiry required to make conceptually-oriented art is constant, and the rewards elusive.

Speakers at "Changing Perceptions of What Artists Can Do," a symposium sponsored by Fly Eric

Speakers at Changing Perceptions of What Artists Can Do, a symposium sponsored by Fly Eric

The symposium was sponsored by Fly Eric, a collaborative of three artist-run spaces in the Northwest: Art Gene (Barrow-in-Furness), Storey Gallery (Lancaster) and Castlefield Gallery (Manchester). It was hosted by Art Gene, a dynamic contemporary art gallery and residency program in a little seaside town known as “the longest cul-de-sac in the world.” I had first heard of Art Gene through Intersection for the Arts‘ Kevin Chen, who put me in touch with Conrad Atkinson and Margaret Harrison, Art Gene champions. Barrow is lucky that Maddi Nicholson and Stuart Bastik, Art Gene’s dynamos/artists/co-founders, have chosen this windswept slice of Northern coast as their home base.

I had forgotten the paradox that the more rural a place is, the easier it is to meet like-minded people. This proved true today many times — I got re-acquainted with an artist I had met in 2007 in Penrith, a bijou cake of a Cumbrian village. I met two working artists/art commissioners, who invited me to their art group in Preston, and numerous other savvy artists, thinkers and art commissioners from across the Northwest. Nearly half the attendees met at the pub for pints and chips or shepherd’s pie. Quaint, innit? I felt profoundly lucky to be there.

I had only a few minutes before my Trans-Pennine train whisked me away, but I caught a few minutes of the reception for Welcome to Paradise, Art Gene’s new exhibition. Stuart Bastik’s graphite diamond totally floated my boat. It’s an awesome project, one that I wish I could have done, but Bastik executed it perfectly.

Art by Stuart Bastik in "Welcome to Paradise" exhibition at Art Gene. "The Weight of History is Crushing Me in my Bed" (foreground), with "Constellation" I and II (background).

Art by Stuart Bastik in the Welcome to Paradise exhibition at Art Gene. The Weight of History is Crushing Me in my Bed (foreground), with Constellation I and II (background).

I also really loved the Ultimate Holding Company‘s illuminated push-pin, locating a “there” there.

"The Giant Map Pin" (left) and "Paradise" (pushpins on wall) by The Ultimate Holding Company (with Art Gene)

The Giant Map Pin (left) and Paradise (pushpins on wall) by The Ultimate Holding Company (with Art Gene)

I look forward to returning to this place that expanding my notions of what’s possible — for art in a remote area, for community where you least expect it, for my sense of adventure, for my outlook.

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