On becoming an artist

In October 2018, I moved my life to Valencia, Spain, in search of a more artistic life. It was one big experiment to see what could happen if I put most of my time into making art. I thought of my first year as a ‘self-taught foundation year‘ and even put on my own end of year show.

Now, another year on, with the world turned upside down by a pandemic, I’ve decided to relocate to Kent, in the UK, for the foreseeable future. (Not that the future is desperately foreseeable these days, but you get the gist!) It’s a decision I wasn’t expecting to make and it is with a heavy heart. Living in Valencia over the last two years has been a hugely significant period in my life. So I thought I would take a moment to reflect on what I’ve learnt from my time in Valencia and on becoming an artist, so far!

001 A New Place

I think I had to come to a new place, a new country to learn how to understand myself as an artist. The obvious part of this is being somewhere where nobody knew me, or had any expectations of me. Leaving me space to develop and foster a new identity.

The less obvious, but equally important part is living in a culture different to the one I grew up in. One with different language, architecture, food, weather, habits, opening hours, colour of soil, shapes of leaves and seasons. On a daily basis my life has been different, in so many unexpected dimensions. I think this has been vital to shaking up my brain. It has helped me see the physical world more clearly, but also enabled me to better perceive social structures. When habits and histories that are unknown to you and perhaps different to your native ones, slowly reveal themselves to you, it improves your perception and understanding of both.

002 An Art Practice

It’s early days and I still think of myself as an artist in an early, formative stage of development. It feels like a huge achievement to realise that a) I now have an ‘art practice’ and b) it feels deeply-rooted enough for me to be able to return to the UK and it not fall apart! That it’s not some mirage that only exists under the magic of the Valencia sun. To feel like I have some foundations, a direction and a practice I am committed to continue developing.

003 My Hands

Building a relationship with my hands; doing tactile things and experimenting with materials has been a critical part of these two years for me. I previously worked in an office environment – all tippity-tappity keyboards, screens and meetings and spreadsheets – nothing that engaged with the physical senses.

I knew I was longing for a way to engage with the physical, material world. To come to know something through physical exploration and play is such a wonderful thing and so desperately missing from much of adult life.

004 Studios

In Valencia I learnt what it means to have your own studio space and it is nothing short of transformational. A dedicated workspace, not a kitchen table. Somewhere you can make a mess; leave your work half-done, in progress; take up space and collect your inspirations around you. For me this turned out to be random notes and images pinned to the wall and strange things collected from the streets of Valencia – a giant palm frond, a replica galleon, a mannequin torso amongst other things!

Most importantly though, I learnt how to be in a studio. How to spend time there, to think, to ponder, to make cups of tea, to read, to draw, to think some more and work. To find what good creative studio habits for me might be.

005 Sketchbooks

I’ve always loved paper and sketchbooks and notebooks and now I fill them up at a rate of knots. I rarely goes anywhere without a sketchbook these days. It feels like an important new relationship in my life. A connection between the world and the studio and my work.

006 Shows

Previously I had always thought of art on display as an ‘exhibition’. My experience of them was mostly in big public galleries, of work by mostly dead artists or artists late in their career, when the arc or narrative of their work is clear to see ( – they came from X, were interested in Y, which led to Z).

Earlier in an artist’s career it’s more murky. There isn’t an established ‘reading’ or sense of what it (their work) all means. It’s more in the gift of the audience to interpret, but also of the artist and how they choose to show their work. The story they weave as they locate multiple pieces of their work together in a particular physical space on a particular occasion. It becomes an event, a performance, the experience is more than the sum of its parts, it is a show. It involves both artist and audience. It should (in my opinion) be energising and life-giving for both. It tells us we are alive. It connects us to our shared humanity.

007 Lifedrawing and nudity

In Valencia, I started attending a weekly drawing group and I chronicled my progress quite brutally, in its unedited form. I knew lifedrawing was an important part of art education and something artists had done for centuries, but I didn’t deeply understand why. But slowly, through showing up each week and persisting, I started to understand this thing, from the inside out – the spirit of the practice, the setting aside of the ego, the observation of life – the human body.

