My pop-up residence.

First posted May 23 2010

Around the end of February this year I received an email invitation from Euan MacDonald to take part in what he referred to as a ‘unique art venture as part of this May’s Brighton Fringe Festival’ – the Residence ‘pop-up’ restaurant. Having once again received no invitations to exhibit at any of the Open Houses, and rather fancying the idea of being a participant in the Festival for a change, I agreed without giving the matter a second thought.

It was only once I stopped to consider what this event might entail that I realised what a large step outside my normal comfort zone I’d signed up to. This was to be ‘live’ art with an actual audience of diners (who, to be fair, were more likely to be engrossed in what was on their plates than what the doodler in the corner was up to) and a very limited timescale. There was also clearly no question of transferring my studio computer set-up to the restaurant for one lunchtime so this would have to be a more traditional effort. The thing is, I haven’t really worked ‘traditionally’, that is with real brushes and real paints, ever since I started working digitally about fifteen years ago. I could just turn up and make a drawing, I guess, but the occasion seemed to demand something more substantial, particularly as the idea was to auction off the resulting artwork to raise money for charri-dee at the end of the one-month run.

Remarkably, I found that the majority of my old tubes of acrylic paint had remained usable during their enforced period of neglect so I got to work on a quick practice run to see if the old magic was still there. There was no canvas lying about my studio – quelle surprise! – but quite why I chose to limber up on this length of 3×3 I’ll never know. Suggestions on a postcard, please.

The publicity for Residence intensified as May drew closer but I’m sure I wasn’t alone among the invited artists in still being unclear about the true nature of the project. I briefly swung by the place on the first day it opened, partly to say hi to Euan in person and wish him well for the next few weeks, and also to see what a pop-up restaurant looks like. Very much like a permanent restaurant as it turns out, save for the ‘artist’s zone’ in one corner. Most of the walls were bare at this stage, the idea being that they would gradually fill up with the work produced over the month. One small wall space by the bar had however been given over to a selection of existing pieces by the artists and I was pleased to see a print of mine displayed prominently among them (it sold on the first day!). On this first visit I also briefly met the graffiti artist Hutch and saw him mask up and apply the first few aerosol sweeps to what eventually became his excellent entrance surround.

I paid another swift visit to the restaurant a couple of days prior to my residence, just to confirm what was provided (a wonky easel, essentially) and what I’d need to bring along for myself. Purely by chance, a chap called Richard Stamp, who writes for the Fringe Guru arts blog, had stopped by for lunch and was compiling a podcast report on the experience. He’d already recorded a short interview with that day’s artist Teresa Winchester and snatched a few impromptu, garbled words from me before he sat down to eat. The podcast is here if you’re interested; my cameo role comes in at around 5:02 if you can’t be bothered listening to the whole thing.

My session, on the middle Friday lunchtime, was far more enjoyable than I expected. I’d already decided that the only way I was going to produce anything remotely worthwhile in the limited time available would be to treat it like any other illustration commission. Quite a few of the other artists bravely painted on-the-spot group portraits of the diners around them but this seemed like a high-wire act too far, so I took a few key words such as ‘restaurant’, food’ and ‘art’ as my brief and knocked up a sketch beforehand in preparation. On the day it was then just a case of re-interpreting this sketch in acrylics on canvas – quite enough of a challenge for this pixel-head, thank you!

For someone who normally operates from his home studio in glorious isolation, a busy restaurant is not without its distractions as a place of work. I hadn’t really factored in the complimentary meal for instance, which involved scurrying between easel and table of family and friends with nary a nod towards polite conversation. There was also a succession of interested diners who quite legitimately came up for a closer look and a chat. All very enjoyable but hardly an aid to productivity. In the end, I stayed on for a couple of hours after the place emptied out and finished the painting in relative peace.

It’s worth mentioning that aside from the Art / Restaurant novelty factor, the food was excellent. Largely staffed by catering students, towards whose qualifications this experience counted, the service and general ambience of the place were of a standard you’d normally expect to pay for through the nose. The feedback I overheard was unanimously positive.

At the time of writing, as far as I know, the auction of artwork hasn’t taken place so I’ve no idea how much money has been raised for the nominated charity, Help The Aged. Last night was exactly that, the last night, for this year at least. I get the sense that the experiment has been a great success however, and wouldn’t be at all surprised to see this venue ‘popping up’ again during the 2011 Festival. I’ll be more than happy to jump aboard if re-invited.

The Parkin girls get in on the act.

Addendum:  Mon 24th May, the auction is still open for bids. Artwork details and online bid-form can be found here:


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