A record total of £9,741 has been awarded to 15 up-and-coming artists from Essex and Suffolk to help with their professional career development.

 The 2021 Firstsite Collectors’ Group Bursary Awards scheme will fund photographers, a cartoonist, a poet, plus several visual artists working in different formats, including digital, video and sculpture.

The scheme aims to support artists working in Essex and Suffolk with their professional career development. These annual awards are made possible through the Collectors’ Group continuing engagement and interest in contemporary visual art.

Jane Hindley, Chair of Firstsite Collectors’ Group said: I was thrilled that my first meeting as the new Chair of the Firstsite Collectors’ Group, was the selection of the Bursary Awards. We spent a morning considering the applications and, such was the standard, decided to fund 15 artists, tripling the sum awarded in 2019. The panel did this in recognition of the very strong and diverse number of applications, and in consideration of the difficult time that people in the creative industries experienced throughout the pandemic.”

She added: “These awards can make a huge difference to the recipients, and as Sonia Coode-Adams, the former Chair and Founder of the Awards, once observed, could even change someone’s life.”

The 2021 Bursary Award artists are: Tom Armstrong, Lucy Cross, Mary Pullen Deacon, Steve Downey, Maddie Exton, Gemma Garwood, Adam Glibbery, Bradley Hayman, Christina Jane King, Alex Lockett, Anna Lukala, George Morgan, Jane Stewart, David Watkins, and the duo Daniel & Clara.

One of the beneficiaries is artist and environmental activist Jane Stewart, who is currently researching the forgotten women of the Essex coast. Looking closely at the ‘The Fishwives’ or ‘Herring Girls’ – many of whom came down the coast on boats as seasonal immigrant workers from Scotland, Iceland and Denmark to work gutting and smoking herrings – Jane says the term ‘fishwife’ has taken on negative connotations, denoting a loud, course and brash woman: “I want to use my work to redress this version of toxic femininity, to take back the word and give these hardworking, feisty women a more positive place in history for the work they did, on many occasions in very bad conditions and for long hours.”

As a part of her project, Jane is learning some of the skills and crafts that these women and their husbands might have used, including making and mending fishing nets, knotwork, splicing rope, rush weaving and creating a smoker for herrings. She hopes to be proficient enough to pass on these skills via workshops held in Essex and Suffolk, inviting people to literally enjoy a taster event of hand-smoked herrings.

She adds: “I am hoping that the culmination of the work will involve an installation, using the skills I will have learned to create a large ‘fishwife’ sculpture, hopefully on the beach or a sandbar at Brightlingsea, that will eventually be destroyed by the tidal ebb and flow. This sculpture, a form of land art, would be made from locally found driftwood and all natural materials sourced locally.”

Describing herself as an artist gardener, Suffolk-based Alexandra Lockett is another award-winner who has combined two passions, as she explains: “During the pandemic I became an allotment holder at Leiston allotment site. My plot is both an artwork and a place for food production. I have made various things for my plot, for example a greenhouse out of plastic bottles and, in 2021 grew 48 different types of fruit, vegetables and edible flowers. I now want to develop my plot to be a place where culture, cultivation and community can come together, where art, events and learning can happen.”

Alexandra intends to use the Collectors’ Group Bursary Award in a number of fascinating ways: “I want to cook a meal on the allotment, using produce grown on it and cooked using basic or primitive equipment. Could my plot also become a new kind of restaurant, a relational artwork based on home grown food?”

She also intends to run workshops for children during school holidays and make a small, limited-edition publication with musings and illustrations about allotment life. To accompany the publication, Alexandra aims to make an edible flower seed mix, with seed packaging that she has designed, after painstakingly collecting seeds last year.

Tom Armstrong, who contributes to Private Eye under the initials T.E.A, is a cartoonist with an interest in the satirical and the surreal. With his award, he plans to produce and publish a collection of his work, using the cash to pay for professional design consultation and to partly fund the initial printing costs. “The book would bring about some sort of closure to the last few years’ work, allowing for reflection upon the many cartoons I have produced and providing a point from which to move forward with the production of new work,” he explains. “It would also make my mum proud.”

Sally Shaw MBE, Director of Firstsite says: “The Firstsite Collectors’ Group are passionate advocates for the benefits of art and creativity, and how these can support and empower our community. It’s exciting to see these Awards support such a wide range of diverse local artists to grow and develop their careers and practise. A key aim of Firstsite is to actively listen to our community and empower everyone to be creative together to inspire positive change and it really feels like the Bursary Awards are doing just that.”