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Art colony for the digital age

St Ives has long been a magnet for artistic endeavour and a hub of creativity. Now the St Ives School of Painting is embracing technology to unleash this legacy, making it more accessible than ever and enriching lives in the process.

Image courtesy of Steve Tanner

St Ives first established a reputation as an artists’ colony in the 1880s. The unusual quality of light is often cited as part of the attraction. The historic heart of the town occupies its very own peninsula and is surrounded on three sides by water, giving it a luminosity which has lured generations of artists. On one of these light-saturated shores – in a building with windows which perfectly frame Porthmeor Beach –the St Ives School of Painting was established over 80 years ago.

This internationally respected art school still shares the beachfront site with 12 fishing boats which work out of the cellars below and 17 artist studios. It’s an atmospheric and inspiring place to visit, where motes of history drift through the air and come to rest on brushes, palettes and canvases. Figures such as Ben Nicholson, Francis Bacon, Patrick Heron and Wilhelmina Barns-Graham all worked here; today their paint marks still decorate some of these studio walls where important pieces of work were created.

Sadly, not many people have the privilege of visiting at the moment. The global pandemic called a temporary halt to the traditional, face-to-face delivery of all courses. The School was forced to close its doors to students for the first time since it was established in 1938 – not even the Second World War saw the same level of disruption. And yet, the School has found a way to overcome adversity, engaging new audiences and live streaming world-class art tuition from the Cornish coast.

Under the leadership of Director Alison Sharkey, the School has rapidly diversified over the course of the last 12 months, transforming itself into a pioneer in digital arts education. “We had been taking tentative steps into the world of online learning for some time,” Alison explains. “Staff and tutors had together been exploring ways an online offering might complement the annual studio program. However, with the studios closed temporarily due to the Covid-19 pandemic, embracing digital opportunities suddenly became our central focus.”

The charity needed to innovate quickly to engage with its community of students and deliver a much-needed dose of creative inspiration into their homes. With grant assistance from the Kickstart Grant Scheme and the Community Led Local Development Programme, both of which are funded by the European Regional Development Fund, the School invested in broadcast-quality recording equipment, studio lighting and training. The School began in earnest to deliver a professional, high quality online learning experience – and the response has been phenomenal.

Beginning with a series of webinars in March 2020 led by the inspirational artist tutor Alice Mumford, the digital programme gathered pace with Naomi Frears – a prominent artist based in Porthmeor Studios – leading sessions attended by a growing international audience of aspiring artists. The programme has expanded rapidly and now includes everything from Sunday family painting workshops and life drawing sessions to small group courses which take place over days, weeks and even months, and offer enriching lifetime learning experiences.

A raft of tutors have got in front of the camera, including Gary Long, Kerry Harding, Liz Hough, Amy Albright, Tom Rickman and Hilary Jean Gibson. Live demonstrations, one-to-one feedback and a group forum are all part of the learning process. All participants can access recordings after the course has ended and feedback on content and structure is welcomed, as new courses are being added to the programme all the time. “Our aim is that students start on a journey with us, try different things, experience the whole spectrum of artistic practice. It’s an art school experience accessible to everyone,” explains Alison. “Like the School itself we’ve designed the online learning environment to be supportive, inclusive and non-judgemental – everyone is welcome and students become part of a growing community of alumni across the world.”

Thanks to the leap of faith taken by Alison and her team, St Ives continues to live up to its reputation as a magnet for creativity – albeit virtually. Anjum Stuart, who joined several live sessions from LA, said of the experience: “Thanks so much for the amazing art webinars you have produced. They have been a lifeline of joy! You’ve given me ‘something in the diary’ and helped me from going bonkers here at home in LA. To be connected with such an amazing art school and all the talented people who post their work is fabulous and humbling.”

The School now plans to make digital content a core part of its offering, even when lockdown ends. “The experience has totally transformed our perception of how the charity can work in the future,” reflects Alison. “From children who are missing out on chunks of their arts education, to adult carers and home schoolers craving a creative outlet, to people who aspire to become professional artists in their own right one day, we’ve been able to fulfil an important need. As a charity we’re battling adversity, but this is actually one of our proudest moments.”

The demand for the online courses demonstrates the importance people place on creativity – even during difficult times. Chairman of Trustees for St Ives School of Painting, Neil Scott, agrees. “This crisis has simultaneously put a huge squeeze on the cultural sector whilst reminding us all how much we value cultural experiences,” says Neil. “Finding new ways of making creative encounters available will be a big part of future planning for organisations like ours.”

However, for Alison and the team of dedicated staff and tutors, getting students back through the doors and into the studios can’t come soon enough. The School has tentatively programmed face-to-face courses starting in May, but will have strict Covid safety procedures in place. “Our plan is to use one of the studios for traditional classes, and the other for live streaming a varied programme of digital content,” explains Alison. “The hope is that people who start by engaging with our digital content will aspire to come and study here at the School one day, right in the heart of picturesque and inspiring St Ives. After all, with a view like this, who wouldn’t want to!”


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