Bolton: Land of Opportunity

Two years ago, at a particularly challenging time in our lives my partner and I made big changes, I quit my teaching job and we moved to Bolton from London. Our aim was to prioritise being carers for our two children, we built a studio and I started exhibiting my work again after a decade hiatus. We also co-founded a risograph print studio/workshop Bolton Contemporary. The general advice for dealing with a stressful time is not to make any big changes – we opted to go against the grain and not follow this advice but to instead follow instinct and thankfully life, though challenging is moving forward in a more positive direction.

Bolton Conteporary Riso Print by Andee Collard

As an art teacher I always felt the tension between using my creative energy to do my job and having any reserves left to make my own work. Teaching is a like being a vampire’s butler, it’s fine during the day but it sucks you dry at night. I admire anyone who is able to juggle home life, work and still have energy to focus on their practice. In my former life it always felt as if I was balancing things that could never reach a point of equilibrium. I’m 40 and my art practice had up to this point very much taken a back seat to raising a family and earning a living. At times I had felt that it was an impossible dream to work as an artist and have a family.

Living and working in London was a mixed blessing. I had a very fixed idea of how I needed to be based in London to have an art career, but as time went by this became less and less feasible. The thing I miss most about London is jumping on the tube and visiting exhibitions, but I don’t miss the crippling debt and lack of opportunity.

Megan Powell Get Stabbed and Boogie installation view. Image courtesy PAPER Gallery

Greater Manchester’s art scene is smaller than London but there’s a lot going on. I am particularly taken by the ambition of the small artist run spaces that have incredible shows. Finding a great contemporary art gallery in an industrial estate feels a little like stepping into the Tardis. Spaces like BankleyAIRand Paperall have an excellent programme of exhibitions that have clearly been curated and organised with great care. One of the biggest lessons that I’ve learnt over the last couple of years is that persistence is important and if something is worth doing it’s worth doing well. Alongside re-establishing my own art practice I have taken a keen interest in the local art scene and have written exhibition reviews for the Corridor 8 website. Trying to articulate your interpretation of another artist’s work though challenging, gives you an appreciation of where they’ve got to, with a greater appreciation for the challenges that they face.

NOT PHOTOGRAPHY installation view. Bankley Gallery Image courtesy Not Photography

Finding interesting events and exhibitions to go to around the local area is rewarding. A highlight was being able to make time to see Amy Sillman talk at the Funny Peculiar symposium at Manchester School of Art. Seeing an artist who is also a gifted teacher rattle off a lecture at breakneck speed was the epitome of inspiring. Knowing that in depth thought about art practice can happen in places other than London is reassuring. 

I previously perhaps would have dismissed art outside of London based on its geography, its a trap that a lot of people fall into. There is culture everywhere and what’s more you can influence it. It feels good to put a small dent in the universe. Bolton has gone through seismic changes over the last hundred years and like much of the North West is trying to redefine itself. Through the many funding meetings that I’ve attended as an artist and for our riso community interest company I can see how hard all of Greater Manchester is working to guide itself into a fulfilling a culturally diverse future.

Bolton Contemporary Andee Collard and Rebecca Harrington

My family and I built a small studio in my garden that I’ve mainly been using at night due to my co-carer responsibilities during the day. After being thrown out of several studios with ever increasing rent, it is liberating to know that the garden studio is hopefully going to be available for me to use for years to come. It’s taken about a year and half to get comfortable with working in the studio. Not having much money has meant slowly building stocks of paper, canvas and paints and finding ways of working when these stocks are periodically depleted. Our riso print studio Bolton Contemporary has over the course of time evolved from using a broken eBay duplicator into one with a digital two colour machine. We started our CIC having attended an inspiring talk by Rabbits Road Press at the Whitworth Gallery’s Bound Art Book Fair. It was really impressive to see how a small group could run such an impactful project. RRP run workshops and print facilities for artists and community groups in Newham and Beyond. We had already considered ways of leveraging our art and education backgrounds and setting up a Riso studio seemed like a good idea to allow us to work with a diverse range of people and projects. 

A lot of our day when we are not being carers is spent on funding applications. Financing a CIC is definitely a marathon and not a sprint. We have spent days on applications to realise in retrospect that we’ve been too ambitious or not clear enough in our proposal. We have also spent a considerable amount of time trying to find a suitable shop space to run a publicly accessible space from. Ultimately we’ve decided to run the riso from our home studio and although it is not publicly accessible it does allow us to print on a flexible schedule and not have to worry about moving the 270kg machine every few months. Reusing empty shop space for free or cheap seems like a good idea but when we scrutinised it further we decided that being able to visit schools and community groups in their own spaces allowed us to work much more nimbly.  

We are very much in a lucky position to be able to spend time applying for grants and bursaries and feel very fortunate to have started this project. We haven’t taken a salary and have invested in equipment, running pilot schemes with local schools and community groups to figure out what works. This year we received an a-n bursary and plan to do a ‘Riso Road Trip’ to visit groups using the risograph and learn best practices. Making this project sustainable is our priority and we have to work hard on our business plan, grant applications and making the project more viable long term. 

Stating my profession as ‘Artist’ on the medical and educational documents that I complete for my children means a lot to me. My art practice explores what I can do with limited resources and my determination to make something exciting on a daily basis. I am proud of the work that I am involved with and how it tessellates with all the creative work happening all around me in the North West.

(Originally published by Artquest April 2020.