Beth Nicholas – Artist in Residence


Beth Nicholas is working in an Artist In Residents position in England and is allowing us to get an inside view of the role, and her part in it. I thinks it’s a great chance for us to all learn more about ways artists can interact with various communities and in this case a secondary school environment. lets look into whats, taking place. Oh and do you have a question for beth? add it in the comments section at the end of the article so she, I we can respond… perhaps with some encouragement she will add more info over time in other posts, both on her blog and here in other articles.


Beth, where is the residency based?
Wycombe Abbey School – High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire is a private all girls boarding school is considered to be one of the best schools in England.

How did they select you?
To be honest I’m not entirely sure, I think it was a mixture of things. I really like interviews, because I like people and when I met the deputy head she and I immediately got on and I did something I have never done before… I sang in my interview! When asked what my teaching style was I sang “make ‘em laugh, make ‘em laugh do do doo do do dooo do do”- I think that clinched it with her!

With Frances the head of the art department I had found the garment that has been the inspiration for this years work a few days before the interview and cleaned it up. I had also been given a book on the Japanese aesthetic Wabi-Sabi. I think showing her this garment, which was basically disintegrating in front of our eyes and having the concept to talk to her about was a really good thing. I had the very beginning of something and it was something unconventional and exciting. I think one of the things, which might also have pushed her buttons was the idea of the girls being encouraged to find the beauty in something rotting.

However I do know one of the other candidates called the girls “brats”… Not a good idea at an interview for a school!


What is expected of you in this role?
I am expected to be involved with six lessons a week lasting 1hr 20 mins. I have four different groups of girls working with me through my own scheme of work and two classes where I go in under another teacher and encourage and inspire the girls on their own work. I also have a four hour workshop on a Sunday. However saying that at the moment I am “off timetable” so that I can prepare for the exhibition. My studio is supposed to be open to the girls to come and talk to me if they need to. The final part of the job is the exhibition of my own work and the pieces produced by the girls I’ve worked with during the year.

What sort of guidelines do you have to adhere to?
I don’t really have guidelines. The school hasn’t had an artist in residence for years and when they had one before it was worked in a completely different way – The artist had the studio and to pay for it they worked part time as an art department technician. So it’s a learning curve for both of us.

How did you apply for it?
I found the advert for it on a teaching website called TES, there was a long online form to fill out – being a dyslexic it was exactly the kind of thing I dread.

What sort of hours do you have to put in and what’s the reality! (Usually I hear it’s much more than they ask…)
Well, yes, if you counted up all the lesson time as well as the weekend workshop it would work out at 12 hours. However I think its important for the work I do with the girls that I give them examples at nearly every stage, and having gone through a variety of different textiles techniques with them they needed examples to understand how the technique worked.

I take a long time designing the scheme of work, finding links to my own stuff and images of other artists- mainly because these girls are so bright they absorb everything extremely quickly and I don’t want them to get bored, so it has to be an exciting and challenging project. The other thing I find a nightmare is popping into the department to pick up art materials or use some equipment, I ALWAYS get stopped! Especially by the 6th form whom I have got to know pretty well, and their work is exciting and they are fun to bounce ideas around with so I end up staying for ages giving advice even on the days I’m supposed to be in the studio. So it is much more, but also I am a procrastinator so any distractions and I’m up for it!

At the end of the residency do you have one exhibition or…
Part of my remuneration is an exhibition at the end of the year of my work and the work I have done with the girls. At the moment it is due to run for a week but there is talk of it staying up till the end of the academic year.


What are some of the surprises you have encountered along the way?
I think probably the artist I am becoming is the biggest surprise for me. Working now the way I do – exploring what self-expression means to me and the work I am producing is so far removed from anything I have done in the past.

