Interview with Lucy: Artist
“I looked up the word career in the dictionary and it states something like, ‘a commitment to something over a sus-tained time’. That’s my art practice.”
It’s important for me to say that I’m an artist. I feel strongly that I am, even though I work full-time doing something else. I would say I am a conceptual artist in terms of the starting point for what I do, but I am strongly an object maker, and someone who likes to use material and colour. Sculpture is at the heart of what I do, but I use lots and lots of different materials, and I always want to stretch my practice. So I’m prepared to explore other methods – like video, that I have limited experience of. I’m more challenged when I incorporate ways of creating that are out of my comfort zone and I’m led by whatever the idea is, that determines what media and processes I choose to use.
How do you carve out space to create?
At the moment I’m just making work at home, in the living room. I don’t want to damage any-thing and make a mess, so what I make here is clean and textile-based. I could use the kit-chen for painting and there is potential to use a garage space but I also know that light is a problem there.
I have friend, Karen, who I met through the local art trail. We’re interested in finding a space together as we have a good connection in terms of our art practice ideas. In previous years, I’ve had studio space separate from where I live, sharing with other artists, and I’ve also made art from home. I know I do more, and am able to explore my practice more, in a space that is separate from home and solely for the purpose of making art. I think, for most artists, it is good to have regular conversations about art with other artists. Although I can make those conversations happen outside of a studio, it’s easier in a space where conversations are ongoing. It helps you move forward.
Also, you have opportunities to perhaps show to-gether or do stuff together that will progress your work. I feel quite isolated when I do make work from home, and it’s harder to find opportunities to exhibit, which is important to me. Otherwise, the work doesn’t become active – it doesn’t get seen. Karen also makes textile works that are quite sculptural. So she and I would need a lot of floor space to create – more floor space than usable wall space. If I’m using the sewing ma-chine, I need a table, but if I’m drawing out ideas or even making some of the knitted work I need to be able to map it out on the floor. The process of actually knitting requires space, as some of my works are figurative and they require a bodily relationship to the work.
What public art events happen local to you, in your east London area?
I showed my recent works in a really interesting gallery called The Stone Space, as part of the Leytonstone Art Trail. Loads of different artists participate and their practices vary a great deal. Some people involved, don’t view them-selves as professional artists. Others do. Karen and I wanted a space that would allow communication between our works. In preparation for the community art trail, people were invited to find a shop or pub or café – lots of different spaces. I’m generally interested in showing in these spaces, but because we wanted this dialogue between our work, we knew it wasn’t practical to show in one of them. Karen’s work needs to go in the centre of the floor. It happened that Stone Space gallery had put a call out, to show 3D artists as part of the trail. They may have done this partly because it would be difficult for a lot of sculptural work to be shown in a pub or café, where it would potentially be in the way. We responded, they liked the sound of our work, and it went from there. The Stone Space gallery is run by a group of volunteers. I don’t know how it got set up but I think it’s been going 3 to 4 years and is provided free from the council, with the group needing to cover running costs by hiring out the space for exhibitions. Artists are normally charged an affordable rate to show there. We got it for free because we were part of the art trail and we were just showing for a week.
There’s an Indian restaurant toward the end of the high street in Leytonstone that also owns a space next door, which was a vacant shop. Someone on the art trail who wanted to exhibit, approached the restaurant about this and the owners were happy for artists to show there. What ultimately came out of this, was that the space was offered to artists until the following March – almost nine months, rent-free. There may be some bills to cover and the artists had to repaint the space, but they ended up with space to use for studios as well as for exhibiting. Those same artists are also happy for other artists to exhibit there, while they have the space. I don’t know how it’s gone so far in terms of an exhibition site, but I know they’ll definitely be using it to make work. I can see, that there might be potential to find a vacant space, in Leytonstone, as the others who found the restaurant did.
There are a number of trails, local to me that I’m aware of. The Leytonstone art trail has been going for a few years and is still evolving – building up its infrastructure and its following. It is run by a set of committed volunteers. One of them is an original founder. This year they needed to muster support from new volunteers to make it happen as many of the original organisers had moved on. There is a fee to join in with the art trail and I believe the main cost is the printed map for the trail, which this fee helps to cover. I’ve heard that the Walthamstow art trail is now pretty massive and they actually have a committee and a much stronger infrastructure, and some council funding. Everyone in the area knows about it. Wanstead has also had an art trail for about 4 years, which has received some council funding to produce the map and is run by volunteers.
In Forest Gate, there’s a guy from Wanstead who has set up this space under the railway arches, and his space was included in the Leytonstone art trail. He’s using it as a kind of café, with loads of programming of events such as comedy nights, book clubs and music gigs. It as an ‘artsy’ kind of venue, also selling locally brewed beer. It looks to have the po-tential to be quite exciting and possibly something that local artists will want to get involved in.
What is your experience, as a participant, in unique and alternative art initiatives?
During the time I was in Hackney, twelve years ago, it was so much easier to be around loads of artists. It was an easier environment to get things set up. Where I live now there’s no formal, studio space provision, minimal opportunity to show work, and a limited audience. In central London, you can get loads of people to see your work and a much greater, wider audience. The show I was involved in, in Old Street, three years ago, was organised by two young curators who had set up as a social enterprise, and got a hold of a vacant space through a charity organisation that makes connections with artists and spaces. Sometimes councils offer peppercorn rent for a space that is not being used. However, you don’t see these opportunities promoted. You would have to contact them with a proposal.
