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Article | Jun 2016

Helen Dennis: Art Residency at Mission Gallery/ RU

Selection of images form Swansea & Port Talbot (images: Helen Dennis)
Screen Shot 2016-06-22 at 15.47.23 Selection of images form Swansea & Port Talbot (images: Helen Dennis)

I was delighted to have been given the opportunity to participate in the Residency Unlimited and Mission Gallery art residency in Swansea, Wales. It is with great thanks to Ayelet Danielle Aldouby for putting my name in the pot and the luck of the draw that I was able to escape New York in exchange for Swansea / Wales. The value of shifting environments and new experiences is something that I have always enjoyed and sought out. I approached the residency with an open mind, a flexible outline of ideas and a willingness to explore what the location offered. I am immensely grateful to Residency Unlimited, The Mission Gallery and The Jane Philips Award for making all of this possible. The experience will certainly continue to inform and inspire my art practice.

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Prior to my residency in Swansea/Wales I was already somewhat familiar with the culture and natural beauty for which the west coast of the United Kingdom is known. But still, I was taken off guard and surprised... The vast rugged landscape, the moody February skies and big open expanse of being in a town perched on the coast was a welcome change from New York City.

Given the overall size of Swansea it is remarkable just how many notable artists of the modern day have spawned from this area of Wales. Before my visit I delved into the poems of Dylan Thomas with the aim of understanding a little about Swansea and having a starting point for my residency. Unexpectedly I came away from the residency with a heightened awareness of the natural surroundings. The beautiful rolling landscape combined with the rhythmic tones of the Welsh language, which for me is indecipherable, was a unique combination. I found myself in a familiar yet similarly unfamiliar environment that I fed into my artwork. The residency fueled many new ideas and collaborations, I made new friends, gained a lot of inspiration for new art projects, and created a mound visual art research including photographs, videos, drawings and sound recordings.

Art Studio / Swansea (image: Helen Dennis)

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During my stay Amanda Roderick and the staff of the Mission Gallery were incredibly welcoming and had an array of excursions planned. I was lucky to be able to experience both the larger cities where I was introduced to the art museums and galleries, as well as explore the historical castles and ruins scattered in the Welsh countryside.

Unbeknownst to me ceramic and glass art are both very prevalent in Wales. This gave me the opportunity to explore a medium that I would not have expected to introduce into my own artwork. When I expressed my interest in this the Mission Gallery were incredibly generous found a way for me to participate in a glass etching workshop. My experiments with the medium became a natural progression within my artwork, yet completely unexpected for me as it would otherwise not have crossed my mind to experiment with glass etching.

The Jane Philips Award studio that I was given to work in for the month placed me amongst a studio complex of over 100 artists, working in diverse mediums. I felt fully integrated into the tight community of artists. An open dialogue between all the artists and Elysium Gallery, which managed the studios and organized critiques, was a refreshing change and welcoming arena to bounce around new ideas. I was also invited to present my artwork to Swansea College of Art students and open my studio to them. In addition the residency offered the opportunity to meet with curators and artists. Notably Bella Kerr, Celina Jeffery and Amanda Roderick with whom I am delighted to be continuing a dialogue.

Given that my art work primarily focuses on the built environment and architectural elements that create our surroundings. I was stuck by the landscape and how closely tied it has become with the industry. Swansea and Port Talbot have a long industrial heritage, strong social roots and history of immense wealth in the industrial age of the Victorian era. The skeletal structures of the steel works and copper mines, still alive with steam bellowing, are iconic in the landscape. The huge wind turbines that appear from nowhere as you crest a mountain, the contrasting aesthetic of the natural beauty of the cliffs that rise behind the industrial complexes stretching along the coastline are truly unique, and visually poetic.

I found the environment to be full of contrasts: The contrast of clean wind energy with the grittiness of the steel industry. The idyllic rugged landscape combined with the geometric and alien architecture of the steel manufacturers. All of which have fed into my art work.

The residency fueled many new ideas which I have continued to work on since returning to my studio in New York. The new skills I learnt, resources I gained, and a fresh dialogue have opened up new possibilities within my art practice. The generosity of sharing ideas and skills has led to a collaboration to develop video projects with Welsh artist Tim Stokes and further opportunities to develop projects with curators. The residency was a valuable experience and I look forward to continuing to develop my artwork which originated from there.

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Selection of images form Swansea & Port Talbot
Images: Helen Dennis


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