If you look on the ‘About’ section of this site, you’ll see that I wax lyrical about creating work that explores human emotion, what makes us tick, etc. Part of that is explored within previous blogs, where I’ve examined other people’s practice, my own experiences, current affairs, etc.
However, as well as being an artist, I’m also trained and work in other disciplines, and these become inspiration and research that informs what I do. Since training and working as an artist, I’ve selected work that I’m passionate about, and that adds insight and complements my arts practice. Sometimes there are areas you can only explore by being part of them. It’s not a new concept. Artist Sophie Calle famously worked as a maid in a hotel for six months where she photographed the contents of people’s rooms. What I do is similar, but it’s more long-term. I care about what I do, it provides inspiration, and often funds work I want to do. It also leads to opportunities to work as an artist that would otherwise be missed.
When I was a market research interviewer guiding people through painfully long questionnaires about fizzy drinks, cars, toilet tissue, baby wipes or condoms for world famous brands, it was amazing how much insight you got into people. You’d get an uncanny knack for guessing people’s cars, marvel at the people with large disposable incomes who would look at home under a bridge in a cardboard box, and occasionally have the difficult job of trying to decide the socio-economic grouping of a well-heeled Spanking Madam. Surely this had to be several up from a street-corner worker? Illegal professions were always the fun ones to code, especially when people were upfront about giving the information. Drug dealer.. hmm, import & export? Self employed? How many employees? The amount of staff he employed would make the crucial difference between which SEG band I put him in. And, I did put him in one in the end.
I started the job at 19, and I loved it, because I was interacting with people, lots of them, all different, all interesting in their own way. The people I worked with were an eclectic bunch. All sorts of interesting people, perhaps because it was one of those jobs where you had to be gregarious and be able to speak to complete strangers. We joked that we worked on street corners, but in actual fact it was a job a lot of people didn’t have the skills to do. I worked with ex-teachers, aristocracy, the divorced wife of an Ambassador, ex-salespeple, a high ranking ex-serviceman who’d met the Queen… the list goes on, lots of different, interesting, quirky people. I was the baby, they were mostly middle aged, or retired. I liked it. I took home a decent wage too, until the industry started to change, and I was working full time in the arts sector by then.
When I went back to college later on in life, the work was flexible and it fit well with my Art & Design A-Level, and then my Fine Art HNC. The interviewing techniques and talking to people quickly snuck into my practice. During my last year, I had a massive breakdown and ended up on a psych ward. But I recorded people on the ward reading out statements from a petition which was later merged with a soundtrack that became part of an exhibition (Free Fiona, my first solo exhibition, at Artrix).
The theme carried on with the next project, Tales of a Borderline. I interviewed and had conversations with people I met online, mostly from MySpace (back in the days when Facebook was a twinkle in some college kids eye). I had received a really moving video from Michele, which not only toured with the exhibition, but ended up part of an interactive portrait – people watched the video, then wrote their reactions into the 16-canvas painting I had painted using acrylic and enamel. People didn’t want to at first, but gradually they did, and over the course of the exhibition the work became a graffiti wall for comments as banal as ‘Lick my Pussy’. Interestingly, that image was one of the best that I had taken, and ended up on the wall of the Tate Modern in the one-day only Personality Plus exhibition. My Nan was so proud she travelled across London on the bus to see it. Oopsie.
I had a bit of a rest period after my Fine Art degree had finished and I’d qualified as a marketer with an arts specialism. I still practiced, but the exhibitions I took part in were mainly a result of the hard slog and achievements as a student. Still, I learnt a lot, and even showed work internationally – Tales of a Borderline travelled to Austria courtesy of art historian Dr.Dagmar Weidinger. The experience of working with an Audience Development agency funded by the Arts Council was invaluable – I found out how arts organisations functioned, how funding worked, and the politics of the arts scene. It’s a side you don’t really see as an artist. I evaluated other people’s projects, and learnt a lot.
I also discovered that some of the ethos of my work – creating work with people who weren’t specifically arts audiences, and trying to reach people in different ways, was something that fits well with audience development, and Arts Council funding. I love conceptual and challenging work, but it grates on me when it becomes inaccessible to others. Not everyone wants to know all the layers of complexity, but people are capable and want to understand things on a basic level. It’s something that I’ve been able to reflect on and observe the success (or failure) of arts organisations and artists in doing this.
While working at the Audience Development agency, an opportunity came up to train to be a trainer on a Personality Disorder Awareness course. I was in touch with the CIC that was behind the training – they had been the same people who had organised the Tate exhibition and employed me as an artist to speak at various events. The day after I was made redundant from the now defunct Audience Development agency, I was working as a trainer.
The last two years, I’ve moved a lot of my work into mental health. It is the perfect ongoing research for my arts practice. I’ve already trained and worked in research and marketing – skills that are invaluable for an artist. Arts Council needs a kick ass evaluation and an explanation of how my work will reach new audiences? Yeah, I already can do that.
Now, the work I do provides a real insight into people, myself, my work. I deliver training, but I’m constantly learning, with access to a wealth of knowledge if I need to explore anything specific. My brain is constantly ticking away, making connections.
It’s not all easy. Balancing work alongside my arts practice is difficult. I don’t constantly produce work like I did at college. Sometimes it’s hard to make myself take the inspiration to the studio (or my virtual studio – my blog) and create. A reflective, ideas driven practice is only strong when you follow the cycle of reflection through to the end, and that means action and an evaluation of the action, so that you can go on to other ideas. Otherwise, you are stuck.
So, this is the first in a series of blogs that will looks at how my current work is inspiring or informing what I do. It’s hard to write down all inspiration – most artists will tell you that it is after you create work and sit down and look, listen to or observe it, it is then that you make the connections to what you have used unconsciously soaked up like a sponge and poured into your work. But I am going to write about what I’ve been doing, reflections and ideas I’m having as I go along. This section will be tagged under ‘Art & Psychology’.
Watch this space…