The Fifth Size Book Adventure has several contributing professionals – apart from Jane Shaw who leads the project – to help us along the way, sharing their stories of how they got to their current stage of professional success, delivering workshops, mentoring, and helping to deliver the exhibition at the end. During the launch they told us a bit about how they got where they are, and gave us some useful advice or top tips.
Contributing professionals: Jo Coupe
Jo Coupe is an artist. It’s difficult to describe her work in one sentence. She works in different media and with different materials, can include plants, sound, photography, installations. You can see some of her work on the Workplace website.
She talked about her path from degrees (BA Newcastle University, MA Goldsmiths College) to where she is now in her career. Jo hadn’t gone straight from getting her BA to post-graduate studies but had worked in a few jobs. Accompanying her husband to Los Angeles had prompted her need for change so when they returned to the UK, she did a Master’s course at Goldsmiths College. She started making small pieces alongside her big work.
She worked on a residency at the Alcan aluminium smelter where she couldn’t use a digital camera because the magnetic field was strong enough to wipe the memory card so she used the low tech solution of pinhole cameras. She was working to commission but it was still work that fitted in with the rest of her work.
Having small children made it more difficult to make work, and to make enough work and spend time organising solo exhibitions, so she formed a group with other artists she knew in the same situation (more about collaboration to come in another workshop).
Jo had some top tips for us which made me think:
- Think of the narrative behind your practice.
- Work with other exciting people.
- Know your weaknesses and strengths and find people who can fill in the missing elements in your weak area (and to whom you can offer strengths they lack).
- Keep up connections, even if it’s just sharing a picture and a few words eg use Instagram.
- Be careful not to undercharge.
- Make pragmatic decisions.
- Get everything you can out of each project you do eg contacts.
- Work in parallel lines on different things so they feed into each other.
- Be flexible. Make challenges positive.
- Feed your practice by eg drawing, walking, seeing other people’s work, clubbing.
- Document your work. If you can’t do that yourself, get someone else to do it.
My thoughts following Jo Coupe’s talk
Her work is very interesting and varied. I admired her confidence and her ability to develop a network of artist friends with whom she could collaborate. I wish we had had the methods of keeping in touch via social media that graduates have had for the last 10 years, or even before that via email.
Contributing professionals: balletLORENT
Liv Lorent and James MacGillivray of balletLORENT came to talk to us. I had heard of this dance company before but had no knowledge of what sort of dance they did.
Liv said that she had started out with teaching unemployed people to dance, which taught her to value a range of body types, and was good for JobCentre figures because people weren’t counted as unemployed while they were being trained. (It’s hard to imagine being able to do this in today’s unemployment system).
She’d worked with the fashion designer Paul Shriek (a name familiar from my undergraduate days when he was much discussed in the North East fashion world). Getting an Arts Council England (ACE) grant enabled Paul to make the clothes worn for the performance which attracted an audience who wanted to buy the outfits as well as see the dance.
In The Night Ball, they had performed all different styles of dance, deliberately not as perfectly as they would normally so the audience would feel less inhibited about joining in later. The money for rehearsal space also helped the venue they worked in which had lost income due to council cuts.
Liv had taken some time to decide to go from gritty, edgy, site-specific work to works for family audiences in medium to large theatres. She has done it in such a way that it doesn’t feel as if it’s an artistic compromise. They use narrative to help convey the story of a dance to an audience that doesn’t necessarily understand the dancing mime gestures traditionally used to tell the story. They have now built relationships with a number of schools in Newcastle, giving children the chance to experience dance who might not have other chances to explore it.
balletLORENT had been commissioned to develop work abroad but that could involve giving up some control as they had to fit in with different cultures eg costumes had to be more covered up for some countries.
A big advantage that Liv saw in being based on Tyneside is that it’s smaller than London so easier to meet and develop collaborations with other artists from other disciplines.
My thoughts following the balletLORENT talk
Sometimes having to work a different way for practical reasons can be good for artistic results, but being focused is good for getting work made.
One should think through what compromises one would be prepared to make, that is, artistic vision versus pragmatism (and need to pay the bills). I liked that they make an effort to make their art form accessible.