Another thing I recall, is that a couple of years ago, there was this initiative for Wood Street Market, which comes under Waltham Forest. They have a little high street with this old indoor shopping market, like an arcade. It’s been there for ages. Previously it had a cinema space in it and it’s got a really interesting history. There are these tiny little window shop spaces inside – a series of units. The market was on the decline and it looked as if it might close as there weren’t enough people selling stuff. An architect firm, who partnered with the local authority, came up with a proposal to get artists into that space, so the architects set the brief for an initiative to encourage creative and artisan industries to use the arcade. They wanted variety and innovation. There was, of course, a business element to it and participants had to show that their businesses would be sustainable beyond the opportunity. It was set out that could have rent-free units for the first three months and after that they would pay half-rent and later on pay the full rent. The idea is that each business would evolve into the space. But they didn’t want people that could be there just for 3 months and not come back as they wanted sustainability, and for a creative hub to continue to grow.
I applied for it and I proposed something that was probably too ambitious for me, being someone who was also working full time, but I could’ve probably sustained it for 3 months. I thought that there could be a space that was for artists as a kind-of pop-up rotating opportunity. There could be an artist in there for a month or six weeks at a time and they would be an artist-in-residence in that space, opening up to the public, exhibiting and selling work within that time. So you could have people in there all that time and manage the space be-tween different artists. I didn’t get that opportunity, but they came back to say that they really liked my idea and offered me the opportunity to do a month long residency in one of the central units, again as part of a rotation of artists.
Unfortunately, I was in the process of leaving one job and negotiating another, and the new employer said they couldn’t wait six weeks for me while I undertook this residency. They needed me to start right away. So, for the first time ever, I declined an art opportunity I had secured. After that, I didn’t look for any showing opportunities for a while because I felt like… what’s the point – I get to certain a stage and then I’m not able to do it. I felt very frustrated with this chicken-and-egg situation. You’ve got to have the time to do the work and the money to live. I apologised to the market person for not being able to do it and registered my interest in future opportunities. They said there may well be more opportunities.
Subsequently, I did go and visit the market to see how it was developing. They had set up loads of interesting arty, kitsch and retro businesses but I think they didn’t quite get the balance right. It seemed to have became one type of environment. And I think it would have been better if they had mixed it up a bit more. They did include a florist in there at first, which I thought was really good because it is artistic and also, it’s got that thing of easy retail about it – someone will pop in and buy a bunch of flowers and attract more regular shoppers. They might not go in every week and buy a particular painting or ceramic or something. The market is on a struggling high street with ordinary shops like a hairdresser, baker,… etc., so to then superimpose this little trendy, hipsterish capsule, was not quite a fit. In my view, a real mix was needed – integration and not something polarised. I took my Dad back there. He’s used to going into the Wood Street arcade for a browse but he was a bit put off by the new scheme. He remarked that there was nothing in there for him, in terms of the new shops, and instead he made a bee-line for the original Caribbean café for a goat curry. Seeing him react this way had made me question the success of the project for ordinary, local people. Although, I was really glad to see creative start-ups in there, and something that would appeal to a new audience which has the potential to bring trade back to the arcade, and the area as a whole.
How are artists valued?
Artists are valued if they’re perceived as making money. If they don’t have to have another job, or it’s part-time and you make money from your art, then there’s more of a perception that you’re a proper artist. If you don’t make money out of it, then you’re seen as a hobbyist. I’ve had that conversation with one of my relatives, who will often say to me, ‘look, what you’re doing is a hobby, so don’t think you can ever make any money out of it’. I asked them to please not say that to me about my practice because I don’t see it as a hobby. I see it as something central to my life that I need to do, and I find it devaluing to say it’s a hobby. There are things in my life I would define this way, but my art practice is not one of them. The person who says this to me is perhaps in self-denial, because before their own painting practice, comes family and two jobs, and they feel they can’t possibly call themselves an artist, and yet that’s what they are. So, there you go – even with another artist who is struggling with the same concerns, you can get that kind of tension, over how art is valued.
It might be easier abroad. I think recognition for artists is better in Scandinavian countries. I have two Danish friends and when they were just out of college, one received a scholarship and the other a residency – these were for whole, city projects in Copenhagen, along with free space and council funding.
The young British artist and Saatchi scene, that was happening while I was at college, created a sense that anyone could call themselves an artist and make art. I’m glad the scene happened as it helped bring conceptual art into position and there is more mainstream appreciation of conceptual art since this time. But, it also created a situation where you had to then validate the kind of art you made. The argument that anything is art, is weak, and makes it easy for people to disregard non-traditional methods.
It can be difficult to explain what I do as it has to be seen to be understood. I’m not very comfortable trying to sum up what I do. I tend to say I do sculptural or textile work but then textile has got certain connotations. Often people hook onto textile as a kind of craft practice and assume it can’t be fine art. It can be a leap for some people to consider, from my explanation, that my work is conceptual and sculptural like that what I do crosses over with fashion, for example. I enjoy that element to it. But I find it easier to speak with someone who’s got an open mind. In terms of future plans Karen and I are looking to develop a show for next year to continue the dialogue between our works and with each other, and we’ll bring in another friend of mine. But again, it is always artist-run stuff.
When I was much more involved in arts education, doing part time work and achieving time to do my practice, I looked for various opportunities to apply for. But I found that funding was so much about benefitting the community, and on the education side of it. It would all be top-heavy on giving to the community, and their participation, with little or no support for the artist. No time for artists to just do their own work without involving somebody else. If it’s of community benefit then the community needs to be engaged in it somewhere, but the weight is sometimes so much towards benefiting the community that the artist is just bled dry. How, through this experience, do artists get to nourish their practice?
I looked up the word career in the dictionary and it states something like, ‘a commitment to something over a sustained time’. That’s my art practice.