Last week we published part 1 of Catherine Weir’s experience of applying to an SGSAH artist-in-residence position. This week we’re delighted to share part 2, that looks in detail at Catherine’s time at RSPB Mersehead, with reflections on the benefits of being an artist in residence during your PhD.
Last April, Roseanne Watt (University of Stirling) and I spent an amazing month living and working at RSPB Mersehead on the shores of the Solway Firth in Dumfries and Galloway. While there, we were registered as RSPB volunteers, which meant our time was not only spent working on our own projects, but contributing to the day-to-day survey work of the reserve. In that month I not only took the first crucial steps to developing a new body of artwork combining photography, digital art, and writing; but learnt a great deal about conservation work, land management, and, of course, the birds of south-west Scotland.
On my first day at Mersehead, the warden Rowena, took Roseanne, Charlie (an RSPB volunteer), and myself on a tour of the reserve and explained to us all the different habitats – grassland for the geese, shallow pools for the natterjack toads, hedgerows for the smaller birds – they maintain, and how they look after crucial infrastructure like the anti-predator fence and the drainage system. At seven o’clock the next morning she put us to work surveying lapwings: three hours scanning the fields through a telescope in search of nesting birds, noting any found on a map in faint pencil. For the next month I did two or three surveys like this every week. Some were first thing in the morning: looking for wading birds, and listening for water rails. Some were during the day: counting flocks of barnacle geese, and identifying butterflies. My personal favourite, however, photographing natterjack toads, took place at night.
The first night we went out in search of the natterjacks – tiny nocturnal amphibians whose mating calls could be heard ringing out across the reserve – we walked across the fields by the light of a quarter moon; and on the night of the full moon I could easily read the dials on my camera without the aid of a torch. On darker nights, the skies were so dense with stars it could be difficult to pick out even the most recognisable constellations: like the hunter Orion or the great bear Ursa Major. On the night of the new moon, the darkest night, I think I even saw the disc of the Milky Way. My experiences of night on the reserve had a profound influence on the work I made, and helped to me connect my PhD research to other, older elements of my artistic practice.
Far from being a distraction or a hindrance, taking the time away from the art school, the library, emails, and all the other distractions of city life, gave me time and space to focus on making, and on applying the methods I’ve been developing through the PhD to a ‘real-life’ situation. The residency helped my research to grow, and threw light on elements of my practice I had not previously considered.
Two weeks ago, Roseanne and I returned to Mersehead for an exhibition of our work. The evening began with a guided walk around the reserve to look for geese, followed by talks from the two of us, a screening of Roseanne’s films, and an opportunity to see the different pieces of work I had made. I think I can speak for both us when I say it was a lovely end to our residencies and heartening to see how both the public and the RSPB staff took to our work. Well, I say ‘end to our residencies’, but I doubt either us have seen the last of Mersehead. There are still paths that remain untrodden, and new fields to be ploughed.
At the exhibition, I confessed to the gathered crowd I nearly did not apply for the residency because of my doubts about the benefits of taking so much time away from my studio, not to mention away from my thesis. These doubts, for me, proved unfounded, but I appreciate it may not be possible for all researchers to fit a residency to their research the way I did. To my fellow researchers, I sign off with the following advice: do not let chronophobia be the thing that stops you applying. If you find a residency that fits, that will help you to advance your research, or your career beyond the PhD, go for it.
Catherine M. Weir is third-year PhD Candidate at the Glasgow School of Art. Her work combines elements of both photographic and digital arts practices, drawing heavily her previous studies at Gray’s School of Art (Aberdeen) and Goldsmiths College (London). Catherine’s practice-based research, funded by SGSAH, explores the evolving field of digital photographic practice, with a particular focus on developing works combining photographs with recorded and real-time data.
Contact Info and Web Links
Email: email@example.com / firstname.lastname@example.org
Blog posts: “Why are you here?” – http://www.cmweir.com/why-are-you-here/
Camera Obscura – http://www.cmweir.com/camera-obscura/
Egretta garzetta, or the little egret – http://www.cmweir.com/egretta-garzetta-or-the-little-egret/
Another Sky – http://www.cmweir.com/another-sky/