Artist interview: Eric MacLennan on Community Art and The Open Air Drawing Room

by Cass Art

The Open Air Drawing Room is a project by artist Eric MacLennan, supported by Cass Art, and is an example of socially engaged art practice. Part performance, part workshop, part collective exhibition, the work crosses boundaries between perfomance and painting, and promotes community art making. Conceived as a celebration of the collective effort, The Open Air Drawing Room is an ongoing project that was originally co-commissioned by the Turner Contemporary in Margate and Applause Rural Touring.

We caught up with Eric to find out more about the project.

Hi Eric! Firstly, could you introduce yourself and tell us a little about your creative journey so far?

Nice to meet you! I'm originally from Scotland, but moved south when my Dad had to move for work. He was a baker in Putney, which is where I grew up. So I'm a Scot and a Londoner... I believe the expression is a "Jockney". I studied theatre at University of Warwick and at Ecole Jacques Lecoq in Paris. I still work as a performer and recently had a nice part in Rogue One: A Star Wars St​ory. I also make my own work. Often this crosses between art forms. I'm interested in work that doesn't neatly fit into categories. So... The Open Air Drawing Room is both painting and performance.

What made you decide to start the Open Air Drawing Room project?

The starting point was in response to a commission call out from Turner Contemporary. They wanted to commission a piece of theatre that would attract people to their gallery during the year that it was hosting the Turner Prize. I thought, the best way to attract people to visit a gallery would be if they were going to see their own work! And so, the concept for The Open Air Drawing Room was born.

You invite members of the general public to take part, encouraging people of all artistic abilities. How do you find people engage with art making in this sort of setting when they have little experience of it? What do they take away from the experience?

​It's very important to me that everyone feels comfortable to participate. The work is designed to be accessible for those of us who feel we can't draw (myself included). Everyone is given one of 31 stones from a collection I have gathered that correspond to the 31 shipping areas around the UK. A stone that was once a mountain. A stone that (like us) is in a state of transition. A stone that will one day be a grain of sand on a beach somewhere. These stones were old when Turner was young and they will still be here when we are gone. We ask them to draw the stones and give each person a Cass Art Watercolour Postcard. They use Faber Castell watercolour pencils to begin with, and when we introduce a drop of water people are amazed to watch their drawing become a painting! Many people leave the performance wanting to do more.

Now more than ever, people feel the need to stay connected. What has the response been from people taking part in the project, and what sort of effect has the project had on the participants and the wider community? 

​People seem to enjoy being a part of something that is constantly growing. As well as enjoying seeing the monumental painting in a gallery, they also can view a photographic installation of all the participating artists hands. This photographic installation (currently in the window of the Stephen Lawrence Gallery) often attracts children who place their own hands against the window to greet the hand photos.

Watch a short video of The Open Air Drawing Room project in action below.

Can you tell us about the performative element of the work? Does it help to break down people’s barriers?

​Like the painting, the performance style is gentle and inclusive. We don't use much text, but we do use humour that breaks down barriers. The piece starts like a classic piece of street performance with us drawing a large perfect circle of sand and inviting people to approach. Quite slowly as the performance develops it becomes less performative and more and more like a workshop.

The beach pebbles you previously asked participants to draw, once exhibited together, look like hundreds of individual colourful cells of a larger organism. They are really impactful on a mass scale. How will you continue to expand the project in the coming years - will the organism keep growing?

​I am hoping it will continue to grow and grow, which means I have to find bigger galleries!

Here is a list of where performances are taking place in summer/autumn 2021:

  • 14th August Ashford, Kent
  • 20th August Marlowe Theatre, Canterbury, Kent
  • 21st August Ditchling, East Sussex
  • 22nd August Marlowe Theatre, Canterbury, Kent
  • 25th August North Lincolnshire Museum, Scunthorpe, Lincs
  • 26th August Holbeach, Lincs
  • 27th August Boston, Lincs
  • 28th August The Brewhouse Arts Centre, Burton Upon Trent, Staffs
  • 11th September All In The Mind Festival, Basingstoke, Hants 
  • 19th September Henley Festival, Oxon
  • 17th October Hever Castle, Kent

Watch a short video of the exhibition at Turner Contemporary below. 

The current exhibition of 768 paintings is on display is at The Stephen Lawrence Gallery, University of Greenwich, London until 4th September 2021.

Find more of Eric’s work at or follow him on Twitter @MyBedroomVoyage.

Feeling inspired? Try out our Cass Art Watercolour Postcard Pads, and browse our range of Watercolour Pencils and Watercolour Brushes.

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