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Sharing Little Sparta

Little Sparta, photo: Andrew Lawson

Set in the Pentland Hills near Edinburgh, Little Sparta is Ian Hamilton Finlay’s (1925-2006) greatest work of art.

With details of how to apply for their 2017 Sharing Little Sparta summer residency programme recently announced, we speak to Project Coordinator Alexia Holt about just what makes Little Sparta such an inspirational setting for a creative residency…

For those who are unfamiliar with it, can you tell us a bit about Little Sparta?

Little Sparta is one of the most distinctive gardens in Europe and one of Scotland’s most influential public art works. It was developed at Stonypath, a hill farm on the edge of the Pentland Hills near Dunsyre, by the poet and artist Ian Hamilton Finlay. Finlay moved to Stonypath in 1966 with his wife Sue (with whom he collaborated on the creation of the garden until the early 1990s) and lived there until his death in 2006.

Before moving to Stonypath, Finlay had been developing his concrete poetry on paper and on free-standing cardboard into poems as objects in the landscape. As the garden at Stonypath developed, Finlay worked collaboratively with stonemasons and letter-cutters to make permanent outdoor works for the settings he and Sue created in the landscape. The garden now contains almost 300 individual works.

The Little Sparta Trust was established in 2005 with the aim of preserving Little Sparta and maintaining public access to this truly unique garden. It is now open to the public every summer and attracts a wide range of visitors each year.

In 2016 an Open Project Fund award from Creative Scotland made Sharing Little Sparta possible, a two-year pilot project designed to increase and enhance access to the garden both for the public and for artists. Working in partnership with the Scottish Poetry Library, the National Galleries of Scotland and the University of Edinburgh, the Trust launched a new Little Sparta Residency Programme last year as a means of making the garden and the national collections of Finlay’s work available as a resource for artists interested in his work and the ideas that informed and were generated by it. The first residencies were awarded to the poets Thomas A. Clark and Peter Manson and the visual artist Sarah Rose.

Little Sparta, photo: Andrew Lawson

What are the upcoming Residency opportunities at Little Sparta and who are they for?

This year, the Trust will offer residencies to visual artists, poets and writers based in Scotland. We also hope to invite a specialist in horticulture, botany, landscape or garden design with a particular interest in contemporary art or writing. The residencies are non-residential: no accommodation is currently available on site at Little Sparta. Instead, the opportunity affords supported access over a prolonged period of time not only to the garden, but also to Finlay’s library within his house at Stonypath and to the archives and superb collections of his work held at SPL and NGS. The focus is not upon producing a final piece of work, but instead we hope these opportunities will create an inspiring context in which new ideas and projects can be developed. More information and guidelines on how to apply are available at www.littlesparta.org.uk

Little Sparta, photo: Andrew Lawson

What do you think makes Little Sparta such a creatively stimulating space for a residency?

It’s certainly the combination of Little Sparta’s relatively remote setting on the edge of the Pentlands and the scale and quality of the garden and its art works; Little Sparta is maintained beautifully by the Trust and Head Gardener George Gilliland, ensuring Finlay’s vision is expressed perfectly. In addition, artists taking part in the programme can also spend time working in Finlay’s library, which contains an extensive and eclectic collection of publications and journals. The library reflects Finlay’s wide-ranging interests, his own research and the ideas he was exploring through the process of developing Little Sparta. Beyond this, I think it’s also the centrality of collaboration to Finlay’s work, which is very evident at Little Sparta, and the fact that his practice encompassed writing, poetry, publication, printmaking and sculpture. Cumulatively this all creates the perfect context for research, discussion and the development of new work.

How did last year’s residency participants find their time at Little Sparta?

The residencies in 2016 worked very well and the artists found their time to be extremely productive. This is a pilot programme and we’ve worked closely with Peter, Sarah and Tom to understand how residencies at Little Sparta can best support contemporary practice across a broad range of specialisms. Although the artists weren’t able to stay on site, the opportunity to make repeated visits beyond the usual public opening times, and to have access to the expertise of those that work for and are associated with the Trust, proved very beneficial. All of the artists welcomed the time the residencies gave them to explore new ideas and focus upon the development of their own work in a different context and without a pressing deadline!

Little Sparta, photo: Andrew Lawson

What would you say to someone who has never visited Little Sparta?

Visit! The garden is open every Wednesday, Friday and Sunday afternoon from the beginning of June until the end of September. The journey there is wonderful in itself (it takes less than an hour by car from Edinburgh). For those that don’t drive, the Trust runs buses during August from Edinburgh to Little Sparta. I would also recommend visiting the Little Sparta website, where a new archive section is making a wealth of material connected to Finlay, the garden and his collaborators available for the first time. In partnership with Edinburgh College of Art’s Design Informatics department, Sharing Little Sparta is currently developing other digital means of engaging with the garden and its art works, both on site and remotely, to ensure as wide an audience as possible can access Little Sparta and Finlay’s work.

Photo credits: Andrew Lawson


Find out more about Little Sparta, and how to apply for the Sharing Little Sparta Residencies 2017 by the deadline of 17 February. For further information about the Residencies contact Alexia Holt alexia@littlesparta.co.uk

This article was published on 31 Jan 2017