by Andrea Cowan

Paul Dignan,  Alse

Paul Dignan, Alse

Paul Dignan,  Geln

Paul Dignan, Geln

Paul Dignan,  Toca

Paul Dignan, Toca

What began as a discussion around the kitchen table in Wells six years ago has turned into a high profile, international contemporary art event, gaining credibility each year.

Wells Art Contemporary, or WAC as it is affectionately known, is an open competition attracting work in a wide range of medium including painting, sculpture, photography and film. It was originally launched to celebrate and support emerging and established artists in a time of austerity, offering an impressive array of monetary, exhibition and professional development prizes.

This year WAC received its highest number of entries: 1,397 works of art from 26 different countries. A judging panel of highly respected and nationally recognised artists has assessed each entry to come up with a shortlisted selection of 123 works for a selling exhibition at The Bishop’s Palace in Wells from 6-22 October.

Paddy O’Hagan is WAC’s new chair, a Wells resident with a lifelong interest in art.  “I feel honoured to be involved,” he says, “especially this year. A fantastic number of contemporary artists have been inspired to enter, from Australia to Azerbaijan.”

WAC has also announced two new patrons: Sir Christopher Frayling, former Rector at the Royal College of Art and Hauser & Wirth, the world class gallery in Bruton. “This is real validation that WAC has become a serious contender in the contemporary art world,” continues Paddy.

11 artists from Somerset have made the shortlist, with over half entering for the first time. There is the celebrated mosaic artist from Pilton, Candace Bahouth, who exhibited this summer with Kaffe Fassett in Bath, as well as Annabel Ludovici from Wells, a multidisciplinary artist who will be exhibiting to the public in the West Country for the first time.  Dr Rob Irving, an artist from Frome with a background in photography, explains why he entered:  “Open exhibitions like WAC democratise contemporary art. It offers the opportunity for experimentation, challenging convention.” 

The Bishop’s Palace has been selected as the backdrop for the exhibition. “It’s a magnificent venue, ideal for the display of large sculptural works as well as small and intimate pieces,” Paddy says, “and there is something very satisfying in the juxtaposition between contemporary works of art and a medieval backdrop.”

The location for the exhibition is important for everyone involved with WAC. “Knowing the powerful and life-enriching impact that visual arts can have, we are passionate about making it really accessible, which includes bringing it to rural areas,” explains Paddy. 

This is a similar refrain from the Somerset artists themselves. Jack Hicks, a painter from Hutton, comments that it provides: “an opportunity to showcase contemporary art in an area where this is still a comparative rarity.”  For Zi Ling, an artist from Bath, the relevance goes even further: “Many modern and contemporary artists after Cubism have taken inspirations from the rural setting. This does not only apply to landscapes but also to country life and its people…art cannot be separated from life.”

The accessibility of art does not just come down to the location.  Exhibiting artist Toni Davey explains: “Contemporary work is always about the exploration of ideas which may not present itself in a familiar form.”  Too often there is little preparation to help visitors understand what an artist is trying to do or say and it can feel intimidating.

To address this, WAC has organised a series of eight forums entitled “I know what I like”, chaired by Robin Sewell, an artist and long standing University Senior Lecturer in Fine Art. Robin will lead groups through the exhibition and hopes to enrich their viewing experience by discussing art works that they respond to and enjoy, as well as the one ones they find more difficult. Dates and prices can be found on the website.

“Everyone assumes that contemporary art is something for the big cities,” concludes Paddy. “But I think WAC is helping to dispel that myth.”