Writing / Grizedale Arts Blog

Guest Blog: Rachel Dobbs on 'The Children of Grizedale'

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The Children of Grizedale hear from members of The Black Shed research team. Image courtesy Rachel Dobbs.

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The Children of Grizedale meet with Grizedale Arts Director Adam Sutherland at Lawson Park, alongside a current job list. Image courtesy Rachel Dobbs.

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Motoko Fujita introduces 'The 10-year Expanded Dream of Kiwanasato' project to the group at Water Yeat Village Hall. Image courtesy Rachel Dobbs.

It is a hot Thursday evening in midsummer. 14 ambitious early career artists and curators, who have not met each other before, step off the train at Ulverston on the edge of the Lake District. Some have been traveling for a few hours, some for a whole day. They look for a sign. They have been given instructions addressed to the ominously titled ~Children of Grizedale~ and not everyone is exactly sure what they are doing here. They are ushered onto a mini bus that takes them off down winding country roads at a pace. People start to introduce themselves to each other and give hints at the mystery process that has brought them together. The group does not know all the details about where they are going, but they are aware that someone else, who they have not met yet, has plans for them.

So far, so folk horror - right?

As part of Grizedale Arts’s celebrations of 20 years of Adam Sutherland as director and 10 years of life at Lawson Park, the Children of Grizedale was initiated as a special professional development event - sharing and celebrating how and why Grizedale Arts works. Over a long weekend, some of the organisation’s alumni and current & former staff shared their personal experiences of developing, testing, delivering, honing, breaking and adapting its programme and practices.

On paper, I recognize the format from the small-scale pilot for Jamboree (now a national gathering of artists & curators, on the Dartington Estate in rural Devon) that myself (Rachel Dobbs) and Hannah Rose held at Plymouth Arts Centre in 2015 - an intensive residential bringing together visual arts practitioners and curators (nominated by partner organisations) to spend time with each other, at close quarters, to get to know each other a little, considering new ideas and new ways of working. We’ll eat, sleep and travel together. We’ll have a jam-packed schedule. We might even become friends - who knows! Whether by serendipity or careful planning, the programme producer for the weekend is Emma Sumner, who was one of the original Jamboree participants.

I go into the weekend thinking about the power of bringing people together - facilitating new and unexpected connections, generating unexpected consequences and the potential of finding valuable or agreeable things not sought for. After dropping off my bags at the Youth Hostel, we all cram back into the minibus, off to our first destination.

At the Coniston Institute, we meet Adam Sutherland who sets the tone by charting two intertwined histories. Firstly, that of the 19th century Mechanics' Institute movement - the 700+ educational establishments set up in towns, cities and villages around Britain & British colonies to disseminate the knowledge of art, science and technology with the aim of educating and improving conditions for the local industrial workforce. And secondly that of Grizedale Arts - from 1970s/1980s style ‘sculpture garden’ to becoming an organisation with a track-record of launching the careers of influential artists & curators, and establishing new ground for visual arts practices to operate and develop outside of the gallery system.

With these trajectories as a backdrop, over the weekend, we go on to hear from ex-deputy directors Ceri Hand and Alistair Hudson, ex-curator and project manager Jenny Brownrigg, current head gardener, warden and artist Karen Guthrie, and alumni artists Bedwyr Williams &  Niamh Riordan (Fairland Collective). We’re also introduced to some current projects at Grizedale Arts including “The 10-year Expanded Dream of Kiwanasato” (an exchange-based learning school between Grizedale & a small, remote village in rural Japan with a rapidly-ageing population), “The Black Shed” (an experimental compact, self-build housing project developed by an all-women interdisciplinary team) and the recently completed concrete walls and steps in Lawson Parks gardens by Tanad Williams & Andreas Von Knobloch.

Everyone we meet is pretty open and honest about how things at Grizedale Arts operate - it’s variously described (at different stages of its life over the last two decades) as: a small municipality stuck between competing land management systems; “The House Of Fun”; an extended B&B-drinking-nightmare-pit; a school for naughty children; a hive; an art farm (that generates a culture of production and export, with a diversity of crops); a cult; and an organisation with a strong desire and intention to be useful.

There are also a number of reoccurring themes in the various accounts of life, projects and art-making here. Here are a few of my favourites:

Minor rules make things run:

No shoes inside the house. Meet at 9am everyday with to work out what’s going to happen each day. No coffee, phones or laptops should be brought. Lunch is at 1pm sharp, has three courses, lasts for 1 hour (including tidy up) and involves everyone who’s onsite. No more than 3 people on the bridge at once. Red-painted doors & gates are for everyone, yellow ones are for staff only. Reinvent the whole programme every 10 years. Make yourself useful. Resist doing the same thing over & over. No whistling ever anywhere.

