Fresh A.I.R. Stipendiatin Poppy French
1 March 2021

Fresh A.I.R. artist Poppy French on art during lockdown

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What is it like to be accepted for a coveted Fresh A.I.R. scholarship in Berlin at a time when all cultural and social life has been shut down? How does the work change, perhaps even the artistic vision, and what opportunities are there despite everything? We asked London artist Poppy French.


Poppy French is happy about the welcome change of a walk and talk during lockdown. Unusually, Bülowstraße is almost deserted; shops and cafés in the popular district are closed, only the U-Bahn reliably running over the elevated track conveys a feeling of normality, reminiscent of life before the restrictions.

A crazy time to move to a new city. 25-year-old artist Poppy French from London is a Fresh A.I.R. scholarship holder and moved to Berlin last October. The scholarship is now in its 4th year and is the artist residency programme funded by the “Gewobag Stiftung Berliner Leben” foundation. The Fresh A.I.R. programme offers up to 26 grants annually to artists working in Urban and New Contemporary Art. The residences are located directly above the Urban Nation Museum for Urban Contemporary Art on Bülowstraße in Schöneberg. There are aura and momentum, e.g., with the ongoing Martha Cooper Retrospective – even if it can only be viewed virtually at the moment.  

Fresh A.I.R. scholarship heavily used

Poppy French is in Berlin for the first time. The London native studied illustration in England and discovered film, scans and sounds as further tools for her artistic work. For her, it was a stroke of luck to be accepted to the scholarship, as she had felt a bit lost in London. She had worked intensively on her application for the Fresh A.I.R programme, arranging her project into anatomical metaphors, sketching day-night speeds, the seasonal shifts in light conditions, changing shades of an urban landscape. She was all the more delighted that the Fresh A.I.R scholarship worked out.

She left a long lockdown in London behind her when she arrived in Berlin five months ago. She remembers how excited she was upon her arrival about the short chance of being able to enjoy a weekend or two with the freedoms of Berlin before this city also had to put life on hold. It took a while for Poppy French to get to know the other international artists on the programme, as they all had to be quarantined upon arrival. For Poppy French, isolation was a completely new situation: “I’ve never lived alone before. It was a really intense experience. And this building here is really one with thick walls. You don’t hear anything from the neighbours, the other artists. Yes, it was really very eerie,” she says.

London artist Poppy French

Her ambition is evident when asked whether she will be able to implement her project at all given the current restrictions. She says that, despite this, she has travelled all over Berlin with the U-Bahn and spent a lot of time observing at the stations, analysing the rhythm of the people, waiting times and movement.

“At the beginning, I spent a month working at Gleisdreieck Park, which seemed safer under the circumstances, but it didn’t really fit my project brief,” she says and continues: “In the end, I decided to observe the U-Bahn lines. Of course, how people move around during lockdown has changed. They have become much more careful about where they sit or who and how close someone walks next to them. Movements are more controlled; people weigh up how they move.”

London vs. Berlin

But silence can also be a good thing, she says; you can use it to sit on a bench and observe the street. She also describes that for her there were very real phases of being alone in Berlin: “But going for a walk is always good,” says Poppy French optimistically.

Poppy French in her studio at the Fresh A.I.R. residence

There was also a sense of solidarity over Christmas when some of the artists were unable to go home. While keeping a safe distance, they cooked together in the Residence’s large common room, each cooking something traditional from their home country, which helped everyone, says Poppy French.

When asked about the differences between London and Berlin, she doesn’t have to think for long: “There’s more respect for space, for places and their history in Berlin. There’s lots of building going on in London. London is a place for making money. In Berlin, people’s needs for space and history are taken into consideration more. The simple fact that it’s possible to keep an area like Gleisdreieck Park as a park as well, that’s what I really like about Berlin.”

Poppy French got to know Berlin during the pandemic and is eager to see the city once it returns to its normal state. She intends to extend her stay, at least until summer since that’s when Berlin is said to be at its best. That’s what people would have told her.

Thank you for talking with us!

Photo Infobox: Community space at the Fresh A.I.R. residence

Photos © Victoria Tomaschko


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