This is a blog about projects I’m currently working on as an interdisciplinary drawing artist, illustrator, writer, curator and educator.

It will also be a chance for me to share experiments, and conundrums, in developing new work and in looking at day to day organisational and economic issues.

Comments welcome!


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About 8 months ago I started seriously looking into obtaining a dedicated studio space again. I had visited the very fine set up of a colleague and had pangs for a space of my own again.

The visited studio wasn’t vast but it was clean and well equipped, in an excellent facility and well out of my price range. Much like privately renting a home, even studios billed as affordable are usually very far away from that, and anything well-appointed is certainly approaching what a domestic rental would be. Despite this, I started contemplating a much smaller unit in the less salubrious neighbouring complex. This vastly expensive and inflexible rental tenancy is problem one with even the notion of having a studio as an artist.

The next problem was maybe more of a psychological one driven by inner conversations about the value of my job. I do actually earn all my money from creative industry pursuits or arts lecturing. In truth, a studio still felt like a luxury. I didn’t feel that I should pay out on another big monthly commitment including rent, insurance, electricity keys and all to have to drive across a sprawling suburban London borough to use the thing.

Studios in the UK in 2023 aren’t just a bit expensive, but they are so expensive they feel like a luxury even to those of us with professional profiles, and they are so few and far between that on top of their expense you would be lucky to find one that is actually local to you.

Another problem was some intrinsic but ridiculous sense of shame that was wrapped up in all of this. For so many years I prided myself on being the sort of artist who didn’t need a studio, or the trappings of prestige surroundings that we’d been introduced to when I first studied an art and design BTEC and was streamed into the Fine Art path.

Probably some of this ambivalence was always financial. As I originally left college with the BTEC to work before more studying, I had been used to working in lower paid and flexible day jobs so I could build my portfolio up with sporadic art department contracts. Nothing was as expensive as it seems to be now, and pay was proportionally higher, but renting a whole space for myself before I was established would have seemed egotistical and even more financially reckless than usual. I slowly built up some character illustration work, which also morphed into makeup, character design and prosthetics, while working at home on the kitchen table.

By the time I went back to study I’d secured some really decent production jobs but renting a whole space was still a luxury when I had access to a very serviceable spare room and kitchen table. I was still in my 20s and used to having latex hands and heads hanging around the house. However, there were other things at play. I never felt like a legitimate artist / designer because both financially and in spirit, those expensive tenancies only seemed accessible to artists who were regularly exhibiting and selling in swanky galleries or who had some other means to swan around carving giant waxworks in between trips to Tuscany.

My part-time BA didn’t have studio space for the first two years, and I was working a lot more digitally again at that point, so I started working on the bus, which also gave me the time I craved away from the institution. This really formed my own new working practice, as maybe a university course that provided a permanent studio space might form another person’s practice. If my course had studios would I have been built up to be a real confident studio artist only to be beaten down by life upon graduation when I wouldn’t be able to access that studio again, or would it have given me entitlement to feel an artist’s studio was my right even without Tuscany, a kaftan or a bald head?

I still love to go and think, write and draw on public transport and it is very much in my own studio mix as a place. As studying was only part time, I was still firmly on the kitchen table for prosthetics work. I scared my cat with a severed head and nearly broke up a relationship by spilling red wax on a very important pair of shoes but otherwise this all seemed more normal than walking into a rented studio would. Is this studio dynamic something we should talk about at art school?  Is one way better, or are there seasons for things? Should being in a studio be a right of passage, or is this an outmoded way of approaching an art environment?

Other than that I always had spare rooms as I got older. My only actual foray into renting a studio space led to being a bit ripped off because I signed my year’s contract three months before the whole long-established studio decided to close down due to relationship problems between the owners. I got my deposit back but the three months rent and electricity was spent on moving in, a brief holiday and then moving out.

What really changed it all and got me thinking about separate art spaces again was the pandemic. Losing the majority of your work, and the roof over your head among income and mortgage offer collapses isn’t a unique pandemic story, and neither was it that bad for me because I had one job left and a supportive family and then it did all bounce back after 18 months or so. However, I was left without the vast spare room I’d been using as both studio and office and although adapting to the corner of tables again was really fine, I did slowly feel I needed more space.

Probably one of the saddest pandemic art things that happened to me was the closure of my beloved open access print studio. Open access studios were also something I came to rely on after studying, and being a printer this was something I felt spoiled for choice with once upon a time. Open access technical studios are brilliant because they give you all the expensive heavy duty equipment and they also give you the community that is one thing home-studios miss. Yet thankfully monthly rent and tenancy contracts are not part of this arrangement. For some reason they always felt accessible to me as well. If you could use the equipment cleanly and professionally enough to pass an induction then you had the right to join up. I was too sad to join another print studio after they closed, so maybe this also led to my looking for more of my own space. It goes without saying that I don’t think there are enough open access studios in the UK in 2023, which has a lot to do with a lack of sustainable arts funding.

