MY STORY Down on the art farm: Deborah Parkes, co-founder, Clayhill Arts

Set in a converted Somerset farm, Clayhill Arts is a training retreat for artists and creative professionals founded by Deborah and Michael Parkes and opening in 2017, and also a model of arts enterprise

What are your and Michael’s backgrounds?

Michael and I met in Nottingham in 2006 when Michael was in the early stage of his teaching career at Bilborough College and I had been working at Surface Gallery as a volunteer, but I was an active member on the committee and represented the gallery at regional ACE meetings. I had curated a show on work inspired by Joseph Cornell and instigated events that were part of the city-wide fundraising event, A Drop In The Ocean, raising money for the victims of the 2005 Tsunami in Thailand. Prior to that I had been involved in You Are Here festival supporting artists and public and assisted with research for the evaluation of Open Festival which helped form part of this report.

After my time at the gallery I opened and ran a neighbourhood bistro called Ripple before enrolling as a mature student at Nottingham Trent University to study decorative arts. I also supported a local lighting artist, Raphael Daden ,as a studio assistant and administrator, helping with his website, applying for commissions, sourcing opportunities and negotiating contracts for his studio users at Nottingham City Artists.

During that time Michael had progressed within his teaching and was regularly contributing in a consultancy capacity to the OCR (the awarding body for A-levels) conference and BFI training events as well as delivering adult education courses at Broadway Cinema in Nottingham.


How and where did the idea for Clayhill Arts happen?

As I was reaching the end of my degree I had already decided that I was not going to be a maker and that I was better skilled at supporting and facilitating opportunities. Listening to my peers at the time and exploring the climate, it felt like there was a lack of that kind of support post degree. Michael is a great believer in life-long learning and was also at a turning point in his career, so all of this started conversations about what we wanted to do next.

Having both experienced a range of different venues in our work, this got us thinking about how different environments effect the learning experience. Our belief is that learning and sharing knowledge works best in an environment that’s inspiring, so we started thinking about what an inspiring environment would look like and where would it be.

I had family connections in Somerset, which is what brought us down here in the first place, but as we were putting pen to paper and thinking about where next. Somerset looked like the right place to start looking, and with its proximity to creative centres like Bristol, Bath, Exeter and Plymouth as well as having the options of things like the sea and the countryside, the idea of setting up a space to retreat to, a space that inhabits creativity just seemed to fit. We spent a month searching Somerset for the right property and after 50 viewings and 2,500 miles fell on Clayhill Farm. The farm was much bigger than we were initially looking for, but its potential was too much of an opportunity to let go, so we leapt as it were and here we are.


Was the catalyst that you needed training and couldn’t find it?

Not personally, but we were hearing stories from our peers about the difficulty in accessing training after university. They were wanting to develop their skills but not quite finding the right facilities. My time as a mature student gave me a real insight into what was being provided and what was missing. This made us want to create somewhere that offered a holistic learning experience, and a place you could stay, sit learn and breathe in, whilst challenging yourself a bit too.

I had been on a couple of drawing retreats which had been wonderful opportunities for me to stop and take stock of my practice for a few days. I was in a different environment, with a new set of peers who I could learn from too. All these things were part of the catalyst, as well as the time I had spent running my restaurant, paying attention to people’s needs, creating an environment of support and nurture. I’d learnt on the job when running the restaurant and a lot of the arts is about that as well – just giving it a go. That’s what’s at the heart here, from the staff we employ to the tutors that we work with, it’s all about supporting and engaging with one another in a really balanced way.


You bought a 140-acre farm for the project. How were you able to fund it?

That is not strictly true, we bought the farm buildings and eight acres of land, we just happen to be sitting in the middle of the 140-acre farmland. This is still owned by the previous farmer (John Irish, with whom we have a very good relationship) and has recently been taken over in tenancy by Fred Price, an enterprising young farmer at our neighbouring farm Gothelney. There are many parallels between the way Fred is farming and how we are repurposing the farm buildings here and we have already been talking with him about ways to collaborate through artist residencies and talk programmes that combine art with food and the ecosystems that surround us.

