Thamesmead Texas and the importance of community-led projects
Liam and Vanessa Scully both graduated from Chelsea College of Arts, although almost a decade apart. Now married, they run Thamesmead Texas a ‘nomadic artist run initiative’ created to unite the new community of artists who moved to Thamesmead in 2018. We recently spoke to them about their experiences at Chelsea, and why community-run projects are so important.
Time at Chelsea
Liam completed his MA Fine Art in 2002/03 when the College was still the Bagley Lane campus; having come straight from his BA Fine Art at the University of Birmingham it was a bit of a culture shock, “I was one of the youngest students on the course and perhaps felt a bit out of my depth. I also found other students taking their practices very seriously, I just wanted to keep having fun.”
This formed the basis for his final piece; The Good Art Show, a mock daytime television show; “it had a cookery segment, interviews, and music, this was recorded and edited live, and streamed through the campus, a surprisingly big undertaking back in 2003.” Along with fellow student Melanie Taylor, the idea was to turn attention away from themselves as individual art practitioners, and instead bring in collaborators and showcase other artists, including Brian Dawn Chalkley, Bob and Roberta Smith, Rory Macbeth, amongst others, “it was a bit of a kickback from the education model of the time.”
Vanessa, who now works primarily in film and video, studied BA Fine Art from 2009 – 2012. Of her time at Chelsea, she says, "[It] was a radical place to study; it gave me a broader sense of the world through artistic practice and shaped my approach to art laying the foundations for me as an artist."
Originally from Australia, Vanessa decided to return to specialised study ten years after initially graduating. “I chose BA Fine Art at Chelsea, predominantly because of its status as a leading art school in London, and the fact it had an open pathway and a cross-disciplinary approach to learning. This suited me as I had already had a background and interest in Design, Broadcasting and Painting and wasn’t committed to a specific discipline or sector.”
Vanessa’s time at Chelsea coincided with fallout from the 2008 economic crash and the creation of the Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition government. There was a strong Student Union presence throughout London art colleges at the time, which influenced how many students approached art and activism. Vanessa remembers it as a really mixed time, “many students were collaborating, critical of the neoliberal world they were living in; whilst others were wrapped up in ideas of neoliberalism, aspiring to produce polite objects for the art market. There was a sense of mixed values and ideas of what art and society should be." In her final year, Vanessa created a remake of Abel Ferrara's Driller Killer, titled Driller Killer E2. It was all about the art world, and her feelings of conflict about where she should stand as an artist created "all in the spirit of independent no-budget filmmaking."
How it all began
The area of Thamesmead has had a long connection with the arts, with the brutalist architecture of the Southmere estate being featured in numerous films and television shows, most famously in Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange. In 2018, due to the unaffordability of living in Central London, a lot of creatives, including Liam and Vanessa moved to Thamesmead; around 40 disused flats on Wolvercote Road were rented by artists.
In order to connect with their new neighbours, Vanessa and Liam decided to host a series of speed exhibitions hosted in their living room. And so Thamesmead Texas began on Sunday 16 September 2018 where, over the course of eight weeks, a different artist from this newly forming arts community was invited to exhibit a piece of work. “This invitation was a gesture to get to know each other in an informal and relaxed way, as neighbours and fellow artists,” says Vanessa.
Exhibiting artist’s also designed an accompanying artist cocktail. This was then served from the social sculpture/bar created by Liam, and which expanded throughout the exhibition.
The bar was salvaged from an old piece of furniture disposed of on the Southmere estate and reconfigured to create a Tex-Mex style saloon bar. It also became a pinboard for Liam’s 35mm photographic work and drawing. The bar has since become an anchor for their project space, “it’s wheeled around with us, as we move between sites in Thamesmead.” While not representing the entire community occupying the flats, the speed exhibitions marked this pioneering period and the prospect of a new life in Thamesmead.
Importance of community projects
Throughout 2018/19 Vanessa and Liam created 13 shows in 13 months, working with 13 artists. “It was a manic period,” says Liam, “but we felt we had to make a presence early on to make the case for art and culture and highlight the positive role artists could play in mixed socio-economic communities.”
They are currently artists in residence in the Thamesmead Community Archive, interviewing residents in Thamesmead whose stories have not been recorded in its 50-year history as the biggest social housing estate in Europe.
“We put ourselves forward for this commission with the intention to meet our neighbours."
In doing so we have begun to meet people from all walks of life and generations who like us, have built their lives in Thamesmead. Although we are social we wouldn’t ordinarily speak to people outside of our comfort zone, primarily based on not knowing what to talk about. Through the appointment of this commission, we have dared to be brave and begun to ask questions, forge connections and make friendships with our neighbours by simply showing interest.”
For both of them, this social exchange has been an uplifting and energising experience, one which has been greatly missed since the pandemic and consequent lockdowns.
Part of their commission includes a travelling outdoor cinema. The area of Thamesmead has a strong history of self-organisation and entrepreneurism, something which has come out of the fact that it’s largely without essential infrastructure. For 50 years people have said that Thamesmead needs a cinema, so Liam and Vanessa thought “let’s build one ourselves!”
“We have partnered with a local designer/maker Alex Tuckwood, who has constructed the cinema with 100% recycled materials sourced from the local area. We see the mobile cinema as a shared place for the various communities of Thamesmead to come together through the magical transformative experience of Cinema. We plan to launch the travelling cinema in Spring, programming independent cinema representing the diverse cultures of Thamesmead, including the Nepalese, Nigerian and Traveller communities.
“Thamesmead Texas is something we see as an extension of our lives as residents simply yearning to be part of a wider community.”
For Vanessa and Liam, their main hope for the future is that Thamesmead can retain its magic in its new formation as a mixed socio-economic development;
“We hope that Peabody’s Thamesmead embraces the old and the new, where residents, including artists, can live harmoniously together. We hope that artists can stay permanently in Thamesmead and change their status from Guardians in temporary short-term housing to permanent residents. Artists are fed up with being used to regenerate before being priced out of areas. We want to stay and continue the work we have been undertaking and build lifelong friendships. We would like Thamesmead Texas to become a Capital self-build housing project, which enables us to be resilient against the backdrop of neoliberalism.”