Published on February 28, 2013 | by Rory Moore

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Underneath the arches

(L-R) Tom Brown, Jim Shepherd, and Hannah Rowan outside their studio at the Herne Hill Arches. [Alastair Johnstone]

Near Herne Hill station sits a string of local shops – a mixture of small off licences, take-aways and barbers.

Nothing out of the ordinary, simply another street mirroring hundreds of others across the capital’s residential areas.

But halfway down the parade of shops there is a break in the landscape: an entrance to the Bath Factory estate – a small industrial estate, set into the arches of the railway track above.

There is very little to suggest that this complex will be any different to the one next to it, other than a small paper print-out with the words “CREATIVE SPACE” and a contact number. The brief note pasted to the towering green gates of Park Mews is a small clue to what resides beyond them.

The Arch

The creative space is called Ongaen, which is an old English interpretation of the word “again” and reflects the use of materials in its design and refurbishment. The site’s owner and curator, Adam David, chooses the artist for each arch-workspace, considering how they would add to the overall dynamic.

The building functions as the sole studio of the owner and the resident artists and creatives share the facilities of the site, occasionally combining to work together or on larger projects.

A group of three recent graduates stand on a mezzanine installing a wall for their future office space made entirely out of reclaimed sash windows.

At first this seems slightly surreal, like the kind of drawings you used to pen as a child when you were creating fantasy homes and buildings for the people of your imagination.

Transformation

But it’s very real: four-and-a-half-months worth of work has gone into making it, transforming the cavernous curving arch into a two-tier open-plan art space, office and metal workshop using only reclaimed materials.

“Some of what you see we’ve found. The only thing we’ve paid for is the screws and glue. But the majority of the wood and structure comes from Adam’s own reclamation yard and stock of reclaimed materials,” says Jim Shepherd, a CSM fine art graduate who moonlights as a beer bottler for Beavertown Brewery. “We just simply wouldn’t have been able to afford it. The wood alone would have cost thousands.”

It seems strange that something that appears so other-worldly, has been created from a patchwork of materials locally sourced.

“Its all happening this year, after 13 years of labour.” Adam David

The appearance of the inside of this arch is completely different to the aesthetic of its immediate surroundings . This can be attributed to the fact that the building materials used for this arch are largely salvaged or reclaimed.

“We got some of the stuff from skips” comments Tom Brown, another CSM fine art graduate who now works as an artist’s assistant.

“There’s a lot of regeneration going on around here at the moment, which is great because it means there’s skips filled with everything we need.” Pointing to the newly installed window panes he says: “Some of this is nicer than my house, it’s pretty outlandish to have a Victorian menagerie on top of a studio.”

Adam insisted that all construction must follow his designs and use his principles of as many reclaimed materials as possible.

Overwhelmed

Graduating in 2012 from Central Saint Martins and Camberwell the group – formed of Jim Shepherd, Dominic McHenry, Tom Brown, Hannah Rowan, Angus Ogilvie, George Bray and Alice Panton – found themselves in need of a place to work.

After looking at a number of sites which had prefabricated studio space for hire for groups and individuals, they found themselves feeling underwhelmed by what was on offer.

“Since leaving uni, I don’t think I’ve heard of anybody doing anything quiet as extraordinary as this with their time.” Jim Shepherd

“With a lot of those places you’re just hiring a desk space and you don’t get anything else with it” says Brown. Hannah Rowan mentions: “We didn’t want to rush into anything, there were a few people we knew who rushed into getting a studio space straight away and they’re fairly disappointed.”

“Some have ended up without windows.” The whole group laughs about the prospect of a lack of light. “He’s a painter who paints mostly about light, and he has no windows” adds Jim Shepherd.

With problems like this being common-place in the world of trying to find affordable studio space, it is clear why these artists have decided to make a go of it and build their own working environment to suit their needs. Painting without any windows must be a real pane.

Tom Brown, Jim Shepherd in their studio at the Herne Hill Arches. [Alastair Johnstone]

The space is now nearing completion with only a few things left to install, including the remaining pieces of the sash-window wall and a door to separate the downstairs workshop from the upstairs office and writing room, which is to have its own small kitchen facilities installed too.

Once this is completed the equipment for their own onsite metal and wood workshop will be brought in and work can begin on creating their own artwork again as well as a number of external commissioned pieces.