The project to date has been entirely self-funded, with contingencies in place to work through the initial few years of establishing the business.


How is the programme funded now – do you get any subsidy and what support do you get from the cultural and creative industries, cash or in kind?

We operate on a self-funding model through paid-for courses and private hire. We are keen to put learners in front of the people they want to learn from, so being able to listen to that and respond to our audience in an immediate sense is a real driver for us. We wanted to create an arts-based business without the need of funding or subsidy. Given that we are promoting a resilient arts practice within the courses we deliver, we felt we should practice what we preach and use this ethos as the basis of our own business model.


How many participants do you have in normal times, what happens there in a typical day?

We have on-site accommodation here and can sleep up to 16 people across our eight bedrooms, although because we want to allow time and space for each participant, we generally schedule each course with a maximum of 10-12 people. This means the tutor has enough time to see everyone and the student gets the access that they need to learn, experiment and grow. We have also been running some one-day events for the local arts community which can accommodate larger groups of people, such as for an artist talk. The premises itself can hold up to 120 people comfortably in a lecture-based format, but in terms of a space for training, the room for the student is more important than the numbers for us. “Learning First” and “Artist First” have been both our mantras and priorities as we have been designing our spaces and putting together course content here at Clayhill.


What arts do you cover?

We span across the spectrum of the arts and feel it is important to offer a space to cross pollinate. As I have come from a background in both fine art and contemporary craft and design, I am encouraged by experimentation and the ideas between things. This inevitably has an influence on what happens here, but we are always listening to what’s going on. We aim to respond to the needs of the sector, asking our audience who they want to learn from, what are the gaps in their skills? Our course content reflects this, offering people the opportunity and space to grow and develop during their time here.


How long are the courses, and are they residential?

The majority of our courses run between two and three days, some of our masterclass courses are up to four. We offer on-site accommodation and catering and encourage the communal nature of a shared meal. There is much more to share and learn outside the classroom and this is the best space for that.


You had barely been going for two years when Covid-19 pandemic struck. How have you survived?

We stripped everything back to its bare bones and moved as much as we could online. Looking for opportunities to adapt and make new things happen we have been able to access new audiences and develop new offers that we would never have thought possible at this stage. This is the beauty of being a small and a relatively new and independent business I guess; you can adapt and change at pace.

We have also been able to apply for business grants and rate relief during this period, and as we own the buildings we have had no rent to pay. Our running costs are fairly low as well, as we were able to install eco-friendly services when we converted the buildings for their current use. The installation of biomass heating and solar power have meant that our outgoings are as low as possible. This initial investment has meant that we were able to limit what we were using during this time “on pause” and in the long run is something we can pass onto the artists and creative practitioners who use the facilities.


How many participants have you had so far and are you expecting to physically open again this year?

Over the last few years we have hosted a series of self-initiated retreats for groups of 4-12 people, one day group workshops for up to 20 participants, evening talks for up to 25 people and open house events as part of our local Somerset Art Weeks Festival, for a rolling visitor count of 8-10 people at a time.

With the restrictions that are currently in place, it looks likely that we may be able to open in the summer in a physical sense. We have a few courses planned during this time, but of course will keep an eye on the moving situation before we make the final call.


What will happen at the Creative Forum on March 5 and how can people join?

The Clayhill Creative Forum marks the first of our online events for 2021.

The forum is the first event of its kind for us and will become a regular highlight in our digital calendar. It is a day of talks, reflections and networking opportunities with creative practitioners across the creative industries and is a digital version of what we would host here physically.

We are looking to examine the effects that the pandemic is having across the creative industries, whilst exploring our overarching theme for 2021 ‘Physical/Digital’.


The Clayhill Arts Creative Forum takes place online on Friday 5 March. Further details, including information on how to book, can be found on the website:


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