Valuing people’s time: 

After becoming frustrated with the number of ‘art hours’ wasted through the previous open application / proposal system for residencies (where 200 artists might each spend a day or two writing up ideas, the majority of which were all interesting and showed promise) and the failures of the traditional residency model (where artists take large chunks of time out of their normal lives to secrete themselves away to “make art”), Grizedale decided to replace this with their Volunteer programme.

Here, interested folk get in touch to offer their labour and skills for one week at Lawson Farm and come to work - either by helping in the garden, with on-going maintenance work, researching, admin, or making things for the projects. Some volunteers continue to work with Grizedale afterwards as Associate Artists or in other roles. It’s kind of like an apprenticeship - learning things through practical, vocational activities - artists and others contribute to nurturing, looking after and developing how the organisation operates where they can, and the organisation does the same in return. If more people apply than there is space for, volunteers are selected on the simple criteria of “Who could be the most useful at this moment?”.

Pitch in, wash up, sweep the floors: 

Grizedale Arts’ base at Lawson Park is a working farmhouse and productive smallholding, located in a geographical context that attracts visitors and tourists. Here the emphasis on the ‘working’ and ‘productive’ aspects far outweigh the ‘visitor’ or ‘tourist’ modes - if you’re coming here as a visiting artist, maker, writer, researcher, curator, academic, designer or student you will be called upon to get stuck in. This ethos also extends and is exemplified by the way Grizedale’s activities have shifted away from what its current director Adam Sutherland termed ‘jackass curation’ in favour of putting down roots in the local social ecology over the last ten years.

Alistair Hudson described this as a process of “joining in” in the village - applying a bit of “art competence”, and doing things (crucially, that needed doing) with care and attention. This “joining in” has included organising the local Harvest Festival in 2010 with St. Andrew's Church in Coniston; helping to refurbish the Coniston Institute as a village hall & community hub with Boon Day volunteers and the Institute Committee; establishing the Honest Shop; bringing in ‘expert shelf designer’ Liam Gillick to re-imagine the village library; and working with the New Mechanics (Coniston Youth Club). Each of these examples involves a process of re-thinking the function of spaces, social contexts and systems of exchange, and importantly happen by invitation of different groups in the local community.

Work in ways that are ad-hoc and provisional: 

Working on projects with Grizedale Arts was described by some of the speakers as a kind of chaos - not knowing exactly what is going to happen, how many people or who will be turning up for dinner, or what’s needed until the last minute. However, this goes hand-in-hand with an approach that values adaptability, being fleet-of-foot, unbureaucratic and responsive to opportunities as they arrive. It’s part of the organisation’s attitude to just getting on with things, accepting and celebrating both skill & amateurism, and disrupting ‘institutional time’.

Things are improvised, repurposed and put to work in different ways - something which is echoed and evident in both the objects presented in the ‘1001 Village Nights’ retrospective exhibition (described by Adam Sutherland as stuff that was just hanging around) and the modular freestanding hanging / display system that houses them. Designed and built by Tom Philipson, using a leftover flooring material & joinery off cuts, this fully adaptable, multifunctional basket display system is equally at home in the village hall or popping up in exhibitions at the Whitworth, Wysing Arts Centre, Hauser & Wirth, Two Temple Place or Sweet Water Foundation in Chicago.

Develop useful collections: 

One of the things that keeps coming into conversation at Grizedale Arts is the idea (and practical demonstrations of) the “collection” as a tool for instruction. This idea links back to thinking around galleries and libraries as part of the Mechanics' Institute movement - holding a collection of useful objects, artifacts, books, artworks etc. that hold and unlock knowledge to help people to see how the world works. At Grizedale, intentional and ‘useful’ collections seem to materialise all over the place, with varying levels of portability, direct access and interpretation. At the Coniston Institute, reinstated glass cabinets (with carefully painted labels) house a collection of objects that make visible all of the other groups that use the space. Evidence of previous & current projects are inscribed on the fabric of the building itself through the painted panels below the stage in the hall, the pizza oven in the garden of the Ruskin Museum (around the back of the building) and in the on-going presence of the Honest Shop & self-service Library. Upstairs in the Grizedale Arts office, there is an ad-hoc archive to browse - with ‘remnants’ of previous projects, including drawings, sculptures, book works, macaques and leftover signs from events.

At Lawson Park, everything is part of an evolving project. Each object, piece of furniture, plant, building and book in the house and grounds has a story attached and is a learning tool - sometimes accessible via a human guide who might tell you the story of how that artefact came to be here, or an explanatory note, or a practical use. It’s a place for curious people - people who ask questions, who want to find out more, who want to pick things up and examine them. The “collection” grows, develops, changes shape and is made public to varying degrees. The objects go on tour & on exchange trips - this weekend, some of the things in the collection have been swapped with objects from the Red Lion pub’s collection, some of them have gone home with people who ate at the celebration dinner on Saturday night, some of them have gone out into the world on new journeys with hill walkers who have bought them from the Honest Shop, and some of them are sitting around in the village hall in Water Yeat.

