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The key turned in the lock and the old door swung open, disturbing a couple of pigeons who fluttered noisily into the roof space. Shafts of October light filtered through the partially boarded-up windows into Newtown’s former police station. Nine young photographers stepped cautiously into the derelict Victorian lock-up, which would be the site to shoot photographs over the next couple of days. The morning had begun a few minutes’ walk away at Oriel Davies, the contemporary art gallery in Mid Wales where photographic artist Toril Brancher introduced the ideas and work of Francesca Woodman and some of the techniques she used to create her photographs. As Foundation Art & Design students at NPTC Group Newtown Campus, their project now was to make their own portraits of each other, using tripods, long exposures and exploring whatever atmospheric light (and smell!) conditions they would encounter as they moved - torches in hand - through the maze of abandoned rooms and empty police cells.

As a Learning Officer at Oriel Davies, I had planned our location visits very carefully, in collaboration with Toril and Art & Design Lecturer, Ian Savage. But I still wasn’t sure how his students would respond to the sensory experience of this particular setting. However, I needn’t have worried – they really got into the spirit of it. More importantly, the photographs they made were tremendous: thoughtful, experimental, atmospheric and ambiguous.

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Describing what she liked best about the project, one especially enthusiastic participant wrote: “EVERYTHING! Learning about the artist, going to new locations to take photographs, and having the amazing opportunity to have our work displayed in the gallery! I enjoyed everything! Honestly.” Twenty four Art & Design students worked on the project with Toril Brancher, some of them using their college campus and nearby agricultural buildings to work in, instead of the old police station. A selection of these young photographers’ works can be seen now at Oriel Davies until 25 February, in Responses, alongside ARTIST ROOMS Francesca Woodman. 

How would Francesca be working if she were still alive today? As a photographer, she would quite likely be using colour and digital; perhaps she would be a filmmaker or performance artist. With this in mind, I also invited first and second year Performing Arts students at NPTC Group Newtown Campus, to respond to Francesca Woodman’s photographs – but using their bodies rather than a camera lens. Elinor Randle of Tmesis Theatre spent four days with them, helping them to devise scenes inspired by Woodman’s imagery and thinking in particular about the fragility of human nature; dealing with the expressive body, partner and ensemble work, play and improvisation. Working with lecturers Elizabeth Hebden and Ruth Calvert after these workshops, the students continued to develop their choreography into a single collective short piece for each year group. We really wanted to bring their physical narratives and Woodman’s photographs together at the gallery, and this took place in the lunchtime performance that you can see below.

Oriel Davies’ ARTIST ROOMS project led to new partnerships between the gallery, college staff and workshop artists, which I hope will lead to further collaborations in future. Francesca Woodman’s images - made as a student herself - the emotions they express and her playful working methods provided wonderful starting points for young people as creative practitioners in 21st century Wales.

Helen Kozich, Learning Officer (schools & colleges), Oriel Davies