Pavement Picassos: the locked-down artists showing work in their windows
It is not a good time for art lovers. The second lockdown has closed galleries once more – I’m imagining portraits waiting moodily in the National Gallery in London to be admired again; Van Gogh’s sunflowers wilting further – and so it is not a good time for artists.
Artists Walk is an initiative that aims to improve that state of affairs. It’s a simple idea for an art trail that began as a joint endeavour between printmaker and painter Rosha Nutt, and her art marketing consultant friend Holly Collier. Those who in normal times would be exhibiting in galleries or community spaces can now place their work in the windows or surroundings of their homes for passers-by to admire. Kind of like “how much is that doggy in the window?” Except that it might be that Picasso sketch of his dachshund.
In March, just before the first lockdown, Nutt and Collier curated an exhibition in London that featured Jeremy Deller and Ben Wilson. #FakeNews also had workshops and talks and was the success of these that gave Nutt and Collier the confidence to establish Artists Walk.
“Lockdown was the catalyst,” Collier tells me. “So many artists have moved studios into their homes. Exhibitions and events have been cancelled. It’s pretty depressing being an artist who can’t show work. We wanted to do something that had a positive action, a way to connect with the local community and something fun to do.”
Until 14 December, London artists working in whichever medium – painters, photographers, illustrators, film-makers, ceramicists and more – can pay £15 to have their location added to the “interactive map” on the website, as well as a short bio and links to the artists’ website and social media profiles, plus a custom poster.
Collier and Nutt pulled the whole thing together in seven weeks. “It’s been late nights, early mornings and a lot of elbow grease,” Collier says. They applied unsuccessfully for an Arts Council grant, but local collectives and businesses stepped in. An estate agent became a sponsor and organised a leaflet drop. Alexandra Palace – usually home to concerts and comedy gigs – lent its support, including what amounts to a quasi window-residency.
Collier tells me there has been an enthusiastic response to the scheme; 115 artists have signed up. So I set off, phone in hand, around north London (Artists Walk is designed for London, though creatives have registered as far away as Wales).
About that “interactive map”. It is not so interactive. It keeps deciding I am in Clerkenwell, four miles away. But I plough on, undeterred. Well, maybe a little.
On the way, I take in the everyday detail and aesthetic pleasures of the streets. The gorgeous stained glass and children’s painted rainbows that are their own window art; a set of bollards that someone has graffitied in bright colours. The 1930s sculpted panels by Arthur Ayres that make for one of my favourite buildings in the Crouch End area – even though it is now a Barclays branch.
I arrive at the painter Sarah Barker Brown’s house, her large bay windows displaying oil canvases of two swimmers wearing bathing caps; a black-and-white portrait of a woman with wonderful cheekbones and afro; a couple embracing. Light bouncing off pairs of lithe legs. A self-portrait. Brown’s husband opens the door and through their garden I can see the artist in her studio.
Brown has won prizes and exhibited in galleries around London. So how does the Artists Walk experience compare?
“It is a nice thing. Usually, I’d participate in the Crouch End Open Studios” – in which local artists open their homes and studios to exhibit and show to prospective buyers – “but that was cancelled this year. I have found the lockdowns difficult, especially at first. I was a bit sort of: ‘What am I doing?’ What really got me out of that was I painted a portrait of my friend, who is a nurse, in full protective gear. And that reconnected me. Now I am enjoying painting for me. There is a bit more space and time.”
There is a brilliant painting entitled One Last Swim, made before the Hampstead Ladies’ Pond locked down again last month. Another of two women enjoying the sun during the lead-up to the hot, sticky summer when, for some, lolling about outside was all there was to do.
Brown has noticed people stop and look, she says. As if to prove her point a woman and her young daughter comment “They’re beautiful”) as they pass. Then Maureen Harrison, another artist involved in the scheme, appears.
“It’s a great idea and affords people a different experience during their daily walks,” Harrison, whose work mostly focuses on changing urban landscapes and city spaces, says of the project. “It does mean that those who would be reluctant to set foot in a gallery can still view contemporary art, and others can get their fix.”
There are issues, however. Harrison is having problems with glare on her windows, which are high up. (One of Brown’s sons is at university and the other – being a teen – “basically has his blinds shut all the time”. So it has worked out pretty well, window-wise, for her.) There’s also the wet weather.
I pass three other displays. One is the house of mixed-media artist Caroline Bettaney whose high dynamic range photographs of Scottish lochs contrast with bright pop art (I later learn this house is used often used a film location). The second is the glass front of Lisa-Marie Price’s studio. Price crushes rocks and stones to make the paint for her abstract watercolours that focus on the environment. Her works are the most at home.
And finally as the darkness moves in, Kamala Harris and Marcus Rashford greet me from the windows of Alison Meek’s house. The portrait of Harris – though partially obscured by a reflection of branches and smiling out at parking spaces and council bins – is particularly striking and heartening.
Is the Artists Walk a success? Yes. It is bringing people together and reminding us of the arts we used to enjoy when zoom was just a verb. But it’s also quite a disheartening rendition of the real thing. It’s a bit like breaking up with someone – you’d rather not see them for a bit if it’s not going be how it was.
Artworks such as these aren’t made for this habitat and I kept getting distracted by the art, intentional or not, that is all around us and which does fit. Not just those stained glass windows, but the bright flowers bursting from front gardens and a very beautifully patterned Oliver Bonas shop front. A heart carved into wet cement. Those coloured bollards. If anything, the real achievement of Artists Walk is to remind us to slow down, look around us (and up) and appreciate the beauty of buildings and the creativity of people that are constantly around us. No interactive map required.