Gareth Stevens, who has a long association with blackShed, discusses with gallery director Kenton Lowe what winning the Muddy Stilettos Award means for him. 

The Muddy Stilettos lifestyle website came into being in 2011 when journalist Hero Brown (Independent on Sunday, The Observer, Elle) moved out of London with her husband and baby son and set the site up to explore fun stuff to do in Bucks & Oxon. Initially conceived as an “urban guide to the countryside” for “smart, fun-loving women living outside London” (hence muddy stilettos), it has now become a thriving ‘go to’ site spanning 25 counties. 

The annual Muddy Awards have almost 30 categories encompassing Yoga/Pilates Studios, Local Food/Drink Producers, and best Art Gallery. There were numerous nominations for smaller venues and independent businesses and over 750,000 votes.

Kenton Lowe with Blackshed team Ian Penny (L) and Orlanda Castello-Cortes (R)

When I spoke to Kenton Lowe, blackShed’s director, he was clearly overwhelmed and touched by the level of public support received in the form of winning votes. This is timely validation for blackShed, which has steadily grown in stature and reputation since its opening in 2009. 

For those who don’t know, the gallery is nestled amongst converted farm buildings and overlooks the hop fields that surround the village of Robertsbridge. Whilst sounding a bit off the beaten track, it is but a short distance down a country lane that leads off the A21.

Kenton moved away from London in the mid-90s and studied Fine Art at the University of Brighton. He tells me that 15 years experience working in engineering meant that, when he decided to set up his own gallery space, he had the pragmatism and a certain worldly insight that gave him the confidence to realise his vision and made him particularly adept at building mutually sustainable networks with other Arts organizations and larger public galleries.

To date, blackShed has partnered with the De La Warr Pavilion and Hastings Contemporary, as well as working with groups such as Project Art Works; an artist-led organisation working with children, young people and adults with complex needs. The gallery continues to be supported by the Arts Council and the blackShed Picture Framing has just been awarded a major contract to prepare artworks for the upcoming Turner Prize exhibition.

Building a flourishing gallery in this way, has enabled Kenton to assemble a growing stable of established and emerging artists. He sees his remit as going far beyond that of merely providing a space for exhibitions, he actively nurtures and mentors new talent and is always prepared to take risks and to host shows that provide little, if any, remuneration for the gallery itself.

A case in point is the much anticipated exhibition by the St Leonards-based artist, Nancy Odufona that opens in September. This show will be a combination of sculptures, video and installations as well as spoken word. In planning this show and supporting Odufona, blackShed is very much asserting its position in the sparsely populated middle ground between commercial high street galleries – nay shops – and the larger publicly funded galleries and museums. Talk to any lesser known visual artist and they will tell you chapter and verse about how difficult it is to exhibit, particularly in the larger more reputable spaces that are largely the domain of the ‘top’ echelon of practitioners. For that reason alone, it is vital to support the blackShed vision of championing those with only a precarious foothold in the public world of contemporary Art.

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