In October 2013 I was awarded the wonderful opportunity to spend three months at Artspace, accommodated in a studio apartment in the historic Gunnery building. Being my first residency, I was simultaneously excited and terrified. After a mad sprint to the finish with taking sabbatical from work and packing up my studio to sublet, I arrived in Sydney with great anticipation.
My main objective for the residency was to explore existing, yet underdeveloped, ideas and the creation of new work, away from those all-too-familiar distractions and the unrelenting struggle to achieve a harmonious studio-worklife balance. I was ready to be inspired by new surrounds and a busy city offered the perfect means of studio research within the context of my practice.
My work explores the complex networks of private and public space within urban settings, focusing on our response to places and the people we meet when we are in unfamiliar surroundings. How do we behave and engage with others while navigating the transient places we frequently pass through? How do we remember these spaces once removed from them? Are we more aware of a space we have passed through several times, or do we observe more in a place that we are visiting for the first time? With these questions in mind, I imagined I would initially spend my time wandering busy streets, documenting my observations.
Two conversations I had prior to the residency unknowingly became the catalyst for a new direction in my work. A discussion with a friend, who had recently moved house after 30 years in his family home, highlighted the emotional ties we have with domestic space and how quickly these ties can dissolve and shift. A separate conversation with my grandparents led the three of us to collectively draw a plan of their old house (the house I remember visiting as a child). I was fascinated by the marked differences in the way each of us remember the physicality, scale and existence of space.
Walking into my Sydney studio for the first time I was struck by how quickly I identified with this new blank space. These connections, although emotionally strong, were tenuous for as instantly they were established they would soon be severed at the completion of my residency. This initial experience sparked recollections of those earlier significant conversations and instantly shifted the focus of my work from urban spaces to exploring the relationship between place, ownership and memory within domestic spaces.
Three months raced past, as I delved into new ideas and experimented with unfamiliar materials.
The freedom of not needing to achieve a polished residency outcome was extremely liberating. It allowed me to look beyond the safest options and test and re-test new ideas that I otherwise would have put on hold or dismissed.
I experienced the well known benefits that a residency affords – creative outcomes, professional development, networking opportunities and the chance to present work to new audiences through studio visits and open days. In addition, I was extremely fortunate that my residency coincided with a wonderful group of artists, who significantly enriched my experience. Despite a fun lifestyle filled with frequent absurd adventures around the city and attending many of the cultural events on offer, I spent most of my time in the studio which I accredit to the social and professional vibe amongst the studio artists. We initiated regular studio visits, critiqued each other’s work and attended exhibitions together en masse. The studio-working environment was dynamic, motivating and social. I was inspired by the dedication each of the artists brought to their practice; their commitment to studio time, their regular application for exhibitions, grants and the like, and how generous they were with their time and feedback.
Working so closely with engaging and dedicated artists makes you catch yourself … you quickly become aware of your working habits (good and adverse), the things you delay because they seem too daunting, the insecurities you have about your work and the fact that these personal dilemas are often more universal than you imagine. Being in regular contact with other artists also makes you more accountable for your own work and productivity.
This experience has had a profound impact on my practice and will be positively influencing the way I work for years to come. As a result of the residency I am currently working towards my second solo exhibition, to be held at Paper Mountain in May (2014).
Simone Johnston was the 2013 recipient of the Artsource Artspace Sydney Residency.
This article featured in the Artsource Newsletter, Autumn 2014.
Artsource supports the practice of professional artists with the Global City Residencies.