Five Summers

There is a tradition in Scotland. After a settled, sunny June, the last day of school invariably coincides with a thunderstorm or some other strenuous downpour. Grey skies that linger throughout the month of July give way to the occasional burst of sunshine, but generally, expect no run of glorious weather between the wet and grey of ‘it’s supposed to be summer’. Then the middle of August rolls around, the schools go back and out comes the sun. I don’t remember this being the case I was a child myself, but I definitely became aware of it during the time I spent living and working in the west highlands. Probably because the last day of term was spent loading the car – an activity that is always more memorable under deluge.

For me at this time, the beginning of July meant packing up everything but the studio sink as Room 13 relocated to the village of Strontian, on the Ardnamurchan Peninsula. For two weeks, then three and possibly once even an attempted four, the art classroom in Ardnamurchan High School was the location for Room 13 International Summer School. The logistical operation takes my breath away when I think of it now. Not only transporting the studio, but stocking up on groceries and essentials to feed and host up to thirty people for up to thirty days.

Getting there from our home base in Caol was a proper adventure, by car and ferry. You could not imagine a more perfect setting for a gathering of artists. A well-equipped studio in a modern building snuggled in the hills, surrounded by ancient woodlands. Step out the door for walks by the river, or a gentle hike into the rolling hills. An adjacent accommodation block with private rooms, spacious shared kitchen and lounge, served by a single village store, set by the side of a picturesque village green.

From 2007 to 2011, five summers were completely consumed by this absurdly idealistic enterprise. Room 13 International Summer School harboured the grandest ambitions of our aspiring international organisation. It was an absolutely brilliant idea, in an idyllic setting: we aimed to bring artists of all ages from Room 13 studios around the world to live and work together. At the same time, taking advantage of the diversity of skills within our network to run courses that would attract participation from others, who would pay to participate. It was conceived as an annual event that would connect and nurture our community of artists, raise the profile of Room 13 as a centre of creative learning and generate income to support our day to day work in schools.  

The studio at Room 13 International Summer School, in 2008 (left) and 2010 (right)

It unravelled very slowly, as gradually the viability of the whole enterprise became questionable and ultimately, we had to concede that it was unworkable. Not only beyond the resources we could muster, but also beyond the reserves of human energy. Anyone who works in a school – teachers, pupils and the support staff, will be familiar with the fatigue that sets in as the school year draws to a close. The flurry of activity that comes with end of term, the energy and momentum that gets you through to the summer holidays. Everyone needing a break. The winding down and finally, the last bell. For teachers, maybe a week or so more after the kids have gone to reset and prepare for the next term. Or maybe they flee along with the children, and return refreshed a few weeks later to do the prep for the next academic year, according to personal preference.

Imagine though, after a full school year, instead of winding down to the end of term, gearing up for the biggest month of the year instead. Filling the month of July with the greatest, best, most challenging and rewarding and consuming work you ever do, leaving barely a week or two to get turned around in August before plunging into the new school year to do it all again. Imagine doing this for five years straight.

Those five summers contained the most incredible, memorable ‘did we really do that?’ moments. For many people, children and adults, those weeks were formative. Friendships were forged. Careers were reassessed, and life’s purposes were explored or re-examined. Artists of all ages did indeed travel from far all across the globe to attend. We hosted children who had never before left their south Indian village. Ambitious young artists from Soweto.  Eager pre-teens from East London, and then South London (or was it the other way around?), along with artists, teachers and community leaders from Mumbai, LA, the south of Scotland and the Southern United States – all descended upon this tranquil corner of the west Highlands. Though not at the same time – the capacity of the studio and accommodation was limited, and we discovered that the logistics involved in getting a few young people with one or two accompanying adults from several different countries as we might have hoped to do, was far more of a challenge than getting a larger group of young people with accompanying adults from just one country.

Each year, we welcomed at least one such group and poured our energies into logistics – visas, airport pickup, welcoming, hosting, meeting all anticipated needs and expectations and even providing sightseeing and weekend excursions where possible. If young people had travelled half way across the world, for the first and possibly the only time in their lives, we felt we should at least give them as much of an experience as we could.

For an organisation with a workforce of two, working year round, not exactly employed – it was a lot to ask. It was a lot of pressure to put ourselves under, year after year.  And yet, it is easy to see what kept us going. A glance back through the photos is enough to be reminded of the incredible community that was formed. The people who came year after year, and those who happened to be there that year, or dropped by on that day. Who crossed paths, who caught a moment in time and who was there throughout? The conversations, the creative sparks, the shared experiences. So many pictures, so many stories. Only some of them are mine to tell. 

