Nowhere to Hide

Galen O'hanlon
Date21 September 2023

Think of an artist’s studio and you probably picture a lone figure shut away in a room, surrounded by half-finished artworks and old cups of coffee. Not so at Firepit: the artists’ collective on Greenwich Peninsula that has transformed a retail and restaurant unit into a gallery, studio and community event space. It turns out that a catering-grade stainless steel kitchen is actually perfect for working in large formats. And the completely open plan layout is the opposite of most artists’ studios, as Marcus Jake, Firepit’s founder, explains: “it creates a significantly different dynamic to what most artists are used to: we can’t hide, there are no doors to shut.”

In some ways, Firepit began with this sense of nowhere to hide. Marcus was working on a piece on the Peninsula. As part of the commission he lived on site for two months, which was a bit of a shock to the system after living in relative seclusion in Vancouver. “For the first time as an artist I experienced what it was like to be in a busy area and have people look through the window and watch you working.” He loved the Peninsula so much he moved back here. “It’s an extraordinary place, unlike anywhere else I’ve lived or visited before. I wanted to come back and be part of the community that was responsible for the energy and creation of such a unique mishmash of delicious ingredients.”

The exposure took a bit of getting used to, he says, but the experience unlocked something within him. “What happened for me was a bit of a revelation. Not being able to hide away meant that it became impossible to hide things like my dyspraxia and ADHD.” It has meant he spends less energy on hiding aspects of himself, and more energy on his work. “I’ve spent a lot of time trying to hide and suppress these things,” he says. “Just letting them be a part of who I am became normal for me, which in turn gave me so much more creatively.” He wanted to recreate that feeling in a more permanent way: hence setting up Firepit, and inviting other artists to experiment with a new way of working.

Marcus wanted the founding principles of Firepit to be clear from the beginning. “The idea is to create a wonderful inclusive, safe space where artists aren’t forced to compete against each other, but instead share ideas, collaborate and support each other.” It’s an idea that’s proved popular: all the studio spaces are now full.

It just so happens that everyone in the collective is also an insanely talented artist.

He began in April 2023, setting up the studio on his own, then it all took off. “In May, Aislan Pankararu, an indigenous artist from Brazil, came to work in the studio for a month, organised by Migrate Art, a charity based in the Design District. Aislan produced all the work in the Firepit studio for his solo exhibition in the Brazilian Embassy in London. Ernesto Romano joined as a resident in June, and Gregory Ford is working with us on a few collaborative projects. We put a callout to the local community to fill a couple of other spaces in the studio, we ended up bringing in four more resident artists from this; José García Oliva, Pragya Kumar, Dav Tau and Nelly Khanum. The last space was taken by Shumaiya Khan.”

There’s no strict admissions policy for Firepit. “They were really picked based on who they are rather than their work. It just so happens that everyone in the collective is also an insanely talented artist.” Marcus now has the immense task of planning a combined exhibition of work from the collective for 2024. It’ll bring an impressive range of subjects into focus – from the experience of hidden illnesses to emotional and metaphysical storytelling, to different ways we might break down the barriers of prejudice and stereotype.

It’s important for Marcus that Firepit isn’t some lofty artists’ hangout, but has meaningful connections to the community it’s in. “We’re extremely focused on community involvement,” he says, which begins with “understanding what that actually means and where we are best suited to support and help.” Marcus is in the process of setting up a schedule of events and workshops, all either free or priced to cover costs, designed to get local people involved. There’s a regular resident’s day, where anyone who normally works from home nearby can come and work at Firepit for the day – “if they dare,” says Marcus. Now that’s quite an invitation.

Images by Kris Humphreys Photography