Step Up: ‘It quite possibly will change your life’

Outside In artists Zarah Squirrel and Clare Gravenell tell of their life-changing and confidence boosting experiences taking part in Step Up: Exploring Collections. Both artists currently have work on display at Pallant House Gallery in an exhibition which coincides with the  Ivon Hitchens summer show at the Chichester gallery.

Zarah Squirrel: ‘I have never taken an Outside In course before, my involvement so far had only been limited to tentatively uploading some pictures onto the website! I don’t know why I suddenly decided to take such a big step, but it felt right despite my nerves.
“I felt that the subject of the course could not be better for me, so I decided to take the risk. I had no ambitions or hopes, other than a feeling it would be good for me. I had no idea how transforming it would be! It is one of the best things I have ever done. It has been so interesting and absorbing, and fun!
“My mind has been opened to new ideas and I feel I have grown in confidence and developed a new purpose and new directions in which to travel. I would wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone thinking about doing it-you can do it, the people are lovely and supportive and it quite possibly will change your life!’

Clare Gravenell

Have you taken part in a Step Up course before – if so when?

I have not taken part in the course before but I’ve thought about doing one of the Step Up courses for the last 3 years.

Why did you want to be involved in this course?

Firstly, I wanted a new direction in my artwork as I had come to a natural end of painting wild animals for the last 5 years. I have always felt a deep connection with nature and landscape was something I was passionately painting when I was travelling in Australia, New Zealand and Thailand (2000 – 2003). I wanted to return to and engage with landscape with new eyes and new energy. I was very inspired from the piece I chose by Simon Roberts and I’ve worked on a mental health project called Grow that is based in the South Downs (Devil’s Dyke area) so I had a personal relationship to the landscape which I could draw from.

Secondly, I’ve never really researched or studied another artist and I thought it would be a good experience to do and no doubt I’d learn new things and skills along the way. I was open to be influenced by my research, to challenge myself and perhaps change my way of working as an artist.

Thirdly, I felt very isolated as an artist so I needed connection and dialogue with other artists. I am naturally a sociable person and was looking for a group or artists to share my ideas and relate to. My personality benefits from interaction, feedback and others input.

What were your hopes for the course?

I was completely open minded before the course and to be honest I did not have much expectation. If anything I was hoping to try different things, experiment more and take risks. Generally, I wanted to share my ideas and thoughts with others in the group and get feedback from my tutor. Interest in my work from the public exhibition would be fantastic for my confidence and artistic exposure.

An image of the quote from Extinction Rebellion which is on the canvas under the painting

How does it compare to your expectations?

Well its exceeded all my expectations and that might be because I had so few. I found the discussions in the group and with Julia (Elmore, tutor) about my work a very powerful experience. Each week we shared what we had done, discovered, and then discussed the direction for our research project. This was empowering for me as I am a secretive with what I do as an artist and keep everything in my head. I have never discussed with anyone what I do creatively as I just have an idea or feeling and do it!!

It was almost cathartic to share and also to listen to others’ processes and progress. I was delighted to have an opportunity to open up and fully express myself. Also, to not have to decide everything on my own was refreshing.

I have gained much drive and momentum from the course in my artwork and have a strong desire to share and lead workshops. My confidence has an artist has grown and surprisingly my confidence as a writer has blossomed. As I am dyslexic, I was dreading and feeling overwhelmed from the prospect of doing any written assignment. Miraculously I produced a good piece of writing which was poetic in parts so I decided to enter it into a literacy competition and started to write poems for the first time in my life. Other artists quotes and text also became part of my work.

This was completely unexpected, as well as the questioning of my motives as an artist from researching Simon Roberts. From this self inquiry came a new direction for my art that is heading towards a potential solo exhibition this year based on the new work I am producing. Overall mentally I was engaged more than I could have imagined. Now all my research is leaving the mental realm and going back into the visual realm of painting but in a new way which is exciting.

Clare Gravenell’s finished piece in the exhibition

What has been your favourite part so far?

I had several…

Learning together in the library was a pretty amazing experience as I was researching my own artist whilst at the same time listening to conversations the other artists were having about their chosen artist its was like a cosmic melting pot of information and ideas. The art books and illustrations were delightful too, I was like a child in a sweet shop, visually mesmerised by them.

Meeting Simon Roberts was a crucial part of my research, you can read and collect information but until you meet the artist in person you have no idea what they are like and how they create. To engage directly in a dialogue about what drives their work and talk in depth about certain topics was an incredible experience and I was so glad I recorded it. The interview was a pinnacle moment that impacted my direction of the whole project.

Ironically one of my favourite parts has been not knowing really what I was doing or where I was going throughout my research. Its has been exciting and challenging at the same time as I tried lots of different things and unexpectedly went off in different directions especially entering a literacy competition!!! I allowed myself to fully go with the flow and follow my excitement and passion in whatever I was doing. I immersed myself regardless of any outcome which is actually difficult to do when faced with deadlines and a final piece.

One last thing I enjoyed was several trips out into the landscape of the South Downs to collect visual reference and gather a feeling for the place. It was actually too cold to paint ‘in situ’ which was my initial intention. For the first time instead of going on my own, which I had done when I painted landscapes in the past, I took a friend or family member. While we walked and talked, I shared what I found inspiring and asked what they felt too. It informed my practise much to my surprise

What would you say to another artist thinking of applying for Step Up?

It’s an artist dream to feel supported, learn new skills and connect with other artists. Not only has it completely changed the way I work as an artist but I found a new confidence in writing which is pretty amazing since I am dyslexia.

Be ready to go on a journey and be open to experience something very different, some times challenging, some times exciting.

I have gained so much from taking risks and not knowing what I was doing. Its a nourishing and stimulating course that allows individuals to develop and blossom. Thank you Outside In for creating such a wonderful opportunity for me.

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