By the time I started costing a rented studio out, I realised that building my own space might well be what I needed to do instead of feeling trapped with a choice between a tenancy commitment I didn’t want or making postage-stamp sized work on the corner of a table. A reasonable bank loan for a small studio build would cost less than a monthly rent payment and at least it would come to an end after 3 or 4 years. I would also have choice about bills for electricity, insurance etc. It fitted in with the love of innovation that originally got me working on the bus, but more importantly it would be a way to commit to what I have been doing for nearly 30 years by actually claiming some of my own space for it.

Part 2: The Building…

(photo credit – Columbian Press at Richmond Art School)



Most people in the arts seem to accept and even embrace that collaboration is embedded in much of what we do, so when it came to pondering whether to run another cycle of the art award I set up with Georgina Talfana in 2017, I was stuck with questions that wouldn’t go away. Are competition and cooperation not mutually exclusive concepts, and why is so much that we do to get jobs and opportunities in the art world based around such intense competition, aka fighting like rats in a sack for just one pay day?

The art award was fully independent, and without having a vast private income this means either securing funding or using a commercial model to raise the funds. Even five years ago, putting on a show was an expensive undertaking. There are the obvious costs of hiring a space, if you don’t have your own gallery, to things like promotion and insurance.

After the pandemic all of this had become more complicated and expensive, and the independent funding model was stretched to the limit. Overall, it was still more successful than may have been predicted in that it didn’t actually bankrupt the curators, people got the advertised prize and the gallery got paid but this wasn’t quite enough to make it simple.

Some of the ideas behind the Refresh Art award included choosing work independently of corporate, institutional, government or charity funding, which gave full control to the curation. Working in the arts, of course I am a fan of non-commercial funding but in practice it feels like a murky area. As well as being in such short supply that it is another point of cutthroat competition, in practice I’ve come to feel that arts funding doesn’t really mean a project is run better, even if that logo on the promo seems to speak of legitimacy and authenticity. For example, unlike many larger shows, which often seem to secure funding easily, Refresh didn’t use a staff of unpaid interns working ‘for experience’. My own college used to be the collection point for a really large prize, and students were usually offered the chance to work on this without pay as a good entry point into the art world. It hadn’t appealed to me at the time because luckily I had already been working on arts jobs for years before I did my MA and didn’t buy into the notion of shifting heavy things in a warehouse without pay as a CV highlight. There was a t-shirt involved but I suppose if you get paid you can buy your own t-shirt. As a university lecturer now, I don’t think I would even try to get away with something as brazen as that with my own institution, while pretending it was a real opportunity, but it does still seem to be a fairly standard way of affording to put a project on. With Refresh we had wanted to prove you don’t have to work that way, which we did only partially successfully.

Overall, it was possible to run the show with these ideals, if not easy. By last year, post pandemic funding and logistics really seemed to be squeezing independent curation hard, and in particular shows in London. The top 3 galleries we had lined up in 2019, including the one we used, had all closed down leaving mainly exorbitant or student-level / community spaces in the city, which can be cleaned up but don’t have the relevant security or insurance to host more pricey pieces of work.

In short, our funding model did work but made it an even more giant project to run than it could otherwise have been and it started to keep me away from curating the smaller shows that I enjoy.  There were things that could have made it work better, including putting the cost of entries up even if that meant gaining fewer of these, and moving out of London. However, the amount of work that would still be required to keep it going made me start to think about whether I really believed in the model anymore.

When we started, I was the half of Refresh that didn’t really have the experience of entering opens and competitions. Although I have exhibited my work, this isn’t how I earn my income and becoming an exhibiting artist was never my art career goal. Therefore, I see they’re not very good value and that you’re not statistically that likely to get anywhere but I have probably only ever entered one a year, so feel okay about rarely getting in and never winning cash.

I can see how frustrating it would be though for people who are trying to break into the gallery scene. I still don’t think that the £10 entry fee for Refresh is too much to take a punt on winning £3000 but maybe if you shell out for lots of these, the whole thing just feels like buying a lottery ticket. This is one of the reasons that we set up a small gallery on our website for every entry, to at least give people a little value for their fee.

I used another model for Spaghetti Intaglio, which I curated in 2019. It was still artist funded but free to enter, so less of a crowd funding than collaborative model. There are more risks for the curator this way, and it is also more expensive for artists, but people who don’t get in don’t have to pay anything, which I suppose seems a bit more fair. It was this that got me thinking about competition again. I don’t think that that the above model is a feasible one for running a competition with prizes, but I wonder why there are so many of these around and why we seem to take it as a normal way of finding work? After all, we’re talking about a profession.

It is true that competition seems to be a natural way of deciding things sometimes, from which buffalos outrun the Lion to which of us gets the role at our next job interview. Yet even Darwin thought that the survival of the fitter was relative, and in early human societies as much as the animal kingdom, collaboration and cooperation seems to help us all survive longer and live better. Certainly with the society we have developed today, surely cooperation should be something we value more than narratives about being the best and fighting to get to the top as if that were the only way to realise individual dreams, or make good art.

