Fantastic Cities, Fantastic Art

Oct 25 2018

In Modern Art Oxford, Penny Woolcock’s Fantastic Cities opens on 17th November, exploring the idea that, for many, the lived experience of cities may at times be more unexpected that fiction. This is the first major art exhibition of artist and director Penny Woolcock, perhaps an unrivalleled pioneer in contemporary visual culture in the UK. Woolcock, who began her artistic practice in Oxford in the 1970s, is widely celebrated for her creatively-incisive approach to exploring issues of social inequality. Her award-winning work, both compassionate and challenging, centres on personal stories of how power and influence impact marginalised communities, and spans street-cast fiction films, operas, documentaries, and major multi-participant arts projects.

This exhibition brings together pivotal works from the last few years and adds three new moving-image commissions: When the Same Road is a Different Road (2018), a dynamic new film installation that presents the startlingly different responses of two individual narratives, one the artist and the other a young gang member, on a short walk through the same city streets; When I First Saw A Gun (2018), a honest reflections on personal gun use from a range of diverse people; and Fantastic Cities (2018), a sound and film installation humorously interrogating the mythology of Oxford and Los Angeles, two cities famously represented by fictitious narratives created through film and literature.

Over in the Sarah Wiseman Gallery from 17th November, small is beautiful and this is the theme of their last exhibition of the year, Guiding Stars. ‘Small artworks have a special appeal, drawing the eye and capturing hearts,’ says Sarah Wiseman, gallery owner. The artists whose work is on show includes award-winning children’s illustrator Catherine Rayner , and the highly sought-after Oxford-based painter Sarah Spackman and acclaimed printmakers Angie Lewin and Flora McLachlan. The exhibition also includes sculpture, jewellery and a charming new collection of Clare Nicholl’s popular ceramic snow-men which you can enjoy with a mulled wine and a mince pie.

And as Christmas approaches, the Oxfordshire Artweeks Christmas Season begins, offering you the chance to see dozens of pop-up exhibitions across the county and to enjoy open studio events with a festive twist. These range from a solo artist exhibition of acrylic and watercolour paintings drawn from nature, featuring landscapes, birds including owls, animals and plants of the Oxfordshire countryside in the home studio of Swerford’s Ronny Loxton (Artweeks Christmas venue 4) to many multi-artist venues including Holy Cross church in Shipton-on-Cherwell (Artweeks Christmas venue 25), Oxford’s Edith Road workshops (Artweeks Christmas venue 44) and ‘art at Christmas’ in Summertown (Artweeks Christmas venue 36).


In Chadlington, for example, you can find the nature-inspired illustrations of Celia Crampton (Artweeks Christmas venue 10) which hang alongside work of other artists including Cotswold-based Mary Knowland (Artweeks Christmas venue 12) who produces zen drawings and paintings of still life with an ‘unseeing’ technique, creating art without looking at it! ‘It seems counterintuitive,’ she explains. ‘However, the ‘Unseeing’ process requires full focus on the subject matter, and so it creates a greater connection with what you’re observing – be it a group of objects, the figure or a place. The brain, hand, eye coordination takes over the making process and so it is the essence of the subject that emerges as a drawing or painting. I love working this way and adding the paint after the drawn ink lines, it always, to my amazement, lands roughly where it needs to be!

There’s colourful glass that tells a story by Anna Gillespie who is opening her studio in nearby Charlbury (Artweeks Christmas venue17), fused glass bowls and vessels by Pam Armitage in South Oxford(Artweeks Christmas venue 45) and in Holton, Jackie Birchall of Purple Urchin invites visitors into a Christmas grotto (Artweeks Christmas venue 29) where glass glistens with gifts and collectibles for the festive season. Head to Dorchester-on-Thames, where you’ll find a charming series of dainty embroidery by textile artist Debbie Farrell (Artweeks Christmas venue 50) who creates stunning panels of rural Oxfordshire, displayed in crisp white box frames that set of the vibrant colours of the threads within: these include all seasons from picturesque summer poppies to frosty winter scenes and snowdrops.


Debbie is a Nordic walker and so whilst out striding through the landscape she takes note of particularly striking views and comes back later with her camera and her sketch book. ‘I begin each piece,’ she explains, ‘with a drawing, a painting or a photo which I transfer onto fabric as a base and then embroider over the top. I use a sewing machine with a freehand embroidery foot so it’s is as if I am painting with thread and I change the colour of the thread just as I would change brushes if I was painting. I use dozens of different colours in each picture – so just for bluebell heads for example I might use ten or more threads in different blues and purples, and even a pink-heather lilacWhen I am embroidering a picture with subtler colours, like Frosty Wittenham Clumps, I might use lace and crochet elements for additional texture. I’ll also use silvery metallic threads to add that sparkle of a frosty morning. I often use metallic threads for sunlight, golds and coppers, and for water too, and while they’re tricky to work with, they add a whole extra dimension, catching the light and glittering as you move across the room or the weather outside shifts.’

Debbie is exhibiting with jeweller Christine Ellis and Claire Houghton whose knitwear is accessorized with costume jewellery whilst also in Dorchester, along the High Street you can find functional white ceramics as crisp as snow by Tamsin John (Artweeks Christmas venue 52) who is exhibiting alongside handbuilt ceramics and mixed media paintings by Rosie Southon and oak-framed watercolours by Sophie Stewart Liberty.

To see the exhibitions and events in the Oxfordshire Artweeks Christmas season that are open closest to you, visit

Great places to see art in Oxfordshire this month

Wychwood Art’s Autumn Exhibition (until 24th Nov)
Upstairs Gallery, The Town Hall, Market Place, Deddington OX15 0SE

Penny Woolcock: Fantastic Cities (until 3rd March)
Modern Art Oxford 30 Pembroke St, Oxford OX1 1BP

Guiding stars (until 31st December)
Sarah Wiseman Gallery, 40-41 South Parade, Summertown, Oxford OX2 7JL

Image by Marjorie Collins (Artweeks Christmas venue 34; Summertown)

For more information on dozens of venues taking part in the Oxfordshire Artweeks Christmas season this month and next, visit