Norwich-based artist Nicola Naismith is the second artist to be awarded the Clore Visual Artist Fellowship supported by a-n, following Manchester-based Maurice Carlin who was the recipient of the inaugural fellowship for 2016-17.
With a BA in Art in the Community (2002) from Reading School of Art and Design, and an MA in Textile Culture (2003) from Norwich School of Art and Design, Naismith’s cross-discipline practice involves working with a wide range of professions and explores questions around labour, value and the changing industrial landscape.
Naismith uses a combination of digital and analogue processes in her work. She has worked with engineers and architects as well as with museum and archive collections, and is strongly influenced by the approach of the Artist Placement Group, specifically its guiding principle: ‘Context is Half the Work’.
Recent projects include a period as Associate Artist at Firstsite in Colchester and the ongoing drawing series, ‘Posture’ (2014-ongoing), which she describes as exploring “the ways in which the body interacts with the tools of making, communication, work and wider architectural space”.
What made you apply for the Clore Visual Artist Fellowship?
When the fellowship was first advertised in 2015 I thought about making an application but I was in the middle of other work. I made sure I kept my eye out for this year’s call for applications as I had more time and space to think about the ideas I was interested in exploring. I’ve spent the last two years working fully freelance and have taken on and developed quite a variety of work. It felt like a good time to apply for a programme that would help me develop my leadership skills and focus on what’s next.
Were you very aware of Clore and its programmes prior to applying?
I can remember when Joshua Sofaer was awarded a fellowship a few years ago  that is when I first became aware of Clore. Last year I was awarded an a-n bursary for the RD1st Leadership and Coaching course and there were people in the group who were Clore Fellows from both the cultural and social strands, and so I asked about their experiences.
How relevant do you feel your experience of the RD1st course will be in relation to the Clore fellowship?
The course was fantastic and changed my awareness about communication, exchange, expectation, ambition and direction. I have been applying this learning in my art work, my coaching and mentoring practice and in the way I approached the fellowship application and interview. I’m looking forward to building upon what I learnt on the course over the duration of the fellowship and beyond.
Was there anything in particular that made you feel this was the right time for you to take part in such a programme?
As is so often the case, it’s a combination of things. I work a lot in residency and context-specific situations on self-initiated projects and commissions. I would like to take a step up with the projects I develop and know that in order to do that better leadership skills would make a positive difference. Last year I completed a project as Associate Artist at Firstsite where I explored ideas around commerce and culture and the ways in which these two arenas interact and to what degree. I’m going to be exploring these ideas further during the fellowship.
What do you hope to get out of the fellowship, both as an individual and in terms of your own art practice?
Lots of things: a shift in my thinking, a consolidation of what I know, an awareness of what I don’t know, fresh ideas, a new peer network, a clear direction going forward. I will be discussing ideas with people working in other cultural sectors, and together with the individual mentoring and coaching I will be developing a plan which will allow me to take steps towards more ambitious projects.
The fellowship involves a big time and emotional commitment. Is that daunting, exciting?
The fellowship is a fantastic opportunity, I expect it to be both challenging and supportive. I am used to working in a process orientated way so things being uncertain is something I’m familiar with. That isn’t to say it’s easy, but usually it’s a matter of knowing when to reflect, when to ask for help and/or when to employ some other strategy. I have put other big projects on the back burner for the duration of the fellowship; I will continue mentoring and coaching but the majority of my time will be spent on the fellowship. This is a good time in my career for this to be happening and I’m excited to get started.
Can you talk a little about your art practice and the particular relevance of the fellowship to it?
A key focus of my art practice is ‘Context is Half the Work’, the guiding principle of the Artist Placement Group. I have worked on site with engineers, architects, archivists and with museum collections. Most recently I collaborated with ergonomist Dr Valerie Woods for the project ‘Postures of Making’. This kind of cross-discipline working is the life blood of my practice – trying to establish and communicate common ground through visual art. I work in a very open ended way. Processes and activities are planned but ultimately the work ends up in a place that couldn’t have been predicted at the outset. It can be a risky strategy but also a fascinating one where the work is grounded in a specific context and the collaboration itself. The fellowship will allow me to re-examine my ways of working, test their relevance and contextualise them with changes in how artists are perceived and their value within society as a whole, but also specifically within commerce and institutional structures.
Do you see the fellowship as something that will directly feed into and form part of your practice, or as something quite separate to it?
Recently I have been exploring ways of viewing my practice as a whole, rather than a series of separate activities or roles. This works well for me and so I’ll be approaching the fellowship just like I would any other project or commission; discussing, reflecting, researching, learning, practising, visualising and disseminating.
Do you feel that the idea of leadership in the visual arts is taken seriously enough by artists?
I haven’t spoken in depth to other artists about how they view leadership so this will be useful to do during the fellowship. I will be offering mentoring to artists who feel they would benefit from discussions around leadership – it’s a way of promoting a wider discussion amongst artists and disseminating the fellowship learning.
Do you have a view on what impact a fellowship like this can have on the wider visual arts and the position of artists within that ecology?
I think it’s really important that this is a dedicated fellowship for a visual artist. Artists can be leaders and the more often they are given the opportunity to be so the more our skills, knowledge and experience can be used for positive effect in the visual arts but also beyond in non-arts institutions, organisations and commerce.
What happens now?
The programme starts in September with a two-week residential in Oxfordshire. Clore has commissioned a 360° profile which is based on a self assessment and contributions from colleagues about my leadership and development needs. It’s going to be a fascinating document to read and use throughout the fellowship.
1. Nicola Naismith. Photo: Cath Cartman; Courtesy: the artist
2. Nicola Naismith and Dr Valerie Woods, ‘Postures of Making’ – Case Study, 2016. Courtesy: Nicola Naismith
3. Nicola Naismith, Office, digitally printed hand cut book / fold / plan, 2016. Developed from a residency at HAT Projects; Supported by Firstsite and HAT Projects. Courtesy: the artist
4. Nicola Naismith, Mediated conversation, pen on paper, 2016. Courtesy: the artist