Engaging with the programme, it also becomes clear that people have also become part of the “collection” - current and previous staff, participants & artists are assembled and ‘shown’ as part of a kind of human library for others to browse, explore and learn from. Their lived experience of the projects, ways of working and know-how is made available to outsiders - through the honest, no-holds-barred talks and Q&A sessions that form part of the Children of Grizedale programme; through the Coniston Institute Reading Room public talks programme where we hear from Youth Club participants, father and daughter Sam and Holly Clarke’s adventures facilitated via Grizedale’s activities, and members of the Institute Committee; and via the Expert Guided Tours by Lawson Park wardens (Adam Sutherland & Karen Guthrie) and associate artists from the Fairland Collective & Black Shed projects.

Inevitably, like with any museum collection, not all of the collection’s objects can be on display at the same time - I realise that each of the 480 volunteers, the numerous artists, practitioners, participants and alumni who have spent time with Grizedale Arts are also part of this “collection”, facilitating Adam Sutherland’s desire and vision to help art and artists become a part of everyday life. I become increasingly aware that now I’m part of this “collection” too. That’s why we’re here as the ~Children of Grizedale~. We’ve been put to work - to go out into the world and bring this model with us - to ensure it lives on, continues to develop, evolves and become part of more people’s everyday lives.

Negotiate your own relationship with the art/world:

The presentations, conversations and information sharing activities that we experience this weekend go a long way to explaining and making more visible the processes of renegotiation that Grizedale Arts has gone through over the last 20 years.

In that time, they have actively moved away from operating a type of extraction economy - where the raw materials & resources (artists, ideas, observed characteristics of the local geographical & social context etc) are harvested and exported with little or no local processing. Previous and current directors spoke of artworks produced by artists-in-residence going ‘on tour’ and generating cultural & economic capital elsewhere, with the prime beneficiaries being the individual artists and those who profit from showing, selling and distributing their work. Instead, they have moved towards becoming a productive, subsistence-art-small-holding that sustains itself and those that make up its community by growing and processing raw materials or resources into manufactured items (complex projects more often than simple products) to both sustain local requirements and generate a surplus for export consumption and trade.

Grizedale Arts have become farmers - they think in terms of crops (different things that can be grown or cultivated on site, like ideas, people, projects, processes etc), seasons (times of the year when it may be most beneficial to concentrate on one type of activity, whether this is renting out the property to tourists, having volunteers come to stay, or when things will be ready to plant or harvest) and husbandry (the day-to-day care, ‘selective breeding’ and raising of art-livestock). And, like subsistence farmers, they need to reproduce to expand their ‘family’ to ensure there are enough hands to do the work - volunteers stand-in as the farmers’ offspring, working in exchange for bed, board, and other types of nurture.

They are not interested in intensive industrial methods. They avoid monoculture (as in contemporary gallery and museum practice, where the product stays the same, just who makes it changes) in favour of satisfying ‘family’ and local needs (by working out “who or what will be useful at the moment”, working only by invitation to develop projects in Coniston & elsewhere). They set up situations that develop value and function rather than waste - repurposing, reusing and recycling wherever possible (evident in the foregrounding of collaborative production, craft skills and the expertise of non-artists; in their approach to exhibition practice; and in the setup of the organisation itself & the care for the farm in which it is based).

There is an efficiency and economy in what is going on - which is rare within art organisations and the artworld at large. The work, projects and products produced at (and with) Grizedale that circulate within Coniston and the ones that circulate within the artworld validate each other. Each of the projects work towards creating “a standard expectation to live and work creatively” for those who take part. The different agents involved (the staff, volunteers, artists, practitioners, partner organisations, participants, and audiences) benefit from the value that is co-created.

Some of them even have life-changing experiences.


Rachel Dobbs is an artist & educator based in Plymouth UK. She is one half of LOW PROFILE ( https://we-are-low-profile.com ) and co-director of Jamboree - a national gathering of artists & curators ( https://artistsjamboree.uk ).

Rachel joined artists & curators Effy Harle, Cassie Penn, Tom Kilby, Emma Hislop, Dianna Djokey, Owain McGilvary & Yan White, Tiffany Leung, Jonathan Weston, Natasha Ruwona, Sarah Happersberger, Georgie Fox and Heidi Taylor Wood for ~Children of Grizedale~ in Coniston on the weekend of 27th-30th June 2019.

Posted by Emma Sumner on 29/07/19 at 16:50