"You need patience and mindfulness - light is everything."
This edition of Foxy takes as its portrait Rowena Sommerville, the CEO of Tees Valley Arts. Rowena is a published writer, an illustrator, and a singer; she has worked for TVA for 18 years and been CEO for the past decade. However, she is also on the cusp of leaving TVA to take up other creative opportunities. Foxy wanted to grab her at this key moment in her life.
Where are you from?
I was born in Bristol, and grew up in Wiltshire, at the end of a long country lane. Later, my family moved into the village of Box, 5 miles from Bath. So my beginnings were in a very beautiful area of England, close to a beautiful city.
What did you study?
I was always arty, and did my arts foundation course in a stately home: Corsham Court, an English Country House owned by the Methuen family with a garden designed by Capability Brown. So yet more beauty! There were white cows, white cats and white peacocks. But the downside was I had to live at home, and since this was the end of the 60s, it meant opportunities for sex and drugs and rock and roll were limited. My next move was to go to Brighton, where I did a degree in graphics and illustration (and sex and drugs…).
I had not the slightest idea how to earn a living. After my degree, I got a job for a year, in an unrelated area, with the Richmond Fellowship, a community mental health organisation with a broadly psychotherapeutic, Laingian ethos. This was in a big house south of London with15 residents and 5 very young staff. It was an intense and very challenging year, dealing with serious issues, unhappy people, lots of group meetings with your own behaviour reflected back to you.
What did you do next?
I had a variety of jobs, in each of which I was offered free training: as a teacher, librarian, social worker. To each of these offers I replied – no! I’m an artist! I was also making jumpers to sell, but I didn’t really know what I was about. I joined Camden Social Services in the mid 70s (my desk had a phone, a typewriter, a filing tray and an ash tray). One of my clients was Alan Bennett and the Lady in the Van. This was 1976. He wanted help to take her to the baths, but it was turned down, on the grounds that it wasn’t possible to establish her actual age. He wrote me the most brilliant letter, which I wish I had a copy of. I was number 2 of a long line of social workers on this case.
So you didn’t become a social worker?
No. I got married and had my two sons whilst doing bits of creative work and youth work. We moved to Leeds in 1983 to get out of London and buy a house. That was great. But we visited Robin Hood’s Bay and fell in love with it: we moved there in 1988. My kids grew up there.
Then, through acquiring children’s books to read to my sons, I decided I could have a go myself. I wrote some rhyming stories for children with illustrations, and got an agent. I published my first book, If I were a crocodile (Century Hutchinson/ Random House) It was also used on children’s TV. I was also freelance illustrating for EJ Arnold, the publisher of schools’ text books and for Yorkshire TV children’s programmes. At the same time, I worked in a local pub to make ends meet.
And I began singing - although I had always thought I could. On a school trip me and another mum and a teacher started singing in the back of the coach, and thought we could do something with this. We formed Henwen, an all female acappella group, and started getting gigs locally. Then we spread our wings further, even doing a national tour in 2007 with Ian MacMillan performing a piece co-written with him. The group is still going, but it’s been a bit quiet recently. After I leave this post I’ll get things going again.
Are you always an organiser in the activities you do?
Yes in some ways. Working in TVA has given me a lot of skills: I know what needs to be done, and I’ve practised this many times. Lots of artists have great ideas, but don’t know how to think through the logistical aspects – so they don’t plan out their funding bids properly. Now there isn’t so much money, there’s more pressure on projects to be deliverable. You won’t get funded just for good ideas.
How did you get to be CEO of Tees Valley Arts?
Through the books and my work for TV, I got invited to go into schools to talk about my work. I found I enjoyed this, and was good at it. I started to do workshops in schools and I also taught adult art classes. Then I got a job working for what was then Cleveland Arts, on a project called Articulate, funded through the Health Action Zone, for arts and disability. This was in 1999. I worked for three years on this, and also did projects funded through Creative Partnerships. I realised you could make things happen, and this was when I got the first funding for work with for asylum seekers and refugees.
