Brief Encounters

Two artists have taken up a year-long residency with Tunbridge Wells Museum to express the town’s history and identity in their work

All Images: David Clarke

It is standard practice for architects and designers, when coming up with a scheme for a town or city they don’t know, to go looking for clues that will help them express that place’s history and identity in their designs. Local materials, geological references, significant buildings – mansions, museums, libraries – and famous people past and present are the obvious ports of call. But artists don’t look for the obvious. They like to venture off-piste, to unearth what may be more significant, more characteristic, but perhaps less visible.

In 2016, artists Tracey Rowledge and David Clarke were invited to conduct a year-long residency for Tunbridge Wells Museum and Art Gallery. The main purpose was to work as part of the development team, along with the Museum and Art Gallery and its neighbouring Library and Adult Education Centre, the masterplan architect (Purcell) and interpretation specialist (Metaphor), in order to help design a 21st-century knowledge hub – formed of parts of the existing, institutional buildings united in an open, integrated, contemporary envelope.

The Arts Council had rejected an initial Stage 2 proposal however, so the scheme needed reinvention. Says the museum’s cultural projects manager Polly Harknett: ‘It was an essential thing to do. If we are going to be a united cultural organisation we have to look at how we work together.’ Her artist shortlist focused on artists with a craft-based practice (Rowledge is a fine art bookbinder, Clarke a silversmith) for two reasons. Says Harknett: ‘We have a big collection of folk art. Adult education has a lot of craft courses, and a continuing commitment to that sector.’ The team at the museum saw this as a way of bridging the disparate art, education and museum entities.

Wooden gazelles brought back from africa by expats, sit together in a Perspex frame as the piece limboWooden gazelles brought back from africa by expats, sit together in a Perspex frame as the piece limbo

While looking through the museum’s collections, Clarke and Rowledge came across three boxes marked Unclaimed Enquiries.These were fragments and objects that had been brought to the museum for assessment and never reclaimed. The boxes, says Rowledge, ‘were full of scrunched up, very old brown bits of paper and inside were all these bits of glass, dolls heads, endless fragments, with tiny little bits of writing attached with the person’s name on. They were decades old – from the Fifties, Sixties and Seventies.’

These finds resonated with Rowledge and Clark’s fascination with unloved and even ‘hard-to-love’ items. It fit with their proposed theme – ‘Shelved’ – exploring, as Clarke says: ‘This idea of what is shelved within a museum, within society.’ For ethical reasons, they couldn’t work with the unclaimed box contents, so they went treasure hunting in the town’s charity shops, which they soon noticed were filled with a very particular kind of bric-a-brac: romantic china figurines, strange little resin houses and wooden gazelles seemingly brought back from Africa by the town’s significant expat (and ex-armed forces) community.

During the 30 assigned days of research, visits, talks and studio time, they attended many meetings with the townsfolk of Tunbridge Wells, with the relevant cultural organisations, the council, the architects and interpreters. And in doing so they were able to find shared sensibilities and open up dialogue between them. Says Clarke: ‘The status of “Other” was really important. We never stayed there. We would come in from London by train and then we would leave.

When we dealt with the council and architects and interpretation team and the public, we had some tricky situations. But because of our position, none of it was personal.’

Lost souls. Cast-off old leather soles are crisscrossed with a book binding toolLost souls. Cast-off old leather soles are crisscrossed with a book binding tool

And what of the work? There are nine works in total, placed around the various institutions. My favourite is Landed Gentry: pewter figures Clarke created by using the hollow china figurines as moulds – a process which caused some of them to break and warp. This burnished and slightly deformed version is far more intriguing. They stand on paint-stained glass jars salvaged from the adult education centre’s paint studio; lit from below, they have an almost radioactive, colour-streaked luminescence.

The power of working with the ‘hard-tolove’ really kicks in with another piece, however, which evolved after a local cobbler – who Clarke and Rowledge had got to know – gave them some cast-off, well-worn leather soles. Says Rowledge: ‘When we first got them I thought: ”Oh no, they’re so rank. I really can’t work with them.” Then I thought: “Come on, let’s see what’s possible".' Her first response was spot-on: she has criss-crossed these worn leather patches with a bookbinding tool, using carbon. The resulting network of dense, fine tracks reveal, as she says, ‘the full range of tonal qualities in each sole, which you just didn’t notice before'. They also evoke pathways and the many journeys these soles will have trodden as they traversed the town.

They are sited – where else? – above the local maps in the reference library, each held in place with a tiny gold tack made by Clarke. The work is called Lost Souls.

The aforementioned gazelles have ended up in a piece called Limbo: these spindle-legged wooden creatures form a precarious intersecting structure, protected by a Perspex frame; they sit – quietly observed – surrounded by paintings of the town’s dignitaries in the portrait gallery. One of the things Rowledge likes about these works is that ‘a lot of people will have a memory of having seen them in a relative’s house. They have a resonance particular to the town'.

Aside from a hugely well-attended opening, and a regular stream of visitors, the residency has a bigger legacy. Thanks to the conversations and insights the pair initiated and disseminated, the newly redesigned scheme proposes a more porous building with art and making at the heart of it, and with commissioned art works embedded into the material of the building itself. The new scheme has secured that vital Stage 2 bid for Arts Council funding. Now all that remains is to tick all the relevant boxes for the Heritage Lottery Fund. If that happens, the new building is hoped to complete in 2021.

Shelved was scheduled to finish last month, but may now continue until September.

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