The art of community-mindedness: Click into Culture at Fabrica, Brighton – Q+A with Clare Hankinson

Street view of Fabrica’s exterior, Brighton.

Having settled in the deconsecrated Holy Trinity Church in Brighton’s city centre 25 years ago, arts organisation Fabrica has since worked tirelessly to engage with the local community as a social hub and support centre. 

The past twelve months have presented new challenges to the continuation of outreach programmes, tailored to the needs of vulnerable groups, that Fabrica has spent years developing. 

While their physical exhibiting space and workshop facilities have remained closed due to external factors, the arts organisation’s team of staff have been striving to extend socially-minded community programmes into the digital sphere.

Clare Hankinson, Fabrica’s Audience Development Manager, has been an indispensable driving force behind many of the organisation’s groundbreaking outreach initiatives in recent years. 

Her altruistic approach to audience development has given rise to the creation of community programmes that provide an exceptional level of local support from the multifaceted arts hub that she has worked with for just over a decade.

“One of our key aims as an organisation is to reach the broadest audience possible; that’s really inherent in our bones,” said Hankinson.

We spoke over Zoom this week about Fabrica’s community outreach initiatives, including their brand-new digital programme Click into Culture, which has been designed to assist people who might have difficulties with mobility or their personal health (that may ordinarily affect their access to art institutions) in experiencing artworks from home in a supportive online environment.

“Of course, with COVID, a lot of people are struggling to get out of the house but what we identified, really, was that it isn’t a new problem for a lot of people,” she said, and explained that Click into Culture has been designed with a post-pandemic future in mind.

We also discussed the opening of Olafur Eliasson’s upcoming exhibition at Fabrica, which has been in the works for a number of years and will be opened up to members of the public in May.

Although we were separated by the distance between two terminals of a Zoom call, it was easy to get a sense of the unmistakeable enthusiasm and passion Hankinson has for her work. 

Read the Q+A in full below:

SIS: Did Click into Culture start as an offshoot of the established Going to See Culture Together programme Fabrica runs monthly for older audiences?

CH: It is a bit of an offshoot of Going to See Culture Together. Click into Culture is probably the culmination of a few things. Luckily, we applied to take part in a Tech for Good research and development programme […] before the general lockdown happened. 

It was a 12 week program, and some of my colleagues took part in research, developing ideas, talking to the people we work with, participants we work with, digital engagement, what people use.

This gave us the chance to really dig down into where the barriers were for that group – or, actually, where there were opportunities – so as part of that project I got to develop some prototype ideas. 

We’d gone in specifically thinking about older people with low mental health, and one of the prototype ideas was basically what Click into Culture has become. We got really great feedback from the prototype testing that we did with some of our participants, but we realised that it wasn’t something that only older people might take advantage of.

Click into Culture, I hope, will be one of the things that we take forward as a digital activity in the long run, because we could be engaging people outside of the city – there should be no restrictions on where people are. So that might be exciting for [a new group] to connect with each other as well.

Our mental health programmes and lot of our older audiences programmes are heavily oversubscribed, so we’re always thinking of ways we can diversify and reach new people because otherwise you just feel like there’s so many people who are missing out.

SIS: How did Fabrica’s mental health support events and group workshops emerge – were these parts of a broader therapeutic arts initiative that the organisation has always worked towards?

CH: A lot of arts organisations over the last five or ten years have started to consider themselves as working on a health and wellbeing agenda. I think it’s taken us a while to really see ourselves as [an organisation] that could really apply to health-related funding. 

A big step change for us was when we started doing Men in Sheds, as that was a Public Health funded commission. I think that put us in the right networks to start […] working with doctors’ surgeries, and also with mental health organisations, with Public Health and suicide prevention services.

Often you still feel like the odd one out in the room, because the arts feels – when you’re working with frontline services – a little bit soft, but there’s obviously value there.

Those guys we’ve been working with through Men in Sheds for years […] – as soon as we weren’t able to open our doors we were phoning them every week. We were trying to suggest things to do from home, and trying to connect people together, and getting them involved in anything else that we were doing. We ended up really trying to find [things that would be] suitable to each individual that we know.

SIS: Have you been able to continue your regular workshop programmes and support events for children and young audiences, such as CHOMP, throughout the pandemic?

CH: The situation of lockdown has meant that we’ve tried and tested so many routes to keep engaging people, and I would say it’s certainly – unsurprisingly – not a ‘one size fits all’ situation.

There were a few things we’d planned for young people and children that haven’t gone ahead […]. We run a lunch club for low income families that just couldn’t run as an event […] and the really big opportunity with that event is that the families get to meet each other, mix and mingle, and create together and support each other.

