Why do an Artists Residency

Seeing as how the last four months of 2013 for me involved completing two Artists Residencies, I thought that while the memories are still fresh I would reflect on what they meant to me, their lasting impact… & a little bit of advice and encouragement if you are considering applying for one.

Without wanting to sound like a physics lecture, Artists Residencies are about space and time. Many different institutions and facilities offer Artist-in-residence programs all over the world – many are listed here. The residency must be applied for to a strict deadline and they exist to provide a place to work and develop your art, away from your usual place of residence. In a sense they could be considered a working holiday but the work you do and how you do it is the key. Some residencies are aimed to support specific mediums, which is obviously an important factor in finding a good match between you, the artist and the residency. So finding the right residency is the starting point.

The other key element that residencies provide is time, usually of a fixed duration. Time away from your local commitments, time away from your ‘normal’ life. Time to focus on your ideas, explore them, research and develop them, to create new work and eventually present or exhibit it… In my case, after a LOT of research, first I spent the two months of September & October 2013, on Shodoshima, an island in the Seto Inland Sea of Japan completing a residency with the ArtBiotop Organisation. Secondly I spent two months of November & December 2013 based in Little Huia, in the Waitakere Ranges Park near Auckland, completing an Auckland Regional Parks artist residency.

The answer to this question (why do an Artists Residency?) will be different for every person who applies, because it is a direct reflection on where you are at with your own art. Some residency programs are targetted at new/emerging artists while others seek mature artists with an established body of work.

For me, I consider myself a combination of both of these. I have spent 20+ years working in the film industry and developing my aesthetics, approach and processes. I do have an established body of work, but the majority of that work is work on other peoples projects. At the end of 2012 I went through a period of reflection, initially motivated by the death of a dear friend & mentor. The resolution was a shift in my focus, to creating my own work. And successfully applying for these two residencies was a crucial part in my creative evolution, but it wasn’t quite the abrupt shift in approach that it might at first appear…

Back in the late 1980s, when I was attempting an electrical engineering degree I slowly came to the realisation that I could not live a life as an engineer. Electrical engineering just did not excite me, nor engage what I considered my strongest personal attributes. This finally became crystal clear in an interview with a local electronics company – in hindsight the interviewer was a very clever, insightful person who within 15 minutes helped me clarify what it was that I wanted to be doing. And it wasn’t electrical engineering! I am indebted to him for this, some people live their whole lives without such realisations. So I was slowly spending less and less time at Engineering School and spending more time hanging out with friends at Ilam Arts School, one of New Zealands two top fine arts institutions. The contrast in how these people lived their lives was in such contrast to those in engineering. This sounds ridiculously obvious now, but when you’re young & finding your way in life such things are important, especially when you consider the choices you make back then affect the rest of your life.

During this time I slowly vowed to live my life as an artist – not someone who has a job and works from 9 to 5, spending the rest of their time trying to forget or avoid work. I wanted to evolve my life to do work that I cared about, that I thought about 24/7, work that I could provide a unique perspective on. And this attitude has served me incredibly well in the following decades – both in the 20+ years of working in the film industry and during all of the spare time that I have invested in my own projects. But through reflection and evolution I have slowly come to want to reverse the roles, that is, to spend the majority of my time working on my own projects. And these two residencies have provided the most beautiful, supportive and inspiring situations in which to finally address that desire.

The first step, after deciding you want to do an Artists Residency is the application process. I am sure this process alone eliminates a lot of people, because it involves a lot of deep thinking, and putting ideas into words, words that anyone can understand. Most residencies provide guidelines for your application, for example the Auckland Residency Program notes that priority will be given to:

• artists capable of high quality and innovative work
• artists who propose a clear result or outcome from the residency
• artists opting for new, site specific work either related to a specific place or park feature or to the residency experience
• artists whose work encapsulates or alludes to “sense of place”
• artists who offer some interaction with others eg. park visitors, park neighbours etc.

