West Midlands

“(Tread carefully) where there is no path” 1

Independent curator, Kate Stoddart, was present at a recent seminar at mac birmingham, organised by Designer Maker West Midlands (DMWM), which asked 5 artists – all involved with making, to speak about recent creative experiences, having reflected on what the words ‘Leading through Making’ meant to them. For three Birmingham based makers, Anna Lorenz, Rajesh Gogna and Miranda Sharpe, this was through Future Forward (FF), an intense nine month mentoring programme, conceived & organised by DMWM. London-based artists, Tracey Rowledge and David Gates, also shared recent ‘out of studio’ experiences.

Several of the makers openly expressed an unease about the word ‘leadership’ in connection with their practice, but the chance to reflect on what it meant to them evinced a number of interesting responses. This article looks at these in the light of wider discussions around artists/makers leadership in the UK and asks whether new approaches and definitions can contribute to the debate.

Ideas around leadership in the arts have been discussed, aired and published in a steady stream since 2006. a-n, the Artists Information Company, asked artists working in different spheres (community, public art, education) to share thoughts on leadership. These are fascinating ‘short stories’, illustrating what leadership means for them, and what it could be, more widely. Programmes and networks have offered tailor-made, work-based support to leaders and non-leaders, across the cultural and creative industries. Artists have been involved from these programmes, and Helen Carnac, artist and curator, has written frankly about her experience, suggesting that the word ‘leadership’ has too many fixed meanings. She suggests that it could be “more transient”, offering the possibility of “asking open questions from different sites”.2 If artists and makers help us see the world differently, can they also make us see leadership in a new way, through their actions, through the way they work?

“Leadership is no longer about being king of the mountain. It’s about being centre of the circle.”3 Helen Carnac takes this business model one step further asking what happens “when I take a large piece of paper, cut concentric circles, almost round but still joined together, and pull the centre of the circle up?” The inference is that even when a collaborative approach is taken, does a leader emerge? This opens up the questions: does someone always have to lead? Can there be many ‘leaders’ on a project? Is it possible to collaborate without a sense of being led?

Autonomy of the artist v collaboration

The circle implies collaboration and learning with others, which is removed from the model of the autonomous artist, or leader. Many artists today work in groups, teams and social contexts. The mentoring programme, in which Anna Lorenz, Rajesh Gogna and Miranda Sharpe were involved, was an experience of opening up and learning together through a close relationship between mentor/mentee, as well as sharing and support within the group of seven. Miranda’s practice had become led only by the demand for her decorative and pleasing jewellery, and discussions with Frances Lord, visual arts curator, provided the space to look at her work through different eyes. She is now talking about “triggers of repulsion, and aspects of beauty within”, which came from looking at the patterns of disease & viruses. With this new found wealth of subject matter, the research has became broader, the possibilities wider – and a store of ideas to inform her practice in the future. Leading through practice for Miranda is about self appraisal and has a generous quality: “It’s reviewing and readdressing… aiming to produce work of quality & innovation… leading through sharing knowledge & experience.”

David Gates, furniture designer maker – stuck his head above the parapet (that of the isolated studio practitioner), to see if he could explore working in different ways, with different people. A bespoke furniture maker, he is part of the London based ‘Intelligent Trouble’ a network of makers who work together on projects, which, allows them “more freedom to work outside of the categories we are sometimes ascribed and to question such notions as authorship, trust, and perceived hierarchy”. There is a positive contradiction here: in the act of working independently within the commerce/gallery led ‘market’, groups such as ‘Intelligent Trouble’ are leading the way for new ways of working, curating their own projects, often freed from funding conditions. Not all galleries are happy with an approach ”that is predicated at least partially upon controlled improvisation and responses to immediate working conditions”, and David is still reflecting on an experience in the US, where the gallery’s expectations of what an artist-led collaborative project might be were not met. By association with a fluid group that can self curate or invite others to work with them, David Gates is part of the expanding definition of craft activity, leading by example, treading new paths.

The reluctant leader

There is ambivalence about leadership – artists are happy upsetting the status quo, not aligning with it. David Gates admitted to being “a bit perplexed” that he had been invited to talk about leadership – the implication was that there was little basis for him to claim the word. Terms can shift, however, and through several projects, it is apparent he has led himself into new territory, for example, into the environment of Siobhan Davies Dance Studio.

The brief for the commission was simply to respond to the Dance studio. David’s new work was triggered by notions of movement, gesture and balance, the co-existence of the building and it’s inhabitants, deciding to make ‘100 Legs’, to express something about poise, balance, movement, and importantly, for him, to see how dancers and staff in the building might engage with the art work . He encouraged staff and dancers to play with them, move them around the building, to set them in new arrangements, and the results for him were “incredible…when people started to engage, it worked”. He also created a sound-piece ‘Liquorice Straps’ based on recordings of the staircase, layered with sounds of the school nearby interrupted by other sounds of the city playing in an ever evolving loop.4

This reluctance to lead or being seen to lead is based on a perception of traditional notions of leadership. The best makers seek to do something in a different way – find their own voice, fuelled by the desire to make something original. Artists and curators look to artists who ‘lead’ through practice in many ways – Clare Twomey breaking new ground in ceramics practice with her extraordinary installations, and technical developments, but also, artists working in the ‘territory’ of others: as curators, writers and animators. “Artists lead through practice. One quality of experiencing art is that artists enable us to see the world differently. Our focus is on the ways in which this provides leadership. This is what we mean by leading through practice.” 5

Questioning the traditional role of leader

Anna Lorenz, another maker on the FF mentoring scheme, works in silver, metals and other materials. She was asked to make a trophy, that traditional emblem of success and leadership. She expressed her own ideas around leadership through the work. For her, a leader has a foundation of experience, but is part of a team of others, who support the leader, and who traditionally do not always get recognition.

