• Fiona Henderson

Considering the benefits of community for artists.

Last Thursday I graduated from the National Art School with my Master of Fine Art. We all dressed up in robes, hoods and hats that could be used as throwing weapons in a throwback to universities of several centuries before. It was a prouder occasion than I had expected, I certainly worked very hard to achieve it. Interestingly, the occasion started me thinking about artistic collaboration which might, at first, appear to be an unconnected thought. But bear with me.

When I started at NAS, over five years ago, as a candidate for the Bachelor of Fine Arts, my idea of a perfect future included a studio where I could work in splendid and undisturbed isolation pursuing my artistic vision. You see, artists tend to be stanchly individualistic. Certainly, my vision for my work is entirely individual, born of my aesthetic, my drives, my needs, my concerns. There is rarely room in all of this where another person could be made welcome. In most cases trying to force artists to collaborate is very much like herding cats… especially anti-social cats… made silly on catnip… and uncooperative through hunger. A striking example of this was the dreaded “Skeleton Project” in first year Drawing at NAS.

The Skeleton Project is a good example of a great idea with excellent educational outcomes, that is, to a large extent mangled by the students it is meant to benefit. The brief is simple – make a life sized and accurate skeleton, out of any materials you choose over a period of about 4 months. The catch is that it must be done in teams of three people. In this case the people are students of varying ages and visions who have only recently met. It would be easy to think that the project represents a great bonding exercise – but these people are also artists, collaboration is against their fundamental nature. Some of my year were lucky enough to have already found friends with whom to collaborate, the rest of us (me included) were put into teams. Now I can only speak to my own experience, I am sure there were teams who thoroughly enjoyed the process, but I did not. Nor did any of the other teams to whom I spoke. I was put with two people who are younger than me and they are both lovely. One of them, although I don’t see her very often, I count amongst my friends. But I was ready to slay them both, with prejudice and pleasure over this wretched project and I sure they felt the same about me. We had to find an idea for our materials on which we could all agree. We settled on sourcing recycled material from Reverse Garbage and dividing the skeleton into parts – we settled on this largely because I suggested it, one of the others had no ideas and the other did not have the confidence to disagree. Finally, we all produced our skeletons (ours was representative of our lack of collaboration in that the ribs and pelvis were wildly out of proportion with the rest of the bones), they were in varying degrees marvellous and life moved on. To everyone’s relief the degree never again asked us to collaborate.

In light of this you will find it ironic that by the end of the three years of the Bachelor’s degree I no longer wanted a studio in splendid isolation. Over the three years I had come to understand the enormous benefit of being part of an artistic community. My feelings about this were so strong that to this day I maintain that half the benefits of my degree was everything I learned and the other half was the people I met and the community I created for myself. During my Master’s I watched as a group of about ten women who had not previously known each other banded together in a support group. They were so aware of the benefits of their group that they eventually gave it a name. They visited each other’s studios, went to exhibitions together and were available to each other for support. I was invited to be part of the group but family obligations meant that I didn’t have time to accept any of their invitations and ultimately I bowed out – to my loss. (I watched with mixed feelings when they all posed for a photo together last Thursday, part of me would have loved to have been included. I had to laugh when I later found out that my daughter – the main reason I couldn’t be part of it – photobombed the group magnificently!) My loss would have been greater had I not already been part of a similar group formed during my Bachelor’s degree which forged unbreakable links between us. We learned each other’s work, we found ways to offer and accept criticism and worked out who would be most constructive during a crisis. My perfect studio set up would now include at least two or three of these people and my work would be richer for their input.

But is this true artistic collaboration or merely cooperation? It is probably the latter (as an aside one could argue that the two things exist on a sliding scale and there are degrees of cooperation that verge of collaboration). Although my work is made in the context of the suggestions and criticism of others; although I am open to discussing it and hearing ideas from other people, ultimately I still make my work on my own. I think that there are only a very few artists who are lucky enough to find another soul who is so simpatico with them that they can share an artistic vision and work on it together. Tango Conway and Amelia Skelton are two women from my Degree cohort who are that lucky. They have shown their collaborative work at places like The Other Art Fair and they are now showing at AirSpace Gallery in Marrickville. Their work is seamless, it is not apparent to an outside viewer where one person’s input stops and the other starts. Gilbert and George and the Gorilla Girls are other examples of teams who have found common artistic ground. Such groupings, the art world’s version of musical bands, are still comparatively rare. I discount the studio set up where an artist like Raphael or Jeff Koons (who do not belong in the same sentence) have a vision that is executed for them by a team of people).

I can’t plan for that level of artistic collaboration in my future. It might happen and if it does, I will count myself very lucky. In the meantime, I am endlessly grateful for my artistic community of friends and colleagues which stretches from my fellow students and artists to the academics and artists who oversaw and contributed to my Masters. As I looked around the Cell Block Theatre last Thursday I saw many faces who are part of this community. My work is richer, better evolved and far more interesting for their rigorous criticism and knowledgeable contributions – even if I do still jealously call it my own.

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© 2018 Fiona Henderson