When can you call yourself an artist? Is it when someone else says that you are?
Surely, it’s when you make art…It sounds simple doesn’t it? But it’s actually a very difficult lesson to learn and can sometimes be a very long winded one at that.
I’ve always loved art. When I was a young child, I remember getting lots of Crayola sets every year for Christmas and being absolutely ecstatic about it. When I was an awkward teenager who didn’t fit in at High School, it was the Art Department that kept me going to school, I would spend every free minute that I could there, even staying after school to get lost in my drawings.
Art felt natural and I seemed to be quite good at it early on – I won awards inside and outside of school – recognised by both the Belfast Institute of Further and Higher Education at the age of 15 and then the University of Ulster when I was 17. There was never any doubt in my mind that I would pursue a career in art, until I met someone who doubted my ability.
Me aged 15 with a model from Belfast Institute of Further and Higher Education (known as BIFHE, now Belfast Metropolitan College) and my winning fashion design, which I designed and the textile students made. The students hosted a catwalk show and I even got to keep the outfit!
I remember my first art teacher in secondary school, Mr Clyde. He was a very encouraging teacher but in a very matter of fact way. Sadly, he wasn’t my teacher for long as he retired soon after he became my teacher and I continued on with my studies until GCSE under the guidance of two fantastic female teachers and a phenomenal technician Donna.
Then, when I began my A Level art studies, I had a completely new to me teacher – they had been at the school for a few years and I had heard stories of how they taught their classes with many of the students afraid of the teacher or ‘hating’ them. I wasn’t looking forward to being under the guidance of the teacher but I thought my previous accolades would give me some standing with them and we’d get on fine.
Unfortunately for me, my previous accolades didn’t seem to stand next to me in this teacher’s eyes. Not even that the Vice Principal at the time purchased one of my pieces of work of her own accord. (I charged her the price of a goat – true story! I was only 15 so I didn’t want to charge anyone and wanted to gift it to her but she insisted on paying so I asked her to make a donation to a charity of her choice so she bought a goat for a family somewhere.)
Anyway, in art class, nothing I seemed to do was good enough for this teacher. Nothing. For a full two years. I think it’s fair to say I cried a lot over the course of those two years; to be honest, I erased most of it out of my memory and had to interview my parents to verify. I was scarred leaving school.
The teacher once said that they pushed me so hard because they saw my potential and wanted me to succeed but there was a consensus among the students that they were angry at their own inability to make it as an artist and so decided to take their anger out on the students which, to this day, I think seems more accurate; who would have known teenagers could actually be so insightful? It may seem a bit extreme for me to say, but those two years being guided by that teacher would be the most damaging thing to ever to happen to my art career. I had spent 5 years flourishing under constructive teachers and then the final two unravelling more than I ever thought possible.
Me taking part in 'The Big Draw' annual event, circa 2008
I went on to study Foundation Level Art & Design and then a BA (Hons) Fine Art with a specialism in Painting at Cardiff Metropolitan University, and even though I passed both academic areas, I carried with me a sense of not being good enough. Looking back, I don’t feel I applied myself as much as I could have and I realise I shut down every time I encountered any criticism that was similar to that I had experienced from my A Level teacher.
I remember in my second year at university, one of my tutors wrote on a feedback form that I ‘…had potential’, I wore that phrase like a life sentence for a long time, as if I had not quite proven myself yet. After I graduated in 2011, I tore the feedback form apart and stuck those words under a photo of myself like a mugshot (I only realise the weight and relevance of that now).
I spent most of 2012, suffering from anxiety and trying to paint through it. I dedicated all of my time to trying to write proposals and apply for residencies – I hadn’t been taught how to do any of that at university and availed of workshops from Visual Artists Ireland to try and gather these skills, but I lacked confidence in my work, myself, and wasn’t as successful as I had wished or wanted.
In the next few years, I would exhibit work in a few places in Northern Ireland, rent a studio space with two other artists, facilitate workshops for arts and crafts with kids in a local art centre and assist other artists in their delivery of arts and crafts facilitation. I also worked simultaneously in two arts centres, The MAC in Belfast and Down Arts Centre in Downpatrick, where I worked on countless exhibitions and saw the best of contemporary art coming through. I would refer to myself as an artist because I would believe in my heart that I was even though I was working two jobs and not in any way devoting serious time to making work myself. Honestly, I was intimidated by the work I was invigilating in the galleries and thought of myself as an imposter.
A photo of my solo exhibition, 'A Tale of A Few Cities' shown in The Glass Gallery in Newcastle, County Down in December 2012.
From 2018 – 2020, I worked in many more galleries, art centres and at festivals, whilst living in Australia. On days off, I visited galleries and was equally inspired and disheartened – I didn’t make any work because I thought there was no point, it wouldn’t be any good. I met some fabulous artists whilst working in the galleries; we all tended to work in the Arts & Culture Sectors, because it was always our passion and we wanted to help be able to connect others to it. I bought some cheap art materials and played around but didn’t make anything ‘serious’.
It wasn’t until I thought about experimenting with watercolours that my artistic flame was reignited. It was after I had become friends with two incredibly talented artists; Cecilia (https://ceciliasordicampos.com) and Bec (https://bmareeartco.com) that I began to feel worthy of making again and I began making work for others – the first, a watercolour piece for my best friend for her birthday. Christmas 2019 brought a tonne of art material treats from my other half and I began making small doodles in a sketchbook.
When I moved back to Northern Ireland from Australia in June 2020, the arts sector was in ruins and after a few months of reconnecting with artists I had known and worked with before, who encouraged me to delve into art full time, I started thinking about putting the time and effort into my practice and making work that was accessible for every one – something I’d been asked years before.
It's funny how when you have nothing, you have nothing to lose. I had no job and thanks to the winter lockdown at the start of winter 2021, all the time in the world. I took chances I wouldn’t have before. I entered open submissions for exhibiting my fine art oil pieces and invested in building a little art business, where high quality art was accessible for people. It was a big step putting myself out there but with social media and seeing others being brave doing the same thing, I felt it wasn’t so scary anymore.
It was only when one of my pieces was accepted by the Royal Ulster Academy in August 2021, that I began thinking of myself as an actual artist. It may sound silly but that was the first and most significant validation that I had ever had. The best part was that the high school teacher who had made me feel like I would never be good enough had been accepted in the same show, the year before – now we were equals. That meant everything. I was good enough.
Me in front of my selected submission 'Nightingale 2020' at the 140th annual exhibition of the Royal Ulster Academy of Arts, at The Ulster Museum, November 2021.
So, what makes you an Artist?
Your heart, your mind, how you express yourself, whatever YOU deem it to be. Not what someone else believes about you or what you do. Don’t wait for the right moment to come along, because you could be waiting forever and the world needs your art right now. Your heart, your mind and how you express yourself will attract the right people to you and your work, they will build your community, just be brave enough to find it. Be brave enough to be an artist.