Why Be A Volunteer Steward? A Guest Blog by volunteer Thea Bailey

What was it that drew me in?  I’d been into this building so often, but suddenly that day early in 2015 I sensed change, everything seemed to have a “new energy” about it and the RWA were looking for Volunteers.

The RWA Building

The RWA Building

How strange after all these years, visiting interesting exhibitions that I had never been tempted to even think of being a Volunteer!  But now the time felt right, and with more free time, and badly needing to find my way back to the creative process and embrace art into my life once more, it seemed ideal.  I’d grown up surrounded by items of art and creativity with a culture of regularly visiting art exhibitions, and discussing all manner of related subjects, so it’s in my blood.  I also valuedthe art of quietly looking.  Embracing the joy and absorption of what is before me,  and by looking, appreciating what it has to offer me in return.  I feel totally at ease around art and all associated issues, and I also enjoy sharing, or offering advice. So to be at ease and comfortable to approach a stranger within such a context all seemed and ideal combination mix to step into the role.

However for me one of the great joys in Stewarding has been the delight in learning, making discoveries, and appreciating anew – through the diversity of exhibitions –  that, the more one looks, the more one sees.  It is a revelation at times which gives me a great smile of pleasure, as well as renewed awareness of the picture or object in question.  Early in 2015  I discovered through “Arboretum”about trees, a fascination which I’ve always had, I’ve even sought to try and draw them…  But like clouds, they are so hard to truly capture!  So each time I was on duty I began to grow in awe and respect of the artists’ whose works I was looking at.  Remarkable and complex to capture their depth and form on a flat medium, ‘oh my goodness’, such outstanding work in pencil, oils, pastels, charcoal was there before me to study.  As Stewards, we usually do one half day at a time, and sometimes more than once a week, thus the opportunity to really get to know the works is substantial.  A constant, fascinating source of rewarded inspiration.


Aboretum Exhibition held at the RWA in January and February 2015

And then there were those supremely executed photographs of nature, capturing supremely the UK’s natural world.  One can never tire of seeing such incredible images, and how light has been caught; or marvel at the patience and knowledge required to take such photography.  Giving us all a chance to see what we so rarely do, in fleeting and hidden worlds.  Many who had never really cared for photographs – as an art medium – were surprised and dazzled, as I tempted them, by these gloriously captured images. A revelation, this craft of photography and its capacity to arrest a moment of nature’s pure magnificent art.

When the exhibitions changed to “Drawn” and “Drawing On…” I found myself each week looking at the drawings of  some of the greats of early 20th Century art and sculpture, Dame Elizabeth Frink, Dame Barbara Hepworth, Sir Terry Frost RA and Bridget Riley RA as part of the Ingram Collection. I felt so privileged and informed, and reunited with images I had grown up with. It was here too, that I gained another lesson. I was able to perceive by looking the development of styles, that have come to inform styles of today. The one following on from the other.  I observed many and those who said, enjoying the present day art, in “Drawn”, yet found they weren’t really touched by these older works. I often felt sad that many just seemed to “pass through” without realising what it was they were so quickly skimming.  But then as an observer of visitors, I often feel an inner concern that they haven’t found something to ignite a spark to stand and stare!  I just don’t think younger audiences quite knew what it was that was on offer.  For me, the apparent simplicity of Derrick Greaves’s portrait of Margaret Greaves, with so few lines, gave me such a sense of stillness and presence, or the simple lines with a little colour, of Sir Terry Frost’s Fishing Boat, allowed me to sit in those galleries and just enjoy this rare opportunity with a collection of art works.  As a Steward it is therefore, never a problem to be there week after week, the art is constantly informing; but should there be a real lull in visitors there’s a chance to have a quick meditate or read the corresponding catalogue.  One day I had a mini revelation about how to deal with water.  I had been observing a wonderful drawing in the Drawn Exhibition, of a riverbank scene that I felt I knew, and suddenly as I looked, I understood how to deal with reflections in water, allow space to create that magic on a page.  It was glorious to find that insight.

