Leverhulme Arts Scholarship retreat: Vanessa’s Kisuule

Following a week in the wild, Levehulme Scholar Vanessa Kisuule reminisces on her time with the Ferment team as part of this year’s Leverhulme Arts Scholarship retreat.


“This scholarship has directly and indirectly put me in spaces that allow me to grant myself permission and cut myself some slack”

Retreats are, I’ve realised, something I had to decolonise in my mind to truly absorb the valuable experience they can provide for a professional artist. I have been peripherally aware of retreats: imposing stately homes given over to the express purpose of offering time and space to think and create. I toyed with one day attending one, but the fantasy was a vague and unimaginable one. I now realise I had an idea in my head of the type of person that should and could ‘retreat’. Serious, introverted novelists who write about chaffinches. White, rich older ladies who write lyrical poems to keep them occupied post-retirement. I don’t say this to be dismissive of such people, but what I did feel was that I, gobby young black spoken word poet/writer/performer/hybrid/thing, had no business in such a place.

I don’t think I ever really believed that retreats were for ‘people like me’ – artists whose practice is fairly intuitive, scatter gun and D.I.Y. I have honed my writing and performance in various tiny bedrooms, concocted entire performance shows in my lounge, edited poems on the Notes app on my phone whilst on a packed train and learnt about audiences through eight years of performing on many ‘intimate’ and ‘lo-fi’ stages: pubs, cafes, local open mic nights and black box theatres. In essence, the ‘indulgence’ of a retreat – the regal buildings they happen in and the space, validity and reverence they give to the creative process felt alien and even grotesque. I didn’t think I deserved it or could justify it, particularly when I’ve been making art perfectly well and happily in my own slapdash way for years.

But it was the retreat at Hawkwood, and the fantastic Arvon course I attended the week after at Lumb Bank, that shifted something hugely profound in my psyche. The state of mind I entered at Hawkwood was truly conducive to clear and transformative thoughts and ideas. It wasn’t about getting loads of tangible work made in that time – a revelation that helped me relax and open up to the immediacy of my surroundings. I had long chats with fellow guests about everything and nothing, allowed myself to sit and make notes on the books I was reading that may or may not bear fruit in a theatrical production. Thoughts meandered, petered off, set off sputters of light – all without the pressure of having to have pages of writing to show for it. An hour long walk in the woods with fellow scholar Malcolm where we talked about the nature of play gave me much food for thought on how I might write the children that feature in a play I am working on. I spread out in the lovely big library in front of the fire and drew massive spider diagrams with colourful markers – I felt giddy and excitable: everything and anything is allowed. It was okay for the ideas to be a tangle – there was space to examine all the knots and gristle, to let things marinate in their own good time. I also cannot underestimate how great it was to not have to think about the minutiae of practical living for a week: no thoughts of cooking and feeding myself, laundry, chores and general life admin and instead being completely immersed in my thought patterns. It was a treat, a relief and a privilege.

I still think the cost and the geography of these places is prohibitive to a lot of artists who would benefit immensely from them. There is much to be said of the feeling that these spaces only belong to a certain type of artist and a certain type of person. The honour of being afforded the chance (and crucially, money) to go to Hawkwood and Arvon is one I never want to lose sight of. Though I still want to critically assess the elitist ideals around who has the luxury of ‘getting away from it all’, I perhaps think it is as much about removing the barriers in artists’ minds as anything else.  I also think this is about how we see the artistic process and learning to move away from the fallacy of scarcity. Under this staunch Tory government (boo, hiss), this feeling is not at all unfounded, but now more than ever we have to lean into our art with fearlessness and relentlessness.

I have often made work with the harried feeling that there is not enough time, not enough resources, not enough people that are willing to hear me out on new and strange ideas. Being truly honest, these feelings were mostly self imposed – a strong chastising from within that did not allow me to believe that I deserved to treat my art with the respect, breathing space and nourishment it needs. This scholarship has directly and indirectly put me in spaces that allow me to grant myself permission and cut myself some slack. I suppose it is easier to romanticise one’s artistic journey when struggling to make work on a financial and emotional shoe string – but now that I have been in environments where people not only understand but encourage me to throw myself into my process without shame or guilt, I don’t think I could ever go back to such small thinking again. Retreat is an interesting choice of word for such a thing – I think it focuses more on what we’re escaping than what we’re going towards. I don’t think I have retreated from anything, rather opened up to a new way of moving through this strange and wonderful artist life. I feel I have arrived at an empowering ethos as a practitioner and I now belong to a creative ecosystem that both supports me where I’m at and challenges to move forward to the next stage.

We’re currently seeking talented artists from the South West who are interested in developing their skills for the next Leverhulme Arts Scholarships, find out more here

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