Case Study

“Places like City Arts, and opportunities they offer, can help you out of a trough.”

Date published: 5 Jan 2023

Posted by: Joe Pick

Simon Withers wearing a black face mask. The word 'Honk' is above his head.

Simon Withers has worked in the arts for over 30 years, presenting over 120 exhibitions. He dramatically and destructively gave up on his art career in 2015. Art, and presenting art, had become a source of great anxiety.

Over the past few years, Simon has developed a close relationship with the mute swans that live on the banks of the River Trent. This relationship became a key component of his mental health recovery. He has taken countless photographs showing mute swans in various situations, from sharing food to fighting for dominance.

Simon Withers looking at some swans

During the COVID-19 pandemic, City Arts invited Simon to do a takeover of City Arts’ Instagram account, showcasing his images of swans. In 2021, we invited him to showcase his swan images in an exhibition, Swan Life, in The Window Gallery at City Arts. Following our exhibition, Simon went on to present the work at Lakeside, the University of Nottingham’s arts centre. He spoke to us about what City Arts support meant to him:

City Arts getting in touch gave me an opportunity to present work publicly for the first time in maybe six years. I had lost touch with the process of exhibiting my work. I didn’t feel particularly confident. And, these photographs were so unlike my previous work. I was unsure where they fit in the world of visual arts. But they have opened up a conversation about the environment in Nottingham, something that I’ve found out has a lot of concern surround it on a local level.

On a personal level art, and the idea of presenting art or images, had become a bit of an anxious process. Being invited to present this work was really important to me. For 30 years, I had been producing stuff with the hope that someone would want to show it. This work wasn’t created in that way, for an audience, it was more personal. The fact that I was invited to show it told me that it does have audience. There are already people interested in what I was doing. And, as a social species we need to share things. This was a great opportunity to do that. It was a nice re-introduction to exhibiting. I felt I was coming out of a period of being burned by everything to do with the visual arts, both as an arts practice and administering it.

Three swans photographed from below

We can all have peaks and troughs. I think the troughs sometimes can be far deeper and far longer than the peaks. Places like City Arts, and opportunities they offer, can help you out of the trough. There is a romantic myth that if an artist is motivated, they can generate their own gallery space, the audience, the marketing, the publicity, produce the work, hang it, install it, take it away again. It doesn’t really work like that. You need the support.

The exhibition took place in late Autumn, early winter. There was something very simple, and beautiful, about seeing these black and white images against a black background on a winter night. Support from City Arts helped me explore the possibilities around presenting this work. We found some simple and elegant solutions. We didn’t overcomplicate it. It was great seeing the images away from my own computer screen. It revealed a relationship between them that I hadn’t noticed before.

Black and white photo of a swans head

The Window Gallery space is really interesting. It draws people in, just like a shop window. You have people walking past. You have buses going by. And you catch people looking out of the bus window at the exhibition. Your audience is actually far larger than you realise. With the Window Gallery, people might just see the work for a fleeting moment. But there is nothing to say that fleeting moment can’t be as profound as viewing art in the controlled environment of a gallery. Fleeting moments are how we experience the world.

I really enjoyed the private view that you gave me. I felt very involved. It was a lovely setting and a lovely evening and very informal. It was very welcoming and it didn’t feel pressured. There was a humanity to it. It was very different from private views I’d been involved in before.

The support I received, the sense of collaboration, that is a model I’d like to replicate if I was to show my work again. Everybody wins and everybody benefits. If thing get fraught then something isn’t really working.

Whatever work I continue doing with the Swans, I would like to think at some point I would be able to revisit it at City Arts. To show it again and to continue our dialogue about art and the environment.

Simon’s story shows that, as well as supporting new and emerging creatives, City Arts’ collaborative and nurturing approach to artist development can be of huge benefit to more established artists. Showcasing Simon’s work in our Window Gallery opened up opportunities for Simon to exhibit at other local art organisations.