At its heart, Room 13 Summer School offered a working studio, accessible from 8am-8pm, with freedom to come and go. There was a great feeling of freedom, compared to the everyday experience of Room 13, which is much more embedded in the life of a school. The summer studio offered a suspension from routine. To be among artists, and ultimately among friends, completely absorbed in their work and the surrounding environment: it allowed a stillness and focus, and brought about a purpose and connection which many found re-invigorating. I hope for the participants this was enduring, for me as the organiser, it was fleeting but still there.

Overlooking the village of Strontain, location for Room 13 International Summer School

As it was residential, feeding and housing were paramount. This worked best the year we serendipitously attracted the participation of a fine arts graduate who also happened to be a chef. Otherwise, it was all hands on deck. Breakfast was usually self-service, lunch was a buffet with soup and salad tabled on a rolling service between 1230 and 2pm, and dinner was a mammoth operation. Artists ranging in age from 6 to the over 60s creating together and alongside one and other in the studio by day, then cooking and eating together, peeling off in the evening to take walks, return to the studio, share their work and inspirations, music, poetry, or politics deep in discussion or solitary contemplation all the while. It was almost utopian. The residential summer school participants were joined by local children, some as young as 4 or 5 who flooded in and out of the studio like a tide for short periods every day.   

I loved it, even while I grew to dread it. It was just too much. Those moments of joy and connection became isolated islands in an ocean of deep exhaustion. Far from being the great commercial engine that boosted the finances of Room 13, the Summer School was in itself a major task that required herculean effort over and above the day job of keeping our studios going throughout the school year. It was always a relief when it covered its costs – just about, not accounting for the acres of time invested.

In the end, the summer school came to a natural end after the set up of Room 13 Community Studio in Caol.  For all its international aspirations, it began to feel wrong that we could secure corporate sponsorship from global players to bring young people across the world to attend our summer school, but we had difficulty securing the means to bring those from our home community in Caol, just 40 miles around the loch to share it with them.

The newly established Room 13 Community studio was accessible all year round, with a programme of activity that focused on our local community. It made no sense to leave the studio we were leasing empty for the summer in order to decamp to Strontian. With the shift in location, the nature of the event changed. With no residential accommodation on site, we didn’t set out to attract international participants. By this point, leadership of the charity had fallen to me. In the process of building up a new team, and with changed circumstances we needed to rethink our priorities and do things differently. Room 13 International Summer School paused, and then when the time and space proved more replenishing than the event had been, it ceased.

Though not completely. In 2016, we returned to Strontian for Room 13 Young Artists’ Retreat. This was planned, structured, resourced according to the true cost of delivery and delivered by a team. This unified, focused event worked on many levels that under the previous incarnation had failed to coalesce. Room 13 International Summer School tried to be so many things, pitched concurrently at multiple levels – immersive art camp for young artists, workshops for local children, residential courses for adult artists, family activity holiday, and also served as a summit for artists and facilitators involved with Room 13. It never did quite manage to define its audience. It attracted a real diversity of participants, who, while hopefully charmed and certainly not disappointed, didn’t quite get what they required out of it, exactly. While Room 13 International Summer School succeeded in being something truly unique and really quite special, it fell frustratingly short of its potential in each of the areas where it could have excelled. Where the summer school took more than it gave back, the Young Artists’ Retreat took a carefully pre-determined amount, and gave back something that felt invaluable.  For the first time, I felt we had hit upon a formula that worked. While it was a one off (thank you Highland Youth Arts Hub) this is something I’d still like to return to one day. Watch this space.

I think back on those five summers with warmth, a sense of marvel and a slight shortness of breath. Though mostly with relief. While I’m glad we did it, I am even more glad those days are never to be repeated. I like July. I like to wake up every day and think. Hey, nice, it’s July. It is no longer the month that will whizz past in a blur of car loading relays, as I handle the transportation of art materials, food, and passengers in between doing changeovers and industrial quantities of laundry, trying to manage bookings and do admin with no mobile phone signal and internet access restricted to the opening times of the local library, on top of facilitating a vibrant creative atmosphere, and remaining relaxed and welcoming while delivering art workshops in the actual studio….

Room 13 International Summer School will live long in my memory as I hope it does for many others whose lives it touched. I think of it as one of the best things I ever did, even if I never want to do anything like that ever again. I’ll be happy if I get to relive it a little each time the calendar flips around to July and the clouds turn heavy with summer rain.