I met lots of local people at the first ever Artists Market at Leicester market last Sunday. One question kept cropping up and I realised I didn't really know the answer. How long have I been an artist? This was a tough question! I thought I'd address it in a blog to give myself time and space to really think about it, so that next time somebody asks, I can be clearer in my answer.
So, I suppose it makes sense to start at the beginning, and identify where and when that was. Thirteen years ago, I was a Chartered Forensic Psychologist working in a secure unit for the NHS so surely it was after that...? Not really, I dreamed of being an artist from a very young age and looking back, realise that I already was. The old cliches are things like "Oh, she was painting before she could write, or dancing before she could walk, singing before she could talk" etc but it wasn't really like that either. I do however remember things that I realise now were clear signs that I was an artist. I remember how much I loved to visit my Gran's house. We would visit every other Sunday and it wasn't just stopping off at the sweet shop on the way, seeing my Gran, going for walks in the countryside hunting for frogs with her, her open fire or her home cooked Sunday lunches and coconut cakes that made me look forward to it. The things I most loved about being there were her table mats! Strange I know but these mats had wonderful illustrations on them. I can't even remember now what the images were but I do remember that my Gran had sheets of paper that were so thin I could see through them and I would trace the outline of the mats and then colour them in. I loved it and am pretty sure that this is how I taught myself to draw. I learned how to pick out the main shapes from the image that I could make out through the paper and the detail I needed to add to make it look the way I wanted it to. I also remember that my Gran had several framed copies of old classics like Constable's 'The Hay Wain' (below) and 'Monet's garden' hanging on her walls.
I remember I was fascinated by these and would study them and try to copy them. I thought at the time that that's just what kids did but I realise now, having had kids of my own, that not everyone is interested in doing things like that. I also remember at my other Grandma's house enjoying the illustrations in the ladybird books she had laying around and poring over a book about Gaugin that my mum had picked up somewhere. Even thinking about these things now makes me salivate slightly (is that strange?...I'm thinking now as I write it that it probably is a bit!) but that's something I still experience if I'm watching others making art, or making art myself. I also have memories of a local artist who came on a primary school trip with us to a trout farm, who helped us illustrate the trout and capture their scales and iridescent colour. I was in awe of Mrs Buckley. I wanted to be her, even though she had a strange tremor in her hands that made her drawings a little shaky. I understand now that this was Parkinsons disease. She probably had no idea what an impact she had on me but she gave me the gift of knowing, at least in the back of my mind, that artists were real. It was not a career that was talked about at home or at secondary school but I'd seen one with my own eyes and knew that, although they seemed as fantastical to me as fairies and Father Christmas, they were different, and real.
I also remember as a young child in a working class family that sketch pads/drawing paper were not easily obtained. I remember that there was a family friend (who actually turned out to be my sisters' biological Grandmother but that's another story!) who used to visit occasionally, and when she came, she would bring gifts - a large bag of fruit and sweets, often a T-shirt or a comic each, but most excitingly to me, a wad of old office paper, typed on one side but perfectly crisp and white on the other! I still remember how excited I would be about this, and how happy I would be to receive any art-related gift for birthdays and Christmas too - a new set of felt tips was exquisite, an art set with a little mixture of paints, pencil crayons and crayons was almost too good for words. All these memories were probably around the ages of 5-10, so perhaps you could argue that this was when I first became an artist?
Next came secondary school and sadly, in some ways, I think this was the beginning of a slippery slope down to a long period of art drought. I loved art lessons and would look forward to them each week, savouring the enormous still-life that the teacher would set up in the middle of the room or getting my hands filthy with charcoal, pastel or paint but when I took it for GCSE, I was increasingly told I wasn't doing it right. I remember how I produced a linocut depicting child abuse (something I had become more aware of since my mum had trained as a social worker) and then framed it in a clip frame before smashing the glass. I was told by the art teacher that this was a "silly" thing to do. I painted some enormous hippos but didn't like the background I'd painted so made a new one and cut the original hippos out to collage them together. I was told that this was "cheating". Slowly my confidence began to deteriorate.
Despite this, I chose art at A-level, knowing it was what my soul needed but it was met with disapproval from the teachers. I was an academic kid and they felt that this was a 'wasted' option. I desperately wanted to do it but they insisted that if I did, I had to do four A-levels. When I struggled to manage four, they told me what I needed to do - drop art of course! Being the kind of person who ultimately liked to do as she was told, that's exactly what I did. So that was the end of my very short first life as 'an artist'.
