Turning dereliction into an art form
As an artist it is Rachel Swinburne’s duty to draw attention to the things we do not see.
As an art teacher, it falls on her to show her students how to do the same.
She brought fresh eyes to the island two years ago when she took the role at Bermuda High School.
Exploring her new home, she said she was immediately taken with the derelict buildings. Her site-specific works, No Passing By, are part of the 2018 Bermuda Biennial, What We Share.
“Since I’ve been here, I’ve been quite taken with the derelict buildings around the island, just the amount of them, there’s more than a thousand,” Ms Swinburne said.
“For a fairly small place that’s pretty significant.”
She chose four sites for her vision, “reconfiguring a small area of the façade” with her own board designs to sit over a window.
Each piece adopts the architectural features of the building itself; plywood panels are marked in bright latex paint.
“Each board aims to bring the overlooked back into the present spotlight,” she said in her artist statement.
“The style of the board is purposefully constructed to appear linear and organised in disparity to the more organic and quick application that can typify some traditional graffiti-tagging methods.”
Ms Swinburne’s work is one of three submissions that take the work outside the gallery.
Photographer Meredith Andrews has a “sharing booth” in Washington Mall and New York-based artist Jon Legere has floating triangular beacons in Walsingham Pond.
It was the latter’s work that drew her attention to the Biennial in the first place.
“When I arrived on the island, the 2016 Biennial was already on,” she remembered.
“I noticed Jon Legere’s big sculptural pieces outside of City Hall.”
She learnt more about the show through fellow BHS teacher and artist Louisa Birmingham, who has an archive of catalogues from past Biennials.
“All credit to those people that are pioneering and managing to get the Biennial to the standard that it is,” Ms Swinburne said.
“The quality and the ideas that are being shared are really interesting.”
The 31-year-old described the island’s art community as “thriving”.
“Since I’ve been here, I’ve been involved in so many things — from Chewstick, to murals, to the Plein Air Festival,” she said.
“The island has a really strong community that I really love being a part of.”
She has contributed to shows at the Bermuda Arts Centre at Dockyard and the Bermuda Society of Arts.
“There’s a real openness,” she said,
“I’m fairly new to the island, but every time I’ve reached out to collaborate, it feels very receptive and welcoming.”
She meets with plein air painters almost every Sunday to create art at different locations.
“Some of the paintings are just incredible, but you never feel intimidated because it’s so welcoming and so supportive,” she said.
“If you’ve never picked up a paintbrush, or you’ve been doing it for years, you get a span of ages and experiences and backgrounds. It’s just a really interesting mix of people.”
Ms Swinburne completed her textiles degree at Goldsmiths, University of London, but uses a diverse range of media to create.
“That course was very much about putting you out of your comfort zone and taking risks with materials,” she said.
“I ended up working with many different materials, including in bronze and sculpture.
“Since I’ve been here, I’ve come back to some of the more traditional mediums — sketching and painting again.”
Her process is methodical.
“If I found a site that I’m interested in, I’ll start researching it and finding out more about the history of the particular building,” she said.
“Then I would photograph the site and get a feel for the architecture. Then it was a case of getting permission.”
Her four pieces can be found in the Victualling Yard in Dockyard, Admiralty House, the Canadian Hotel and the Botanical Gardens.
“I very much wanted to do something site-specific and engage a wider audience beyond the people that cruise the National Gallery,” she said.
“It’s important to get art out to the community. People can chance upon the artwork rather than having to go to the gallery.”
Ms Swinburne is encouraging people to share pictures with the works using the hashtag #nopassingbyselfie, “to engage a wider audience”.
The move has also reignited her passion for teaching.
“It’s the best job ever. I really enjoy it,” she said.
“The students are so interested and keen. We have a lot of fun in class.”
The visual arts teacher held an assembly addressing the Biennial and her project on May 10, the day of the opening.
“Technique is fairly straightforward to teach; this is more of a challenge,” she said.
“Thinking conceptually is something that comes with time.
“I challenge them and ask why — just getting them to think a little bit more critically about the things that they’re making and any ideas that they’re expressing. Art is not supposed to be intimidating; it’s supposed to be inclusive and thought-provoking and interesting.”