Wednesday, 21 November 2012

Art: Axis @ 21: Being an Artist - Then and Now

Five artists on Axis - Dail Behennah, James Murray, Karen Knorr, John Plowman and Natalie Finnemore discuss how they started out and what's important to them right now.

Dail Behennah

Art was a second career for me. I have a Geography degree and I worked in local government and in the Health Service after graduation. Ideas about mapping and ecology are still important to me.

I learnt basketry and chair seating in evening classes, followed by a City and Guilds at the London College of Furniture.

There’s something about using a hard material and making a vessel that just clicked. When I finished, I received a Crafts Council ‘Setting Up’ grant. The money was helpful, but it was the fact they had faith in me that made me think, “Well, I can’t give up now. I’ve got to make this work.”

My work has become more sculptural, less vessel-based. I had an epiphany when I was 50. I suddenly thought, “Actually I can make anything I want.”

My repeat work sells at a lower price. It’s harder to sell the big pieces. Museums have bought my work, but of course they have no money for acquisitions any more. I’m finding it tough at the moment.

I’ve just had a solo exhibition in a Swedish museum and their regional government has bought a major piece for their permanent collection. So that’ll keep me going for a while!

My advice to younger artists is to be nice to everybody. Be interested and enthusiastic about your work. Small conversations may result in an opportunity years later. People are always the catalysts.

Axis has been really useful, because I’m still working on a website. Being on the directory makes me feel like an artist as well as a craftsperson. In some ways it’s an accident which route you take. As the sculptor Richard Deacon has said, “The handling of materials is an act of thinking.”

 James Murray

I come from a theatre background, so most of my work has a live element to it. I like to work with local folklore and the stories that people tell me.

At the moment I’m setting up a studio with my partner and juggling that alongside full-time employment as an art technician. That can be difficult, but living in London it’s pretty much impossible to survive without it.

I come home from my day job and then spend three or four hours working on my own practice. If you put enough effort in and you’re genuinely good enough, then it will be worth it. That’s what I try and keep in mind!

I’m not making any money out of my work. As soon as you mention performance to galleries or dealers, they switch off. The same goes for video. What I’m hoping to do over the next year, before starting an art post-grad, is to develop a balance between the live works and limited edition prints of documentation.

I was contacted through Axis by the curator of Motorcade/FlashParade and had a show there in March. It made me think that there might not be such a rush to go back to education. One thing I like about artist-led spaces is that there’s this real culture of learning and sharing.

I’ve made some good connections through just mailing people on Axis to say, “Hi, I like your work”. Then you’ve opened up a dialogue with that artist – it’s another person to draw inspiration from and share ideas with and that’s really cool.

Karen Knorr

When I started out in 1977, there was barely any fine art photography art market in the UK. Vintage photography was the main market; and to this day that’s how specialist galleries like Daniel Blau, James Hyman and Eric Franck make most of their money.

Now you have websites such as Getty, Corbis and Saatchi, which sell work by emerging artists in the £2K to £10K range. But the fine art photography market in England is still minuscule.

France was my saving grace. Centre Pompidou was the first to buy my work ‘Gentlemen’, probably the most groundbreaking work I’ve done. But the English establishment’s mentality hasn’t shifted. The moment the Royal Family begins to collect photography, then the whole of the gentry class will do it!

Unless you’re in the right place, at the right time, with the right dealer, it’s very hard to earn a living doing fine art photography. I’ve always taught, and sold work. And I’ve had the best years of my career these last three years. But how long will it last? You constantly have to re-invent.

My advice to younger artists would be - diversify your portfolio, research the way the market works, find your niche and develop it. Don’t stand still. Keep on learning new technology. Update, update.

I think the Arts Council is a wonderful invention, because it supports artists that are uncommercial and ‘difficult’. That’s why I support Axis. That’s why I’m part of this community and encourage my students to join it.

John Plowman
I’m an ‘older generation’ artist and I’m very content where I am with my practice. But working in Higher Education, I’ve noticed that many people are returning to education – older people who are also ‘new’ artists. They find it difficult to get their foot in and that’s food for thought. Other artists’ issues seem to be get much more coverage.

Before the Internet Axis was a completely different beast: I remember you could access an Axis terminal in various places, for example the Building Centre in Store Street, just off Tottenham Court Road. It seems so antiquated now! The database could be accessed by exhibition organisers – at that time there wasn’t the term curator as we understand it now.

People today describe themselves with more labels: artist, writer, curator. Now all those roles have become areas that art practice encompasses, so there are artists who run spaces, curate exhibitions and write criticism.

I point post-graduates towards Axis for research and I’ve used it a lot myself for my curating activities. Over the years people have told me they saw my work on Axis. It increases the visibility of artists and gives them credibility.

My advice to younger artists is that you need to take risks and keep the faith. Don’t be afraid to speak to people – parents call it ‘pester power’. But if you’re pitching to galleries, really make sure you know who you’re pitching to. Don’t just take a standard approach.

Natalie Finnemore

I did my Foundation in Art and Design at the Cumbria Institute of the Arts and began my BA in Fine Art at Sheffield Hallam in 2008.

It’s quite difficult to focus in your first year at art school. It wasn’t until my third year, when I started taking photographs of buildings and architectural forms and using drawing and printmaking too, that my work really developed. The colours I use are often based on the photographs I take, which I usually enhance.

I’m really interested in the process of making. You’ll find that although the work looks clean and well polished, sometimes works are purposely left so the holes and screws are visible. I like Rachel Whiteread’s work, because of the way she uses drawing. I’m also influenced by artists such as Donald Judd, Joseph Albers, Thea Djordjadze and Shahin Afrassiabi.

In my final year I applied for the bursary programme at S1 Artspace and am now a permanent studio holder there. I work part-time and make art three days a week. Friends in London have found it virtually impossible to find an affordable studio space - it’s quite a luxury to have a studio in such a good community that attracts great press as well.

Recently I’ve been selected for Bloomberg New Contemporaries, which is very exciting. I’ve been in a miniature print exhibition in Canada, which I first saw on Axis, and I’m working on a future project with the curator at Vinyl Space in Birmingham, which came from Axis as well.

In future I’d aim to work on a bigger scale and use more expensive materials. I’d like to stay in Sheffield for a few more years. But who knows!


This article was published on and in Axis Notes 2012.

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