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The Correspondence Residency – Elena Thomas RBSA

With Stuart Mayes, Hospitalet Ateljéföreningen, Uppsala, Sweden, 12th – 17th June 2024

The invitation to the residency came about after over ten years of correspondence between our long-term blogs on a-n.co.uk (my blog is also published on my website). More recently we have used FaceTime for virtual studio visits, where we work side by side while we talk. I had only met Stuart once in real life, during a brief visit to Stockholm a few years ago. We hit it off really well, and since then have corresponded more regularly.

Stuart Mayes is an artist from the UK, he has been living and working in Sweden for over ten years. His practice investigates specific materiality from a norm-critical perspective. The range of material includes second-hand men’s shirts and ties, vhs video-tape, and mirror balls. The materials for each specific work or project are selected for their social, cultural, and personal references. The visual forms might resemble flags, heraldic emblems, demonstration placards, even gymnastic equipment. The techniques of patchwork, embroidery, and glitter coating, together with the materials challenge traditional conventions and present investigations of authority and vulnerability with sensitivity and wit.

Elena and Stuart

My own work considers relationships, between people, often children in both family and societal environments. I also use old garments and household textiles in my work, stitched and embroidered, situated alongside natural disregarded objects such as sticks and stones. We were drawn together by our use of these familiar materials. Even though our chosen subject matter is different, we have overlapping interests and our work has material similarities and we have similar processes. It was during a conversation about these processes we started to wonder about a joint exhibition and what it would be like to work together.

Stuart and I often find ourselves discussing our work and the comparisons between working as an artist in the UK and Sweden, and the similarities between the RBSA and the Uppsala Konstnärsklubb (Artists’ Club) which is also an artist run organisation, where Stuart is a member, and up until recently he was the chair. The idea for the residency was born, and we started to plan…

We spent two days in the project space at Hospitalet, where Stuart has his studio. It is an amazing place: a disused, but well preserved old psychiatric hospital in beautiful parklands full of huge trees, waters, and well-tended gardens.

When I think about how artists in the UK work often in the derelict and the ignored, sometimes even dangerous spaces, I have quite an extreme emotional reaction. The respect and investment given to the arts in Sweden is incredible. We should be ashamed that we treat our artists so badly.

It felt good to be able to work together in the project space, such a bright and airy room, on the other side of the building from Stuart’s studio.

We carted materials and equipment across: a selection of textiles and a large roll of paper, drawing equipment, the usual fixings… tape, string, sewing kit, scissors. I had taken with me a bundle of my wrapped twigs and some ties, shirt pockets and collars for Stuart’s collection. We used some vintage sheets, a lace curtain, ropes and string and strips of fabric…

Hospitalet project space Uppsala – Day Two

Then we set about playing with what we had. We called the residency Correspondence because after years of corresponding virtually, we wanted to see how our materials would communicate in the same space, and how we would too.

What resulted was a very playful experimentation: arranging, combining, assembling and disassembling the materials, talking almost constantly about other artists, exhibitions, studios and residencies.

We took hundreds of photos. I think by the end of the second day what we were producing was not just a correspondence between two separate artists using separate ideas, but a truly collaborative, evolving installation.

On Thursday evening Stuart and I held an “In Conversation” event at the Arts Club, for the members. We talked about our long term correspondence, and writing long term blogs on a-n.co.uk where our accounts of the residency can be read. There is a common experience here, that we are keen to follow up on.

Elena and Stuart In Conversation at Uppsala Artists Club

On the Saturday we drove two hours to Örebro for the opening weekend of their biennial arts festival. This was truly inspiring. There were exhibitions on various sites around the city centre, and also a plethora of open air sculptures and installations in the streets, in public buildings, and even in the river, all plotted on a useful map. We watched a procession and performance (that included one of Stuart’s studio mates) that has really sparked off plenty of ideas connected to my own work. The two hour car journey back was filled with chatter and excitement about what we had seen and what we could take from the experience to influence our own practices.

On Sunday we went to Stockholm. We spent a good amount of time in the Liljevalchs gallery (where Stuart had had an installation of his work hanging in the Spring Exhibition). It is a really interesting gallery I would recommend you visit, not as big as Moderna, but well worth a diversion. The rest of the day we spent doing touristy things, a ferry ‘cross the Baltic (sorry… I was in Liverpool recently) and shopping in Old Town. And kanelbullar of course!

One of the things Stuart and I talked about is continuing and extending this correspondence. We are interested in building on the experience of contemporary art connections between Uppsala and Birmingham, and wonder which artists might be interested in joining us in an adventure? We don’t know what it will look like yet…. That depends on who expresses an interest, so do look out for an opportunity to join in the fun soon…