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Making new studio spaces for a city of creatives

17 May 2021

Hannah Watkinson is just weeks away from finishing her Master’s of Fine Arts at UC, but she found time to chat about creating new exhibition spaces in Ōtautahi for talented young artists like herself and completing her first book of photography. She will share her experiences with young people interested in Fine Arts this Wednesday at 5.30pm.


Hannah Watkinson is an artist and gallery manager, soon-to-be graduate and passionate supporter of emerging creative talent.

You did your Honours in Fine Arts at UC majoring in photography. What drew you to photography?

I actually went to Ilam SoFA to study painting originally, but I fell in love with photography and was encouraged by some of the incredible artists that UC have as lecturers. Tim J Veling in particular blew me away with the photographic work he does and I was really inspired to continue down that path! While I'd still consider myself a bit of a creative dreamer, the logic and science behind photography, the practical elements, really appealed to me. I learned that there is so much more to it than pretty pictures, and that informs a lot of my projects which always seem to be long term ones.

You had the idea to start a gallery space and support arrived in the form of the Innovators Start Up programme at UC, which gave you the confidence and contacts to establish In Situ Photo Project next to Scorpio Books. Was it a steep learning curve?

Absolutely a steep learning curve. I feel like you need an element of naivety to do a lot of things, and I often say that if I knew then what I know now, I never would have started! Highlights were showing the work of some incredibly talented people, and giving them that validation that they were doing important work, putting it out into the world and having others reinforce them. Giving people a platform, particularly those working on complex social issues, is so important and rewarding. The challenges are always going to be around funding and support. I had so, so much help from a wide range of people, but for any artist-run space to survive beyond the 2-year expected lifespan, things in the art world in general need to change!

Next came The Welder Collective? Did your previous experience at In Situ open the door to this opportunity?

Yep absolutely, it was an amazing coincidence really. We lost our site for In Situ and we had a couple of exhibitions that we still needed to hold to fulfill our funding requirements. Some local developers suggested we used The Welder space before it was transformed. I was working full time at this point and couldn't staff the exhibitions myself, so I asked a few artist friends if they wanted to use the space to do their work/make their art, in return for allowing the space to be 'open' to visitors/the general public. It made me realise how important it was for artists to have a place to create and make work, and how few of these there are in Christchurch. Post-quake, we lost a lot of our low-to-mid range buildings, from a financial use point of view.

Now you are the studio manager at the Corner Store? Talk us through this new development? How is it going?

Yes! Although it has changed slightly. I'm studio manager of a place called Salt Lane Studios, which stemmed from the Corner Store. The Corner Store built on the Welder Collective, a place for exhibitions but also for 'studio residents' to work from. And it was exhausting! I tried to do far too many things at once rather than focussing on what was most important. We moved from that space when our one year of Council support ran out, and have been Salt Lane Studios in Tuam St for just over two years now. We have around 18 resident creatives who call the place home and the focus is on supportive, vibrant workspace - we're not public facing at all, which is great, we're like a little hidden secret!

 And… the latest development is a partnership with CoCA?

We had a partnership with CoCA for a year while we were the Corner Store, getting our residents' work onto the walls in the Lux Espresso space there, which was an incredible opportunity for our artists. We're going to continue to make those connections, collaborate and form partnerships in the future as Salt Lane Studios.  

You’re back at UC doing your Master’s. Why did you decide to pursue this further qual and what is your area of research?

I am so close to finishing my Masters I can almost taste it! I'm really good at starting things, but I'm not so sure I'm quite as good at finishing things, so for me this is sort of a challenge to myself to draw a line in my most significant long term photography project. My Masters of Fine Arts (MFA) is about the socio-political climate of the West Coast of the South Island, specifically the Buller region. The project brings together almost a decade of photographic archive and research, started in my Undergraduate degree. It looks at some key elements of the place (cement production, physical landscape, climate change, coal and gold mining) and how they have changed in recent years. It's been a huge amount of work but seeing it come to fruition as something tactile (I'll be publishing a book in a few months as a result) is so satisfying.

 Also, why did you choose UC?

UC is quite forward-thinking in allowing students to connect with other colleges and departments. I have two supervisors, one in Fine Arts and one in Political Science, which has been a huge help to the complexity of my subject and the research side of it. UC has given me the flexibility to use that expertise, and that's a major reason as to why I returned.  

You are very close to the arts community in Ōtautahi Christchurch, especially young, emerging artists. It must be exciting to be able to help them show their work to the public?

It is SO exciting! In 2020 I became Chair of local arts trust Watch This Space, which has given me a whole new level of appreciation of the talent we have here, specifically in the street art scene. The two main elements of having a creative practice are 1. having the time/space/means to create and 2. having the platform/ability/confidence to put that work out into the world, whether that's online, through exhibitions, through books etc. Any way that I can help other artists to do either or both of those things, particularly in Christchurch rather than anyone feeling they need to go elsewhere to get these opportunities, is good for me.

Well done on the recent scholarship – that must be a nice recognition of your work?

Thank you! So grateful to receive the Freemasons Scholarship. It allows me to push my work further and look at ways to distribute it, which is a great feeling. There are some awesome scholarships available through UC and you should apply for literally every one you can because you never know how it will work out! It's an unbelievable number but I've received $63,000 in scholarships in my 6+ years of studying at UC, and I wasn't always a star student - I just put my name in the hat for genuinely anything and everything that I was eligible for.

You’re speaking at UC’s Fine Arts Careers evening on 19 May, 5.30pm - what is your advice to those interested in the arts?

Your way of 'making it' is entirely different to the next person's. If post-study, you find yourself in a rewarding job in a different field which allows you to 'practice' in the evenings, or even a day in the weekend, I'd consider that successful! Or, maybe you're lucky enough to have found a way to pay your bills doing what you love, and that's wonderful too. The best thing that my Fine Arts degrees have taught me is how to think. Those skills are transferable to so many different things that can contribute to spending time doing fulfilling things. It's not linear! 

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