Artist in Residence, Schwedt, Germany, 14-26 July 2014


drawing away
drawing away

I was invited to participate in an artist residence in the town of Schwedt, in the old Democratic Republic of Germany, just a few miles away from the Polish border.

The residence was organised and funded by the Galerie am Kietz in conjunction with PCK, the enormous Oil Refinery that was built near the town in the late 50s, and which continues to exert a profound influence on the people of Schwedt.,

PCK owns a huge collection of artwork. It was usual practice during communist times for big companies to recruit artists, who would produce Art aimed at embellishing the work environment,  educate in/promote the company’s ideals and, in many cases, provide imagery in compliance with the ideals of communism. I was part of an international group of artists selected to create responses to the Art collection accumulated in the walls and vaults of the refinery over the years. I was moved by some of the works I got to see first hand, by the stories and expressive urges of some of the artists, but also by observing the mammoth refinery’s impact on every aspect of the lives of the people of Schwedt and their environment.

PCK mosaic in the Canteen
Detail of a Mosaic in the PCK Canteen


First Impressions

I landed in Berlin – for the first time ever in my life – as the last match of the World Cup Final was taking place: Germany Vs Argentina. The Germans had previously defeated the Cup hosts, Brazil, at a shocking 7-0 score. At Schonefeld Airport, the information screens showed the footy instead of departures.

at schonefeld airport
at schonefeld airport

Down in Mitte, all the bars had screens showing the match…. I sat at a pizza  place with a Fritz Kola, and watched the Germans win the Cup in the last 10 minutes. I felt that I had landed in a Country of Winners. This was an intense sensation of triumph, pride and humility in equal measure. All in all I spent just a few days in Berlin, and I was struck by the profound, and often contradictory emotions I felt walking its streets, soaking up the history and the stories I found.

Arrival in Schwedt

The residency is located in the town of Schwedt am Oder, 5km from the Polish border, in what used to be East Germany. I was struck upon arrival at how scarily clean and tidy everything looked. I hadn’t seen so much pavement without a scrap of rubbish ever in my life.

Schwedt at midday 1
Midday in Schwedt

I found the streets deserted, even though it was mid morning.  When I asked a local about this, I was told: “Germans go to work, or go to the shops, or go home, or take care of their gardens. They don’t hang around”.

midday in schwedt town centre
Midday in Schwedt town centre


The next thing I noticed is elderly people. In shopping centres, where people could be found, the elderly rolled around me in motorised walking aids, wheelchairs, rollators… they seemed to form the majority of the population.

The absence of children around was eerie. I was told that there are kids around, but in July, most of them were away on holiday. Nevertheless, the atmosphere in Schwedt was for me one of superficial perfection, and a lot of unknown gurgling underneath…. At night, I felt more reluctant to walk alone than I would in the middle of London…

Schwedt by night
Schwedt by night. You can see the outline of the Catholic church at the back


Schwedt by night pic2

But the nights were warm and mysterious, and very hard to resist…. This is how I came across this old lady who came out every night at 11 pm to walk her dog, accompanied by a carer and her rollator walking aid, immaculately dressed in white ironed trousers, and a freshly pressed shirt. She took care of her appearance despite the lonely streets, the late hours…the invisibility.


Studio Time

On my first day in the Gallery, I was offered this amazing studio space:

My studio in Schwedt
My studio in Schwedt


I set up studio on the second floor of the Galerie am Kietz, a building originally used to dry tobacco grown in Germany(!). There were many of these buildings around, but they got demolished as tobacco production faded. This one survived, and I was told that, back in the 90s, some members of the artist community in Schwedt squatted it. Eventually it became established as the community Arts centre in town.

wiew from the studio window
wiew from the studio window


As soon as I settled, I felt compelled to draw clean, orderly, straight lines… I started with the Catholic Church in Schwedt, as it presides its town centre. Later I found out there is also an Evangelical Church, with a Flying Christ inside that is suspended in the air without a cross….  Unfortunately, I didn’t manage to visit it. Two weeks is very little time, I found out!

work in progress in the studio


All of us

all of us
most of us

Here we all are, on the first day, (from top left to bottom right)

Janet Grau, (green top) An American performance and community artist who moved to Germany for love, with whom I shared studio space and some delicious conversation. Her work for the residence  brought  young people from Schwedt to work in the studio on a regular basis, and that was a great opportunity for all of us. Her sensitivity, professionality, commitment and self-discipline are admirable.