I’m very curious to see the work that the dancers in our group will produce, and hope that we will have the chance to draw the balletLORENT dancers rehearsing. I was never very interested in traditional ballet, even as a child, but other forms of dance including modern dance, do interest me as a visual artist. The dancers make such interesting shapes with their bodies.
Contributing professionals: Steve Messam
I had seen photographs of some of Steve’s work before and had thought “damn! I wished I’d been able to do that!” I like his work that much.
Steve Messam is a Cumbria-based environmental artist. He had started out as a photographer in the music industry. He first began to realise that non-gallery spaces could be a better way of sharing art when he created an exhibition in the windows of an indie music shop, putting 12-inch square photos in the clear sleeves used to protect vinyl LPs. The flower seller by the shop told him that between 5 and 10 people were looking at his work at any time throughout the day and early evening which was a much bigger audience than if it had been in an art gallery.
He set up an arts organisation called Fold in Kirkby Stephen, aiming to increase the rural community’s access to contemporary art in 2002, and capturing some of the 16 million visitors a year to the county. He then established FRED in 2004 – one of the largest annual festivals of site-specific art in Europe. FRED flooded the area with art in unexpected places for the duration of the festivals, and a million or more people saw the work. He gave as an example Shake Pole by Richard Box in 2006 which was in a field under electricity pylons and which could be seen best as it was going dark. Even though it was not the easiest place to find and could only be viewed properly for limited times, 2,500 people went to see it. It was featured a lot in media because of its extraordinary appearance and how it worked: hundreds of used fluorescent tubes stuck in the soil vertically and lit up because the electricity from the cables above was strong enough to excite the remaining gas in the tubes (it still looked like magic, even when one understood the science).
When Steve decided to be less a curator and more an artist, he was able to get money for his big and bold ideas. I suspect that his successful delivery of FRED helped to convince funders that he was capable of delivering his ideas. His big landscape-based pieces proved good ways of pulling in visitors to the countryside and in getting media coverage to promote the area as a destination. Because the pieces are only in the landscape for a short time, people are prompted to make the effort to visit. It is an unrepeatable (or unlikely to be repeated) experience. He had been able to get several thousand visitors even to quite remote locations that required a substantial walk from the nearest car park. This sounded to me like art as not just an experience but as an adventure.
Elements that are important in Steve’s work are inspiration, colour, scale and narrative. One of the examples he gave of more recent work was very local to us: From Mine to Tyne in the Victoria Tunnel, 2014. This was with the Cobweb Orchestra, playing music written by Michael Betteridge in response to this 19th century tunnel built to transport coal under Newcastle to the Tyne. I hadn’t had the chance to see this work but knew of it and have been intrigued myself at the possibility of putting artwork in there. I knew there would be restrictions (from past life working in heritage), and was fascinated to hear that it was impossible to tape or screw anything to the walls so Steve had had to find another way of putting up the lights (carbon fibre rods that were tensioned between the walls & strong enough for the lights).
The colour pieces that Steve makes are interesting. He said that the obviously human-created colour puts a reference point into the landscape to give it a scale. Scale is crucial in his work. A lovely example of scale and colour – and a temporary work (the piece was recycleable) in a relatively remote place bringing in a substantial audience is PaperBridge, open to the public 8th to 18th May, 2015. This piece, made of rocks found on site and sheets of red paper to form a bridge over a beck, was well covered in the media. The attention it had in the media led Range Rover to think it would be a good thing for their brand and so they commissioned Steve to make one substantial enough to bear the weight of a Range Rover, but in white and in Shanghai.
My thoughts following Steve Messam’s talk
Steve’s confidence in being able to do significant work was very noticeable. I got the impression that my fellow Adventurers were as inspired as I was by the boldness and scale of his work. People were talking afterwards more about the idea of doing installations in the library for our exhibition in November.
One of Steve’s pieces reminded me of a few pieces I’d tried to do when I was a student many years ago. I didn’t have the resources to produce what I had in my head though I did have a go on a couple of pieces but one had to experience them, especially because they didn’t photograph well. It was great to see how similar materials and a vaguely similar methodology could work really well – and on a much bigger scale than I could ever have done!