What followed were two of my most anxious and unhappy years, during which I wondered why my anxiety had increased and I felt so miserable much of the time. Looking back now, it is so clear to me that the thing that made my soul sing had been stripped away from me. I chose Psychology at degree level and went on to enjoy university, meeting some of my creative needs through involvement in drama productions and just generally being around interesting people and having new experiences. Life allowed me to be creative again, just not in terms of producing art. Aside from very occasionally making cards or gifts for people and a short life drawing class at one point, art wouldn't feature in my life again properly until more that a decade later when, after having children and taking a step back from my career as a Psychologist, I told my husband that if we ever won the lottery, I would go back to university to do an art foundation course. Considering that we didn't even buy tickets, it remained an unattainable dream until one day my husband said "Why don't you do it anyway?". It was the best gift he or anyone else had ever given me. Permission to do something I should've given myself permission to do many years before.
I was concerned to see that to get on to the course you needed a portfolio but soon realised the different ways I had managed to express my creativity, especially as a mum. My portfolio included sugar paste models for birthday cakes, drawing games I played with my daughter, gifts I'd made for friends and family, fancy dress costumes I'd put together for world book day and digital scrapbooks I'd made. Here are 2 digital scrapbook pages from that time that show how my desire to 'make' was fighting to be heard.
The portfolio got me my place and the art foundation course at DMU between 2012 and 2014 blew my mind. I got the opportunity to do regular life drawing and learned painting techniques such as grisaille and impasto. I dipped sticks in ink and used lego cars as mark makers. I was introduced to contemporary artists I didn't even know existed and learned the huge variety of ways that an artist could express themselves beyond just drawing or painting. I made plaster moulds and prints. I sculpted with clay and with found objects. I learned about photograms and animation. I used natural materials to make art in the landscape. Oh my goodness, it was the most exciting two years of my life (I did it part time). As you can no doubt imagine, my saliva glands were on overdrive, and I definitely felt like an artist!
My final piece for my foundation course brought together sculpture, drawing, video and animation and was an expression of my experience of motherhood that I am still immensely proud of. The full short film "Its About Feeling Loved" can be found on Vimeo.
When those two years were up, I wasn't ready to stop learning. I needed more and applied to university to do a Fine Art degree, ending up at Loughborough University for a further four years (I did my final year part-time). In some ways, I lost my mojo a little on the degree. I was aching to draw and paint more but the course directed me towards more conceptual ideas and even at the ripe old age of 40, I made the mistake of falling back into doing what I thought the staff wanted me to do. I learned a lot but I didn't get the same joy. Even though I left with a First Class degree, I was a little deflated and doubting myself as an artist again.
On graduating, I felt a level of guilt. I had indulged myself in what felt like a very selfish manner and now I was panicking that I wasn't in a position to make any kind of career out of it that would enable me to start contributing financially again now that the children were getting older. I had been out of employment for 6 years. I was tempted to go back to my career as a psychologist where I knew I would be able to make money but people who really knew me, especially my mum and my best friends were not convinced. I was torn and if I'm honest, I mainly didn't go back to my former career because I was still trying to please others (this time those who had supported my choice to study art). I got part time work in a school as a teaching assistant so that I could continue my art practice part time but have a small, regular income too. I was starting to sell some of my work and taking commissions but my own practice started to take more and more of a back seat again as the demands of being a mum filled much of the time I had hoped to reserve for artwork. I was building up quite a portfolio without realising it though, just from painting and drawing during holidays and getting involved in things like painting backdrops for a local theatre company. In fact one of these fast holiday paint 'sketches' was one of the pieces I sold at the weekend.
Last year, in 2022, my sister Michelle said something to me that really made me think. I was trying to decide whether to take the risk of leaving the job at the school and try to go full time as a self-employed artist. Giving up a regular income to launch her own business was something she had done very successfully and her advice was something along the lines of "there's nothing like having no money to focus your mind on making a business work". I took the plunge. I left my part-time day job and have fully embraced my identity as an artist in everything that I do. I'm approaching the one year anniversary of this decision so will be doing another post to talk in more detail about how that's gone but its safe to say there is plenty of art related work out there if you look for it.
So, how will I answer that question next time someone asks me "How long have you been an artist"? I will tell them "always". I have always been an artist but have only expressed it in fits and starts and didn't really fully realise it until August last year (2022). The Artist Market in Leicester is intended to become a regular event every last Sunday of the month so if you can, pop over and ask me more questions! If you're not local, feel free to comment or start conversations with me via email or social media. If I can't answer it on the spot, I can always answer it in more blogs like this one.