Jan Brokof (with cap) and Alex Höfs-Schulz (behind Jan)

Both Jan and Alex were born, like me, in 1977. I was born in Barcelona two years after the death of Franco. They were born in Communist Schwedt and lived the fall of the wall, with all its consequences. They took me around Schwedt, showed me places that no official tour could ever show. They told me about what it was like to be a young teenager in this strange town (not easy), and allowed me to see a bit of the world through their eyes…. At night, when Beer O’clock time found us still in the studio, we laughed and talked till late, and their company was the most wonderful present I got from Germany.

Alex works with printing and paper cuts, and his work has a profound spiritual quality… his room in the final exhibition felt like swimming in a pristine lake, cleansing the mind and feeding the soul. He belongs to a tradition of Artists that filled the town of Schwedt with little sculpted corners of hope when times were dark and difficult.

Jan is an explosion of enthusiasm and his zest for life is impossible to resist. His curiosity takes him to all sorts of  places, from the most elaborate woodcuts,  to filming antheaps devouring a city made of fruit. During the symposium he came up with an idea to open an Art Gallery in Schwedt that would home the PCK and Schwedt town collection of artworks, and make it available to all. I have no doubt he will make it happen.

He took me on the bike around the buildings of his childhood, his school and his first plattenbau home (both demolished), and opened his home (and his mum’s!) to me. His daughter Amanda is just as viby as him, wonderful and free.


Waldemar Wojciechowski and Danuta Wojciechowska (just below him, holding a flower) are both Artists and university teachers in Szczecin, in Poland. They were warm and friendly, and had participated in the Schwedt artist residence in previous occasions. They are skilled, intelligent artists, and I particularly enjoyed Danuta’s darkly atmospheric work in the final exhibition.


Ènrico Drømmefanger is a young Schwedt artist. He was super curious and interested in all of us, and collaborated with Ernesto Leal and Janet Grau in both their projects. I had a short conversation with him about life in Schwedt for young people. He got goosebumps telling me about how much he cared about his mates and the life Schwedt offers him, and told me the young are around and very  much active and creative in this town, if not visible at first sight. His company, and that of his mates Miri and Angie, was a breath of fresh air and a vision of hope for the future.


Günter Neubauer von Knobelsdorff, is a veteran who produced work for the collection of PCK back in the 60s. He was friendly, kind and willing to speak of the old DDR times, which brought much enquiry from all of us. I felt for him as we bombarded him with all sorts of questions. He painted a large amount of watercolours, faded ‘Earth from the Sky’ maps of the local area that for me felt like a distant dream of the past, one that  that I wished to wake up from but was inevitably lured back into by its softness.


Cora Vries (black top), A Dutch artist with whom I had some fascinating and fun conversations. I was touched by her relaxed manner, sweetness and honesty. Her studio became a forest of canvas and white banners, and straight black lines and stitches.


Kate Kotcheff is a producer, photographer and film maker coming from London. She is a seasoned professional with an acute eye and inexhaustible curiosity. I was lucky to spend time in her company, learn from her, and enjoy together a considerable amount of  bisongrass vodka. Alex took us to see the old Schwedt prison at her request, and it was one of the most intense moments of the entire residence. The photographs she took during the residency are absolutely stunning. She also dug out from the archives and exhibited a selection of fascinating images of Schwedt at the height of the population boom.


Christian Uhlig (with cap) and Susanne Hoppe (who is not in the picture), work for the Galerie am Kietz, and are both artists. They dealt with our requests on a day to day basis, and took excellent care of us.


The man in the suit is the Mayor of Schwedt, Bürgermeister Jürgen Polzehl


Below Kate it’s me, and Ernesto Leal, who put my name forward for this residence, and without whom I wouldn’t be there. He is one of the managers at Red Gallery London, where I work, and his personality is simply too large to describe in just a few sentences here.

He curated an exhibition in London featuring the Artworks in the PCK collection back in 2011, called The Big Society.


