Updated: Jul 12, 2021
At the time of writing this, tomorrow will be my 26th birthday, the deadline that I had set myself to achieve my goal of being able to sustain a living as a full time artist. Having exhibited my artwork consistently since I was a first year university student in 2015, there’ve been many moments that I felt that I was on the brink of achieving this in my early twenties; but it would seem that hitherto 2018/2019, disillusionment closely followed micro successes in my career.
Regarding exhibiting my work from the age of 19, I was far from the best art student, in fact I graduated with a 2:2. One piece of feedback I still recall from my tutors was referring to my artwork as “semi interesting drawings” and my mark making being called “rudimentary”. This served only to further galvanise my ambitions, though, in hindsight the works that I produced were underdeveloped. However, In that moment in time, I had to be steadfast in my beliefs that my practice had further scope. The ideologies that currently form the core ethos of my practice today, were built upon the foundations of the themes that I have been concerned with since my teens.
I feel that converting negative emotions into motivation to push yourself towards achieving your goals can be a powerful resource, but being too focused on proving other people wrong will only get you so far. From my experience, maintaining self belief throughout all of the turmoils and disappointments that come with being a young artist was imperative. As cliche or cringeworthy as it sounds, I would always affirm to myself that “I am not an art student, I am an artist”; this distinction made me focus more on my professionalism in the emerging art scene, as opposed to focusing all my efforts on ticking boxes within the constraints of the university milieu. It sounds simple and perhaps conceited but this mantra kept me centred and I was always able to see the bigger picture of what I aspired to achieve.
After graduating from Loughborough University in 2017, I continued to exhibit my work across the UK whilst working part time in promotions. The work was flexible, the pay was decent and I could work as much or as little as I wanted, making it the perfect fit at that time. Perhaps it was my own hubris that made me feel as though I deserved better than promoting wine brands or handing out leaflets at train stations. Sales of my artwork were too sporadic and I was spending less & less time making new work, so in 2018 I decided that if I wasn't able to be a full time artist by my 26th birthday that I would find a ‘real job’.
I recall looking online for work in the arts, when I came across a job posting for a role with Bloomberg New Contemporaries. I didn't have the relevant experience for the role, though I noticed there was an open call for Bloomberg New Contemporaries 2018. I had previously been rejected from the first round a year prior but I thought I may as well apply and to my surprise I was successful getting through both rounds to be accepted into the prestigious touring exhibition (the alumni includes Grayson Perry, Sonia Boyce, Damien Hirst & amongst other well known artists). I did not necessarily realise it at the time, but to this day being associated with BNC has opened several doors for me, some of which I’ll go into further toward the end of this post.
Though I'm not a believer in any spiritual doctrine, the synchronicity (for want of a better word) of events within my career has been incredible, with serendipitous circumstances arising at moments when I needed them most. Just as I was at one of the several aforementioned moments of disillusionment apropos to my career as an artist, I received my first commission. Which then led to a period of around 6-10 months of my living coming solely from making commissioned artwork; I was still broke, but I felt incredibly more fulfilled than working part time in promotions.
As I spent increasingly greater amounts of time working on commissions, the development of my practice slowed down. However, this period in my career was extremely important to the vast progress I made with my mark making. I felt that the works I made for other people had to be more detailed than ever and took more care and focus with creating works than I had up until that point. This made me realise that I had the potential to create works for my own practice that could appear even more realistic; with the use of more nuanced mark making, bolder use of contrast & use of mid tone. These were elements of drawing that I had previously shied away from. Working on those commissions was a great confidence booster and I feel almost indebted to those early clients for showing a confidence in my work that was greater than my own.
I knew what I needed to do to make a body of work that was more impactful than anything before, works displaying a homogeneity with the concepts and aesthetic - but I needed time. Fortunately, at the end of 2018 I had just gotten accepted for my first artist residency, 4 months with a large studio space in New Jersey, USA. This residency was the ideal opportunity for me to be freed from circumstances that had once limited the scope of my work, I had time and space to focus solely on creating new artwork. Once accepted for the residency, I then had to acquire funding for flights and accommodation. If my Arts Council application for a grant was unsuccessful then I would not have been able to capitalise on this amazing opportunity. Their acceptance rate is very low due to the huge demand, so my expectations were realistic. I was therefore ecstatic to find that my application had been successful.