I became Social Inclusion Manager in 2006. I was also doing an MA in Creative Writing with Manchester Metropolitan University. It was an online MA, taught by Michael Schmidt, which was one of the reasons why I chose to do it. This was quite early days in on-line studying, and there were some issues, but it fitted into my life. I loved Michael Schmidt – he was very sharp. In my final year my tutor was Michael Symmons Roberts, which was a bonus. I got a distinction.
In 2008, I became Acting CEO, which was then ratified in 2009 - just as budgets were shrinking everywhere. If I’d known there was such a thing as arts management way back – I think by now I’d be running the Old Vic!
How do you manage the balance of your life?
Over the last 5 to 10 years since being Chief Executive Officer, I’ve found that the demands of the job take up all my energy. I don’t resent it but it’s a fact. Now I’m coming up to leaving, while there’s still some spirit and energy left, I’m both excited and frightened.
What frightens you?
What if you look into yourself and there’s nothing there? What if what you do is second rate? What if you can’t get it out anywhere? I’m also aware that I’ll miss stimulus, the colleagues, the bizarre events in the wider arts world. I don’t want to disappear in Robin Hood’s Bay! I want networks and people to correspond with – that’s very important to me.
Aging is also an issue: will I be able to drive my car to Sainsbury’s?
Do you think you have achieved everything?
I feel a raging sense of under achievement! I want to go back and be a pop singer!
I would like to have a really fulfilling mixed creative practice where I am engaging with interesting people and my work is showcased in places I respect. And I would like people I respect to respect my work!
Looking back, I think there have been three major events in my life which changed my view of myself: the birth of my first child, the acceptance of my first book and the death of my mother.
Has being a woman helped or hindered?
I can’t imagine being a man. Yes, men get breaks, but there’s so much joy in being a woman, however difficult and challenging it can be. Women have brought me strength. In the arts wold, there are a lot of senior powerful women, though you still see lots of men at the head of things.
What’s your favourite outfit?
The outfit I’m thinking of is one I made myself out of some chintz curtains from a charity shop. It was pale pink with enormous cabbage roses: deep pink, red and yellow. I made it sleeveless, with a full skirt dropping to low mid calf and I felt like a queen in it. It was lovely to wear, and people always commented on it. It was like wearing a ballgown. So bloody lovely! It fell apart in the end: the red roses went first.
But I’ve had a lot of good outfits. Being tall means complete strangers have often complimented me on my look. I make a point of doing the same to other people as I think it’s a lovely thing to do.
I’ve always enjoyed clothes. My mum used to make all my dresses. I had a lot of gingham, small flower print frocks, very pretty, with smocking. I was aware I had nice clothes. My mum taught me to sew and knit, for which I’m very grateful. When puberty started I rebelled against the home made dresses. It was the very dawn of the 60s, and I decided that I preferred C and A. Probably broke my mother’s heart! The shift dress kind of look.
My style icon is Jimi Hendrix. I have a photo of him pinned by my desk. For me, he is the epitome of an amazing look as well as an amazing being. He summed it up for me, that sense that there was more to life.
What music do you listen to?
African music of various kinds. I still absolutely love Leonard Cohen. But also black music of all kinds: Marvin Gaye, Otis, Aretha, Stevie Wonder, Brenda Fassie.
I love the McGarrigle sisters. I saw them live in Whitby a while back. I also listen to a bit of classical: Aarvo Paart, John Taverner. I’ve got broad musical taste really. I love the star quality of some of the women singers of the past: Dusty Springfield, Shirley Bassey. They were amazing.
What do you read?
I love crime fiction: Ian Rankin, Deon Meyer, plus the older writers like Chandler. I don’t like gruesome stuff :I find it a bit boring. I like a well-plotted novel. I love Hilary Mantel – especially Beyond Black. I’m a huge fan of Tony Hoagland the poet who has a collection called ‘What Narcissism Means to Me’. And I love Larkin too. I think Kate Tempest is a knock out – especially with the music. I like the mix of spoken and sung words – I’d like to do more of that. I like to perform. In fact, I’m better at performing than being in an audience.