Fiveways Artists - Still Blazing A Trail After All These Years...

By Derek Williamson

Artists across the land have copied the Fiveways Open Houses phenomenon that started over three decades ago and we're fortunate that many of the early pioneers are still exhibiting here in 2007. Derek Williamson spoke to five of them. (What other number did you expect?!)

It is a given in the art world that gallery owners are usually unprincipled, in the aesthetic sense and quite often unscrupulous, in the financial sense... So with the benefit of hindsight, the idea of Fiveways resident Ned Hoskins to use the walls of his home as a gallery and invite in the public was a no-brainer.

Now artists' open houses and artists' trails abound - and continue to proliferate. This way of bringing modern art and artists to the public - and selling of course - has become so mainstream that it is hard to think back and realise how ‘anti-establishment' it all was, to use the fashionable expression of the time.

Ned had had a successful show in the States, to the extent of being on national TV as well as the gallery selling all his work. Soon after arriving back in Brighton, while he was in the middle of renovating his home in Hollingbury Road, the gallery owner rang him up to be told by Ned that he wouldn't be able to get back to painting for a while. The conversation went something along the lines:

Gallery owner: "That's cool Ned, but just as soon as you get back to work, we'll probably take everything you produce."

Ned: "OK fine, as long as you understand..."

"Whatever it is, try to paint in blue if you can Ned."

"I'm not sure I understand...?"

"Blue sells at the moment, Ned. Blue sells."

While he admits enjoying the trappings of being a minor celebrity, he also knew he was serious enough about his work for his development as an artist to come first.

Of course, like it or not, when he challenged the conventions of the time and became the first solo pioneer of artists' open houses, he also generated huge personal publicity, which in turn generated not inconsiderable sales. Inevitably, there is much more involved for the artists opening their homes than just ‘gallery' space and sales. As Gary Turner puts it: "Being an artist is quite a lonely activity, it's great having people coming in and talking to them about your work." Gary was an art lecturer for 30 years and he particularly enjoys the annual visits from his ex-students. "People come back year after year," he says.

Annelies Clarke is a renowned multi-medium artist who has the busiest open house in Brighton. As you would expect from the person who, apart oils, watercolours and murals, has also made stained glass windows for a church in Paris as well as the Stanford Avenue Methodists, her take on the process is more profound. "It's actually quite frightening, if you're honest about opening up your home and your life and your soul to people," she says.

But success, both individually and as a group, comes at a price. Annelies can have more than 900 visitors in two and a half hours. "Talking to people about my work is really important to me," she says, "but with so many people, it's very hard."

Although they were the pioneers, the Fiveways Artists are now just one part of a bigger movement. There are 14 other artists' groups and trails in Brighton and the surrounding area and the Fiveways lot have been subsumed into the Artists Open Houses organisation, which this year boasts: ‘Around 1,000 artists in 198 houses'.

Anna Thorell says that when it started they had the opportunity to try out new work, to be experimental, and because there were fewer visitors, they got important feedback not only from the public but also from fellow group members. Now the group is so big that they only meet for AGMs and important discussions.

"What was exciting then was that it was the beginning of something new," she says. "We were working towards something - the aim of bringing art to a wider audience. That has been achieved, so I think it's up to new people to take it further."

One of the group traditions that still survives is their ‘drinking trail'. During the festival, they visit each other's homes, the public not invited, and much wine is taken.

Lucy Parker: "This was introduced around the time I joined because people didn't get a chance to see each others houses. When it was 12 houses it was just like a permanent party and we all got to know each other. We'd just pick up where we'd left conversations at the next party. Now there are so many houses. You don't get a chance to dry out, you just can't take it...."

© Derek Williamson May 2007

Posted: 7th of May 2007