Profile: Abi Wheeler, Creative Director of Ryde Arts

Taking to the helm in late 2019, Isle of Wight artist Abi Wheeler sets out her vision for the future of Ryde Arts and the importance of collaboration during such a disorientating time

Portrait of Abi Wheeler

When Isle of Wight artist Carol Jaye – after 15 years at the helm of Ryde Arts – passed the baton over to fellow artist, Abi Wheeler, there were some pretty big shoes to fill.

News OnTheWight has been reporting on Ryde Arts since 2006, when Carol spearheaded what started out as a voluntary organisation, following her work as part of Ryde Development Trust’s Art and Culture team. 

An ambassador for The Arts
Carol has been an incredible ambassador for Isle of Wight artists, pivotal in commissioning new work and in supporting emerging artists to develop their careers. 

Not only this, but she established an excellent network of local partners, which in turn has enabled creative projects to take place in a diverse range of public spaces throughout Ryde, allowing ambitious and innovative work to be accessible to everyone. 

Abi becomes Creative Director
In 2019 Ryde Arts became a CIC and later that year Abi Wheeler took over as Creative Director. 

Growing up in Ryde, where she still lives with her partner, Abi echoes the importance of enabling innovative and ambitious work. She told News OnTheWight, 

“I see this as one of the most vital aspects of our organisation and it’s at the heart of what we do.”

Five years as an artist and in arts education
We were first drawn to Abi’s work when she was commissioned by Arts Council England for the 2018 Threads project, in partnership with Ryde Arts.

Abi Wheeler working during the Threads project
Abi stitching the town together © Tanya Goodwin

Abi says,

“The project was a wonderful opportunity to develop my confidence as an artist and I was fortunate to work alongside Jo Dodd at Ryde Library and artist Carol-Ann Eades.

Educating through art
Abi’s career working in arts education began as a workshop leader with Aspex Gallery in Portsmouth.

She’s worked as an evaluation assistant with the National Saturday Club network, who provide children with free access to university resources and in 2019, undertook a commission at Portsmouth Libraries and Archives for the ACE funded project, City of Stories.

Abi says,

“Both of these commissions have engaged with social history and coastal heritage and my current DYCP (Developing Your Creative Practice) funded project will explore ways of interpreting British textile heritage.”

 Stay Afloat (lifejacket) by Abi Wheeler © Holly Jolliffe
Stay Afloat (lifejacket) by Abi Wheeler © Holly Jolliffe

Adapting and evolving
Back to the present and Abi has had a pretty stimulating first year as Creative Director with Ryde Arts.

Her first planned project for 2020 was a live, site-specific promenade performance taking place throughout Union Street. As the Covid-19 pandemic evolved, it was clear this would need to be adapted into a format that would be Covid-safe.

Quick-thinking and professional execution resulted in Spirit of the Place, the snackable audio play you could download and listen to whilst walking through Ryde as part of your daily exercise, or for those shielding, from the comfort of your home.

Spirit of the Place - Scene 1 Vicky and Will in S. Fowler & Co by Rachel Shore
© Rachel Shore

Covid Commissions
However, the work of Ryde Arts didn’t end there. At a time when many people need art and culture in the lives more than ever (even if they didn’t realise it), Abi explains how Ryde Arts has adapted to support not only the creatives who have found themselves without work, but also has enriched the lives of others.

“Adapting to the limitations Covid has placed on our ability to programme has meant rethinking the way we commission work and reflecting on how audiences experience it. 

“Our three Covid Commission projects responded to the need for paid work when many income streams for creatives were no longer available.”

Ambitious and thought-provoking
The collaborative commissions addressed the new challenges faced by living and working in isolation and without physical access to the networks usually relied upon.

Abi adds,

“I am proud of these commissions because we were able to provide artists with an opportunity to further their own creative practice without the expectation of a fixed outcome.

“The ambitious and thought-provoking projects have been inspiring for me and I hope too for the people that have engaged with the work produced. The strengths of the projects are in the scope of collaboration; geographically and creatively.”

Portrait of Abi Wheeler
Abi Wheeler © Tanya Goodwin

An emerging resilience and spirit
The feedback from the commissioned artists and their collaborators has also highlighted the personal benefits of sharing ideas and thoughts during such a disorientating time.

Abi finished by saying,

“Collaboration is at the core of my own vision for Ryde Arts. I am keen to continue building a strong, supportive network, encouraging new working relationships that cross disciplinary boundaries.

“Covid-19 has prompted a necessary re-evaluation of what and how we do things and although there’s a large part of me that would like to rewind to the freedoms of the pre-Covid world, I’m also certain that there’s an emerging resilience and spirit to take us forward.”

Find out more about Ryde Arts by visiting their Website, following them on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram.

Sunday, 24th January, 2021 1:45pm



Filed under: Isle of Wight Art, Ryde, Isle of Wight, The Arts, Top story, Unexpected

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2 Comments on "Profile: Abi Wheeler, Creative Director of Ryde Arts"

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What a lovely write up. Abi has certainly taken the helm during challenging times but she has done an excellent job looking for innovative ways to bring art and culture into our lives as well as support artist and creatives 👏👏

I wish to thank, Abi, for her inspirational and enthusiastic leadership of Ryde Arts which is a jewel in the Crown in Ryde. Through out last year, Covid and lockdowns, Abi has collaborated imaginatively with Ryde Historic Action Zone and within restrictions managed to produce some innovative art projects such as the Flower Market with Network Ryde. The spirit of Ryde project is an incredible piece of… Read more »