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Catalyst: Creative residencies in Cumbria - three artists selected and awarded £25,000 each

A poet, a visual artist and a musician have each been awarded £25,000 to each create a brand new piece of art for Cumbria over the next 10 months.

More than two hundred artists from across the UK submitted applications as part of the Catalyst creative residencies in Cumbria project, a unique collaboration between Art Gene in Barrow, the University of Cumbria, and Cumbria Arts and Culture Network. The call out was launched on 5 February. 

Funding is being provided by Cumbria Local Enterprise Partnership (CLEP) as a way of promoting the county, its nature, industry and heritage through the creation of a new piece of art or experience.

Following a rigorous selection process focused on a brief of interpreting modern-day Cumbria, and raising the visibility and profile of the county as a unique, innovative and creative place to be based and develop a creative career, three artists have been selected.

Emma McGordon
Emma McGordon is originally from West Cumbria and is a multi-award-winning poet and performer. She says:

“Being awarded the residency confirms for me that opportunities for artists are starting to open up in Cumbria. I’m glad to be part of this journey and interested to see where it takes us all. My work has been around poetry and spoken word. I am going to use this residency to do something a little bit different and get the people, the words and the landscapes that have been dominant features of my work, on film.”

Azraa Motala (credit Reece Straw)

Azraa Motala is a visual artist with a base in Preston and Greater Manchester. She says:

“I am thrilled to have been awarded one of the Catalyst creative residencies. The support will be critical to the development of my career as an emerging artist. I'm extremely grateful for the opportunity to share my work with communities in Cumbria and for the support, time and resources the award offers. This will enable me to make work that resonates across various layers of society, hopefully fostering meaningful impact and dialogue.”

Jack McNeill is a Kendal-based orchestral musician, solo clarinettist and musical director. He says:

“After investing a lot of time and energy into the proposal, the selection process has been an emotional ride! I am thrilled to be given this opportunity, and bristling with new energy. It's the turning of a key in terms of returning home to Cumbria after working away, and now working creatively here. My project places Cumbria at the heart of a global drama, from a future just around the corner. Cumbria is a privileged place in so many ways, and one where our collective voices can animate the landscape, ringing for change and empathy.”

Jack McNeil (credit Mark Battista)

Above: Jack McNeill, who has been awarded a Catalyst: Creative Residency in Cumbria. Picture: Mark Battista

The three artists were selected through a rigorous and highly competitive process. Applications were received from 235 artists from all over the UK. A panel of experienced cultural leaders and artists created first a longlist of 30 artists, and finally a shortlist of 20, 11 of whom were called for interview.

Kate Parry, Chair of the Selection Panel said:

“We were absolutely delighted with the response to our call for proposals. It was an incredibly rewarding and rich experience to read them all, and extremely challenging to narrow it down to 11 artists to interview.  The final panel decision was unanimous, however, and we’re really excited now to support three such ambitious, different artists on their Catalyst creative journey. This is a chance for each artist to uniquely interpret Cumbria.”

The three artists will begin their residencies this month, culminating in presenting their new work in early 2025. To stay up to date with their progress please stay in touch with the Cumbria Arts and Culture Network via their newsletter which is free to sign up for on their website (see below).

The panel members: 

Chair: Kate Parry, Chair of Cumbria Arts and Culture Network

Dr Colette Conroy, University of Cumbria

Maddi Nicholson, Artist/Founder & Director, Art Gene, Barrow

Andrew Deakin, Programme Director, Full of Noises, Barrow 

Fiona Venables, Director, Milton Keynes Arts Centre

Sui Annukka, London-based, award-winning writer

The organisations involved:

Cumbria Arts and Culture Network

Art Gene

University of Cumbria

Cumbria LEP

Notes to editors

For further information and to gain artist’s access for interviews, please contact

Maddi Nicholson (Art Gene): 07769 915631

Kate Parry (Cumbria Arts and Culture Network): 07884 386206

Laura Bell (Cumbria LEP): 07912 550867.


