When I left the East End of London ten years ago, I was worried that I would miss the arty vibe of Shoreditch and Hackney.
My other worry was where to work? I needed an art studio.
I was delighted when I met Jonathan Powell and Daniel Staveley, who told me about their Elysium Studios. They introduced me to the lively arts culture centred around High Street. As is so often the case, an area previously notorious for dilapidation and decay was forging a burgeoning reputation through its artists and students.
I rented a studio in Elysium’s Mansel Street Studios, a marvellous space in a repurposed office building, with enormous North-facing windows looking out over the Edwardian terraces of Swansea.
I’d previously rented space in a string of different studio complexes in London. Far from an exciting art scene, my first studio was so quiet. Day after day, I was on my own. It was okay once I was absorbed in my work, but it was hard to motivate yourself to travel to work every day knowing you wouldn’t speak to anyone all day.
Several times I moved studio looking for the art scene I had fantasised about but was repeatedly disappointed. Of course, I met many artists along the way and slowly forged a network of creative friends who I was very sad to leave behind in London.
I was dreading having to repeat the process of developing an art network in Swansea, but Mansel Street was a revelation. I met more artists in a week than I’d met in all my years in the capital’s famed Limehouse or London Fields’ studios.
Survival is the priority in London, and people work tirelessly to stay afloat, often an artists’ passion is forced to take a backseat. Artists pay for space to uphold the illusion that you are still an artist if you have a studio – even an unused one. A paid storage facility would be a more vibrant cultural hub than these places.
Every day I was confronted with corridors of locked empty rooms.
Swansea proved to be the antidote to my lonely London existence. The people I met ranged in age, experience and were from a variety of disciplines. It was a community in every sense of the word. It was here that I met the artist’s Jane Bennett and Carys Evans, both of whom now exhibit in Gower Gallery.
Over a decade since its inception, the Elysium venture has continued to thrive with two galleries in the city centre and a bar on High Street. Their openings and art events are often packed.
Gower remains an integral reason why Swansea’s awash with artists, vivid light, coupled with rugged coastline and glorious beaches provide inspiration that’s impossible to resist. Indeed, it was the landscape that initially made my partner drag me back to Wales. Though increasingly, Swansea itself has become a magnet for creative types, and I believe Elysium deserves recognition for its contribution in shifting the balance.
Often, but not exclusively, Swansea College of Art fuels the creative scene. Its profile has continued to rise in the UK art landscape, currently ranked fifth for art in the Guardian League Tables and placed second in the Student Satisfaction survey. The fact that artists have opted to remain in the city after graduating rather than feeling pressured to rush off to London indicates that Swansea’s art scene is thriving.
Artists’ studios continue to crop up across the city primarily under the umbrella of the Elysium Gallery, which houses over 100 artists in 60 studio spaces. There are independent event spaces such as the Taliesin, Volcano Theatre Gallery and Cinema & Co, a cinema and performance venue.
Of course, students and artists alone cannot sustain the cultural scene. The cliche that Swansea is “the graveyard of ambition” and that once you live here, you won’t want to leave has its merits. Many people have arrived in Swansea and settled. These people help power the city’s creative engine, buying the work of artists and makers, purchasing tickets to independent cinemas, music festivals, and performances. Pubs are full of comedy nights, live music and poetry events,
Swansea has proved to be the ideal place to settle. It offers the best of both worlds, cosmopolitan in a Welsh salt of the earth sense, with the knowledge that you can escape into an awe-inspiring landscape whenever you need to. Urban grit tempered by the waves lapping on Swansea Bay.