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An association of the arts

Penwith Society of Arts, in Cornwall, continues to push the envelope in contemporary art.

Words by Rebecca Hawkey | Images by Sophie fraser

Ever since I can remember, art has been a pillar in my life. My great-grandmother would show me how she used a sponge to create clouds in her watercolour paintings, and my grandmother showed me how to use a soft graphite pencil for shading in her still-life drawings. From a young age I started experimenting with paints, pencils, charcoal and pens as a creative outlet, a way of staying mindful and connecting to the land that surrounded me. As I grew older I found peace in meandering around the many galleries we are lucky to host here in Cornwall, being inspired by local artists, an activity I still very much enjoy.

Penwith Gallery St Ives is one such gallery. Also known as The Penwith Society of Arts (PSA), this fellowship was founded by some of the most influential of artists, including the likes of Dame Barbara Hepworth, Peter Lanyon, Ben Nicholson, Bernard Leach, and Sven Berlin to name but a few.

After several years exhibiting their work in various galleries across the county, the PSA moved their operation to an old pilchard packing factory which they acquired in 1961, a historic site that they reside in to this day. A charitable company – Penwith Galleries Ltd – was set up to work hand in hand with the PSA to help organise the programming of exhibitions, the execution of the day-to-day, and to manage the entire complex, given its grandiosity and historical significance.

Penwith Gallery is now home to three public galleries, ten artist’s studios, Porthmeor Printmakers Workshop, a sculpture courtyard, a shop and an archive. Since its inception, the gallery has established itself in the annals of British art, and it continues to showcase some of the most impressive, contemporary and influential work seen across the Duchy, inspired by the wilds that we can call home. To dive into their history a little deeper, I spoke with Julia Kerrison, who has been managing the gallery since 2020.

Could you tell me about the artists that you work with here at the gallery, and do you feature permanent collections?

A bit of both! The PSA Members obviously exhibit with us all the time, and are guaranteed at least one piece on display in the Members gallery. We then have the Associate Members, who always have three annual exhibitions, but the exhibitions are selected from submitted works so that different artists are chosen each time. Other than that, we have some artists who have exhibited with us many times, and we try to give new people opportunities too; this ensures we have a really diverse, high-quality programme. The full Members must be within Cornwall but Associates and guest artists can be from anywhere. All works must be for sale, and we encourage artists to experiment and try out new ideas. All three gallery spaces are very different and can be used in different ways.

That must lend itself to quite a varied exhibition selection. Do you go through a specific process when curating your exhibitions, and is there anything you look out for?

Great question, and it depends very much on the exhibition. In our three contemporary gallery spaces we have a PSA Members exhibition showing all the time in their own gallery, and this changes every eight weeks. We then have the New Gallery and the Studio Gallery, which are for guest exhibitions which change every four weeks.

Three times a year in the New Gallery we have a curated exhibition of the Associate Members of the Society, who bring work in for selection by a panel of full Members. The other slots in the rentable spaces are booked by artists submitting a proposal. The PSA Board meets up once a year to look at proposals for both spaces and chooses the exhibition programme for the following year. They like to have a varied programme of high-quality contemporary art, and it is important to us that we have a breadth of experience too – we show some of the most well-known and successful contemporary artists around, but also give opportunities to up-and-coming artists and collectives. Last year we launched our Young Penwith Artists programme, where an artist within Cornwall aged 35 and under is given a month-long show in August in the Studio Gallery. This is run by two of the gallery staff, who themselves are Young Penwith Artists. This has already become a very important part of our regular programme.

In regards to the aforementioned Porthmeor Printmakers Workshop, this is a great initiative to encourage creativity within the community, how does it work?

Porthmeor Printmakers Workshop is actually in one of our studios, and is run separately, although the artist in charge is a PSA Member and studio holder in her own right. They run workshops for schools and artist groups throughout the year and also have a weekly session for independent printmakers to use the facilities, and learn from the more experienced artists there. It is a great facility and we’re very proud to have it on site. Penwith Gallery itself is in the process of expanding our education offer, something we’re really passionate about. We already offer talks and events throughout the year, particularly during the St Ives September Festival, and have recently started a monthly Art History Club which is open to anyone interested. We are also hoping to run some summer workshops for local children in the area.

It is clear that Penwith Gallery is a truly unique space, and as Julia explains, it is still run by practising artists who are all passionate about continuing the PSA’s legacy. We are lucky, in Cornwall, to have a community so dedicated to the arts that they are always willing to give their time, and expertise, to educate and enlighten the younger generation. Penwith Gallery is at the forefront of such initiatives, so why not explore their current exhibitions, and be inspired by the legends of old.

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