As a fashion designer and visual artist in London, I never expected that I would find myself in a tiny, rural town called Mino in central Japan, accesorising my outfits with jangling bells to fend off potential bear attacks. But such are the unexpected joys of being an artist-in-residence in rural Japan.
Venturing away from my hectic city life I found myself shacked up with a host family in a Buddhist temple, complete with all the onigiri (rice balls) I could eat and buckets full of steaming green tea. My days were spent getting crafty with a Japanese lantern master, eating jacket potatoes with chopsticks at a puppet festival and working with the local paper making industry alongside three other international artists in an authentic ‘Udatsu’ house.
I had been introduced to the notion of using art as an alternative way of seeing the world 18 months previously and had embraced the concept of artist in residence programmes. I love the way they present a platform that nurtures both creative and cultural exchange, allowing for community interaction and a unique learning and travel experience.
Such projects have already given me the chance to sit sewing in a beautiful concept studio overlooking the incredible palaces of Vienna; making papier-mâché dresses in a workshop decked out with Brazilian Samba mannequins in Taipei; and, of course, getting down with nature in the mountains of Japan.
International art projects offer a buffet of opportunities – you'll find something right across the spectrum of creative endeavours, from visual art, dance, photography, music, writing, sculpture and textiles. Whether you are a budget-governed creative looking to generate some new works under the influence of an abandoned Soviet Era toy factory or a watercolour enthusiast looking to invest in a room at a refurbished monastery, there are some bizarre and inspiring hotspots up for grabs.
Some of these gems are fully sponsored. Many are artist-run initiatives that set you up with a hammock and daily lunch. Others are self-funded. Projects are not only exclusive to established artists. Some are available to graduates, creative hobbyists and students.
Vienna was my first encounter with an artist in residence project. I found it gave me the time and space to create culture specific work in a new city as well as network and collaborate with local creatives. Alongside the slog of hard work there was the chance to base myself in a wonderful city complete with an abundance of strudel, a bustling art scene, the joy of Prater funfair and plenty of al fresco fun in the city’s inspiring ‘MuseumsQuartier’.
This experience spurred me on to venture further afield. A few months later I embarked upon my journey to Mino. My time in Japan was a challenging endeavour. Spending three months with a local family, living in a tiny village environment was a whole new ball game for me. Nonetheless the programme supported me in creating some new work. I became involved with an exhibition in a local museum and attended a range of workshops from ‘washi’ techniques to lantern making. I was presented with an intense ‘cultural exchange’ involving endless delightful dinner parties and trips to weird and wonderful places including Shirakawago and the Kataji Valley to play bingo in the autumn leaves.
My most recent art-orientated adventure took me to Taipei to spend three months based within a community driven initiative working with local schools and organisations. Alongside developing my own work and involving myself in the Taiwanese industry, there was also the scope to experience the real Taipei. My free time was spent eating tea-leaf fried rice in the mountains of Maokong, enduring a few particularly shady nightclubs and ending up in a Chinese-speaking knitting club.
Finding a good project is like going strawberry picking; it takes time to find a juicy one and often bagging a prize spot is competitive and challenging. But in my experience, the research and application process are well worthwhile when you find yourself in a one-of-a-kind globetrotting situation.
Emma Bell is a British designer and creative consultant who uses international creative projects as an alternative way to travel. You can read more about her adventures in Taiwan on her blog, Emma-Bell.
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