Drawn Exhibition March - June 2015

Drawn Exhibition at the RWA March – June 2015

Then of course we have wonderful private view evenings with one and all, spruced and sparkling.  One such was the grand secret postcard sale, raising money for the RWA – a huge success – and I was able to gain a handle on the idea of telephone bidding, and to feel the buzz of the desire to acquire, a piece of art.  Such delights and mixes, add to the flavour of being a volunteer.  And then of course, there are the delightful conversations.  It’s always such a rich part of the job, those unexpected and fruitful conversations one has with so many fascinating visitors to the gallery.  Sharing in the delight of a certain work, or hearing about how far they have come, just to see this or that exhibition, and then discovering they too are an artist, or they are the artist exhibiting. It’s a natural part of the job which is so nourishing adding to the richness of being there.

The bustling excitement of the Secret Postcard Auction

The bustling excitement of the Secret Postcard Auction

Now in the present exhibitions, (my July Blog), I find that once again it is this constancy of having the opportunity to continue to look at the pictures before me, which teaches me so much, and when showing one of our young work-placement students around he also discovered new words and images about a way of rich English country life long gone.  I have come to admire and respect the Newlyn School painters, and the way they captured the light, and changing essences of Cornwall.  In particular a large canvas by Stanhope Forbes RA, capturing horses drinking at dusk in a clearing in the woods. Truly it’s a constant joy, and it was also a joy and revelation for a young school girl, about 8 years old, she didn’t understand that yes, it was a picture, but it was “a painting too!”  As I wander around the different galleries, I constantly feel I am nourished, able to perceive anew.  Regularly I just want to stop there and then, get out some paints and begin.  Isn’t that what art can do, inspire us and feed us on so many levels. I suspect that’s why we become volunteers.

Harold Harvey (1874 – 1941) ‘The Young Ploughman’, Oil on canvas, Bowerman Charitable Trust

Work from the Newlyn School Harold Harvey (1874 – 1941) ‘The Young Ploughman’, Oil on canvas, Bowerman Charitable Trust

There is another side to Stewarding.  One is both a potential companion in spirit to the visitor, and a potential annoyance!  We are after all there to help protect works of art.  Thus we do at times need to request that people remove their backpacks; ask them to refrain from taking photographs in certain exhibitions, and ensure they don’t get too close to a piece.  An especial dread is watching that pencil going ever closer, pointing out a subject, or a finger closing in on a work without glass! Even maybe, we deduce that a ticket hasn’t been bought, someone’s entered via a closed side door: “Ah, eh No”, could they then please buy one… and was that food and drink in hand; or a hand stretched out to touch that which asks: “Please Do Not”. Of course authority showing up produces many a diverse response, but I (we) are just caring for items, doing our job.  It’s an art and a balance, wondering when and how to step in, what level of dialogue will someone receive or not; and are they taking a photograph, or just texting, making notes; searching on the Internet, with that remarkable piece of modern 21st century technology?  And sometimes alone with those galleries, well the essential is naturally to honour my brief, while keeping an eye on that small person’s exuberance. Do they realise, items are fragile!       But,what a privilege and nourishing pleasure to be helping to take care of so much splendid creativity, and the diversity of real education that takes place with say a school group. Watching keen young eyes and senses, marvel and be amazed; or older ones so keen to first take the photo and then to look.  Ah how often I would so love to guide them to enjoy really looking without a lens in the first instance, and then to capture those images for sharing and projects later.  However, for many it is their first time in an art gallery, that is special, so it’s important for them to have a sense of wonder, and one hopes perhaps, to be inspired for later.  We tread a fine balance, but it is for this independently run Gallery that we offer this crucial service, enabling the RWA to continue to offer the people of Bristol, throughout the year, some outstanding art works.  I always feel happy on the days when I’ll be on duty as a Volunteer Steward.  I was even asked to try out the Sheep trail activity sheet we currently offer children in conjunction with Shaun The Sheep trail.   Now that was a new challenge, Stewarding while endeavouring to copy and make changes to a vast Laura Knight picture!


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