Words by Mercedes Smith
Vision and absolute independence have given rise to one of the UK’s most inspirational art schools.
© Steve Tanner
In a beautiful Victorian schoolhouse overlooking Newlyn harbour, Henry Garfit has spent the last decade building up one of the UKs most progressive and independent art schools. In only its first few years, Newlyn School of Art has received widespread coverage in national broadsheet publications, with the Telegraph describing it as ‘cutting edge’ and the school topping the Sunday Times list of ‘the top ten worldwide educational breaks’ thanks to its vision of offering student-focused courses run by world-class artists, that eschew the rules and restrictions of public sector colleges.
“Students attending courses here quickly find that we are not like a traditional college,” says Henry, who is a working artist, and is joint founder and Director of the school with his wife Sasha. “The tutors here aren’t ticking boxes, there isn’t any red tape and we don’t offer any qualifications. We’ve learned that what people really want is experience, and they get much more than they expected from the courses they attend here. Our artist-tutors share things they have learned through years of working and experimenting with different materials and surfaces in their studios, and that is ‘gold dust’ for our students.”
His idea, which began with three years of market research and two years of personal investment, during which time neither he nor Sasha drew any salary, was to create a school that was entirely self-funded. “We felt that strategy would force us to run a tight ship in terms of our business decisions,” says Henry. “National arts funding has shrunk significantly so we are much fitter for not relying on it.” It was also not just about attracting students; it was just as much about contributing to the supporting of Cornwall’s working artists. “Artists can’t survive on sales of artworks alone, and they have so many amazing skills to share,” says Henry. “We had a hunch there would be demand for the opportunity to learn from real working artists, that people know and respect. It’s important that our artist-tutors don’t teach too regularly,” explains Henry, “so they are energized about teaching here, and so it is complementary to their practice. Our tutors aren’t trained teachers, they are just very engaged with what they do and are passionate about sharing their knowledge and experience, and importantly they aren’t trying to get people to paint like them, but are focused on engaging with how each student works and helping them move forward individually.”
The list of tutors working at the school is impressive, and includes names like Jesse Leroy Smith, Faye Dobinson, Jessica Cooper RWA and Paul Lewin. “We have a core of over thirty talented tutors from Cornwall,” says Henry, “and we also have artists coming here from London, Stockholm and Berlin to teach.” Their students come from far and wide as well, with 80% coming from outside of the county, including international students from as far afield as Sweden, Canada and Australia. “We find students are happy to come all the way to west Cornwall,” continues Henry, “for the beauty of the landscape – we run a lot of outdoor painting courses here – but also to get away from urban centres like London. We get doctors, architects, company directors, journalists and a huge range of people enrolling on our courses. It’s an opportunity for them to step outside what they usually do and breathe life into their creative ambitions.”
Although the art school now welcomes over 1,000 students a year to their short or one-year courses, it focuses on quality of teaching, not the quantity of students signing up. “We genuinely care about helping our students move forward in their practice, and we love it when they leave here buzzing with enthusiasm for what they have learned and what they plan to do next with their work,” says Henry.
The school first started with fifteen tutors teaching various short courses – “we were lucky enough to twist some talented artistic arms in that first year,” says Henry - with courses covering everything from outdoor landscape painting to still life and figure drawing, but the school quickly grew through the addition of its one-year courses. “The progression of the school came very much from our students,” says Henry. “Our short three and five day courses had a huge number of people coming through, and they were really responding to that hit of energy, knowledge and skills training, but increasingly we found they were also keen for more consistent contact with our artists, in a group environment where they could move their practice forward.” Accordingly, the school added its flagship ‘One Year Mentoring and Defining Practice’ courses, which have set a new standard nationally in progressive art tuition. “The longer courses are genuinely ground-breaking, in part because we have ignored what other institutions are doing and have instead chosen to build our courses from the ground up. These courses are so unlike anything that has come before that we’ve had requests from some of the top London art colleges to advise them on how they could run their own courses, which is a crazy position to be in only a few years after opening the art school.”
The Mentoring course was set up to support professional artists on the cusp of launching their careers, advising them on everything from framing, to residencies, to the artist/gallery relationship. The ‘Defining Practice’ course, on the other hand, originated from the process of interviewing for the ‘Mentoring’ course, when Henry and artist Jesse Leroy Smith, who is Lead Tutor on the school’s longer courses, realised “we could help a lot of them, but not through the Mentoring course because they weren’t quite ready, they were still at the stage of exploring their identity as artists”.
This is not your traditional college © Newlyn School of Art
Working and experimenting with different subjects and materials © Harry Wade
Run as six two-day sessions over a year between January and November, Defining Practice is a practical course based on working in response to different subjects, with different tutors, using different processes and mediums – but always with the students’ own practice and work at the fore. “It gives them space to develop as artists,” says artist and Defining Practice Course Leader, Faye Dobinson, “to tease out their own language, and to work out what they want to say.” Each session is led by Faye and two guest tutors, which vary throughout the year so that students are exposed to the broadest possible influence. “Students get one-to-one time with each tutor, who will talk to them about their work, and give them a creative task as a starting point for moving forward.”
An outdoor painting course on the fringes of the coast © Emma Griffin
For people interested in attending one of the longer courses, the school offers free one-to-one tutorials on specific dates throughout the year, so prospective students can meet the team, show their work, get feedback and ask questions about the courses, “and if they are excited about their work and want to take it further, we suggest the right course,” says Henry. “What we are looking for in applicants,” adds Jesse Leroy Smith, “is a willingness to experiment and really trust in the course process. It is also important that they feel open to working in a group, because they’ll learn such a lot from each other during the course by discussing which artists they’ve been looking at, or how they are using their materials. There is a real energy in being with likeminded people and sharing ideas about your work. It’s genuinely quite addictive!”
© Joel Redman
Applications for the 2021 Defining Practice and Mentoring courses are now open. Short courses run continuously throughout the year. See newlynartschool.co.uk for details.