This year she has been

* Devising and running collaborative workshops with Mahogany Opera Group in West Cumbria

* Working with Eden Arts on a new West Cumbria project

* Commissioned to write for the Cumbria CPP campaign for Everybody Here

* Devising and recording a poetry-play set in West Cumbria supported by Arts Council England exploring artistic opportunities in rural settings and Queer relationships

* Commissioned by Ragged Edge Productions to write for a multimedia digital audio tour in Maryport

* Delivering a 30 minute one woman show at Theatre by The Lake.

* Commissioned by Cumberland Council to devise a creative response to their Cultural strategy

She has also been leading workshops for the National Theatre as part of their nationwide Speak Up project, running creative writing workshops for mental health and wellbeing, working a KIND creative associate with Rosehill Theatre, and running oral history and spoken-word drop-ins with the Kirkgate Arts Centre for the In My Shoes project. 

In 2021 she was nominated for a Jerwood Compton Fellowship and in 2018 Saboteur Awards long-listed her as a UK Best Spoken Word artist. In 2017 she was awarded the Julia Darling Fellowship from New Writing North and spent time in San Francisco on a self-directed residency comparing rural versus urban Queer environments .

She has performed her work in the UK and internationally including New York, San Francisco, Paris and Greece.


Her work aims to share narratives of historically marginalised communities, uplifting global majority people and amplifying important stories. Exploring notions of identity, belonging, culture and heritage within the context of the contemporary Western space. Recent work has focused on her experiences living in the South Lakes, capturing its beauty and confronting its challenges - a theme she is eager to explore further during the residency. Drawing inspiration from the rich natural beauty of Cumbria alongside her individual perspectives as a British South-Asian woman. Creating a body of work that resonates with local communities and contributes to the cultural heritage of the region.

Azraa received her BA from the University of Central Lancashire and MA from the Chelsea college of Arts in 2018, where she was also awarded the Hoyland Scholarship. Upon leaving university she began working as a full-time artist, creating, curating and exhibiting. She exhibits work regularly and has shown paintings at the Saatchi Gallery where she was shortlisted for the UK Young Artist of the Year Award, Tate Britain, Manchester Museum, Prism Contemporary and in museums and cultural institutions across Lancashire as part of a major commission for the British Textile Biennial.


He plays clarinet and bass clarinet, writes music and makes things that happen between the worlds of live music, theatre and radio. With a background rooted in contemporary classical performance practice and an interest in folk and ancient resonances, the work he makes moves between the seams that tie these elements together. He’s the Artistic Director of Propellor, a 12-piece cross-genre ensemble whose performances, installations and multimedia projects map our collective experience of the natural world, through the lens of soundscape ecology. For Catalyst he'll be working with Propellor and Mahogany Opera Group to establish a massed natural voice choir in Cumbria. The end result will be part interactive violin concerto and part digital drama. Participants will be invited to engage in this collaborative performance exploring a future where Cumbria is at the heart of an unfolding industrial conspiracy. The project, called Air Songs, will unfold in community forests around Cumbria.

Recent creative collaborations include working with Leafcutter John, Robert MacFarlane, Hayden Thorpe, Mark Cocker, Linda O’Keeffe and Kerry Andrew. As a chamber musician he performs with the Sacconi and Gildas quartets, as a quartet with David Le Page, Clare O’Connell and Viv McLean, with Ensemble 360, Britten Sinfonia, violinist Fenella Humphreys, BBC Singers, the Hilliard Ensemble and Birmingham Contemporary Music Group. 

He’s been an on-stage musician/actor with Sebastian Mathias and Michael Wolters' Danserye, and Thom Luz's When I Die (Teatro Biennale Venezia 2018), performing and improvising for the Royal Shakespeare Company, recording for Domino Records and Gecko Theatre. Currently principal clarinet for Orchestra of the Swan, other orchestral work includes the London Symphony Orchestra, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra And Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen. He premiered solo chamber works by Philip Glass, Richard Ayres, Karin Rehnqvist, and Michael Finnissy.