We could think it is the institutions that shape us: the particular school, art college, museum or gallery collaboration. But if I look back, it is specific individuals within those institutions who are the crux of the experience. Whom we meet (and whom we don’t meet) can turn out to have a profound impact on the course of our life. I have spoken of Unn Sonju many times, but not here. Time to redress this omission. At art school in Leeds in the mid 70’s, I followed a degree in Furniture Design. Unn was then a part-time tutor on the Fine Art course. She ran a textile studio which happened to be opposite our design studio. The room housed half a dozen vertical tapestry looms and a handful of students working away on various projects. One loom carried Unn’s current tapestry – a detailed semi abstract dreamlike composition in deep blues as I recall. This artist taught by example, and in so doing provided a very rich learning environment of sketchbooks, samples, personal art books and exhibition catalogues ‐ indeed an ‘artist in residence’ before the phrase ever became commonplace. The atmosphere in the room was one of very real creative charge. I was on the outside, looking in ‐ yearning to be involved in this world. An invitation from Unn to step inside, and my life changed (though I didn’t recognise it at the time). A visual melee of rich, enticing colour, earthy smells of strings and twines, intriguing posters and conversation – I soaked it all in. I could almost taste the excitement. And when a loom became free and I was to feel first hand the twangy, taught parallel lines of my own linen warp and hear the rhythmic thud thud of beating down of the weft ‐ I knew I had arrived. Halfway through my final year, whilst I still had use of the college workshops, Unn suggested I made a loom. This I did, copying the Scandinavian design. As a tutor, Unn posed questions rather than gave answers. This way of teaching, though sometimes frustrating to my young, student mentality, has held me in good stead. I graduated in 1976 armed with equipment but no certain knowledge – everything I have learnt; know (or think I know) subsequently, I have found out for myself. The door was ajar… Unn opened it… I could feel the breeze on my face…. she stood me on the threshold, but she didn’t push. I thank her for that. To give someone the opportunity to discover for themselves; to release in someone the power and desire to want to find out more, is a most potent thing. Unn left the UK to work and teach in her native Norway and I haven’t seen her since. She would be unaware of the impact she has had on my creative life. Her wisdom has always remained with me. Now, thirty years on I have tracked down her address. We have exchanged letters, photographs, philosophies. Our growing dialogue is stimulating. I look forward to the day when we might meet so that I can say face to face how much I appreciate her not being my teacher but being my unwitting mentor.
Artists in Residence at the V&A
With an exciting and ever-changing programme of artists and designers, there’s never a dull moment in our residency studios. We will give you an exclusive look into what it’s like to be in residence at the world’s greatest museum of art and design.
We have a thriving and exciting programme of artists in residence here at the Museum, with at least two practitioners inhabiting our studios at any given time.
Here we show the process of being an artist or designer in residence here at the V&A, with behind-the-scenes insights and stories from Residency Co-ordinator, Laura Southall, and the artists themselves.