This was really bothering me about running an art competition. Even though I don’t really have any of the answers to how we would go about creating a more financially successful collaborative industry, I don’t want to operate from that default position of personal salvation being the only thing that pays the bills for us. After all there might be some top doctors, baristas and car mechanics around, but the others all seem to have paid jobs while they hone their skills. I really think that the only reason the art world isn’t currently like that is because we’re all participating in something else, and it is partly out of choice. As you learn in art college, you’re not the best nor ever will be, and at least 10 people have had exactly the same idea as your genius inspiration for the next piece of work. We all become artists and make better work, which sometimes gets really good, but that isn’t determined by how good the next person’s is. There will always be a basic level of competition for opportunities in life (I was a winner today when I got the only reduced loaf left on the supermarket shelf) but basing a whole important industry on this seems wrong; in particular when it is an industry that at its best is so rooted in collaboration.

I probably wouldn’t have even thought about this if it wasn’t for the twelfth year of austerity and arts funding starvation, the pandemic and other things putting the cost of organising a show up so much. With a lot more time, I still think that the Refresh funding model would work and become more profitable if the show kept going for another 5 years. However, that funding model keeps the project very lean until it does get bigger, and I had to be sure it felt right for me before committing to a pile of work that means I can’t do anything else for 2023. In the end I decided that I want to put on smaller shows and try to develop a collaborative model a bit more. Even if it costs artists more than £10, it might be better than the competition model.

In the meantime, do check the gallery page on the Refresh Art Award website which will be showing the 2021 entries until December as promised. Support the artists if you can by following their websites or social media, and do consider buying a piece of work if you are in the market for art at the moment.


In December 2021 I was commissioned by the Arts and Heritage Alliance Milton Keynes to work with a team from Milton Keynes Hindu Association (MKHA) on a project investigating what Indian and Hindu culture have brought to the world.

So followed 6 months of getting to know the MK Hindu community, designing a programme of creative workshops and pondering the place of this well-established community in Milton Keynes.

I spent much of this time thinking it would be good to write a blog post, but it has been a busy 6 months and with the final exhibition on this week, I have only recently been able to think about the quite amazing internal and external journey of the last few months.

Before I came to the project, the community group had decided to focus on yoga being on of the very well-known things that originally sprang from Hinduism and has come to be known in various guises worldwide. Yoga is a school of thought within Hinduism, with the asanas (positions) well-known in the West being physical exercises that can help you to meditate thereby finding balance, wholeness or your connection with God. From the outset I was keen to consider this definition of yoga, more than one related to fancy sports wear or physical prowess.

Workshops focused on bringing communities back together after nearly two years of being physically apart. For the MKHA project team I worked with, this was the most important part of the workshops and places were for everyone both inside and outside the Hindu community. Having been brought up myself with much emphasis on the atheistic traditions within Hinduism, I was keen to look at the inclusive possibilities of these kinds of spaces.

I spent a while designing a range of items from screen-printed t-shirts, to mala beads and workshop visuals, which gave me a chance to play around with materials and produce my own creative response to the project.

The most important part of the whole process for me was in getting to know the community, which came in the form of just spending time with the group and in the temple. Internally, it was a long journey in to the Hindu side of my own heritage and a spiritual discourse about where I currently am in my own life, and in particular in my creative practice.

The whole project ended up being about spaces for me. Interior spaces of the kind you find when you pray or meditate or just sit still and stop. It also became about the physical community interaction we couldn’t engage in during the height of the pandemic and how that has affected us all profoundly. As someone fairly introverted, with lots to draw and write, who felt they didn’t suffer as badly as many during lockdowns, it was amazing to find how nevertheless I was craving community interaction by the time we started on our project journey.

A creative outcome about spaces was what made my final response to this project. In the gallery it comes in the form of a drawing-based animation, sound piece (which could work together as a film) and smell. These could all work independently of each other and be presented in different places. I would one day like to hear the sound piece in the open air and the animation could also be projected. Much of the legacy of this project is in the coming together of a very strong art team from MKHA, who were all new to working together but now have a strong future of further projects, workshops and activities. Therefore it was important to produce a final outcome that might have use beyond just one show.

We also asked people to remove their shoes when entering the installation, so it is also physically taking you in to a different type of space and cultural experience.

The drawings I used for the animation are watercolour transcriptions of some of the images the children in various groups gave to me. Recordings include worship, singing and pranayama (breathing).

Throughout the course of the project, community activities we engaged in included screen printing, collage, beading, dance and breathing exercises for health. These were for a range of age-groups from small children to elderly members of a very fine vegetarian temple lunch club that I wish I could keep attending for the thali alone.

The final creative outcome is currently being shown with Milton Keynes Gallery until Sunday 14th. You can see ongoing, material project development and thoughts about it on my instagram page @shefaliwardell.