Several community programmes were sending out food hampers to those families, so […] nine times we sent out a hundred activity packs alongside the food hampers so that they were getting something a bit more interactive physically to do from home – obviously making sure that they had some materials provided, and that it was something that was also replicable – something using household recycling materials, and things like that.

SIS: It must have been difficult to shift programmes that you’ve spent so much time building up as people’s needs and capabilities changed during the past twelve months – and some vulnerable groups have been struggled even more to engage with the wider community as many of us have not been connected in the ways we would ordinarily be. Do you think that when Fabrica is able to reopen as an arts hub, interest in those small group events will return?

CH: A lot of our events run really regularly. And I can’t think of one that has totally lost touch over lockdown.

Access to digital [technology] has obviously become a much more understood disadvantage, if you can’t get online; we’ve had a relationship with city council-led Seniors Housing for a long time and they have free wifi, but only in the lounge – so when people didn’t want to leave their flats during lockdown they were totally away from the wifi connection.

We’ve been able to engage people with the bespoke projects we do [but] where we’ve probably lost a big part of our dialogue is people coming in to see an exhibition and having a really good chat with the front of house team, and […] coming across it in this church, and not knowing what to expect. I think that’s something you can’t replicate online in the same way.

SIS: You must be looking forward to having the option to organise in-person events again soon; is part of the pleasure of audience development seeing the reactions from your visitors and groups in the moment, in the physical space?

CH: Yes, and there’s something about trust as well with these programmes – a lot of the work we do is about getting someone’s trust, especially if they don’t think that art is for them, or that it is elitist … 

It’s very hard to get all of that through a digital medium, and we’ve all had to become accustomed to that, haven’t we?

SIS: Fabrica’s upcoming exhibition, Olafur Eliasson’s The Forked Forest Path, is going to be shown through a Click into Culture event in April – but will it also be open to the public in the gallery’s main art space?

CH: Yes, from the 17th of May, when non-essential businesses can open. That’s the plan, and we’ve extended it into June to make the most of the show.

It’s one of those shows that we’ve been working on for a few years and it is [a piece] that is very encompassing, and physical, and fun – all of those things that are classic Fabrica. It’s like a little magical forest.

SIS: Looking ahead, are there any projects that you’ll be working on this year that you’re particularly excited about?

CH: There’s existing projects that we haven’t been able to do recently, like the dementia-focused programmes – I’m really looking forward to getting back into discussing those and getting the gears turning again.

I am hoping that we’ll get something that will give us a bit of longer-term support towards Click into Culture. There’s always so many ideas, and so little time!

Fabrica will be exhibiting Olafur Eliasson’s The Forked Forest Path between 18 May – 20 June. Accessibility information can be found here.

For further information about Fabrica’s special events programmes, visit their Events site here.

Many thanks to Clare Hankinson for her time, and for speaking with Sophie I See.

Still, in motion: Julian Vilarrubi’s Shifting Moments exhibition breathes life into the Phoenix, Brighton

One of the most generous aspects of contemporary landscape art is its ability to translate a pastiched visual language of urban development – mixtures of modern and historical architecture, natural effects and organic structures – into something harmonious and profoundly beautiful.

From jagged scaffolds to the potent beams of an evening sun, Julian Vilarrubi’s most recent series of works on paper – Shifting Moments, currently on display in the Phoenix Art Space, Brighton – encompasses a full and enveloping experience of the artist’s perception of his exterior environment from a principal vantage point.

In various mediums, at numerous intervals, Vilarrubi renders a view of St Peter’s Church as he observes it continuously in transient glances from the window of his working studio upstairs at the Phoenix, which stands on the opposite side of the road. 

“It’s a visceral, in the moment response. A reaction to something.”

Vilarrubi is a warm and thoughtful conversationalist, with astonishing self-knowledge and an enthusiasm for reflective artistic practices.

With faces covered and distancing observed, the artist and I took a tour of his exhibition, while he illustrated the process of creation behind the artworks on display along with the lasting influences and inspirations that fed into Shifting Moments.

‘St. Peter’s Sunset’, 2021, 154 x 119 cm. The final work in Vilarrubi’s Shifting Moments, on display in the Phoenix’s Canvas Coffee Bar.

When I met with the artist shortly after the show opened to the public, he spoke of his fondness for producing works in rapid succession – something he encourages his students to do in exercises when teaching painterly techniques.

“There’s this strange ‘no man’s land’ between being conscious of what you’re doing and being […] in the moment,” he said.

