Tell us a little bit about yourself
I am an artist, curator and lecturer based in Leeds. I have been working as an artist
since 2009 when I graduated from by BA alongside other work. I have a studio with
East Street Arts in Leeds and I am currently a Lecturer in Fine Art at University of
Leeds. I also run Threshold, an open-air space for exhibitions of sculpture in the front
garden of a back-to-back terraced house on a residential street in Leeds. Threshold
supports artists through selling affordable editions of sculpture. This project is taking
a break while I prioritise other my own studio practice. In addition to my work as an
artist and teacher, I often work for arts organisations to programme exhibitions and
events like conferences. This involves a lot of logistics and careful project
management and planning.
I teach three days per week, and I am in the studio the other two days, unless I have
other work on at the same time. I try and make the most of academic holidays to
focus on my practice. In my studio practice, I work between sculpture, print and
drawing. My work incorporates material processes that mimic nature, using chemical
reactions, heat, and pressure to make installations that represent semi-fictional
environments and question the boundaries between nature and the human-made.
Previous works have represented the back of a snail’s shell, obscure gardens and
the edge of the world. Acid-soaked steel molluscs populate my work, their etched
surfaces containing organic systems and pathways. Synthetic geology interacts with
an ordered world of coils, ovals and voids. Molten slag has erupted from the furnace,
frothing and flowing through the shell of a now extinct organism, leaving behind a
fossil remnant. Like a soft-bodied creature, my work takes the form of collections that
expand and contract within the space available. This can be an artist’s book, a
series, or an installation.
My time in the studio might involve drawing, planning exhibitions, writing funding
applications or having meetings. I wish more of my time was focussed on making but
pursuing this career involves a lot of admin!
I have participated in exhibitions in front gardens, music festivals and public galleries
including: Leeds Art Gallery, Leeds; Bloc Projects, Sheffield; Sandford Vitrine,
London; Threshold, Leeds; BLANK_, Leeds; Index Festival, Leeds; CfSHE Gallery,
Tokyo; The Factory, Djúpavík, Iceland; METAL, Southend-on-Sea; Tritongatan5,
Gothenburg. In 2021 I was commissioned by Yorkshire Sculpture International to
deliver a series of sculpture workshops with Ryedale Community Centre in
Wakefield. In that year I was also awarded an Arts Fund Commission by Leeds City
College to develop a new sculpture installation and piece of choreography with L3
dance students. I have also produced an artist’s book titled Feeling the Underside,
and participated in international artist residencies at Mokuhanga Innovation
Laboratory, Japan; Village Green Festival, METAL, Southend-on-Sea, UK; Joya: arte
+ ecologia, Spain; Listhus, Iceland; Skaftfell, Iceland.
What made you choose this career?
Working in the fine art industry is definitely very difficult at times, it can be hard to
access funding or negotiate fair pay, or to juggle different types of employment with
maintaining a studio practice. To fund my practice, I currently teach in a university,
and curate artist-led and gallery exhibitions and projects. This often makes it difficult
to prioritise my studio work as these jobs demand a lot of time and energy, but
usually I get one or two days per week for studio. I also use my holidays and
weekends for studio projects too. It is quite recent that I get to work full-time in the
creative industries, I’ve worked in shops, offices, wholesalers and events to keep my
career going. However, it is an incredibly interesting and enjoyable career to have, if
I am not making art, I get to talk and think about it in my other roles. The difficult
times when I am working every day of the week pay off when I get to do a show or a
residency, I’ve been able to travel to Germany, Iceland, Japan, Spain and Sweden
with my work. It is also a very sociable industry where I make new friends and
colleagues who all specialise in something fascinating.
I chose this career because I had a feeling in my gut that making art was the thing I
could do best over any other subject, and that with some training I could be a
successful artist and that it would give me an exciting life. Learning new techniques
at school like woodcarving or soldering metal at school felt natural and easy in a way
that little else did. It was physical and involved my whole body and brain. I loved
visiting galleries and wanted to be able to make art works that were as good or
immersive as those I was seeing in galleries like Tate. I think I knew deep down that
I would regret taking a less risky career option that prevented me from making art
and so I gambled and went to art school.
Did you go through formal education? If so, what did you study and where? If
not please explain your journey.
Yes, I did go to art school. My journey to being an artist is really linked with the art
schools I went to as I was able to develop a network of friends and peers that I have
gone on to work with professionally. I was also given opportunities for residencies,
scholarships and shows through art school that I would not have had access to
otherwise. I did A-Levels at school and then went on to do a Foundation Course in
Art and Design at Leeds College of Art. This was free because I was under 19, and
confirmed that I wanted to study Fine Art at university. Arriving in the studios and
meeting other students who were all also interested in art was so exciting and I also
felt completely at home. You were treated as a professional artist from day one, and
they really helped me to identify what kind of work I wanted to make and which
university courses would suite me. I chose to go to Glasgow School of Art to study
BA Fine Art: Sculpture and Environmental Art course as I knew I wanted to
specialise in sculpture, and it had a down-to-earth feel, while also producing artists
that were regularly winning the Turner Prize. I liked that it supported students to
exhibit in non-traditional art spaces. I loved my time there and then took a three-year
break where I worked to save towards doing and MA in London and in 2012-2014
studied on the MFA in Fine Art (Sculpture Pathway) at The Slade School of Fine Art.
