A Delicate Balance: from photography to art

The work of OCA Photography tutor Maggy Milner often strays into installation, and you’d wonder, perhaps, whether she is perhaps foremost a conceptual artist when you see the images that make up her latest project. Indeed Maggy herself says she moves fluidly between using lens based and other media. This project sees the use of photography for research but ultimately is a series of installations within a fascinating space: a ghostly Victorian workhouse in Southwell, Notts. The austere atmosphere of the Workhouse, the social history of the British Workhouse systems that catered for the poor, unemployed and vulnerable created a rich environment to stimulate Maggy’s creativity. Maggy’s work also refers into and draw parallels with the 21st century and the dilemmas facing society regarding state support for those in need today. Southwell’s Workhouse was built in 1824 and masterminded by Rev. Becher. The architecture, (influenced by prison design), required that inmates were given refuge, but also, that they experienced a harsh regime as a deterrent. This workhouse became the blueprint for the whole country. Becher’s philosophy of ‘Supervision, Classification and Segregation’ caused humiliation and degradation for a great many in the years to come.

Maggy Milner’s work refers to Becher’s systems: to the demeaning repetitive drudgery, harsh regimentation and the ‘black and white’ rigid categorisations of workhouse inmates. Maggy hopes her installations (there are six of them) ‘will enhance and expand their experience of the place and it’s complex history and convey the delicate balance between the downward spiral of the ‘poverty trap’ and the rigid demands of state intervention.’ Recently volunteers from The Workhouse had a ‘hands-on’ experience, working alongside Maggy Milner in her studio. They cast plaster hands and modelled delicate translucent Papier-mâché bowls. Thirty-five of these bowls are set in regimented rows on a dormitory floor. Titled ‘More,’ this work portrays both the need and greed in societies. Volunteer Ann Hurt said ‘Getting involved has really given me a feeling for the techniques and materials, and I now have a greater understanding of the thought processes which have influenced the development of the work’.

Maggy says: ‘When I first started thinking about doing a series of installations in The Workhouse I walked around alone with my camera exploring, soaking up the atmosphere of the building and it’s history. I was very aware of the cold light; doorways and separated ways; long unfriendly passages; steep staircases with worn steps; lines scratched by the inmates on walls to mark the time passing; bleak spaces; dark, damp cellars; all of which spoke to me of the harsh existence, the segregation, austerity and lack of privacy that the inmates must have experienced. I also tried to imagine the sounds of feet clattering in clogs, orders shouted, inmates gossiping and complaining…’

The project is a collaboration with the National Trust, and with funding support from the Arts Council. The project is a great example for budding artists and photographers of what can be achieved with vision and initiative. Maggy, who lives near the workhouse, wrote a proposal which she submitted to the Arts Council, and in negotiation with the National Trust, managed to see her vision through to this exhibition. It would be great to see OCA students going for Arts Council funding with interesting proposals…. has anyone been successful or even had a go?
Maggy’s exhibition opens on 3 August and continues until 4 September, at The Workhouse Southwell (call 01636 817260 for details).
Maggy’s website is at http://www.maggymilner.com/index.html


  1. Catherine 6 July 2011 at 12:46 pm

    It looks a fascinating project. I am particularly interested because my paternal great-grandfather was born in Huntingdon Workhouse (father unknown) and I have tried to imagine what it must have been like for his mother to be there. I’ve always found it hard to understand why people now would want to live in their conversions (and mental hospitals) because their walls must be steeped in so much misery.

  2. Rob™ 6 July 2011 at 3:14 pm

    Arts Council funding isn’t available for work related to studies (according to something I’ve read), which means that other funding needs to be sought. I’ve been sniffing around a few things, not yet put my proposal in yet though, but if it come good, I’ll be sure to let OCA know…

  3. Peter Haveland 6 July 2011 at 5:46 pm

    That is true Rob but it doesn’t preclude students, particularly part-time students, from applying for funding for independent projects that do not form part of their college work.
    Artists Newsletter (AN) is a good source of opportunities for students and artists.

    1. Rob™ 7 July 2011 at 8:22 am

      We’re meant to have to have time to do personal work as well as course work? :-0

      Thanks for the info Peter, I’ll check it out…

  4. anned 7 July 2011 at 11:11 am

    I noticed in the TLC minutes that we could access Bucks e-journals – Artists Newsletter is on the list as being available.(I haven’t been able to find the information telling me how to access them yet though).
    Anyway I do have a subscription to AN – the other benefit of it is that you get free public liability insurance for artists included in the subscription cost, which I should think is probably essential for any artist working with the public or exhibiting their work.
    (There’s a possiblity i might be involved in some funded work next year, although I’m not holding my breath:)if it does happen I’ll report back)
    District councils sometimes have grants available for artists Rob, mine certainly used to…not sure now though:(

  5. anned 7 July 2011 at 12:31 pm

    I forgot to say that I really enjoyed reading about the project too – those hands are very evocative. (and its great to see people here working in more than one discipline)

  6. tom smith 7 July 2011 at 3:23 pm

    I am born bred in mansfield nottingham so this is a delight
    to read what maggy milner is creating in a southwell workhouse.
    I look forward with much intrest to hearing of its outcome
    and i wish maggy much success.

  7. roberta 10 July 2011 at 8:43 am

    It is interesting to see the fruits of collective work. This is a good development. I imagine must take considerable “people” skills for the artist to harness others’ creative abilities to a shared vision.

  8. The Open College of the Arts 5 September 2011 at 8:38 am

    Another artistic response to an historic building…. | We are OCA says
    […] interests you and you missed the post about the installations at the Workshouse in Southwell, click here to view […]


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