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Life is short

L-R: Karen Roulstone, Connor McIntyre, Sarah Chapman, Present Tense . 2015, Alamo Studios, Plymouth UK.

Ars longa, vita brevis

So it goes, twenty plus years teaching, curating, directing, fundraising and organising. One tinsy drop of oil to keep one minuscule screw turning in the vast, gargantuan, clanging machine that is known as the ‘art world’.

At the end of most days, I’d hang up my smart clothes, mop my brow and disappear into the studio. The keeper of a dirty little secret: I was—and am—an artist and maker, and the studio was—is—my go-to space. A place where I can leave aside the endless politics and bureaucracy and absorb myself in figuring out the patterns in the mud.

A few people, close friends and artists, who, I respect and trust highly, have long known about my art practice and crafting of words, and who continue to encourage me to put my work in the public realm and to be bold about what I do. Yet, despite the much exalted classification of ‘artist as curator’, I could never find a balanced equilibrium between the two roles.

My way of working professionally was to give my all to the project, artist, student, exhibition, organisation etc. In my role as curator, I was a facilitator and collaborator, joining the dots to widen the viewing platform and helping others to shine.

No doubt, being a practicing artist influenced my professional decisions and approach to curating, but there was little space in these conversations for my ego to shout about being an artist. So I kept them separate. Publicly, I was a curator, privately I was an artist. The oscillation and tension between the two roles was bound to tear apart at some point.

Despite the internal frustration caused by living in constant denial, I did manage to exhibit locally and further afield. One of my favourite shows was Present Tense, a joint exhibition with Karen Roulstone at Alamo Studios in Plymouth.

I was so lucky to have known Karen. She was a phenomenal artist and a committed teacher, becoming Head of Painting and Printmaking at the Glasgow School of Art. Whilst teaching at Plymouth, she was my PhD supervisor and helped me hugely when I was struggling with the bleakness of academic writing: a language and process that seems so at odds with the viscerality and liveness of painting and poetry. Karen got me back on track, putting the artwork first and guiding me through the didactic rules of academic prose and the scientific modes of ‘research’.

Karen’s work was beginning to gain international recognition before her untimely death in 2019. We had last met up at the Glasgow International 2018, where we had sipped gin and tonics in a noisy bar.

I remember, I had just seen Ross Birrell’s ‘The Transit of Hermes’ at the Centre for Contemporary Arts, in Sauchieall Street, where I had been hypnotised by the video ‘Criollo’, a close study of a magnificent horse standing at the gates of Central Park in New York. Animal instinct versus manmade ordered chaos. Everything there-after the viewing seemed surreal, like I wasn’t quite tethered to reality.

Her death came as a great shock and I miss her greatly. She was perceptive and sensitive, with a gentle humour and, when it came to her art, teaching and research, held incredibly high standards.

Looking at her painting there is a luminosity; an otherness, neither physical nor concrete, but a shimmering in-between, like the breath or presence of someone vital and loved. The trace of being—this is Karen’s legacy.

In the end, the pull to the studio became too loud for me to ignore. Everyday felt like I was living a lie. Sadly, it took my father dying and a break from work during the COVID lockdown to finally make the leap; to jump in at at the deep end, free-falling without a harness, not knowing if I might sink, crash or burn <<insert the ‘die trying’ quotes here>> because there is nothing like testing yourself against your chosen medium. It is the only place that exposes the lies and bullshit as your own and you either get on and speak the truth or have to find a way of living with your own deceit.

So, this is what I am doing, facing my biggest fears in the studio. And it feels oh so liberating. I am finally doing what has nagged away at my core for what seems like forever. It also feels good to throw off the blanket of academia. To speak a language unfurled and unencumbered.

Of course, I still have work to pay the bills, only now it is part-time, leaving me the space to create and think about the underbelly stuff in the studio. This in turn replenishes my out-of-studio work. I am energised by working with others, I like making connections, bringing people together and of course, making stuff happen. I still provide workshops and community drawing events, and am actively engaged with helping those that life has marginalised or treated unfairly, because that is where I am from and how I cut my teeth.

With love always to Karen Roulstone.

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