The Art Studio

The Art Studio

This page is in tribute to all the artists, staff, and volunteers who participated in the life and times of The Art Studio, Sunderland. A special mention goes to Lucy Milton, Ailsa Martin, John Millard, and Chris Sell.


The Art Studio Selected Exhibitions:

Giant Fish & Jumbos: The Winter Gardens, Sunderland, and Washington Arts Centre:

Creating a New World: the Northern Centre for Contemporary Art, Sunderland; St. Giles Church, Oxford; the Centre for Developmental Art, Glasgow; Barings Bank, Old Bailey, City of London:

‘book’, a commission for the Year of Visual Arts UK: The Central Library and Arts Building, Sunderland:

Derek Hill was the Art Studio’s founder and artistic lead from 1986 until 2012. The project began as a pilot project under the administration of Lucy Milton, Director and Founder of Artist’s Agency (now Helix Arts), with government regeneration finance from the Regional Health Authority. Hill was appointed in 1986 on a full one-year contract to develop the project with support from the sculptor, Chris Sell, to engage with people arriving in the community from Cherry Knowle Psychiatric Hospital.


Links to Derek Hill’s artwork at the Art Studio: Painting and Printmaking 1986–2012 can be viewed at the foot of the page.


Les Chisnel, inside his studio, Hind Street.

Les was chosen along with Robin Emmerson, another Studio artist for solo exhibitions at the Northern Centre for Contemporary Art (NCCA).

iris: sculpture

Bill’s space

Gordon: Eastend kid, etching

Vic: the Jarrow March, Breezeblock sculpture

The Art Studio embodied a sense of belonging and a life-affirming vision. It was a place where people believed their art was part of a bigger struggle for themselves and others. They could see first-hand the true value of what they were accomplishing—it saved lives.

Karen’s space

“The Art Studio was made up of a composite of rich characters from all walks of life, many of whom had little or no experience of the world of academia or mainstream art. “When you entered the studio, it made you wonder how long it had existed; there were people in there who seemed to have been making their home in it or a second home out of it. With carpets spread on the cement floor, family photos were mounted next to the artwork. Everyone associated with the place had been affected by life and had a story to tell about themselves—some more monumental than others—and a few would stage-manage their experiences for everyone else to see as impromptu theatre. Daily life there was mostly channelled into art.” 

Mary Barnes JP Getty Jr. Charitable Trust.

The Art Studio was artist-led and advanced the arts in the region by fully exploiting the rich culture and heritage of the people it championed. The Studio’s success sprang from an artistic vision and a refusal to submit to establishment values or political pressure. It created a new type of live expression and, in the process, influenced artistic practice and pioneered public engagement, expanding minorities’ access to art. It was integral to the success of the Year of Visual Arts UK Initiative in the region and other collaborations throughout the UK.



The Norfolk Street Project, 1986–1988

Humble Beginnings: The ethos of the Art Studio evolved from humble beginnings when Hill, assisted by Sell, initiated a city-wide programme of workshops they run in drop-in centres and hospital units while searching for a studio. A year later, premises were found on Norfolk St., where invitees were encouraged to make artwork alongside the two professional artists. In 1987, the project opened its first major exhibition at the Winter Gardens Museum, organised and supported by the Tyne and Wear Museum Service and the City of Sunderland.

Norfolk Street studio

Derek Harland

Michael A


Although the project was primarily established to provide facilities for people who had been in long-term psychiatric care, the ethos ensured the studio focused its development on creative and artistic practice. Its open-door approach embraced the vulnerable, unemployed, and other minorities. The project’s profile in the region achieved national critical acclaim as a unique attempt to address the issues surrounding mental health and representational practices through visual fine art practice.

The Art Studio’s membership and sponsorship grew, as did its reputation in the media and the local community. With support from the City Council, the project expanded to larger premises on Sans St. in 1988 before relocating to a three-story, 15,000-square-foot facility on Hind St. in the city centre in 1990. (Cover image).

Large open areas inside were converted into individual and communal spaces for people to work in and forge their identities as artists while fulfilling a need for a sense of belonging and fellowship. It was a collective spirit that fed into and formed the overall fabric of the project. It had established fully equipped printmaking and ceramics facilities and a digital imaging suite. There was also a large, spacious gallery on the ground floor for regular exhibitions of studio artists’ work and networking with universities and other professional visual arts organisations.