And finally Roswitha Flöter, head of PR at PCK. This confident lady works and thrives in the full-on male environment of the Oil Refinery. I particularly enjoyed our last night together, when she was off duty and her naughtiness showed up after a few of those bisongrass vodkas…


Finally I would like to thank Alicja and Viola, PCK staff, who did a superb job of translating and interpreting, and made themselves super available to us during our stay. It’s been a pleasure to meet you, ladies!


Visit to the PCK Oil Refinery


PCK Raffinerie
PCK Raffinerieit

The sheer hugeness of this place blew me away…. it goes on and on for miles, a town of pipes and chimneys almost as big as Schwedt itself. The oil is mined in Western Siberia, and it travels for  3 weeks  until it reaches the plant…. It was eerily impressive to see an oil refinery so clean. Not many funny smells (from the bus that showed us around) gardeners cutting grass, workers with pristine overalls….

The food in the canteen was excellent…

But it is still an oil refinery…

More towers and pipes
More towers and pipes

Back in the 60s, thousands of young people moved to Schwedt to build the refinery, work in it and in the more than 70 companies feeding of or supplying PCK with goods. People were also needed to  build housing and schools for the increasing population. But gradually, PCK has required less and less staff, and permanent contracts have been hard to come by for young people. Hence the migration of young people to Berlin and other cities, and the strange sense of disconnection between the young and the old I perceived so intensely during my stay. In three years’ time, a considerable amount of skilled workers will reach retirement age…. who is going to replace them? At the time of the fall of Communism in 1989, Schwedt had 55 082 inhabitants. by 2012, 31 042, more than 1/3 gone, and counting.

The people that came and built prefabricated blocks of houses, and lived in them, were also told to tear them down…. People’s homes, people’s special places, built to be torn down… Are people expendable too?



20140715_104253 20140715_104224

20140715_103632 20140715_102637


In contrast with all of this, Schwedt is surrounded by an enormous Nature Park, a river and a huge network of man made canals and landscaped fields and hills. truly beautiful.

20140718_141720 20140722_202118 20140722_204106 20140722_204331


One of the main successes of this residence is that we made it possible for Artwork from the PCK collection to be exhibited alongside our own creations. At first we asked PCK to take some of these paintings to the studio for inspiration and reference, which they agreed to,  and the natural progression for most of us is to have these pictures seen by the people with whom they are so deeply connected. This opened up dialogue between the PCK, the artists and the people, and many fascinating stories surfaced, especially during the vernissage. In the video links at the end of this blog, you can see a man who recognised himself in a picture. Others knew the artists or the models in person and shared their stories with us.

It also fascinating to observe how some of the imagery typical of communist idealism pictures is still very much in use nowadays…

workers unite
the image on the left is taken out from the PCK website, the one on the right was painted in 1952 by Walter Götze, an oil painting of a PCK welder

I was privileged to enjoy the company of these three fascinating paintings for the two weeks. They are so loaded with history, and they permeated the air of my studio with their presence. I particularly enjoyed the contrast between The Welder, a picture of health and vigour (although he looks a bit tired to me),  and the Chemistry Lab worker, who looks like she’s made of radioactive raw flesh, a very critical perspective on communist idealism.

PCK artworks in my studio
PCK artworks in my studio
Walter Götze, Welder
Walter Götze, Schweißer (welder), 1952 Oil 92 x 71 cm
Claus Hänsel
Claus Hänsel. Chemiearbeiterin im PCK (PCK chemist) 1976, Oil, 89 x 109 cm
Heinz Weber, PCK bei Nacht
Heinz Weber, PCK bei Nacht, oil painting, 1975, 69x100cm

The PCK by night is a beautifully executed painting. The atmosphere exhuding from it was especially delicious at sunset, when the whole town of Schwedt went even more quiet  and one could almost hear the rumbling of the refinery in the distance.

Work in Progress


Work in progress 1
Drawing the elderly lady




work in progress 2
work in progress


Detail from top
Detail from top
work in progress
work in progress
Top Section of Zwei Woche in Schwedt (Two weeks in Schwedt)
Amanda, detail of Zwei Woche in Schwedt





Zwei Woche in Schwedt
Zwei Woche in Schwedt


Marta Rocamora in front of her drawing/collage piece.
Marta Rocamora in front of her drawing/collage piece.


A link to all media coverage of the symposium, including a 7 minute video summarising the event.




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