Friday, June 10, 2011

Open Studios Cornwall 2011

Happily coinciding with the start of summer, Open Studios has become a well-established fixture in Cornwall’s cultural calendar. In its seventh year under the auspices of Creative Skills, and having recently attracted the sponsorship of Truro Arts, its future looks assured. With over 200 participants this year (two-thirds of them women) it was difficult to choose which studios to visit, so I decided to limit myself to mid-Cornwall.

I set off on the opening day to discover the delightful studio of Isabelle Roberts, tucked away on a quiet road off the A39 midway between St Columb and Wadebridge. Swiss-born Isabelle and her husband have recently settled in Cornwall after an absence, for him, of 35 years. In the peaceful atmosphere of her rural environment, she is now able to devote herself to developing an art practice which evolved out of her first love – playing the violin. Listening to music is fundamental to Isabelle’s way of working. Particular favourites include Iona, a progressive Celtic rock band, and the Estonian Arvo Pärt, whose compositions have a meditative quality which releases her creative impulse. An intuitive approach to work which is essentially figurative has facilitated an exploration of the movement of the body not only in relation to the space around it, but also the space within – the realm of spirituality. On display in her studio were paintings combining elements of the figurative with abstraction, and ceramic sculptures of the body in motion.

Step into the Rhythm
Acrylic and mixed media on canvas
© 2011 Isabelle Roberts

While studying Fine Art at Bristol School of Art, Isabelle was inspired by units on Performance and Installation to incorporate her musical background into a project she calls ‘Soundtrace’. A desire to depict the individual nature of the shapes a musician creates while performing led her to carry out an unusual experiment. A source of light was attached to a musician’s hand, and photographed using a long exposure. In 2006 this culminated in Isabelle obtaining access to a rehearsal by Thornbury Orchestra, during which the movement data was recorded. The process took place in the dark, necessitating improvisation on the part of the musicians. Later that year during a performance, the images were projected onto a giant screen behind the orchestra, making a dramatic visual impact.

Cello Keyboard Violin
Digital print © 2011 Isabelle Roberts

Through digital imaging, Isabelle produces a ‘four-dimensional drawing’ or portrait, unique to each musician. Intriguingly, they seem to suggest the shape of the instrument they represent. These prints, which function as a musical signature, have a rhythmic appeal which I find fascinating. She has subsequently carried out workshops using this technique alongside teachers of art, music and dance in primary and secondary schools, and has collaborated with a number of rock bands including the Bristol based group, Transition. Isabelle’s work can be seen at – a new gallery in Polzeath, and at
My next visit was to Sally Robinson, one of only two Newquay artists participating in Open Studios this year. Moving to Cornwall from Sheffield in 2004 gave Sally the opportunity to develop a long-held interest in textiles, especially vintage fabrics. An example of her early work takes an ironic look at the concept of motherhood.

Found, vintage & mixed media
© 2011 Sally Robinson

A Foundation Course at University College Falmouth in 2008 encouraged her to experiment with a variety of media, articulating the relationship between the two- and three-dimensional. From this emerged the creation of coloured acetate installations. Responding to the slightest motion of air, these translucent, decorative constructions tremble and oscillate in a way which is captivating to watch.

Sally Robinson with her Yellow Installation
Acetate & mirror sheet
© 2011 Sally Robinson

Using her photographic skills, Sally translates the installations into two-dimensional images shot from a variety of angles, re-creating the interplay of light and movement in fleeting, abstract form. These photographic prints, artworks in their own right, are sometimes also used as a basis for producing paintings in acrylic and a variety of media, which serve to intensify the colour saturation of the image.

Yellow I
Photo print
© 2011 Sally Robinson

This artist’s predilection for working in primary colours stems from the strong connection which she has always felt between mood and colour. For Sally, powerful emotions such as anger and grief can act as a catalyst for her creations which, to me, resonate with the exuberance and joy of life. Further works can be seen at
Deep within in a picturesque wooded valley near St Mawgan lies the home of Bridgit Sweeney. On a glorious summer’s morning I found myself sitting under the trees outside her studio, chatting with a dozen or so visiting art students. Until recently, teaching art was her primary focus. This has given way to a desire to carry out a series of art projects close to her heart. Open Studios has provided her with the opportunity to share these ideas with visiting art lovers.

The smallholding which Bridgit has developed over the last twelve years has given rise to an art practice which draws on the natural world around her. Her organic approach to nurturing the environment under her care encourages a wide variety of habitats to flourish. Incorporating aspects of these habitats into her paintings, subjects such as sunflowers are depicted on canvases with the actual soil they have grown in. These are no ordinary sunflowers – they are ‘Russian Giants’ grown to attract bees. She finds them particularly appealing as the petals wither, describing them as ‘fantastic natural sculptures’. Her painting sequences show how each plant seems to have its own individual personality.

Twelfth Russian Giant
Acrylic on soil
© 2011 Bridgit Sweeney

‘Sons of the Soil’ is a series of canvases, each of which represents the image of a local farmer, painted on a background of soil from his own land.  Variations in the texture of the earth contribute to defining the facial features of the subjects. Here the artist manifests her interest in the dynamic between the background surface and the image which emerges from it. She intends to expand this series into a community project involving 20 to 30 farmers, to draw attention to contemporary debates around ecology and agriculture.

Meeting Bridgit, it seemed to me that these works evolve out of a deeply felt engagement with the natural world and the interaction of humankind with it. However there is another aspect to her art practice – that of introspection. A series entitled ‘Surface and Mind Conversation’ is a visual representation of the struggle of the individual to access the power of the unconscious, thus releasing the creative force. This process she describes as a ‘spiral of enlightenment’.

Spirals of Creativity
Mixed media
© 2011 Bridgit Sweeney

Bridgit’s fascination for texture underpins her art practice. In her early work she experimented with gold leaf and nowadays her favourite medium is elephant or hippo dung! In time she hopes to develop the use of soil as a substitute for canvas. She has reduced her teaching commitments, but continues to offer three-day summer workshops in her studio, encouraging participants to experiment in a variety of media. Her many years’ experience in graphic art, commercial film animation and educational projects reflects an enthusiasm for translating and sharing her ideas through a unique and evolving visual idiom.

Three artists working in very different ways, then, but sharing a spirit of adventure by experimenting with new media to express their own individuality. All of them were first-time participants in Open Studios. It will be fascinating to see how their work develops over the next twelve months and to re-visit them during Open Studios 2012.

Bridgit Sweeney’s studio

© 2011 Helen Hoyle


  1. You write so well, Helen - you bring these studios and the work vividly to life. Thanks! x

  2. What a lovely spacious studio, that's what I would like - one day I hope! Wendy LG