Examples of your work, your history, your personal goals and character references are usually required. While there are some similarities with applying for a job, I believe the core issues can be summed up as: what do you want to do during the residency? And are you able and likely to do it and have a successful outcome?

Simply having to clearly express what it is you want to do is an invaluable process for any creative person. Clarify your intent, and communicate it in a way that anyone can understand.

Once your application has been sent off, then comes the waiting… and waiting… Usually there is a period of months between application deadline and any further contact, which is enough time that you have to just put the idea of the residency aside and continue on with life. The reason I applied for two residencies was about hope as much as anything – I thought if I didn’t get the first residency that I applied for, then at least there would still be hope for the second one. I pitched totally different projects for each of the two residencies and while there were some similarities in the application process, the majority of each required specifically and uniquely developed ideas. I put a lot of thought & research into making sure if I did get to do either of the residencies I was going to achieve the utmost that I could from them.

And then one sunny morning the phone rang… you could not wipe the smile off my face for weeks! And when I discovered I had been accepted for both residencies I was ecstatic – the universe was encouraging me in ways I would never forget.

Each residency program provides physical help in different ways. Some provide per diems, others provide transport (to the residency, and while at the residency). For the Shodoshima residency I was provided a house and a car for the duration of my residency, but getting myself from New Zealand to Japan was up to me. The Auckland residency provided a house and a weekly stipend (enough to live and cover basic materials) – getting to the residency and transport at the residency were up to me. So researching an appropriate residency for you, is dependent on what you need and can afford to do.

And there will be practicalities. For both residencies I needed to set up my own little composing/mixing/post production suite in the house provided. Now consider the practicalities of that: hundreds of hours spent in a room with all source elements, CPU, softare, storage & backups, monitors and acoustics. My excess baggage to and from Japan was equal to about half my airfare. But that didn’t worry me – I planned for it. Do not take anything for granted.

For me, making the schedule work with two residencies of two months each meant I had to juggle timing a little, and sadly I also had to pull out of working on a film that I was booked for. But there was no way I was going to miss the opportunity these two residencies represented.

I won’t go into too much detail here, as the ramifications of both the residencies are deep, far reaching and in some ways beyond words. But I can imagine looking back in a few years time & being able to point directly to the residencies, as to why I am now wherever I will be by then.

The first thing I really noticed with the residencies was the dramatic shift from research, planning and developing/clarifying concepts to arriving at the residency and starting work.

In the months prior to travelling to Shodoshima, I spent hours and hours online doing virtual location recces on Google Earth, Maps & street view and Flickr. Hours and hours, stashing bookmarks, taking screenshots etc… And a lot of time clarifying and evolving ideas, researching concepts & techniques…

Arriving in Japan is always a buzz, but catching the ferry to Shodoshima for the first time (I have visited Shodoshima twice before, but it’s a different feeling arriving on day one of a residency!) I was like a kid on a sugar rush! But it was also interesting that within a week I had settled into my new temporary life, thanks to the help & support of the local residency people. The same was true in Little Huia – it is amazing how fast one becomes settled…

And that is one attribute of the residencies that was common to both: you arrive and instantly tap into a supportive network of local people, who are there to help you, and who want you to succeed. Being positive, open minded and collaborative are invaluable attributes in life, but even more so when being thrown in the deep end, meeting a lot of new people & forming new relationships in situations such as these. Good for the creative mind, essential in fact, but great for the human soul too!

The next revelations I savoured were the shifts from concept to reality. I remember a specific point during the Little Huia residency where this became crystal clear to me, it was right here:

A good friend & DOP/filmmaker had agreed to shoot a little documentary about my residency (you’ll get to see it, sooner or later) and while out recording in a really unique visual location (as per that photo, a road literally carved through the landscape) I suddenly thought of a great steadicam shot for the doco. I did a pre-viz version, shooting with my 5D and comped it into a video, sent him a youtube link and the next weekend he brought his steadicam out & we revisited the location.
But after shooting my idea for half an hour & getting it in the can, we both then relaxed & started shooting material with the steadicam that was so much better than what I had conceived. I came away from this experience with a resolution: it is the concept that gets you there in the first place, but the gold comes from being open minded and exploring the possibilities in situ. Its not a new adage but it reinforced my belief that the best work comes from working, not from thinking about working.

