From Zimbabwe to Portugal: sculptor Toin Adams

After going on holiday in the Algarve, the artist decided to stay permanently and set up a ‘mini-community’

When a pregnant Toin Adams looked out of her window in east London in 2002 and saw drug addicts outside she knew it was time to move. Her work as a sculptor meant she needed large spaces and her warehouse in Hackney was her latest studio after being based in a series of places across the capital. “I would find a warehouse, do it up, then the landlord would chase the rent up and we would have to move,” she says.

Adams decided to stop running after cheaper rents and find a bigger space abroad – somewhere she would feel comfortable bringing up Ruby, her baby daughter.

Having decided on Spain some months later, Adams stopped over in the Algarve in southern Portugal, where her mother lived with her Portuguese partner. She rented a cottage for two weeks and ended up staying permanently.

The tranquillity and the open space reminded her of Africa – Adams was born in Zambia and grew up in Zimbabwe. While she feels nostalgic about her upbringing, she felt Zimbabwe was too unstable a place to live, especially with a child. She does, however, fantasise occasionally about having a little house on the edge of Lake Kariba when she retires.

Adams, now 48, also found that being in a relatively remote area did little to dent her work prospects – if anything, she has become more productive. “I’ve achieved more outside England than I ever did when I was there. I got distracted by the amount of choice I had in England. I’ve focused more.” It helps to have Ruby’s grandparents living nearby since they can help with childcare when Adams has to travel abroad for a commission. Her large-scale work, which is often made out of steel or iron, means Adams frequently has to travel to the installation site. Nowadays, she tries to take Ruby with her.

Adams found the move to Portugal broadened her horizons – her commissions have come from places as far-flung as India and Russia. “If I had stayed in the UK, I would have been strictly UK-based. Once I got here you realise there’s a massive culture . . . you’re exposed to the whole of South America in a way.”

In 2009, Adams bought a former commune comprised of a cottage and small dwellings based to the west of Loulé. She installed windows and plumbing into what she calls the “pixie hut”, a roundhouse she uses to accommodate artists working with her, or to rent out. Since then, other small dwellings have been built, surrounded by mountainous countryside. Ruby’s grandparents, whose home is built on the same patch of land, are not far away.

Describing the “mini-community” she has created, Adams says: “It’s a magical little place.” She also raves about the quality of food in the Algarve, saying organic fruit and vegetables are cheap and “haven’t gone all poncy”.

“You eat like a king,” she says. “Anywhere you drop in, you die because the food is so amazing. You sit and they keep bringing you grilled fish . . . you spend €10 a head and have a great dinner. The wine is great and a €4 bottle is spectacular.”

Although Adams lives in a secluded area, her chosen base is still fairly accessible, which has helped keep her in touch with the world far away from her studio. The airport in Faro is just a 25-minute drive away, as is the Spanish border, while the buzzing Algarve coast is even closer – a mere 10 minutes in the car.

The Algarve is better known for holidays and outdoor living than for being a cultural centre, but Adams credits the local council with attracting excellent musicians for the area’s summer festivals. She has also worked with a collective to set up events in Loulé.

The main challenge Adams has faced is sourcing materials for her artwork. When it comes to equipment, she has to travel to Lisbon and London. “Basic things like steel are cheap. Electronic stuff is expensive and you don’t get good back-up.”

She says this is a price she is willing to pay for the beautiful location and the open and friendly attitudes of the people around her.

“If you’re a city person and you’re used to things happening when you click your fingers, you might find it frustrating,” says Adams. She believes the slower pace and day-to-day problems, such as unreliable internet connections, are just a part of life in a place that “feels more ordinary and real”. Adams adds: “When you meet people, they want to know who you are, not what you can do, which is what happens in London.”

Although she admits that running a business has its complications, Adams has not encountered the bureaucratic nightmare with which many an expat will be familiar. She found it simple to build a house and put her daughter into local schools.

“When I opened my bank account, people knew who I was. At the local council, you go, queue, and get through to a human being because there’s not so many people.”

At some point though, she may have to leave the Algarve to secure a higher standard of education for her daughter. Although Ruby is enrolled at a good local school, they might need to move to Lisbon in order to broaden her education options.

In the meantime, she is working on smaller pieces of artwork that she can exhibit locally in order to spend more time enjoying a part of the Algarve that is “tucked into the edge of Europe – slightly forgotten”.

Amie Tsang is a researcher and reporter on the FT’s world news desk


Buying guide

Adams’ verdict . . .


● The area has a low crime rate

● Plenty of space

● Proximity to Spain

● More integrated family structures ensure that people of all ages play a key role in social life


● If the internet goes down, it takes a long time for it to come back

● Lack of choice when it comes to education

● The Algarve gets extremely busy with tourists in the summer months

What you can buy for . . .

€100,000 A plot of land in a rural setting where you can build a home, or a small flat in the town of Loulé

€1m An upmarket villa with sea views a short trip from the coast, or a beautiful home by a golf course

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