Her experience of mentoring led to a shift in her practice and personal approach to it. While mentoring can be seen as ‘being led’, it is clear that it can enable ‘self leadership’. At the outset, she had defined areas into which she wanted to step (with her work) – areas of ritual, worship, and contemplation. Initial sessions with the mentor, gave her time to discuss, as well as look at, art and architecture that could be described as spiritual. At the end of the mentoring period, she felt ready to approach an organisation like Maggies (cancer caring centres) and present her work, as having a shared vision with theirs.

Leading through making, for Anna, is “following a dream vision, having curiosity, stepping outside the comfort zone”. She quotes Ralph Waldo Emerson, essayist & poet: “Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.”

Leading or being led?

Rajesh Gogna, metal smith, posed questions around leadership and labels within artistic practice, and asked both about the meanings or artist, maker, designer in relation to his own practice, which had arisen during the mentoring process. He also asks whether the mentoring was “leading or being led”. His mentor, Yvonna Demczynska, Director of Flow Gallery, London, encouraged him to think about commerciality in relation to his work, while simultaneously taking him to see work in metal on a far larger scale than his own, by Ron Arad, Frank Gehry and Richard Serra. For him, the period was the chance to be more critical about one’s work, and to look at how you position yourself as well as how others position you: the designer, artist, craftsperson.

The journey

Tracey Rowledge, artist & bookbinder described her experience of a physical and an emotional journey in 2008. The chance to talk about the experience for the first time since it had taken place helped her to see how far she had travelled in her practice.

Not normally an outdoor person, she took up the invitation, supported by the Crafts Council, to take part in the Cape Farewell expedition to Greenland. In the words of the founder, David Buckland, “Cape Farewell pioneers the cultural response to climate change.” The 2008 expedition to Disko Bay brought together a group of artists, scientists and communicators, “to stimulate the production of art founded in scientific research”. The creative outcome was open ended.

Tracey Rowledge had never made political work, but took it on “to explore and travel, step outside of where I was at.” Knowing she would be overwhelmed by an extraordinary band of fellow travellers including Laurie Anderson, Marcus Brigstocke and highly esteemed musician Ryuichi Sakamoto she prepared herself by gathering and testing materials – paper and felt tips that would work wet, and borrowing suitable kit from friends.

On board, in her cabin, using her arm as a pendulum, responding to the movement of the boat moving through the water, she built a drawing device in her cabin, and made drawings. Fellow traveller Martha Wainwright came to see what she was doing, others followed. The resulting work was, not as she thought it might be, work in progress or sketches, but a finished body. Tracey reflected:

“Cape Farewell has influenced all decisions and work – I can see how work has evolved, I have ‘joined up’ my training (fine art & book binding) and am moving forward. I make what I make – personal to me, it feels as if there is no boundary, where I may have felt it before”.

As a curator working with artists, it feels easy to be objective, to see the leading qualities of artists in their practice and activity, and to see some as obvious leaders in the field. My sense is that artists also perceive each other as leaders. A ceramicist talking of Clare Twomey recently said, “She broke the rules of ceramic installation, she led the way”. Tracey’s pioneering, David Gates ‘ethnography’ into new territories, Anna Lorenz’s shift from working responsively to being proactive, Miranda and Rajesh’s considerations of scale and a context, are signs of self leadership which are then evident to others as they develop. Not all organisations are ready for these new approaches – all the more reason for them.

Leadership is often illustrated as a new path being forged, and it follows that this includes the notion of leadership itself. Artists’ hesitancy /discomfort leads to new definitions within a domain which until recently had largely been unrelated to artists.

The definition of leadership is being explored by artists, and discussion and research is crucial, not only for artists to evaluate for themselves how they relate to the idea, but also for artists wanting to take the lead, to find their own model, and to influence the shift from traditional leadership to something new.

1 Kate Stoddart referencing essayist and poet Ralph Waldo Emerson

2 Artists Practitioner Placements, an essay by Helen Carnac, Into the Unknown

3 Professor Joseph Nye, Harvard University, ‘The Turbulent Teens’, LSN global, The Global Lifestyle News Network

4 There is a review of this project in the Journal of Craft Research Yeo, H. ’60/40 starting point series’ in Journal of Craft Research, (2011). Volume 2 pp 169-178

5 A-n Research papers/Leading through practice,


Image 1: Microbe pearl necklace, Miranda Sharpe

Image 2: Host, David Gates and Helen Carnac

Image 3: Trophies for the Institute of Directors, Anna Lorenz

Image 4: Hanging wall vessel, Rajesh Gogna

Image 5: Tracey Rowledge working in her cabin studio

Images courtesy of the artists.

Commissioned by Designer Maker West Midlands following on from the collaborative seminar event between Designer Maker West Midlands and CraftNet on 16 June 2011

References, information, websites and blogs

Designer Maker West Midlands (DMWM) is an advocate for the designer maker sector and works strategically to support the development, promotion and success of makers’ practices.

CraftNet is a national inclusive and collaborative network of established and emerging leaders in the field of craft. The core group of directors, managers, curators work across the public, private, and university sectors. Craftnet was born from the Cultural Leadership programme, and through project funding; they programme leadership events and regional seminars, and satellite activity. There is currently no website, but links to the network in your region can be found through the Devon Guild of Craftsmen