Having the ability to be able to produce everything they need on-site is a very important aspect of everybody’s vision of what their workspace should be.

Achievement

“There are artists I work for now who say that they’ll contract work out to here, because that’s the reality for most artists,” says Brown. “Not a lot of artists have the facilities they need to create their work in their studios – it’s rare.”

The idea of being limited in your practice based on your environment is a clear obstacle that the group has made a concerted effort to avoid, as Jim Shepherd explains:

“I’d never want to have to contract stuff out. The way I think when I’m making work is that I make stuff that I can make rather than thinking of a concept and going ‘oh’, sending it off and paying for it to be made.”

The collective is confident in their equipment, Brown says. “This workshop rivals any in London. In terms of anywhere I have worked this is pretty up there.”

He goes on to aptly sum up the collective’s mantra: “when you can make, you make it.”

Tom Brown, Hannah Rowan and Jim Shepherd (bottom) in their studio at the Herne Hill Arches. [Alastair Johnstone]

This can definitely be seen being put into action with the project of creating their own workspace.

Speaking about how they have found creating their own purpose-built studio space Jim Shepherd says, “it’s been a huge amount of fun over the past four months doing this.

Since leaving uni, I don’t think I’ve heard of anybody doing anything quiet as extraordinary as this with their time.

“For most, going to the studio is something that you do on a weekend, but for us it is an everyday nutty building-project. We’ve spent so much time on and it’s so bespoke to us.

“It’s not going to be somewhere where we are going to be for six months of the year and then find somewhere else – this is a long-term project. I’m not planning on leaving here anytime soon.” Says Sherpherd.

Not only an art space

There is a real sense of achievement with what has been completed so far at the arch, and equally an excitement for what the next chapter in the space’s life has to offer.

With the completion and opening of the space scheduled for mid-to-late March, everybody involved is really excited about the prospect of being able to start making artwork again.

“It’s like a holiday that we’ve been planning for months and months – it’s going to be like finally getting to the airport and getting really excited about it” says Hannah Rowan.

As remarkable as what has been achieved at the group’s space, this isn’t  the only piece in the grand vision that site-owner Adam David has for the complex.

His plans include an on-site brewery as well as a butchery. “I’ve got a friend who’s a butcher as well so we can do a whole ‘pig day’ down here,” Dominic McHenry explains. “Go to the market early morning and bring a whole side of pig down and make sausages and do a barbeque with it.”

The future

Since acquiring his first arch in 2000 as his private studio, David has been shaping his site by bringing in a carefully selected body of residents to create an all-in-one multipurpose work and exhibition space.

With things moving towards the complex’s full form over the upcoming months, David says “there are a lot of things that are going to happen. The cafe is going to go in in the next couple of months, down at the end, as well as a big performance-cum-lecture theatre.”

“We’ve done a lot of shows here in the past. We’ve done Camberwell twice, a Central Saint Martins show, Chelsea, Wimbledon – Eastbourne just groups shows for a couple of weeks.”

Plans for the site’s future in exhibiting seem set in stone. “There will be four full arches which will be full-width, stretching right the way down to the back corridor which will be exhibition space. There will be nearly 5,000 square feet worth of exhibition space when it’s all finished,” David explains. “Its all happening this year, after 13 years of labour.”

Herne Hill Arches. [Alastair Johnstone]

The building will be launched this summer and David sees it as his own sculptural piece – a living, working entity. The space itself will be available for hire in its entirety for large external group shows.

David hopes to put on an internal show each year which showcases the work of everyone within the complex which includes a chandelier-maker, and established sculptor Graeme Evelyn who has recently been commissioned to produce a piece for Kensington Palace.

David’s own work is in the planning phase and will include living sculptures, with one being the biggest forest in the UK built with the help of thousands of children, and an enormous reef in the sea which will be visible from space.

Exhibiting will not be reserved exclusively for resident artists. David also has plans to erect a canopy that will run the length of the complex which will allow “anyone to come and hang their paintings on the outside walls, which will turn the place into an outdoor art market – like a little high street running every weekend,” which he says will be ready for later this summer.

Ongaen is likely to become one of the most interesting multifunctional arts spaces in London, and definitely a place to watch in the future.

 

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