Are you a fellow? My experience of being one.
Essay by Maria Tsagkari
I’ve been a fellow since the age of 10, I just didn’t know it or, perhaps, it had a different meaning then than it has today. I grew up in an apartment block with a kindergarten on the ground floor. I could see its courtyard from the balcony facing the back, and five days a week the house reverberated with the children’s voices and the endless games they played. In the foyer of the building, in the back, there was a little door leading to the courtyard, but it was always locked. Sometime in primary school, between imaginative inventions and bursts of creativity, my sister and I decided to better organize our activities. Thus, we created GVCE, the Group of Various Children’s Events, with over 20 members. We began by organizing toy swaps on makeshift counters, dance competitions, group games and short plays with handmade costumes. The first events were held in the portico of a friend and “official member” of GVCE, but we soon wanted our own space. And the ideal venue was right beneath our feet, so we asked the kindergarten teacher to let us use their courtyard for an afternoon. It was my first attempt at self-organization with a collective dimension, and the first time I understood the significance of being part of a group, a small community. At the end of primary school, we held an unforgettable farewell party there, drawing one circle to a close and opening, unconsciously, another: that of perpetually seeking a sense of belonging.
In September 2019, after the winning candidates had been announced, ARTWORKS launched the second cycle of its Fellowship program. The year that preceded it had been a “dry run”, putting capacities, numbers and relationships to the test, and it had already emerged as the most popular program in its field. The excitement was palpable, evident even in the new fellows’ posts in the social media, and it was due, on the one hand, to the fact that such an initiative, to financially support new creators, was unprecedented in Greece. It was an initiative with the potential to regenerate needs and desires that had long been dormant amidst the recession. On the other hand, the excitement was a result of curiosity about an intensive program that, at first glance, seemed more like an over-ambitious gamble.
We began with a group visit to an exhibition and, a few days later, to an artist’s studio. That first meeting, despite the edge of awkwardness it entailed, also brought about a strange sense of exaltation. It was the first time in many years that I was reminded of GVCE, of the freshness of solidarity. The presentations we make as artists are generally directed to curators, historians or an unknown audience that sets the tone of the presentation. This, however, was something entirely different. For the first time young artists addressed an audience of their peers, creators of the same generation, with whom, in addition to the common language of art, they shared experiences and contexts. This, in turn, meant we could bypass all unnecessary explanations, since our shared codes made for remarkably direct communication. Our discussions held space for questioning, creative ambiguity, conciseness; they contained all that isn’t said in interviews and all that is deleted in texts. An audience that had experienced no golden eras, but, instead, the cumulative exhaustion of the recession and the compulsion of production that promotes communication without communion. With the need for support and collectivity greater that most occasions in our history, these meetings served as recharging stations, reminding us that, beyond quibbles, disagreements, markets and systems, the art world is an invaluable ecosystem where every living organism plays a vital role with a beneficial effect to the whole.
Over the months that followed, we got to know each other better and our meetings, with flexible, by now, parameters, continued in cafes, parks, town squares and, again, in our studios, in the form of collaborations. My enjoyment of this synergy and creative coexistence was so great that I rearranged all of my obligations so as not to miss out on a single meeting, in person or online. And, indeed, these relationships that were founded on shared views and emotional investments, transformed organically into friendships and collaborative relationships. As proven by the fact that I have, so far, collaborated with three fellows from different fields in the production of new works.
Two years later, I was asked to organize a workshop for the fellows of the fourth cycle. Having had the experience of the program, I designed a series of meetings based on the idea that the artistic process is a nebula of small obsessions, persistent attractions and reversions to the sources that shaped our identity as artists. The workshop entitled The things that made us or In love with the sources served as an opportunity to share the mental process of creation and the deeper associations between our obsessions, our sources and our work. The way these elements were incorporated or transformed into artworks. It was a launchpad for an in-depth discussion on the mechanisms that feed and activate our artistic work, which fed back into it and supported its evolution. And indeed, these discussions even gave rise to new series of works, demonstrating the fertility of that microclimate.
In a few short years, ARTWORKS has enhanced our resilience, speeded up procedures and, as a living organism, created interactions with the broader art world. Taking part in a program that fills institutional gaps and addresses real needs, constantly stimulating our artistic sensors, it built bridges, within and outside of Greece, between artists, professionals and organizations, which have led, organically, to some wonderfully creative collaborations. At the same time, it charted the new art scene of Greece and, with an acute sense of extroversion, developed the culture of studio visits, reminding us that the social reach of art emanates from the artists’ studios. Thus, enhancing the sense of community through an ever-growing membership and frequent contact, it has confirmed that being a fellow is not a memory but a quality. And that can only be an addition to the social landscape of the Greek contemporary artworld.
Visual artist Maria Tsagkari is an awardee of the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Artist Fellowship by ARTWORKS (SNF ARTWORKS Fellow 2019).
ARTWORKS is a nonprofit organization exclusively supported by its founding donor, the Stavros Niarchos Foundation (SNF). Our aim is to create a fertile and nurturing environment for Greek artists through funding and public engagement opportunities. You can always learn more about our Fellows at www.art-works.gr