Each week I marvelled at the wonders of the human form and struggled through making my marks. I hadn’t really thought too much about nudity and nakedness before, but I was starting to reflect on it all a bit more. Then I took part in a mass photoshoot with over 1000 other naked people in the centre of Valencia, and it really accelerated my thinking and I wrote a short essay ‘On Being Naked’

A bit after that I experienced being on the other side of the easel and was the life model myself. It was for my regular life drawing group, which perhaps sounds intimidating, being the model for people and friends I knew. But on the flip-side meant that I knew and trusted the atmosphere of the group, which gave me the confidence to try it. Ideally at this point I’d reference the blog post I’ve been meaning to write for ages – ‘On Being the Nude’ – a counterpoint to my essay, ‘On Being Naked’, but somehow I haven’t quite written it, so I shall digress here..

I felt relatively calm beforehand and not too nervous, or at least I’d thought. Each week the model would choose their own poses, starting with short 2 minute poses and gradually increasing up to longer 15-20 minute poses. In the centre of the room there was a large shallow wooden platform – about 10cm high and probably 3m x 1.5m in size. I’d often drawn the edges of it into my sketches, to give my figures context each week. It was just there, along with a chair and a few cushions. As a weekly observer it hadn’t seemed particularly significant, but suddenly that evening, when I was the model, it loomed into perspective. Stark, dramatic elevated perspective.

I felt like I was stepping onto a stage. I wished that I could stay barefoot on the ground, as myself, at the same level as the drawing group. As I stepped on to that small plinth, I felt as if I had jumped into icy cold water – that I could feel a cold waterline around my neck as my heart raced and my body swam in the air. It was an intense physical reaction to a psychological event. I concentrated on breathing calmly, staying still (obviously!) and thinking about which pose I would adopt next. A few poses in my breathing calmed and I started to feel more at ease and able to process my thoughts.

I was shocked at the physical and psychological impact of the small unassuming plinth. This device in the room, somehow unseen by me. I had blithely thought the ease with which I had walked with many other naked people at the Spencer Tunick photoshoot, simply as myself without, clothes, would somehow be akin to this. In short it was not, but it started to shed some light on the boundaries and differences between nakedness and nudity. On that small stage, I felt as if I was no longer me, that somehow I was reduced to an object on a plinth. I realised how much I like to be the person looking and observing, recording my experience of the world. Essentially to have agency and I suppose the extension of that is some degree of power or control. As the model, in that moment, I felt devoid of this. It gave me a very different perspective and understanding of the long history of female nudes in Western art.

008 Art Friends

Basically I love having art friends. They feel vital. It’s the first time in my life of really having them. It feels like a whole new type of friendship, one that can embrace strange rambling conversations, existential angst about my work and understand my strange obsession with a particular colour/ need to look in a dumpster / etc. It is the most joyful thing to count these warm, wonderful inspiring people as friends – Valencia has a set a high bar! I’m actively on the look out for art friends in Kent and the UK ….

009 Talking and Writing about Art

Talking and writing about art is important. Yes, sometimes it feels awkward, particularly when I’m asked what of art I make. I’m still practicing some kind of snappy, palatable answer to that question! But long before some unknown person from the external workd asks about my work, I’ve learnt how vital discussing art is in creative practice.

When looking at other people’s work, talking and writing about it helps me understand it more. It helps me process my thoughts and dig into the work. To stretch my brain and more deeply contextualise it. And I suppose on a base level to simply spend more time with it.

I’ve also learnt how important it is to ‘read’ my own work. To periodically look at it all together in one place and tray and decipher what it’s all about and why I need to keep making it. Having a conversation with somebody else about it really helps! This is I think, what’s at the heart of the ‘art crit’. I;ve taken part in a handful of these now in the last couple of years. I suspect it is one of the biggest things I miss out on by not studying formally at university, but in the meantime good conversations and blog writing are helping me keep things moving.

010 Studio visits are the bomb

This basically incorporates point #8 ‘I love art friends’ and point #9 ‘talking about art’, while sitting surrounded by somebody’s lovely work. I absolutely love it when I’m invited to visit anyone’s studio – it’s such a privilege! And I love having visitors to mine .. although not too many/too often, as that can be distracting from actual work. And only people who are deeply, genuinely interested – otherwise it can feel like an invasion and can be too bruising to the ego. It’s fine if people aren’t that fussed about my work in a public space, but indifference in my own creative space where I summon up the energy and spirit to work is too much.