I also knew I would be influenced & inspired by engaging with the environment and locations from both the residencies. People talk about the form of light in New Zealand, but waking every morning to a view of the Seto Inland Sea of Japan was bliss. And equally, living mere metres from the Manukau harbour had a profound effect on me, it reminded me that I could never, ever live out of sight/hearing of the sea.

In both residencies my work was totally altered by the places I spent time and the people I met. It is easy to say in hindsight, and it is easy to think about beforehand. But just how it happens, moment by moment and day by day, is heavenly.

The two biggest things I learned from the residencies?

First, was about process. Evolving my process, learning how to do things I planned but had never done before. Clarifying what I was willing to accept and what I wasn’t. I’ve been accused of being a perfectionist before, but I am not – I am a pragmatist. But what I accept as ‘good enough’ for myself is based on my own ideals, no one elses. And not a new lesson but: perseverance. As example, one 20 second shot in my Shodoshima short film took six hours to capture, and it wasn’t timelapse, it was a real time shot. When people see the shot & ask about the actors, there weren’t any. It was all real. Hence the time….

And despite having witnessed it many, many times on other peoples projects, the process of evolving my own projects with a clear screening deadline rapidly approaching, is some of the hardest work I have ever done. If you want clarity of vision, book a screening! What is that old saying by Leonard Bernstein:
“To achieve great things, two things are needed; a plan, and not quite enough time”

Screening my work, and discussing it with the audience was also profoundly satisfying. The stress and adrenalyn of finishing the work, the anxiety of it screening (I’m not religious but I prayed to technological gods for pleeeeease, no playback glitches!) and then witnessing how my work changed before my very eyes, just by having an audience present, are incredible things to learn.

And unlike any time in my past I felt like I really OWN my work. I have always had a slightly uneasy relationship with what I make (I am without a doubt my own worst critic) but after weeks and months of being present, and making the most of every day to create the best personal work that I could, I was more than happy to own it. And during the Q&A from both the residencies I answered questions with answers I didn’t know I had until I said them. Insight into your own work, is such a blessing.

Secondly, and finally, the most important things I learned during the two residencies are the most personally profound: growing as an artist, and clarifying my ouvre. I feel that in my own personal work I have evolved, from crawling around exploring & bumping into walls, to walking with a sense of purpose and direction. Without the residencies I simply would not have that, and that alone will serve me deeply, in the years to come…

Should you apply for an Artists Residency? Only you can know the answer to that question – are you ready? Are you able to take months away from your normal life? Are you able to support yourself? Is your work ready? Do you have clear ideas about what you’ll create? If yes to all of that, I cannot reccomend the experience highly enough – it IS life changing.


I can also imagine a hundred ways someone could come unstuck, and for that reason the residencies tend to be well screened. But bear this in mind, even the process of applying for a residency will teach you things about yourself that you may not even be aware of. For that alone it is worth it. And I tend to take the long view, if you are committed then even if you don’t get accepted with your first application, then that is just feedback to you, to evolve your ideas & present an even stronger application next time round.

And some important advice: most residencies only occur once a year, at most. So if you are interested, it pays to track the application deadlines. Why I mention this is that the deadline for the 2014 residency in the Auckland Regional Parks is closing on 17th February – you have just over a month to get your application in – more info here

Good luck!

And I can’t finish this monologue without offering my profound thanks to all of the people who made these two residencies possible for me. From the bottom of my heart, thank you! I know I will revisit both residencies, for the rest of my life & I so look forward to meeting again the fantastic people involved in making both happen. Thank you! Arigatou gozimasu!



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