I’ll write about the residency on a later date, but this experience was invaluable. I met likeminded people from different backgrounds and made the best work of my career up until that point. I naively thought that upon my return to the UK in the summer of 2019, that things would be different and I would be more successful. Conversely, the next few months that followed presented my longest ever chain of rejection emails that I have ever received, I therefore had work in fewer exhibitions & art awards that year, and consequently less of a platform to potentially sell work. This coincided with my finances once again hitting a particularly precarious position, I had to once again consider my future and how feasible it would be for me to continue.
After years of sacrifice and dilligence, I was tired of the cycle and the emotional toll it took. I had centred my whole existence on being an artist, I was obsessed and it was allconsuming (which I now realise was totally unhealthy) and this was a period where my very identity, the role I saw for myself in life was in question. This was as close as I had ever gotten to quitting, but I reminded myself of the goal. I had to keep pushing so that I could have no regrets if things didn’t work out as I hoped, at least I would know that it wasn't for lack of effort. In all honesty, finding the balance between work and other aspects of my life is something that I still struggle with. I finally see that your job title doesn’t define a person; but I’m sure this is just part and parcel of self employment.
I found that in moments of feeling helpless or even feeling sorry for myself, I responded by thinking productively. My pragmatism can be a flaw, but there is a certain interesting duality of how thinking in such a way can contribute to a greater clarity in the midst of self pity. I decided to apply for Arts Council funding once again, this time for a project that would enable me to bring my art practice to the local community in North West Kent, whilst allowing for an artist fee so that I could solely focus on the project. I remember walking home from Lidl on a rainy day in November 2019 and reading the acceptance email, my heart racing, sweating from the shock. This changed everything for me and was the first instance of overwhelmingly positive progressions in this latest development stage of my career. Around this time, in late 2019, I made my biggest career sale up until that point as part of the ING Discerning Eye Exhibition 2019. In Early 2020 I was shortlisted for the Signature Art Prize and was amazed to have won the Drawing & Printmaking Prize, perhaps more significantly I made my biggest sale which was triple the previous; I viscerally recall the emotions and disbelief.
The Signature Art Prize was my last exhibition before the first lockdown in 2020. Of course this pandemic has been tough for all of us, it hasn’t discriminated. In March 2020 we had a house fire which suffices to say was not fun. Thankfully all of us were okay and only one room burnt but this led to me having to live in my sister’s attic for 10 months, a stressful period where my main outlet was my practice. Yet 2020 was the most prolific year of sales that I had ever had by an exponentially significant margin. I’m not eloquent enough to articulate the joy of knowing that someone has spent their hard earned money to acquire something that you have made. The notion that the ideologies depicted in the work resonate with someone to that extent is very special and profound to me.
It is truly humbling that during a time that so many creatives and people in many other industries have seen their working lives shattered that I have been fortunate enough to see mine prosper in ways that I could not have ever imagined at this stage in my life. My sister is an NHS doctor and she was on the front lines saving lives at the worst of the pandemic. Her experiences make me feel even more grateful that I can do what I have dreamt of doing for a living ever since I was a little fat kid on the special needs list at school in the late 90s/early 2000s.
Writing this has felt like more of a self-serving process, a truly cathartic exercise for me to express my gratitude with how humbling and surreal the past 2 years in particular have been. I hope it doesn’t seem conceited to convey this; but it’s almost a feeling of vindication to have achieved this goal in 2019/2020, approaching the original deadline I set for myself makes me consider the next stages of my progression. I still feel as determined as I did when I was handing out flyers outside of Cannon Street Station in 2018, just slightly less stressed.
I’m delighted to confirm that I have been offered a residency in Provence coming up soon. I have a very exciting and new challenge working with Southwark Park Galleries on a residency & commission in response to the Mayflower. Lastly, I still don’t think I’ve come to terms with the reality of the incredible opportunity that has been in negotiation for the past 9 months, but I can finally announce that I have been fortunate enough to be offered a commission with Facebook for their new London office. I have been and will continue to work with their resource groups as I will depict 3-5 pioneering minorities from various backgrounds that made significant contributions to british society that have been underappreciated and/or relegated to historical obscurity. I’ll be able to represent figures that encapsulate the most crucial aspects of my practice.
This was not intended to be a self indulgent pat on the back but rather, a reminder for myself to take a step back from the tunnel vision of working full throttle all of the time. Indeed I am still in the early stages of my career and I am under no illusion that I have ‘made it’, I am constantly aware that in the future I could lose inspiration for new pieces, my work may become stagnant or people could lose interest in my practice altogether. These anxieties are ever present but that uncertainty is equally frightening as it is exciting, that unknown is what drives me.