“If I’m under pressure, then I’ve got to do something quickly – and I love working quickly.” 

Vilarrubi attributes this, in part, to time he spent working under a Fine Art tutor during his studies at Newcastle University.

His tutor had once led a trip to the Swan Hunter Shipyard by the Tyne, where the students were asked to paint inside the immense industrial sheds on-site in natural conditions – while it was half-lit and bracingly cold. 

Those paintings produced in-situ inspired the artist’s working method throughout his most recent series, which exemplifies a passion for painting with immediacy, and employing fast-acting materials. 

Vilarrubi also commended Sky’s Landscape Artist of the Year for giving him the opportunity to explore new modes of on-site painting guided by set conditions, and to practice responding “from reality”, when he participated in the programme back in January.

‘Swan Hunter Shipyard II’, 1983, 59.4 x 42 cm. One of two early works on display in Shifting Moments.

Two of the paintings produced in the Swan Hunter sheds are on display at the Phoenix, and occupy the first and second positions in the Shifting Moments exhibition.

“I only decided to put those two there right at the last minute,” he said. The decision was motivated partly by a recognition of parallelism between the recent studies of St Peter’s and his early studies of the Swan Hunter buildings.

“It’s about having those restrictions: going to the same place, working in the same way … in the same scale.”

When initially offered the corridor exhibition space at the Phoenix, he had planned to produce a series of 8 or 9 identically sized paintings that would lead a viewer through the effects of changes in the time of day on a single landscape. 

The artist had a working deadline of 6 weeks to develop and finish the series, which pushed him to adapt his initial conditions to suit the constraints that he had, for the most part, imposed upon himself.

Having created an inceptive piece which measured 60 x 80 centimetres in its frame, Vilarrubi sought to replicate the dimensions across all the works in Shifting Moments, but found that the number of identical frames he required would not be available for the exhibition – so he decided to make use of older frames he had stowed away which were diverse in proportions.

“The frame determined the composition,” he said, as he indicated towards outer edges of a painting in the series that had been deliberately spliced onto a painting of St Peter’s in order to extend the image and create a Baconesque focus on the central subject.

Vilarrubi adjusts focus and perspective in his compositions by working in layers, and considering the effect of “deep space” at each stage of production.

Six of the works on display in Shifting Moments are iPad drawings, and the artist enthused about the freedom digital drawing awards as the layers in each piece are able to be transformed, modified or repeated to great effect.

‘Morning Rain’, 2021, 29.7 x 21 cm. One of Vilarrubi’s six limited edition iPad prints in Shifting Moments.

“The top layer is the rain on the window, and then the next layer is the balcony, then the trees and the sky,” said the artist, in describing Morning Rain – the first iPad drawing encountered in the exhibition. “I started playing with the space even more.” 

The framing of space is a prominent motif across Shifting Moments, and mature works like St. Peter’s Brighton VII showcase the artist’s ability to draw depth by capturing details that create an interplay between foreground and background.

“Actually, what I’m painting is […] the space between me and the church,” said Vilarrubi. He explained that by representing dust, streaks and speckles on the glass of the window from which he observed St Peter’s, he was able to render the ephemeral moment more accurately.

The artist described the difficulty of creating landscape scenes that are true to life, even when painted plein-air. “There’s a gap between what you see and what you do. Therefore, in that gap, you’re memorising what you’ve seen.”

The soft psychedelia of Vilarrubi’s acrylic colour palettes suggests that he is open to creative renditioning of a direct environment, and working with electric colours was imperative for the artist when painting from life in Malibu or Tenerife. 

One of the more exacting challenges he has faced in his most recent series is developing and discovering greys or flat tones that are so ubiquitous across everyday Brightonian scenes over winter. 

View of St Peter’s Church, Brighton, in the spring.

Tuning into the moment and translating that moment into a composition simultaneously involves a great deal of control over practical methods, and a freedom of thought.

“It’s not relaxing at all. It’s full of tension, and the risk of potential destruction,” said Vilarrubi, while admitting that this process of creation can yield remarkable results, and therefore tends to be highly constructive.

Shifting Moments is a delightful exhibition which showcases the artist’s manifold talents across different media. The concept of a fixed central point being observed through changing points in time is acutely relevant in the context of recent months, and the delicacy with which Vilarrubi depicts his surroundings inspires the onlooker to seek such vibrancy in their immediate environments.

Shifting Moments is currently showing at the Phoenix Art Space, Brighton. The building’s main entrance is accessible to wheelchair users via ramp.

Many thanks to Julian Vilarrubi for his time, and for speaking with Sophie I See.