Arnolfini
Colin Cavers, Schools Residency Arnolfini 1987

ARNOLFINI ARCHIVE | #1 – Colin Cavers, Schools Residency

While we’re all in a state of flux, Phil Owen, Collaborations Producer and resident Arnolfini encyclopedia is sharing with us some images and memories from our extensive archive.

We’ll have more to share with you in the coming weeks.

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In 1987, a young Scottish photographer, Colin Cavers, spent two days a week for four months working as artist-in-residence in two Bristol schools, Merrywood for Girls and Courtlands (the latter of which specialised in educating disabled children). This photograph is part of a large body of work the pupils produced under his guidance, documenting the then fairly ruinous Canon’s Marsh area just before it underwent a major redevelopment – it is now the site of the Lloyds Amphitheatre and Millennium Square. As Cavers wrote at the time, ‘the school bus became a regular sight… disgorging these photographers clicking away as soon as they were out’.

While Arnolfini was described as an educational organisation when it first applied for charitable status in the late 1960s, it wasn’t until around a decade later that the first designated Education Officer was appointed. This was Katy Macleod, who while in post pioneered an approach then rare in galleries that people could gain valuable insights in to the art being exhibited by being supported to make their own creative responses – a learning-through-making approach that could cut through specialist language, and which posited the idea that creative agency is not the sole preserve of professional artists. It was this vision which very much underpinned the artist residencies in schools which Arnolfini began to organise in the mid 1980s (by which time Janette McSkimming was Arnolfini’s Education Programmer). Sharing his memories of the project, Cavers says ‘key to the residency was the fact that the students from Merrywood supported and encouraged the pupils at Courtlands in how to take photographs. This was and still is key to working in community contexts, that of enabling and developing personal skills through creative practice. In turn the pupils of Courtlands broadened the Merrywood participants’ understanding of living with disability’.

The photograph reproduced here is one of only a small numbers preserved in a folder of documents about Cavers’ residency in the Arnolfini archive. (70 images from the Canon’s Marsh project were exhibited at the National Centre for Photography in Bath, with the pupils taking an active role in the installation of the show).

There are no images from a side project pupils from the Courtlands School initiated, though there is an evocative description in the report Cavers wrote about his residency. Apparently inspired by abstract colour techniques Cavers had shown to them, the pupils at Courtlands developed their own approach, holding the camera freely rather than using a tripod, incorporating any involuntary movements or shakes resulting from their disabilities to create experimental images. They selected local shopping malls as locations with plenty of colour, light and activity where they could photograph and ‘take advantage of their disabilities by moving the camera freely during exposures… allowing them more control of what and who they photographed [and] giving them a more open confrontation with the public’. It is inspiring to think of young people perhaps more familiar with being stared at for their differences being able to reflect the attention back, creating art works which drew on these differences as a strength.

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