York Open Studios celebrates 20 years with artists opening workshops for landmark event

As York Open Studios celebrates its 20th anniversary, Sarah Freeman meets some of the artists opening their workshops to the public for this year’s landmark event. Main pictures by James Hardisty and Gerard Binks.

Illustrator and artist Elena Skoreyko Wagner of York. Picture: James Hardisty.
Illustrator and artist Elena Skoreyko Wagner of York. Picture: James Hardisty.

As someone who knows first hand that a career in the arts rarely offers job security, Tabitha Grove didn’t just have one back-up plan – she had six. A trained costumier and artist, Tabitha was also a jobbing actor, she helped out at a gallery in Helmsley, was regularly drafted in by York Hospital as a stand-in patient as part of its training scheme for junior medics and with the Laurence Sterne Trust ran a programme of art activities for dialysis patients.

“It was the strangest thing when all of that disappeared within 24 hours,” says Tabitha, who like many artists is just emerging from the enforced hiatus caused by the pandemic. “I am looking at my diary now and wondering how on earth I am going to cope with being busy again.

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“I know there were some artists who really made the most of last year, but I just couldn’t function properly. I want my art to be original and I became aware that whether I liked it or not everyone suddenly had the same inspiration – lockdown. I worried that whatever I came up with wouldn’t stand out; that it wouldn’t be as good as someone else’s work.”

Adele Karmazyn at work in her garden studio. Picture: Gerard Binks.

As restrictions have eased, Tabitha has gradually regained her confidence and is one of 40 artists who will be taking part in this summer’s York Open Studios for the first time. Celebrating its 20th anniversary, the event has long been a showcase for the city’s creative talents and a vital marketplace for artists to meet potential buyers.

“I really wanted to be able to have new work to show,” says Tabitha who will be exhibiting at the Arnup Studios in Holtby. “Whenever I face difficult times the one thing I do, apart from putting The Vicar of Dibley on repeat, is revert to hand sewing. I find it so meditative, it’s just you,the fabric and the thread and as one of my friends once said there is nothing more therapeutic than stabbing something with a needle over and over again.

“As well as my paintings, during YOS I will also be showing a series of dressing robes which are completely hand-stitched. To me they symbolise healing and the love that goes into something which is handmade.

“I’ve often been a visitor to YOS, but it will be lovely this year to be on the other side; it definitely feels like the start of a new chapter.”

Tabitha Groves for the feature on York Open Studios.

Running over two weekends in July, the event will see 140 photographers, painters, sculptures and ceramicists all living or working within a 10 mile radius of the city centre open their studio doors to the public.

Most are currently hard at work putting the finishing touches to their exhibitions, but Adele Karmazyn has a little added pressure – completing the studio that her husband has been building in the garden of their Holgate home.

When we speak she is just waiting for a delivery of cladding to complete the exterior of the workspace where she uses digital technology to breathe new life into 19th century photographs.

“Deadlines really help in the art world,” she says, referring both to the building work and her own collection of work for YOS.

Elena Skoreyko Wagner. Picture: James Hardisty.

“I always wanted to make a career from my art, but it took me a long time to work out how.

“In my early days, I always thought commercially, what would sell? I painted fruit and veg and had it transposed onto kitchenware and although there was some success, I found it difficult to get enthusiastic about it.

“I’ve always loved old photographs because of the way they connect you to the past and a few years ago I came across the work of American artist Maggy Taylor who combines historic and modern images to create new works of art.

“It was a complete inspiration and since then I have never looked back.”

With her Polish-born husband, Adele has spent many hours trawling the markets of Eastern Europe for suitable photographs and her studio is now filled with boxes of images ready to be turned into montages.

“Digital art isn’t as prolific over here as it is in America and the rest of Europe and traditionalists are still sceptical about the process,” she says. “However, it is a really technical, painstaking skill and a blank screen on a computer poses the same challenges as a blank canvas.”

From a girl standing on the top of a watermelon to a woman quite literally hanging by a thread, the results are a quirky, singular take on often seriously posed portraits.

“I also get commissions from people wanting me to breathe new life into old family photographs,” says Adele. “I spend a long time talking to clients about the person and their story and I love that side of my work as it’s a challenge to incorporate so many aspects of one life in a single image.”

There is no limit to the number of artists taking part in YOS. Each submission is judged on its own merit and it is the eclectic nature of the artists which has made the event such a success.

“I’ve definitely noticed that there are more younger artists who are making their home in York, which is great for the city,” says ceramicist and YOS chair Beccy Ridsdel.

“Artists often work on their own and there is something really lovely about being able to chat about your work to people who are genuinely interested in what you do.”

For Canadian-born Elena Skoreyko Wagner, who moved to York three years ago, YOS will not only be a chance to display her own work but it will also be an opportunity to introduce the public to her new studio and creative community space.

Illustrator Elena raised £1,200 through a community kickstarter and last summer began turning her dream into a reality in a former ethical homeware shop.

“During the week it is used as a traditional studio space by myself and two other designers, but on a weekend I want to make it available to the community. The idea is that it can become a space for pop-up events from talks to book launches and YOS will be the first event we stage here so it’s doubly exciting.”

Elena initially studied fine art, but it was only after she retrained as an occupational therapist that she found her artistic niche. She now works as an illustrator, specialising in paper collages often depicting women and children.

“The professors on my occupational therapy course really encouraged students to use their existing talents. I ended up doing some illustration work for them and it made me realise that’s what I wanted to do.

“It’s funny I had collected paper for years, but never really knew why and then suddenly I had a reason. Crafting is often not taken as seriously as more traditional mediums. ”

During the last year, Elena has been kept busy creating illustrations for the Universe in Verse project which celebrates science and nature through poetry and recreating her allotment in miniature as part of a performance in the Love Bytes season which marked the reopening of York Theatre Royal.

For many of the artists taking part in YOS the last 12 months have been unpredictable, but according to Tabitha, who recently helped her mother reopen the Look Gallery in Helmsley, the pandemic may yet provide one unexpected benefit.

“It’s been really encouraging to see people are spending on art again,” she says.

“Before people would take a long time deciding what to buy, but from what I have seen now they are more inclined to invest in what they love and not question it too much. ”

York Open Studios runs on July 10 and 11 and July 17 and 18. For more details visit yorkopenstudios.co.uk.