Tuesday 13th October 2015

St Helens, Tokyo, Return: R&D Prototype Projects

Back to News

Artist Joan Birkett was awarded a research and development (R&D) Prototype Projects for Round 3 to explore the possibilities of developing a collaborative art project between St Helens and Tokyo. Before she embarks on her research trip to Japan this December, Joan updates us on her project ‘St Helens, Tokyo, Return’, and what she has been researching and learning so far:

Who am I? I am a visual artist born in St Helens. I attended art college in the late 60s, but I dropped out after two years and went on to try a number of different experimental jobs. I spent most of my working life with Liverpool Social Services Directorate and worked for the Government Office North West (Sure Start programmes) before retiring.


Once fully retired, I went back to studying art, as I always had a strong interest in art and culture, and occasionally I would paint and draw. I enrolled onto a foundation course at St Helens College and went on to gain a Fine Art degree from Wirral Metropolitan University in 2010. It was a great experience for me and once I started I couldn’t stop.

I love testing ideas, observing, thinking, making and doing. It allows me to express my thoughts about the world I live in. The art I make is very much informed by what has shaped me and continues to do so, my interests are: urban landscape, history, the collective human experience, language, communication, human rights, injustice and human responsibility.

In 2010, I joined with some local artists in St Helens to form Platform Studios, an artist collective, which still operates today, located above St Mary’s Market in St Helens and you can view my artwork here.


So why Tokyo? I have family living in Tokyo and I am very lucky to be able to visit them each year. This experience has gradually influenced my own artwork. Being aware of the historical influences that Japanese art has had on Western art and the cross cultural mix of information and experiences that enriches art and culture, not least countries and people; I obviously jumped at the opportunity of applying to the Heart of Glass’ Prototype Projects programme.

My research and development project ‘St Helens, Tokyo, Return’ will allow me to explore the possibility of some form of artistic link between the two locations. My aim is to attempt to develop links with contemporary artists’ working in Tokyo and find out what inspires them to produce art and what are they doing. I want to share information with other interested people/artists, with a view to starting a dialogue between St Helens and Tokyo artists and who knows what may happen?

Pre-visit preparation tips & what I have been up to:

Make time for quality research: Most of my research has been done online, because I’m not going to Tokyo until early December, and like most cities, Tokyo has quite a number of very different artist networks, such as Performing Arts Network Japan and Artist Resource Tokyo and The Japan Foundation website Air J: Online Database of Artist-in-Residence. The online artist database was useful, because it listed in English all of the collectives and organisations offering artist residences, which (for me) there seems to be lots of.


Make use of personal contacts: Through a friend of my sons, I was able to contact artist Atsushi Harada who very kindly responded to my emails and didn’t tell me to go away! Atsu is a wildlife artist who seems particularly interested in conservation. For me, his work is very engaging and silently powerful. His painting “White Ghost” (pictured) was chosen as the winner of the Endangered Wildlife category in the David Shepherd Wildlife Foundation’s 2015, so I am very excited about meeting Atsu and seeing his work in the flesh. He’s also offered to introduce me to a number of his colleagues, so I’m curious as to who I am going to meet when I am out there.

Make the effort to translate emails: After sending out several emails to some of the artist collectives on the Air J website and not receiving a single reply, I realised I needed to re-think my approach. My emails had been sent in English, which on reflection was not exactly polite, even if there were English speakers in the collective who could read English. So, I decided to get my emails translated with the help of my daughter-in-law, who has also kindly offered to be my translator during some of my artist meetings.

Although I only used the translation a couple of times, it was by chance that I made contact with Miki Saito from Artist Resource Tokyo, who I have to say must be one of the most helpful and generous artists in Tokyo. She assisted with putting me in touch with some other artists and offered to help me with translation when meeting the artists who don’t speak English. The responses that I have had, means that I will be meeting with artists Arthur Huang and Kenta Kobayashi whose art practice are really interesting to me.

Heart of Glass were really helpful too by introducing me to artist Joshua Sofaer who had strong links with Japan as he did an artist residency at ARCUS Project, Moriya City in 2008. It has been encouraging talking to other artists working in St Helens about my project, because they too are interested in working with me, so who knows what will happen next?

Joan Birkett will be in Japan in December 2015 and will update us on her research visit to Tokyo on her return.

If you have an idea that would like to discuss with us and/or you are thinking about submitting a Prototype Projects application click here