The girls have also been a surprise; it has been such a pleasure learning to teach. Being the Artist in Residence means I’m not really a teacher – the girls have a chance to get to know me on a bit of a different level and it challenges their perceptions of an artist. They are excited and interested in what I do, which is lovely. I think sometimes students at schools forget the teachers around them are people too…

Apparently they have extended the term of the residency, tell us about what it might mean…
I’ve been very lucky here and loved it for many reasons, the space, the freedom and the free food!
What will be a change next year is my lesson time will double, it’s been a bit of a struggle financially surviving on the stipend and more teaching will definitely help, although it will hinder the time I have in the studio, however the other good thing is there will be another exhibition at the end of next year and I have to produce the work for it, so there is a deadline and a goal.


Your website shows beautiful scarves how does that fit… is it “bread and butter” income to feed a starving artist or???
My degree was in textile design with a very strong commercial aspect to the course. When I graduated I produced the two ranges of scarves, which I loved but the roll hemming by hand I hated! I sold a commission and exhibited in a couple of galleries with them but basically earned enough to eat maybe half a packet of crisps a week. Selling myself has never been a strong point for me and when I was offered work in the television industry I jumped at the chance, content at the time to leave behind the pain of the sell.


As an emerging artist getting a “gig” like a residency must be a huge bonus…
It’s fantastic! Teaching these girls has been extremely rewarding, seeing them getting inspired. But also having the time as well for my own practice and not having to worry about the bills is such a weight off my shoulders. With the exhibition I have access to all the parents of the girls and so a wide and diverse database of people in interesting industries.

How would you describe your work?
My work has changed so much this year, at the moment I would describe it as deeply personal self-expression, my subject matter is myself and my inspiration the rotten garment.


Tell us about how things may have changed for you from before the residency to after, influences motivation etc…
I’ve changed immensely as a person, I had a really tough year in 2009 and escaping to Buckinghamshire, to the school gave me space to rebuild what was left of me, my work has helped me do that.

My work has also changed hugely, it’s deeper now, more personal, it flows from me more readily, sometimes I feel like I haven’t even been involved in the making of it. Before everything was a struggle, racking my brain for the next idea, rather than accepting the ebbs and the flows and perhaps understanding the fact my brain isn’t working that day and I should take some time off!

Initially I would have called myself a textiles artist but for me that was extremely limiting, it boxed me in when all I really want and wanted to do was let everything out in whatever way I saw fit at the time, so I went from textiles to canvas. I don’t think I will ever not work in textiles but thinking outside that box gives me the freedom I want.

Influences and motivation wise, hmmm… motivationally I don’t have a choice anymore, if I haven’t worked for a while something will pop into my head at some point and I can’t sleep till I have started to work on the idea. I get a panicky knot in my stomach and an itch in my feet. Influences? I am influenced all the time, I read quite a lot and this sparks me off, an example of this was “The Artists Way” by Julia Cameron, her morning pages (three pages of long hand every morning of a stream of consciousness) influenced me to produce the “Letters to my past, my present and my future” series which spurred “Letters in landscapes”. So I guess I’m influenced by myself, things around me and my reactions as well as my initial studies, I constantly return to them to find new paths.

Your works on the blog feature a lot of figures, has this always been the case?
Figure/life drawing has never really shown itself in my work before now, I’ve taken life drawing classes, but the work is different, its self-portraiture really. When I actually put the garment on the work became about me, my empathy with it and exploring that relationship, so I haven’t really had a choice, the work is extremely personal and has become very cathartic.


Where to from here with your work?
To be honest I’m not entirely sure, my work seems to progress pretty organically meaning the next phase is always a little bit of a surprise. However I generally look back to my initial studies to spur me on to the next stage, which is why I like to have a big store of drawings and I always work in mixed media with those, just having a play with the media I suppose. I really enjoy progressing and working this way, because it keeps the work fresh and surprising, especially with using different media as much as possible.

However I have a little suspicion the “Letters to my past, my present and my future” need to find a way to sit within the “Lost and alone” pieces, it’s something I’ve been thinking about for a while, but haven’t yet found the right piece.

For me I agree an artist’s job is “Learning to work on your work” which is a phrase from Art and Fear by David Bayles and Ted Orland and for me that is my constant goal.


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2 Responses to “Beth Nicholas – Artist in Residence”

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