Steve made it sound relatively easy to get large amounts of money to do big work but I realised that he can do so because he’s gradually built up a great track record of being able to deliver the work, no matter how ambitious and difficult to build it seems at the beginning. He also exudes confidence. I wondered how much his own conviction that he could make an artwork happen helped to convince stakeholders and funders. I would find it difficult to convince myself. As I thought about the talk later on, I was rather sad that I couldn’t do such big pieces (not unless I was able to afford a team to do the physical part, and being able to get the funding would be pretty impossible without making such work).
Contributing professionals: Alice Fox
Alice Fox didn’t start as an artist. She did a degree in geography and worked in nature conservation for several years. Having children prompted her to think about changing careers, so she started on an adult education course in textiles, then a part-time degree in Contemporary Surface Design & Textiles (she knew she was going to use it for fine art purposes) which also gave her the opportunity to start exhibiting her work.
The work that she did in her final year was carried through to her next big project of working as an artist-in-residence at Spurn Head. She had got permission from the wildlife trust that manage the land that she could work there, as long as she didn’t leave any mark in the landscape or pick plants. She applied to the Arts Council for funding but it took two tries to get it, and she had met with the Arts Council officer to find out why the first attempt failed and what she needed to do to improve her application.
She spent a few days at a time every 2 or 3 weeks at Spurn Head and had a key to the lighthouse. She recorded what she saw, the specific characteristics of this very unusual landscape/seascape. Drawing had to be fast because it was so cold and windy, and she found that writing was a usefully quick way to record things. She collected rubbish from the beach brought by the sea, recorded it and created prints on fabric that she sewed together to created bands of fabric. She also created prints on paper, artist’s books, and with some help put together a book Textures of Spurn.
Although the exhibition was only on for a short time and not easily accessible, it attracted 700 visitors. The work then toured, which meant Alice had to learn quickly to adapt her work to different environments.
When she was working on a subsequent project Tide Marks in 2014, she realised that it would be worth purchasing a range of ISBNs (International Standard Book Numbers) and to publish herself the books that she produces as part of the work. As well as recording the project and acting as catalogues, they are a very affordable object that people can buy and are easy to sell online to an international audience. She also takes some books with her when she does talks and workshops.
Alice joined the Society of Designer Craftsmen when she graduated and often exhibits with them also does talks and workshops because there are quite a lot of amateur textiles groups keen to find out about different ways of doing things. She is also a member of the Textile Study Group which is a small group of 25 people who run a summer school and have exhibitions together. They learn from and collaborate with each other. She also has also collaborated with her partner who produces poems to go with her images.
My thoughts following Alice Fox’s talk
I very much liked Alice’s work as well. I could see how it built upon her knowledge of nature conservancy, and thought that whilst what she produced could be varied, it all had a characteristic style and worked well together.
The use of unconventional methods and places for exhibiting was inspiring. We enjoyed having a closer look at the stitched shell she was wearing as a brooch, and marvelled at the skill required (have a look at her website).
Again, it came across as important to have the confidence to sell the idea of a project to stakeholders and funders, and (in some cases) to collaborators.
One can think creatively about what outputs to have from work. A funded project could be about the more ephemeral aspects, about the one-off or limited period experience that stays in the minds of those who experience it, possibly helping them to see or understand something differently. It can also generate things such as catalogues, books recording the research and investigation, and it can start or feed into the next work.
A couple of thoughts at the end of launch week
I thoroughly enjoyed the week, and found it very interesting to meet my fellow Fifth Size Book Adventurers as well as Jane and the contributing professionals. Lucy, Jo, Steve, Liv, and Alice were all impressive and inspiring, and I thought we were very lucky to have the opportunity of learning from them.
I ended the week feeling rather worried that I’m not good enough, and that my work isn’t good enough, especially as I was still feeling very indecisive about what to do for my work to go into the exhibition (I had ideas but was unsure that any were good enough).
Links to the contributing artists
Do have a look at their work if you’re unfamiliar with it!
The earlier parts about launch week
If you haven’t and want to read the earlier parts:
The Fifth Size Book Adventure: A Professional Development Programme for Creative Practitioners is led by Jane Shaw of People Into Enterprise, and supported by Newcastle City Library and Arts Council for England.