This was full-time for two years which was hard financially, but worth it as it really
helped me to push my practice and career forward. I then worked for another three-
years in various jobs including selling paper and teaching printmaking before being
offered a full scholarship to work on a practice-based PhD at Leeds Beckett
University in collaboration with Yorkshire Sculpture International. YSI is an
international sculpture festival, and I was part of the 2019 organising team. I was
awarded my PhD in 2022.
Did this have a positive or negative impact on your chosen career?
It had a massively positive impact I think, although I do wonder if you become slightly
institutionalised as to how to be an artist by going through the art school route.
Overall though it has been invaluable for becoming part of various communities of
artists that have supported my career professionally since graduating. The art
industry is one where friendships are very important as you have to do so much on
your own before art galleries become interested in working with you. Working with
my peers from art school on artist-led shows and finding funding for each other to do
these shows has helped keep my practice going. Art school gave me space and time
to fully focus on my practice and gave me access to artists who were lecturers and
technicians to learn from. Technicians and workshops are one of best things about
art school! It is difficult to access the same resources outside of an institution like a
university. I was also awarded some prizes after my MFA which allowed me to travel
and make work in Iceland and start renting a studio in London. Just keeping going is
so important as it is a very competitive industry. I loved working towards a PhD with
YSI, this gave me practical experience of working on an international festival of art
but also was essentially three years of being a full-time artist without needing to
hustle for other work. My practice flourished in this time, and I was able to embed
myself in the artist community in Leeds, where I continue to live and work.
Who inspires you?
So many people: Claire Barclay and Alice Channer for their ability to create huge
imaginative installations by weaving together so many materials and techniques.
Isamu Noguchi has been a major inspiration for his sculptures for stage and
collaborations with Martha Graham, these helped me to work out how to
choreograph my own installations. Mira Schendel, Vija Celmins, Louise Bourgious
for their beautiful, detailed prints and bookworks. Science fiction writers like N.K
Jemisin and Adrian Tchaikovsky for their worldmaking.
What’s the scariest thing about your job and how have you overcome it?
Most recently, I’m mostly scared of not being able to make work I am happy with in
the time I have. I have an invitation to exhibit in a biennial in Japan later this year,
but I’m really struggling to make progress on my work, and I don’t want such a great
opportunity to lead to feeling disappointed or embarrassed. I know deep down that I’ll
probably pull something together in time, but it is a constant worry in the meantime.
I’m having some sleepless nights and strange dreams as a result! I am teaching
part-time in a university and I am responsible for supporting 51 final year BA
students which is a lot of pressure and often spreads outside of my working time. I
find it difficult to switch my brain to ‘making’ on my studio days after teaching, and
often life or other paid employment takes up this time. Teaching uses so much
physical and mental energy, but I’m working out how to balance it. It is hard with so
much pressure from all sides.
What do you want to change about your industry?
I know many brilliant artists that are not being exhibited or offered opportunities to
develop their practice, part of this is due to needing to work to support themselves
financially. The art industry favours those with independent sources of income and
professional connections. It is so difficult to produce the quantity and quality of work
needed and market yourself sufficiently while working to support yourself, to
compete with those who can work in the studio full time. There are real problems
with how the industry excludes those who do not have wealth, are working class,
queer or of the global majority for example. You are expected to present yourself
slickly on social media, be constantly making new work, have a studio, be
participating in residencies, and showing all over the world to be taken seriously as
an artist by curators and commissioners. But how can you do that at any point, let
alone as an early career artist without time and money? If artists were consistently
paid in line with Artist Union of England rates and were not expected to give so much
labour for free so often this would help. The standard should be that you do not work
for free as an artist, not that you work for free until you reach a certain level of career
progression, which is how it has been in the UK for so long. Otherwise the only
artists that do end up being represented commercially or being offered significant
commissions are those who already had money and connections to begin with.
Appropriate fees and support in accessing funding has improved in recent years,
especially in my own context here in Yorkshire where fees and funding is becoming
the norm, but there is still a long way to go.
What advice would you give someone who is starting out in your field?
To be persistent and not give up after rejection, it is more common to be rejected
than accepted. It is often not a reflection of the quality of your work when you fail to
get an opportunity.
Do it on your own, don’t wait for someone to come to you to offer you opportunities.
If you want to make work, show work, or travel then find a way of doing it yourself.
Use whatever space you might have to put on shows, this might be your front garden
or a garage. Find other people who want to do similar things with you and work
together. Be generous and help others and ask for help when you need it too.
Look at other creatives that you admire and see what they have done in their career
to be where they are, I have been awarded residencies and funding though
researching the careers pathways of others and applying for similar opportunities.
Local charities that support specific geographic regions are brilliant for small
bursaries to help with tuition fees.
If you are thinking about going to art school then try and visit as many as possible
and ask questions: how many students are there, what kind of studio access is
available, what workshops are there, is it brief led teaching or more focussed on
independent learning, can you go on exchange, what do graduates go on to do, who
is teaching there, what mediums are best supported, how much theory and writing is
involved. Each fine art degree is very different, try and find the one that fits you best.
But equally, it is up to you to make the most of your time in university, so say yes to
everything and make the most of every opportunity.