Regional group in focus: OCA East of England
OCA’s regional groups allow students who live within close(ish) proximity to meet up face to face and form a support network of peers. Often events are facilitated by an OCA tutor. Owing to geographical constraints students in Europe and the Rest of the World meet online in their respective groups. Of course the pandemic has thrust everyone into the virtual meeting sphere which for some has been revolutionary but for others they feel like they’ve lost some of the intimacy of a small group. Below three students, Paul, Tanya and Sharon speak about their experience of establishing the East of England group, the effect of Covid 19 on the group and their hopes for the future of the group.
For me, when I started at the OCA in 2016 it was a very different beast. Head office seemed very remote and we didn’t have programme leaders as we know them now. Edicts seemed to drop from on high by email without elaboration and there seemed to be a lot of worry around. Personally I felt very isolated both from the course and other students. So I decided to put a post on the forum and see if anybody wanted to help set up and run a regional group. My idea was to see if I could meet anybody else on the course and share experiences and build some sort of support mechanism.
A meeting was duly set up (I think it was a couple of years ago but memory is a funny thing… it might be longer?) at the Fitzwilliam in Cambridge.
Tanya and Sharon came along and were very supportive of setting up a regional group. We allocated roles and the regional group was born.
At first there was a very small group of six to ten and we met in each other’s houses where we chatted and showed our work. It felt very special and supportive, we had a chair and a ‘proper’ meeting but it was more like a coffee afternoon sometimes. Anyway, it fulfilled my initial need to meet other students.
Fast forward two years??? and we now have a Facebook group with 73 cross curriculum members (and growing), and before lockdown had regular physical meetings at Melbourn Hub with OCA tutor, Andrea Norrington. Sharon has been brilliant at organising that and getting funding for tutors and Tanya has been fantastic at running the Facebook group. Just before Covid-19 I was feeling we were at a bit of a crossroads as the East of England bi-monthly meetings were becoming tutor-led events rather than EofE group meetings. Both because the emphasis was on the event rather than the region and because 12 people are not representative of 73 plus (and there must be many more students in our area?). Covid-19 has exacerbated this as the Zoom meetings have been open to out of area students further diluting the regional feel, and the Zooms have been solely tutor-led events with no EofE business at all.
So, going forward I see the EofE group doing two things… firstly continuing to organise tutor-led events for small groups and secondly (and I don’t know how) acting as a focus for all the EofE students to meet together and have a voice/collaborate etc. My needs have changed too… now I’m on Level two, have met lots of people through the local branch, am more used to the course and OCA and we have contacts with the head office. I don’t feel isolated any more.
What I would like for the future of the group is for it to have a strong regional voice, meet other members en masse and form collaborations with other disciplines… but also, as`I’m on the Painting Pathway, I’d like to connect with other painters in our region and form support networks.
I began my first steps on the Painting BA pathway with the OCA in 2013. Quite early on I came across a regional group in the east of East Anglia. We met regularly, these were informal gatherings, we shared work, coffee and cake. I always came away from a meeting newly motivated. I am still in touch with some students from that original group but the meetings fell away. I was missing the regular contact with a group of like minded students so was enthusiastic about helping to start a new regional group. I recognised that I was missing the personal contact with others who understood, and were interested in OCA speak.
Our first meeting to sound out interest was on a sweltering hot day in Cambridge. From that afternoon in the welcome shade of the Fitzwilliam cafe came the new East of England group. A core of students emerged, we met in our houses, it seemed at one point that it was going to be difficult to get this thing off the ground. On a contrastingly freezing day in January, tutor Andrea Norrington braved the cold of a meeting in my studio. I see her involvement as a turning point. She delivered a number of talks and led sessions over the next months and identified a venue at the Melbourn village hub. Tutor involvement gave the group some gravitas and seemed to attract more students. We held a series of well attended meetings in Melbourn with Andrea and other speakers. Bryan Eccleshall on narrative art and Liz Monaghan on reflective practice. In the Autumn of 2019 we ventured to Aldeburgh for a sketching/ photography day, not put off by the constant drizzle that the Suffolk coast knows so well. The Aldeburgh meeting was a sociable day with more informal contact, something that had perhaps taken a back seat at our seminars. Recognising this we planned a combination of talks, sketching days and “ show and tell” sessions for 2020. Then, of course, along with everything else, it was pulled up short by Covid.
Despite the Coronavirus restrictions the group has continued. Andrea has organised Zoom sessions and led discussions on critique and research techniques.These remote meetings have enabled us to maintain some contact and keep up momentum as a group. Our audience has widened with the reach of Zoom beyond the East of England. There are advantages to accessibility and inclusion and I am grateful to have had this contact with my peers but I do miss the rock buns and coffee at Melbourn. Having to work during the week via video conferencing I am now feeling less like doing the same on a Saturday. The future? My hope is that we can resume in person meetings as soon as practicable with a combination of tutor contributions, gallery visits and more informal meetings. We could also continue to meet remotely recognising that it is a useful addition to our programme and aids access.
Before the great disruption we had been planning a group exhibition. This is something I hope we can revive, a celebration of multidisciplinary work to showcase the group.
Yes it has been going for two years now, our second anniversary was the July meeting just gone. In the first instance I wanted to join the regional group to be able to talk to people who had the same interests as me and it started very much as a social occasion. Like you’ve said above the flavour of our meetings have changed, meeting at peoples houses had a nice cosy feel where we could share our work and we were beginning to get to know each other and the work. I think it was inevitable that OCA would have an impact on the nature of the group and with Andrea’s support we have grown in numbers. This has changed the feel of the group somewhat and while it has become more inclusive it has lost its initial intimacy. When I became involved with arranging the activities for the meetings I felt it was important to focus on activities that were cross discipline and also on subjects that would support the requirements of the course, so looking at critiquing work, reflective practice, using sketchbooks and blogs which would be helpful to existing and new students and I think the social aspect of the meetings suffered a little.
I think we have probably come to the end of those subjects now although I think we could run through some of them again in the future if there is demand. At the end of last year we reassessed how the meetings were going and decided to include more social events such as meeting up at exhibitions or sketching days but unfortunately Covid19 has put that on hold. I’m happy we have been able to keep meeting online although I know for a lot of us that isn’t always as satisfying in terms of feeling really connected to the group but it has enabled the group to survive and allowed us to stay connected to a degree. I think what I miss most is the multiple conversations one can have with people and listening in on the conversations going on around me and of just being with everyone.
The facebook group has definitely increased our membership and the practical realities of getting everyone together would be quite tricky, especially at the moment. I think that it would be good to maintain our independent identity as the East of England group going forward. I understand that during lockdown allowing others to attend as friends allowed more students to participate but it does negate the point of regional groups. For me the regional group allows us to develop a stable network of individuals who get to know one another and particularly each other’s work. Often the changes to work, new directions, the need for more experimentation, an ability to see improvement is predicated on repeated exposure. When you get to know an artist and experience the history of their work, your feedback is more informative and useful to them. Also by having a regional group identity we can put on group exhibitions and events.
For the immediate future we will have to follow Government and OCA guidelines and I suspect that we will probably have to continue our Zoom meetings for the rest of the year but now is a time to think about how we want the group to develop. Do we want events specifically for one discipline, e.g. photography or painting & drawing? Do we want to invite working artists in to speak about their practice? Would it be good to get experts from other areas of the Art business to speak e.g. gallerists, curators, museum staff? Should we increase the number of meetings to monthly to allow more people to attend? Should we rotate through different locations to allow more people to attend? What do we want to get from the group and what do we want to offer to others? Is the East of England too big an area to manage as a Regional Group or is it just right?