011 We are all creative

I really care about making art accessible – both the making of it, and the looking at it. About demystifying it, about it not being only done by people with degrees in it, or by strange mythical creatures called artists. I believe that making art is a deeply human activity. That it is a process and way of thinking that we are all capable of. And that it is not an end product.

I think as adults our lives can become disconnected and estranged from this way of engaging in the world. It seems our current mode of Western society can particularly discourage and obscure this facility within ourselves. With this in mind, I have experimented with various exercises in art facilitation over the last two years. I have hosted a meetup called the ‘Art Play Group’ in Valencia, held drawing sessions, gifted art materials (and encouragement) to others and my project The Body Room is also deeply rooted in facilitating public art practice.

012 Money & Time ( … and Art)

Perhaps an obvious statement, but I’ve realised art and money are only very distantly and highly unpredictably related. There are an awful lot of more reliable ways to make money!

There is however a clear and stable relationship between time and making art. Simply put making art requires time and headspace. A decent, freely given, non-contingent chunk of time, on which you are not financially dependent. How then to achieve this? From what I can tell, earn money elsewhere and eventually, if you’re lucky your art practice may become noticed and become directly financially viable in and of itself. However there is zero guarantee this will ever happen…

Therefore keeping your overheads as low as possible is critical. Essentially it means you have to sell less of your time for money earning and have more time to invest in your art practice. In my personal case, I’m living this equation in a slightly different order to most – in that I worked intensely in a commercial career for over a decade, leaving little time and no mental energy for much else. I’m now two years into rebalancing that with what I envision to be a 4 year ‘study and develop’ period, somewhat akin in my (hopefully not deluded) head to a degree in art. But without the tuition fees /debt.

Trying to extrapolate any further than this on the art and money relationship seems pointless, as it is mostly incredibly screwed up. Even starting to think about the plumbing of the commercial art market is beyond depressing, and quite frankly I’d rather not! My conclusion is that if you can find a way to live, within a manner you are content with, but that leaves time for your art practice, this strikes me as the golden ticket…

013 Productivity and patience

My productivity – the fruitful making of my art work comes and goes in waves – but the time when nothing seems to be happening is just as important. It takes time and patience for something to form, somewhere below the surface, in my sub-conscious, but eventually I trust it will emerge.

Recently, for example, I’ve realised what series of work I want to make inspired by the streets of Valencia. So when I’m able to next return, I know what I’ll be getting cracking on!

014 Practical Skills

I’ve also learned a bunch of very practical things including, but not limited to … how to handle art, how to frame it, how to hang it, how to hang it with nice rhythm and impact. How to make various prints – etching, drypoint, aquatint, sugarlift; how to correctly label print editions; how to ship artwork; how develop a project as artistic duo; how to write an art CV, how to do an open call; how to put on a group show; how to give the artists confidence that their work is in safe hands; how to do an opening night; how swap time/skills with other artists and probably lots of other things. My knowledge about types of paper, pencil, ink, brush and paint has expanded radically! Oh, and a bit of practice of drawing and painting amongst other things too …

015 Influences

I thought it would be interesting to make a record of artists and encounters that have directly inspired and influenced me in the last two years. Artist’s whose work is still actively floating in my brain or I can feel in my own work ..

Luchita Hurtado – Feathers, earth-cycle of life

Zadie Xa – Costumes, mask, ritual, myth. (Note to self – need to write up show of her work I saw in early 2020)

Emma Talbot – Her written phrases and preoccupation with the narrow limits of the digital world & patriarchy (Ditto – need to put up some stuff on here)

Laure Prouvost – That journey video & installation that won at the 2019 Venice Biennale

The shapes in the sky between the buildings in Valencia

The light at sunset – blue and orange. Especially on the sea.

There are a gazillion other artists’ work I have admired and been fascinated by in the last two years, but these are the ones which feel most insistent in my mind right now.

Lastly my greatest thanks to my good friend and artist, Emma Shapiro for her ongoing love, support and collaboration, as I continue to develop my work.