In a few years, The Art Studio had become an extraordinary forum for discussing and developing good artistic practice outside the usually restrictive regimes of the art establishment. It was where professionals mixed with non-professionals. Here was where the artists decided what art was, and their work set them apart because of the astonishing commitment invested in it.

Sans St Studio circa 1988–1991, before becoming the Art Studio

The sculptor, Chris Sell


Alice, Margie, and Karen, The Women’s Art Project, Playhouse Theatre, Newcastle




Giant Fish & Jumbos, Winter Gardens Museum, Sunderland


Centre for Developmental Art, Glasgow



the Art Studio, Hind Street

More information:

From 1990 onward, the Art Studio received grants from the Tyne and Wear Development Corporation, the Tyne and Wear Foundation, J.P. Getty Jr. Charitable Trust and the Barings Foundation to establish and maintain the post of a development worker to increase the studio’s visibility in the region and nationwide. The post covered fundraising and an outreach education role, which proved successful in its delivery. A full-time post for a sculptor was also established.

Chris Sell (Right)

The Studio was instrumental in employing professional artists part-time and full-time; placement modules were established for Fine Art BA Honours and Postgraduate students as part of their course development. It offered mentoring, research, and development to Fine Art PhD students and placements for international artists on research grants. It hosted exhibitions of work by BA honours and postgraduate students and arts and crafts professionals.

Exhibition space: Hind St

Hill inside his studio at Hind Street, 2009

During this time, Hill and the other professional artists continued their practice alongside people every day. 

Research and development programmes were established at the studio to encourage personal and group development. Funding packages were sourced to enable people to travel to exhibitions and places of interest throughout the UK. A series of exhibitions of the studio’s work were established in collaboration with curators, including Giant Fish and Jumbos at Sunderland Museum, the Washington Arts Centre, and later at the Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle. A major retrospective of the Studios’ work was held at the Northern Centre for Contemporary Art, Sunderland (now the Northern Gallery of Contemporary Art). Exhibitions were held in London, Oxford, and Glasgow. Studio artists participated in a sculpture symposium in Warsaw and Gdansk; a member artist was featured in a major international art expo tour sponsored by IBM Computers. The exhibition “12“ featured all 12 major U.S. cities.

An exchange programme was established between the Art Studio and the Centre for Developmental Art, Glasgow. The Art Studio inspires three similar projects based on the Studio model in North and South Tyneside and Newcastle on Tyne.

Several Studio members completed undergraduate and higher Fine Arts degrees in universities and colleges throughout the UK. A work placement programme was established at the studio for PhD, MA, and BA students. Hill’s work was recognised by ABSA/Daily Telegraph Arts Awards:

Ceramicist Cath Warwick

A special mention goes to artists Chris Sell, a sculptor; Catherine Warwick, a ceramicist; David Gross, a sculptor who established connections in Warsaw and Gdansk; and Ian Hall, a digital artist; also to Nicky Wynne, the Art Studio’s first development worker; Andrea King, Gillian Firth, and Ruth Petrie. There are many professional artists, membership artists, and administrative workers to whom the Art Studio pays tribute, helping the Art Studio achieve success.

A special mention to the following artist volunteers:




Margie B. ‘Derek’

Throughout its existence, The Art Studio developed a close and long-term relationship with the regional health authority, its chief partners, the Teaching Primary Care Trust, the City of Sunderland Social Services, Durham and Newcastle Health Authorities and Social Services, and voluntary agencies to deliver service-level contract agreements (IPA’s).

The Art Studio received sponsorship, in-kind support, revenue, and capital funding from several major grant-giving foundations, including;

  • The Baring Foundation
  • The John Paul Getty Jr. Charitable Foundation
  • The Tyne and Wear Foundation
  • The Tyne and Wear Development Corporation
  • The Foundation for Sport and the Arts
  • Arts Council England
  • Scottish Arts Council
  • Nissan UK
  • Smiths Electrical Vehicles, UK

The exhibition space in Hind St.

A Tribute to Bob Allison:


Derek Hill, artwork at the Art Studio: Painting and Printmaking 1986–2012

Giant Fish 1986–1988:

Borders 1988-1994:

Flaw 1996–2012:

Feathers and Lace: Etchings 2010–2012:

Carnival: Etchings 1996-2010:

The Machine, ink drawings 1990–1996:

Kings & Queens: watercolours and ink drawings 2010: