Interview with The Biscuit Factory’s 2020 Contemporary Young Artist Award winner – artist Millie Suu-Kyi

It absolutely seems like a lifetime ago, but one of my last nights out culture vulturing pre-lockdown, was to The Biscuit Factory’s Spring season show opening – Contemporary Young Artist Award headline show; it is always a total treat and a really broad diverse mix of art.

The Biscuit Factory is the UK’s largest independent contemporary art, craft & design gallery set in the heart of Newcastle’s cultural quarter. It is also one of my favourite galleries to visit in the region. This year’s Contemporary Young Artist Award exhibition featured 36 artists shortlisted from over 1200 submissions by The Biscuit Factory Curators (I recently interviewed them HERE). This exhibition and the award, now in its fourth year, provides a platform for new and emerging talent and invites the public to vote for their favourite piece to win People’s Choice. The exhibition unfortunately, (and obviously) shut down pretty sharpish after opening to the public due to lock down measures – it was a wonderful exhibition and you can view the exhibition online HERE.

On the Spring show opening night, I had the pleasure of meeting the 2020 Contemporary Young Artist Award winner, Millie Suu-Kyi and viewing her series of sculptures ‘If the shoe fits’ including Selfish Sean, Immature Isaac and Obsessive Olivia. Millie is a multi-discipline artist whose work incorporates ceramics, illustration and textiles and she was a delight to meet and chat to. She reminded me exactly how an artist should be, when they’ve just won a brilliant award – bliddy giddy, a tiny bit overwhelmed and very excited! It was just lush – I love with genuinely brilliant humans are recognised for their talent.

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‘If the shoe fits’ – Millie Suu-Kyi on exhibition opening night

Millie’s winning piece, ‘If the shoe fits’,  is a commentary on materialism, over-indulgence and the influence of brands on society – it’s quite playful whilst provoking serious questions on where on what we place value on in our society (and individually). These questions were huge pre-pandemic, but in the midst of COVID-19, they’ve taken on a new life and hinting as superficial societal foolishness. I know, I certainly feel that way.

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‘If the shoe fits’ – Millie Suu-Kyi

I recently caught up with Millie via Insta – we’d chatted about a Culture Vulture interview in March, but with everything hitting the way it did, now felt like a more appropriate time to do it and I’m so eager that people know about and discover Millie’s work and her winning piece – irrespective of not being able to view it right now.

So here we go, an interview with The Biscuit Factory’s 2020 Contemporary Young Artist Award winner, artist Millie Suu-Kyi….

Hiyer, lush to chat again…. Can you introduce yourself for my fellow Culture Vultures….? 

My name is Millie, my artist name is Millie Suu-Kyi and I’m a North London-based artist.

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 Millie Suu-Kyi

I love your artist name…where did it come from?

My middle name is Suu-Kyi; I’m named after Aung San Suu-Kyi the Burmese/Myanmar leader, which these days is more controversial (!), but either way it’s a good conversation starter and definitely a more interesting name than Millie Holland!

Can you tell me about your journey into the creative industries? Did you step out into the world thinking I want to be an artist? 

Well, I’ve always been creative and knew I wanted to be in the industry, but for many years I wanted to be a dancer and I even did the auditions to go to dance school instead of art school. I’m pleased I chose art and I particularly love being a multidisciplinary artist because it means you can use all the different things you’ve learnt over the years; even my dance practice comes in handy!

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Millie Suu-Kyi

You graduated in 2019, so are relatively at the beginning of your artistic journey which is so exciting! Do you feel on the cusp of something wonderful? It sure feels that way as someone looking in! 

Ah that’s so lovely to say. In truth, it feels a little unknown and a lot like guess work, but I’m loving developing new projects and trying things out – I feel like a newbie and am aware I have so much more to learn, but for now I’m enjoying the ride and seeing what I can make next.

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Millie Suu-Kyi

You work across many mediums sculpture, ceramics, illustration and textiles! A quadruple creative threat! Can you tell you me a bit about those mediumshow do they interact or play out together? Is there a medium that you think youll specialise in?

I am first and foremost someone that draws and that is where all my projects begin, but from there I love being able to see which material lends itself to a project. However, I end up spending the largest chunk of my time on ceramics because it requires so much time.

I don’t think I want to specialise in just one material as I think the different media, I use complement one another so well and each add so much.

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Millie Suu-Kyi

You bliddy won Contemporary Young Artist Award 2020 (well done) can you tell me about your submission piece? 

The piece, ‘If The Shoe Fits’, was my graduate work, which I also took to New Designers. The piece looked at visual stereotypes and the reasons people mass migrate towards certain trends and brands. I formed my three characters on less desirable traits and the way we use brands and consumerism to conceal our imperfections. This in turn conceals our vulnerability.

As Brits are collectively known for their discomfort around nudity, I wanted to play with humour by making them naked. While amusing, the focus on nudity here also symbolises the guilt linked between being our true selves, as people literally use familiar brands to cover themselves, and concealing the unwanted aspects of their identity.

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‘If the shoe fits’ – Millie Suu-Kyi

Can you tell us a little bit about the process making the piece?

The figures are made from stoneware clay and each took a day or 2 to make. I created limbs and body parts first and then constructed them all. They were then bisque fired at 1000° degrees, then glazed using a spray gun and transparent glaze and then re-fired at 1200°.

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‘If the shoe fits’ – Millie Suu-Kyi

What made you submit in general to the award? 

In truth, a few people had wanted to buy the pieces and I’d decided against it, so I wanted to make sure I did something with them so that I wouldn’t regret not selling them! I also felt it was a project that could start conversation and gain some interest, as the figures definitely turned heads at the degree show. Now I can definitely say I’m pleased I didn’t sell them.

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‘If the shoe fits’ – Millie Suu-Kyi

How did you find out youd won and what did that moment feel like? 

I was working at Thrown Contemporary (Ceramics Gallery) preparing the gallery for a private view, when I received an email saying I’d won. I’m not always the best at reading so I read it out loud to my boss to make sure I was reading it right! I then went to the toilet to quickly message the family WhatsApp to let them know and then went back to work, pretending I was as cool as a cucumber (which I definitely wasn’t!)

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Millie Suu-Kyi

Such a lush story – What are you going to spend the prize money on? 

Before the lockdown, the plan was to buy a ceramics kiln which would’ve used nearly all of the money, so that’s still the plan for post lockdown. But if not, I’d love to go on a puppetry making course.

As a young artist, why are awards and opportunities like Contemporary Young Artist Award important to you and your peers? Are they important? 

When you graduate it’s hard to know where to begin and applying for things like this award are a great way to cast your net and see what you catch. They are potentially a platform to publicise oneself, but if not, they’re at the very least a confidence boost and a good experience.

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Millie Suu-Kyi

You came up to Newcastle for the preview event it was a blast to hang out with you! What did it feel like having people look at your work and attending as the winner?

Ah thank you, it was a lovely evening! Well, if I’m honest, I’m not sure many people knew I was the winner! – But that was fine with me, it was just a delight to get to know the gallery staff and be at an event where my work was displayed and I wasn’t there to support a friend or hand out the drinks!

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Millie Suu-Kyi

Lurking at your own event – is the perfect way to enjoy an event! You mentioned that you had a friend in Newcastle did you manage to explore Newcastle?

I have one close friend in Newcastle doing a Masters but I actually only managed to visit her when I came for the Private View, so I haven’t seen much of Newcastle. However, what I’ve seen I’ve liked very much. – It has elements of London and Edinburgh which are my favourite places, so that’s high praise.

When its just you and you want to make/createfor fun, what do you tend to do? 

My absolute favourite things to create are characters. I draw them with their clothes, accessories and usually gangly limbs with big hands, and like to include details like their age, name and hobbies – almost like my own Top Trumps.

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Marcus – Millie Suu-Kyi

I was a big fan of Marcus on your Insta! Where do you seek artistic inspiration? Are there any artists that inspire you whether by their work or by their boldness etc? 

There are so many artists that I completely adore but I’ll choose:

Paula Rego for her surrealist paintings, which have incredible character and story development, understanding of colour and a beautiful use of perspective and foreground/background.

Peter Lubach with his limitless ability to recreate the human/animal forms in clay, using pleasing and deceptively simple shapes, as well as an undertone of humour.

Pierre Le-Tan is my latest discovery. His delicate use of ink and water colour create immaculate, quiet interior scenes. They are a joy to behold!

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Peter Lubach

I get a sense of you being a bit protesty (LOVE) and a risk taker (LOVE) both in your creative practice and as a person can you talk a little bit about that? 

I am pretty outspoken and very interested in current affairs, often drawing on political stances, stereotypes, class divides and social structures for my work. But, I’m also aware that there’s always so much more to learn and I certainly don’t claim to know it all. I can only make art that shows what my slice of the world is like, so I intend to keep on educating myself to ensure I stay involved and keep being that little bit protesty.

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Millie Suu-Kyi

You have an AMAZING sense fashion and bold style where do you seek fashion inspo from? What inspires your looks? Where do you shop/fave indie outlets? 

As someone who’s environmentally conscious and loves buying on a budget, I now only buy secondhand clothing, almost entirely from charity shops. I absolutely love having to hunt and rummage through strange rails and racks. In terms of inspiration, I adore 60s prints and silhouettes and I’m a great believer in more is more, so I always like to dress up and wear as much colour as possible.

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Millie Suu-Kyi

So of course, your Young Contemporary Artist Award win came a few weeks before lock down what have you been up to/working on? (Beside surviving a Pandemic if you havent done anything creative at all, join the club!) How has lockdown effected your practice? 

Well, as I never managed to get a kiln in time, I am currently making new ceramics work and leaving it unfired for a very long time, which isn’t ideal! But for now, I am drawing new characters and scenes and making clay samples for a new project which I hope will be my solo exhibition at the Biscuit Factory next year. Also, I’m not making a huge amount because I’ve been working in a local care home. So, in my free time, I’m pleased I’m managing to keep the creative wheels turning.

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Millie Suu-Kyi

Youre submersed in the creative world further South how are the creative community responding to the Pandemic? In the North, there is a real sense of wanting to change the creative gameand power structure I really hope self-employed artists come out the other side, more self-determining but I am hugely fearful for the creative industries.  

I am absolutely surrounded by creative talent where I live, with musicians, designers, artists and generally amazing people everywhere I look, which can be a little intimidating! I haven’t allowed myself to process the damage that the industry will take – people say the arts and artists are resilient but this is going to be so tough for so many people. I think we’ll just have to wait and see, but for now the arts is being as charitable as ever with free online lessons, discounted work and all the rest of it – so as usual people are just making do and being highly impressive.

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Millie Suu-Kyi

Any advice to artists just starting out? 

Sadly, I’d feel too much like a phony to answer that! I’m really just starting out myself so, I suppose, all I could say to my peers in the same boat is, try and find your USP and revolve your practice around that.

What is next for Millie? Anything in the pipeline?

I recently choreographed and filmed a dance project using a music piece written by a friend. I really enjoyed the process and it reminded me that I want to try some more performance-based work, tying my sculptural work with movement. I’ve also been drawing some new ideas to work towards potentially writing and illustrating a short book, but none of the logistics have even been researched yet, so for now it’s just a dream.

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Millie Suu-Kyi

So you’ve been busy being brilliant! Where can we find more about you and your work?

My website can be visited HERE and my instagram handle is @milliesuukyi

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Millie Suu-Kyi

Well then thanky Millie – I’m super excited for your solo exhibition at The Biscuit Factory – I need more things in my life to look forward to and that is certainly a cultural cherry! Check out Millie’s insta and her work – she’s bliddy talented and a gem! And remember, you can check out you can view the Contemporary Young Artist Award exhibition online HERE

 

Interview with North East actor Andrew Finnigan – newly appointed Takeover Young Writer in Residence 2020

I recently had the pleasure of catching up with Andrew Finnigan – North East based professional actor AND the newly appointed Customs House’s Takeover Young Writer in Residence 2020. This news is hot off the press so I was buzzed to be one of the first interviewing him!

I’m working with the folks over at The Customs House for Takeover 2020 to champion the festival – you can read my blog post all about the Takeover HERE and find out more about it; but just to remind my fellow Culture Vultures, The Takeover is an annual week-long arts festival at The Customs House that is produced by, with and for young people. The festival is led, planned, marketed, delivered and evaluated by the Takeover Team, a group of 12-18 year olds, who are recruited from diverse backgrounds and have varying leadership and arts experiences. I chatted to two of this year’s team Harrison and James HERE.

 Takeover 2020 was set to happen May half term but for obvious reasons it has been postponed – so instead it’s (hopefully) something for North East young people later in the year to look forward to and enjoy; new dates are yet to be announced.

The Takeover Young Writer residency is an opportunity for an emerging theatre writer, under 25yrs old, to write a piece of theatre with young people’s voices and a North East narrative rooted at its heart. This piece will be staged at The Customs House as the finale piece of Takeover Festival 2020! The residency comes with support from the Takeover team and mentoring from a professional writer; this year’s mentor is the eminent playwright Tom Wells.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Takeover Young Writer in Residence 2019 – Elijah Young; you can catch up on that interview HERE. But now it’s time for Andrew Finnigan – I caught up with Andrew by phone and had a really good natter; I was super impressed that this is his first writing experience and got such a sense of bubbling energy, enthusiasm and talent. And his piece for this year’s Takeover Festival, sounds brilliant and I’m excited for him to share with you a glimpse.

So step right up Andrew, here we go go! An interview with Andrew Finnigan, this year’s appointed Takeover Young Writer in Residence 2020. BOOM!

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Andrew Finnigan (Photo credit – Andrew Reed)

Hiyer Andrew – lush to digitally meet you! So can you tell my fellow Culture Vultures, who you are….

I’m Andrew Finnigan; I’m 23 and work primarily as an actor. I’m based in South Shields but kind of up sticks to wherever work takes me.

Textbook question – can you tell me about your journey into the creative industries?

Oddly it wasn’t a route; I didn’t even realise I was starting at the time. Me and my best were kind of forced into doing the school musical when we were about 13, but it turned out I quite enjoyed it so I started taking looking for ways I could get more into that kind of thing outside of school.

I joined the Customs House Youth Theatre when I was 16 and from there, started to appreciate theatre and storytelling even more. In 2016, I was cast in a play called Broken Biscuits, from an open audition where you didn’t need to have any formal training or an agent to go along; I had neither at the time. And that was the start!

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Andrew Finnigan in Broken Biscuits (Photo credit unknown)

Youre primarily an actor – can you tell me about the most recent production you acted in?

The last production I worked on was a Sam Steiner play, You Stupid Darkness!. It tells the story of 4 volunteers who answer the phones at Brightline during the a time when society is on the brink of collapse – the volunteers listen patiently, once a week, to outpourings of  stranger’s woe, offering the hope of connection – a hope they come to rely on just as much. You Stupid Darkness! had a five week run down at the Southwark Playhouse in London and actually finished up not long before the lockdown was put in place so timing wise we were quite lucky!

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Andrew Finnigan in You Stupid Darkness! (Photo credit Matt Austin)

So on to the main subject of this interview – Takeover Young Writer in Residence 2020 – HUGE congrats on being appointed! So lush to hear some happy news like this, during this challenging period – what prompted you to apply for the residency?

I’ve known about the Takeover Young Writer in Residence scheme since it started in 2018 but hadn’t considered applying as a writer!  For the application stage, you had to submit 10/15 pages of a script and a friend of mine said I should try and think of an idea and produce something. It was quite a nice low pressure way of working and felt like a well “why not?” situation.

Can tell me about the moment you found out and how it felt to find out you’d been successful?

I actually got the email telling me on the first day of lock down so I was really pleased I’d have something to work on. I was also hit with a sudden realisation that I had to actually finish writing it and that 10 pages was just the start, but the thought of finally seeing it on stage during Takeover 2020 really keeps me motivated.

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Andrew Finnigan in Drip (Photo credit Sam Taylor)

This is the first piece of theatre youve ever written (exciting!)  – where are you seeking inspiration for your writing?

I’ve been using my time to watch any TV or movies that I feel sit in the same world as what I’m writing. I often think there’s nothing worse than reading or watching how an adult thinks teenagers act or talk, but shows like Sex Education on Netflix really seem to capture the awkwardness and goofiness of what being that age is like, so I’ve definitely been coming back to that for reference points.

Agree with the adult perception of young people depicted in media– it can be SO cringe! Can you tell us about your piece? A flavour of what it is about, the storyline and the vibe?

So, the play is called Cherryade Supernova. It follows Josie, whose mam has convinced her to throw a house party while she’s away in the hope that she can make some new friends. She throws the party and an array of different personalities show-up! The piece is really about Josie kind of navigating her way through the night as best she can. Vibe wise, it’ll hopefully be reflective of how awkward house parties actually were (or are!) when you’re a teenager and just the messiness of it all.

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Andrew Finnigan (Photo credit Rich Kenworthy)

I was the Queen of social awkwardness as a teenage so I can relate – sounds brilliant and absolutely love the name! How far have you got with writing and can you tell us a bit about your writing process?  

Currently I’m about half-way through my first draft. I’m going at a steady pace at the minute but I’m happy with the progress it’s making. Since I’ve haven’t written theatre before I’m kind of figuring out what kind of writer I am during this process; whether I work best writing chronologically or if I start with the scenes I see a bit more clearly first. It has just been trial and error really seeing which way fits me best. I have so far drawn a lot from my own life when writing too; injecting some of my own experiences at pretty tame house parties.

I know this is your first writing experience – but how do you think lock down has impacted your writing? Many creative folks are struggling with being creative and concentrating (I hear ya!), how are you finding it?

It has been a challenge but I’m starting to get used to it now. For me personally, it has been about finding my rhythm of when I get the best work done. I’ve found that I actually focus more later on in the day so I make sure that most nights I sit down and try and get some stuff written then. Not putting pressure on myself to get lots written each day helps too; if I’ve had a bad day and not gotten much down, I tell myself it’s okay – right now even half a page’s work is a small victory in itself.

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Andrew Finnigan in You Stupid Darkness (Photo  credit Ali Wright)

What are you excited about within the residency? What do you hope to get out of it?

Since I only really have experience being on stage, I’m really looking forward to being on the other side and seeing how it feels watching my work performed by others. I’m also so pleased that my piece is being directed by Abigail Lawson too. We worked together on Wormtown and I think she makes great choices as an actor so have total faith she’ll do an ace job when it comes to the play.

You just mentioned Wormtown by Reece Connolly – Takeover Young Writer in Residence 2018’s piece. I didn’t get to see it – as one of the actors who starred in it – can you tell me about the production and your experience?

Wormtown was Reece’s take on the old piece of North East folklore, The Lambton Worm. It followed a group of teenagers from stopping a giant monster wreaking havoc on their town. I’m a massive fan of sci-fi in movies and tv, so for Reece to make a piece of sci-fi theatre, it was something I hadn’t really read or seen before and he’s such a unique and talented writer so I feel very lucky to have been a part of one of his early productions.

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Andrew Finnigan in Wormtown (far left – photo credit unknown)

Sounds amazing! As part of the Takeover residency experience – you have access to a range of support and a mentorship – can you tell me a bit about that and how that is working so far?

Each year the writer in residency is paired with a professional writer as a mentor and this year’s mentor is Tom Wells. Tom and I have actually worked together a few times over the past few years and I’ve acted in two of his past productions, Broken Biscuits and Drip. We usually schedule FaceTime catch ups every couple of weeks where I’ll send him any progress I’ve made and we’ll discuss them over a cuppa.

When I feel I’ve hit a bit of a wall, it is nice knowing that Tom is there to give me advice on how to work through that. I feel like I couldn’t have been paired with a better writer, as Tom’s work is always so warm and playful, and that is definitely something I hope to mirror in my own writing.

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Tom is just brilliant – you’re going to learn so much! Like last year’s Takeover Writer in Residence Elijah Young, you’re an actor! Do you think your actor experience could make you a better theatre writer and maker?

I think it helps in the sense I’m seeing what I’m writing from the perspective of an actor too. Since the play has to accommodate eight actors, I’m always aware of having to juggle so many characters on stage at one time and not wanting a character just sat there without bringing something to the scene. I also don’t want it to feel like it’s overcrowded without purpose in the story.

It is hoped that your production, Cherryade Supernova will be shown later in the year (everything crossed!)- you’ve certainly whetted my appetite – can you tell me a bit about what you hope the audience experience to be?

I think the main thing I want is that the audience has fun when watching. I want people to have an experience where they maybe see a bit of themselves in some of the characters and have a few laughs in there too.

You used to be a part of Customs House Youth Theatre, you’ve performed as part of previous year’s Takeover performance and now you’re 2020 Young Writer in Residence! What do creative opportunities like The Takeover at Customs House mean to you?

Over the past 8 years the Customs House has become a second home so I’m dead pleased my play will be given a life there. There is real history in that building so to be able to add to that is really special.

I think the most important aspect of the Takeover is being able to give chances to young people who might not have had creative opportunities otherwise. It is rare you’ll find opportunities like this where you don’t have to have any previous experience or relevant professional training. The Takeover is all so inclusive and accessible so I think it makes it a lot less daunting to get involved.

Youre from South Shields – what does having a venue like Customs House mean to you? Why is it important to young people?

The most valuable thing the Customs House have given me is guidance and support; especially in a world where being an actor is considered “a pipe dream”. I think that is really important for young people, especially with creative subjects being dropped or overlooked in schools; the Customs House is somewhere for us to go and be encouraged to engage and develop without a sense that working in the arts is unachievable. I’m doing it!

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Andrew Finnigan in Drip (photo credit Sam Taylor)

Are you a theatre goer” yourself? If so – have you got a production that you recently enjoyed that youd like to tell me about?

The last piece I watched actually was a video recording of Sea Wall, a monologue by Simon Stephens. It was a piece that was originally performed at the Bush Theatre in London in 2008 and then later recorded a few years later. It was put on YouTube free to watch for a short period during lock down; which I think is a great idea making it more accessible. It is performed by Andrew Scott (Moriarty in BBC 1’s Sherlock) who I just think is brilliant. He just melts into the part and makes it so quiet and truthful; it’s really moving. It’s definitely worth a watch if it’s still online. (It is currently available to watch here!)

Any advice youd like to share, to anyone like yourself this time last year, who haven’t written theatre before but curious about it?

I think my advice would be that if you have an idea, just start writing to get it down. Don’t worry if it won’t be read straight away by anyone else, just write for yourself and see how it feels.

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Andrew Finnigan in Drip (photo credit Sam Taylor)

Well thank you Andrew – really excited to see Cherryade Supernova and for Takeover 2020 – make sure you keep your eyes out for Takeover 2020 dates and come and see it! I will be there with bells on! It’s always such a pleasure to meet someone towards the beginning of their creative career on the edge of something brilliant and if you’re reading this and feeling creatively curious, please take Andrew’s advice about just getting started! If a global pandemic has taught us anything – it’s that life is too short to sit on something and wait; just get out there and have a go!

For all things Takeover 2020 – follow @CustomsHouseLP on social! For all things Customs House follow @theCustomsHouse on social too! I will be championing happenings and more features on Vulture so keep an eye out too!

That’s all for now Culture Vultures!

 

 

Interview with sound designer & artist Matthew Tuckey; unexplored possibilities & bringing stories to life through sound.

“You can’t be, what you can’t see”

This was my starting point for a creative discussion the other day – we were talking about creative industries and lack of diversity, lack of representation in some areas, empowered freelancers and I broadened the conversation on to creative skill set and roles. There are SO many roles and extremely talented folks that go relatively unnoticed and unseen. It’s not to do with their lack of importance or skill set – it’s because what they do happens behind closed doors or “backstage”. Ironically, some of these roles (especially the digital and tech ones) in the current climate – have never been more important. These are the folks that will drive and help shape the innovation and reinvention of creative projects because they have the skill and ability to do so! Therefore, we should be shouting about them and celebrating them!

As The Culture Vulture, my mission has always been to empower artists and showcase the creative and cultural sector in its entirety. So, in my blog over the next few months, I’m going to be featuring talented creative people who have interesting roles in creative projects but often, don’t get mentioned or celebrated in the way they should do! I want to remove the “mysterious” element of what they do and hopefully, make them feel seen with the hope that others may follow in their footsteps. I want to illuminate the creative industries in their entirety.

There are so many roles that could sit within the “unseen” and “mysterious” category – but the one I’m going to explore today is a sound designer! If you don’t know what one is – well don’t flap – I didn’t know until a couple of years ago! I’ve personally worked with them on films, animations, theatre productions and public art commissions exhibited as part of an event. They do weird and wonderful things to sound usually as part of a wider whole (e.g. a theatre production). Their skills lay in making people feel, think, experience things via sounds. In an immersive performance context, if we think about humans having 5 senses – the perfect blending of the performance including sight and sound, can trigger the audience to feel, smell, and even taste things. What you hear can be equally as important as what you see!

A sound designer that I’ve had the total pleasure of meeting and working with recently, as part of Mortal Fools – is Matthew Tuckey, he’s very talented but also really canny human (I’ve enjoyed surrounding myself with canny folks of late). So I thought, I’d jump at the chance to interview him to showcase what a sound design is, what they do and to celebrate Matthew’s work, to make it more “seen”. So here we go and over to Matthew!

Hiyer Matthew – right, let’s start at the beginning – please introduce yourself to my fellow Culture Vultures?

Matthew – I am a Sound Designer and Sound Artist. I work mainly in theatre but have more recently been taking private and public art commissions. I’m based in North East England but take my work further afield when I get the opportunity. I am currently craving a long escape to the Highlands (when it is safe to do so) and I really like cooking. So, if you want to talk at length about interesting sounds or how to make an excellent stir-fry – hit me up!

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Matthew Tuckey

As a forever hungry human, yes please! Can you tell me about your journey into the creative industries?

Matthew – It’s a convoluted one… I started off with a very committed drama teacher who encouraged me to pursue directing. I was involved in music, art and drama at school but unfortunately we were limited to only one option at GCSE level, so I ended up going for Drama and took this all the way to A Level. I tried studying a four year MA in Theatre Studies at the University of Glasgow but after the first two months decided this was a waste of time and somehow landed an internship in a recording studio back in Newcastle. I was still writing and directing theatre here and there, but the studio offered me an exciting new creative outlet. Without planning it, these two worlds merged quite naturally in sound design.

Fast forward to now and I’m exploring the exciting and diverse world of sound design for theatre, and more lately, sound art. This was quite a natural progression from my creative work in recording studios and theatre sound technician work, alongside participation in directing and writing workshops. The surprising thing I found was when I was doing the more technical work, some people were asking me questions like “have you given up on creating theatre then?” which really fuelled my desire to demonstrate how technical and creative meet harmoniously in the designer’s role.

The Culture Vulture – As a non-planner – I find the magic happens in the freedom and I’m delighted to hear you talk about the connection between technical and creative, as absolutely and actually, I think where they meet is exactly where the innovation is, that will  take us into the next sector creative phase for reinvent post (or during) pandemic!

So tell me, what do you do as a sound designer? What is a sound designer?

Matthew – I get asked this a lot, and often at the start of a project with a new collaborator funnily enough! Also, a lot of people keep asking me how I differentiate between my sound design and sound art practice, and to be fair most aren’t aware that a “sound artist” is a thing. So to clarify, briefly, I am a sound designer when I am serving a client or collaborators creative vision – they present a problem and I plan and execute a design solution. Sound Art is what I do when I am realising my own creative vision – but the line can be quite blurry.

So, a sound designer means a lot of things across film, music, theatre, UI, AR, etc. Even in the theatre industry, where I do most of my work, it can mean many things to many people depending on the show, the genre, the theatre, etc. Broadly speaking though, the sound designer for a theatre production is responsible for all audible aspects of a performance.

It’s a broad role that can involve any combination of the following: sound effects recording, sound effects design, Foley (live or pre-recorded), sound system design, live sound reinforcement, recording and playback of music, programming the show control software, and room acoustics. So if you get the right one, they can be very good value for money!

I describe this approach as a wholistic sound design and this is what I aim to achieve in my work. Depending on the show and the company, this can either be all on me or with a team of maybe one other sound designer or composer and the technicians in the sound department.

The Culture Vulture – I think it’s an important question for folks to keep asking as, the more they ask and get comfortable with what a sound designer can do – the more ambitious they will get with their use of sound during a performance or project. Lack of technical knowledge and understanding of specialist roles like yours, can be so self-limiting! Through increased awareness, the seemingly impossible transforms into possible.

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Matthew Tuckey – photo credit Von Fox

What types of folks require your services?

Matthew – Anyone wanting to tell a story with sound! Whether that’s theatre companies, film makers, podcasters, visual artists, museum curators, or marketing teams. For example, I’ve never worked with an organisation on creating a sonic brand (think Windows or Mac start up. Or Netflix “da-dum”!) but would love to hear from anyone interested in developing that side of their marketing strategy. My clientele is only limited by imagination – it’s fairly niche at the moment but more and more organisations are offering immersive audio experiences (see Land Rover marketing or Formula 1 teams or Bastille album launches).

The Culture Vulture – holy moly, the Bastille album launch was truly amazing (google it folks)! So innovative. And as someone, who had kind of forgotten about them and their music, it worked in getting me to notice them and reconnect.  

Matthew – There’s a range of technical proficiency out there already when it comes to things like recording a podcast or sound for video, not forgetting musicians with home studios. But my skills really lie in marrying specialist technical knowledge and creative expression. When I was working in recording studios, one of the most important lessons I learnt was how to create a workflow that allowed natural movement between ‘left brain’ activities (setting levels, patching signal chains, organising your space) and ‘right brain’ activities (creative ideation, abstraction thinking, meditative listening) – I think that’s one of the biggest offerings on a project.

I also offer consultancy and training for organisations looking to improve their sound infrastructure and skills. Whether that’s theatre and cinema workshops exploring sonic creativity or venues looking to improve their sound system. I’m yet to work with a restaurant that want to improve the sonic side of the dining experience (I’ve been lucky enough to go to some nice restaurants and notice how uncomfortable they are sonically!) – maybe one day!

The Culture Vulture – I really love what you’re talking about there. 1. The brand sound – as someone who works in marcomms, this would interest me greatly. We often talk about how colours and visuals feed into branding- but sound isn’t something explored in the mainstream and I think, it has such potential. 2. Enhancing audience experience through sound – I would love to visit a restaurant or bar that has invested into this area.

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Matthew Tuckey

Tell me about some recent project highlights?

Matthew – Just before lockdown I was nearing the end of an exciting new show with Mortal Fools called ‘Relentless’. This was the first time they had worked with a sound designer and we had/have a really ambitious vision for using sound in this production (Relentless was cancelled just before touring and is set to tour in 2021). I couldn’t help feel a touch of nostalgia with this project as it reminded me of similar devising processes I was part of as a teenager. We’re all determined that this show WILL have a life beyond lockdown!

Another recent highlight is ‘Wolf’ a winter story by Kitchen Zoo in association with Northern Stage which was performed in Stage 3 over Christmas 2019. Kitchen Zoo are a fantastic team making brilliant shows for little people and their grown-ups. It was my first time collaborating with the talented Katie Doherty who was the composer, we both found this collaborative effort very rewarding.

WOLF by Kitchen Zoo – photo credit Von Fox

What makes a “good” sound designer? What skills do they need?

Matthew – I think the main thing that is relevant for all types of sound designers, and sounds a bit obvious but I really do mean it, is you need to LOVE sound and really experience the world through a strong awareness of sound. Whether it’s noticing an interesting acoustic effect, experiencing new music (live and recorded), or being drawn into a film through the sound design and score. I’m pretty evangelical about people watching/listening to collaborations between Hans Zimmer and Christopher Nolan (current personal favourites – Dunkirk and The Dark Knight Trilogy – both making awesome use of Shepard tones which is one to ‘Google’!) And also, Joe Wright’s Atonement and Darkest Hour are great examples of sonic repetition and punctuation. But I’ll stop short of some of the more obscure ones…

The Culture Vulture – As a real film fan, I love sound in film and really appreciate its usage; 1917 had a fantastic use of sound and Ryan Murphy productions use sound (and populist music) fantastically; American Horror Story, Pose, Versace!

Matthew – Another important skill is developing a language alongside your awareness of sound. Being able to describe sound in a way that communicates clearly with a range of clients/collaborators – whether that’s a producer, a director, a performer, or videographer or painter. Having a common language is really important and is the first challenge in every new collaboration.

There are other skills that are really more specific to individual practice. Such as live sound reinforcement, microphone techniques for live and recorded sound, field recording, effects design, music composition, QLab programming etc. The depth that you go into these more practical skills really depends on what type of work you are designing.

The Culture Vulture – It’s interesting that you brought up commonality of language. I think it’s a real barrier to lots of collaboration where technology and more technical roles could come together. It’s the same with technological solutions and innovation that could make creative businesses function better – we (I class myself in that) often don’t have the words to describe effectively what we want or to do the research to understand what we need and the ones with the technological solution aren’t able to communicate to people who don’t understand tech speak! It can be overwhelming and disempowering!

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Matthew Tuckey

What kit do you use? What kit would you recommend to folks wanting to invest in sound for their work?

Matthew – So I use a combination of field recording, studio equipment, and electronic instruments.

For field recording I have a multitrack recorder with a vast range of microphones, from ambisonics (useful for VR and surround work) to contact microphones (useful for acousmatic compositions). I also have a handy mini field recorder with built-in and external mic’s which I use to grab interesting sounds that I come across day-to-day (this pretty much goes everywhere with me, and it’s not uncommon to spend the first 30mins in a new Airbnb recording another extractor fan or boiler!).

I have yet more microphones for studio recording (such as voiceovers and acoustic instruments) as well as a few acoustic instruments and Foley props that make great source material for designing effects. I recently got hold of a mini Roland synthesiser based on the classic Juno 60 and 106 which is very fun and versatile – I like being able to get hands on with this, as a lot of my work happens in audio editing software, and if all else fails you can just entertain yourself trying to make things sound a bit more Stranger Things!

It’s important to say though that you can buy the best equipment in the world but use it terribly! So the best resource straight away is either investing time and money into learning the skills to optimise what equipment you can lay your hands on, or bringing in a collaborator like me who already has not just those skills and equipment resources, but thinks and creates in a heavily sound orientated way.

The Culture Vulture – When learning something new or feeling out of your depth, there is an impulse that can lead to buying ALL the kit possible as a solution or assuming the best kid will compensate for the lack of skills. I’ve been guilty of that for visual stuff and learnt the hard way!

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Matthew Tuckey

You worked on an Enchanted Parks’ piece – I didn’t know you back then,  but I worked on EP that year and remember your name, it was a wonderful piece– can you tell me about the piece?

Matthew – That was a lot of fun collaborating with Molly Barrett on her sculpture piece ‘Smoke & Mirrors’ in 2018. I got to play around with some new ways of manipulating the voiceover that was part of the wider Enchanted Parks story and working with some theme music from the wonderful Roma Yagnik.

I’m really hoping that Enchanted Parks makes a come-back after their hiatus. It’s a fantastic event and my involvement in 2018 left me with big ideas for a parkwide sound installation.

The Culture Vulture – Me too – both as someone who visited every year as a punter and lived along the top of Saltwell Park, it’s a proper visitor gem! AND as someone who worked on the event for a couple of years – it’s a big miss to my yearly calendar.

Can you tell me a career project highlight so far?

Matthew – That’s a tough one!

I really enjoyed working with Selma Dimitrijevic on ‘joey’. It was a preview tour and Selma’s first point in the brief was ‘very lo-fi’ – we were literally touring to venues that had the most basic of sound systems. The piece was performed as a monologue by two performers simultaneously, one in English the other in BSL (the very talented Scott Turnbull and Faye Alvi respectively), and so we decided to make the soundscape quite low-frequency heavy in order to maximise the effect for our D/deaf audience members. These very strict parameters helped me to focus my attention on the source material inspired by the script and manipulate these in a really creative way that supported and scored the performances on stage.

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Joey – Photo credit – Bish

I also have to mention working as Associate Sound Designer for Northern Stage’s production of ‘A Christmas Carol’ and working alongside sound designer Nick John Williams. That show was a lot of fun, not least because of the sheer scale of the production. Nick brought me onto that project to help with some particular tasks, which included recording various sound effects such as church bells – a first for me! I was also responsible for creating vocal effects chains for the different types of ghosts and narrators in the show. Both of these challenges were a lot of fun and we were very happy with the outcome.

The Culture Vulture – Great answer and it gives a real overview of how broad and diverse your work can be!

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A Christmas Carol – Northern Stage – photo credit Pamel

Can you tell me how COVID-19 has affected your work/practice?

Matthew – As soon as the PM suggested people stay away from theatres (prior to ordering them to close) the theatre industry pretty much shut down over night. My diary for the foreseeable cleared overnight simultaneously. Which was a shock to the system to say the least!

I had already been developing my practice in the digital art scene and making commission applications and funding bids in this area. Now with social distancing in place, a lot more people are contributing to digital art galleries which is great but also means the competition for funding and commissioning has jumped up!

The Culture Vulture – I hear ya! But from knowing you and chatting briefly to you about what you’ve got in store, I’m extremely excited to see your ideas and work unfold!

What challenges have you faced and how have you responded to them?

Matthew – The most immediate issues for me were the worries of financial loss and losing momentum in my practice. As a freelancer, I struggle with this mentality that if I stop for too long and lose momentum then it’s game over – I’ll lose clients, I’ll miss opportunities and I’ll forget how to do what I do.

I dealt with the financial worries by taking a few days just to gather my thoughts and assess the situation – fortunately I wasn’t in any immediate trouble and since then I’ve been successful in securing an individual ACE emergency support grant. I’ve also got some online workshop facilitation work for the lovely Mortal Fools and some online tutoring for Newcastle College’s FdA Stage Management and Technical Theatre students, which is also a lot of fun.

In terms of my practice – I started off by setting myself small, short term goals. I created a mini series of daily-ish ‘Mystery Sounds’ giving people 24 hours to guess the sound from a short recording clip. This helped me feel productive while I adjusted to the new circumstances. I’m still finding it difficult not being able to go very far with my recording equipment and to see people, but the cacophony of birds in our garden are more than obliging recording subjects for the time being. Listen here!

The Culture Vulture   – I loved your mystery sounds and I think it is a testament to your creativity with sound. In a busy digital space where everyone was suddenly pushing out content – I genuinely found yours fun and interesting! It also drove me insane trying to guess!

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Matthew Tuckey

You’ve been successful in receiving ACE emergency support funding – so firstly, BLIDDY WELL DONE PAL! Can you tell me what was the application process like? How did it feel to find out you were successful?

Matthew– It was a fairly simple process and I had some great advice from people who have a good track record with securing ACE funding. I’ve also been through a few bids over the past year, that were all unsuccessful in this ever increasingly competitive sphere of funding, so it was a real relief to find out I was successful. I was having a bad day when I got the email so just dismissed it without reading it in a moment of negativity and pessimism – thankfully I went back and read the email properly!

It was also very encouraging – I’ve basically spent lockdown juggling what little work is done remotely, applying to commissions for digital art, and trying to maintain some sort of routine! Now this help from ACE can give me some structure and purpose for a brief period of time.

YAS!  Proud of you pal! What will the funding enable you to do? What can we hook into?

Matthew – It’s buying me time really. The Arts Council asked how I would use this time to plan and stabilise for the future. And my answer was two things: take some sections of my original sound library and create collections to be bought online, and also to host webinars and discussions for collaborators who want to find out more about the sound design process and how they can collaborate with a sound designer in their work.

The webinars and discussions are largely going to be promoted through my existing networks with the help of regional theatre companies, but if anyone would like to get in touch to hear more about these events then they can find my contact details on my website.

Count me in for the webinars and discussions! So, I know it’s hard to plan during the uncertainty right now – but what’s next for Matthew on the horizon? What projects/happenings/things should my fellow Culture Vultures look out for?

Matthew – I am currently working on a mini album of sound art made during lockdown. It’s largely inspired by sounds I’ve noticed more since social distancing measures and sounds I am missing too. This will be available on my Soundcloud page (and other platforms that I will announce via Facebook, Twitter and Instagram (@MGTuckey, @thesoundportrait)

As soon as I can safely do so, I will be recording more pieces or ‘episodes’ for my Sound Portrait ‘Podcast’. This is a long-term project that I am running through a Patreon page that is all about hearing someone unfold their thoughts in a type of one-sided conversation. For me, it’s the sound artists portrait photograph of an individual. I’m steadily growing a following and patronage for this project, and I’ve recently created a new lower tier (just £1 per month) on my Patreon in order to try and encourage new followers to support the life of the project. It’s a slow burner, but my hope is that we can create a series of portraits that collectively amount to a sonic time-capsule of people, a kind of living oral history if you like.

Other than that, things are fairly uncertain during lock down unfortunately, particular with regards to theatre work – who knows when this will pick up again.

The Culture Vulture – a sound portrait of an individual…..I really love that. Just reading that has got me excited and I would love to be involved in some way!

Matthew – The other project I have continually running in the background is called The Rime and is my personal response to the epic poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and combines influences of field recording, acousmatic composition, and sound poetry. I am constantly applying to commissioning opportunities to take this work further and hope I’ll be able to share more about this in the coming months!

The Culture Vulture – Thank you Matthew; you can find out more about Matthew on his website or via his socials; Facebook, Twitter and Instagram (@MGTuckey, @thesoundportrait)

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Matthew Tuckey

One of the things I love about working in the cultural sector, is the rich tapestry of people, vocations and skill sets that exist within it; it truly is unrivalled. I am unsure if people outside of the sector, truly understand its richness or skill diversity. I often sit back during a project team meeting and look around thinking…..”bliddy heck – what a talented bunch of people we have here!?” Matthew is one of those people!

And I am truly excited to see the opportunities as I predict tech and digital will creatively collide due to the pandemic, connect and from that, exciting collaborations will unfold.

Until next time Culture Vulture.

Interview with Ashleigh Brown Studio; from illustrating cats in jumpers to launching a creative business.

One of the nicer things about lock down is that I’ve actually had a bit of time to follow my own mantra around engaging with folks on my social media platforms. Instead of admiring folks from a far and being a queen lurker merely “liking” their content and posts – I’ve actually taken the time to reach out to artists and creatives to tell them how brilliant I think they are! In a world, where so many of us are working on our own with limited human interaction right now – I think we should all commit to reaching out to those who we think are smashing it to actually tell them! It can be lonely working alone on a “normal” day – never mind on a “new normal” day.

Ashleigh Brown is one of those folks – she caught my attention with a cat watercolour (yep crazy cat lady alert) and then her colourful feed of products and creative lushness made me really dig her work and style – it really “pops”. I love big bold colours and clashing patterns and her work it just that and very Culture Vulture – I was eager to reach out to her to tell her firstly, how amazing she was! But also, I was aware that her creative business was pretty new and without getting doom and gloom – the current situation and financial support available is not very receptive or helpful to new creative businesses; so I wanted to champion her! I love her work and I think my fellow Culture Vultures will too!

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Ashleigh Brown Studio

Hiyer, Ashleigh – lush to digitally meet you. Can you introduce yourself to fellow Culture Vultures and tell us what do you do?

My name is Ashleigh and I am a designer from Gateshead. I have a background in textiles design and love creating surface patterns for products. I started my own business in November (great timing, I know!) I have one shop, Ashleigh Brown Studio where I sell my makes, cards, prints and illustrations and my second business, Quaintrelles Co, which sells stickers, stationery and other supplies. Links to both can be found HERE.

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Ashleigh Brown Studio

Ah from the HEED – I’m born and bred Gateshead lass! Tell me about your journey into the creative industries?

Well I have always been creative; I grew up with great creative influences and was taught to knit, sew and crochet as a kid. Every weekend at my nanna’s house would be another creative adventure and she really nurtured my imagination and taught me that anything is possible. At 27 I decided to go back and study a textiles design degree after working in retail for a while. This really opened my eyes to the possibilities of being creative. During this degree we were expected to create our own marketing materials and keep a blog; this just expanded really into me wanting to work for myself.

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Ashleigh Brown Studio

I think you have quite a distinctive style….how did you develop your design style?

I feel like I am still very much developing it. I love to mix materials and experiment. Getting to grips with digital design has really been the best though! It means I don’t need any special equipment or large workspace to explore my ideas in multiple ways. My brilliant tutor Laura showed me the wonders of adobe illustrator and I have never looked back.

Adobe is magic! When did you decide to set up your own creative business?

I have dabbled in many little businesses over the years, usually alongside my “real” job. I painted shoes and sold them on eBay, I made clay jewellery for a while too; But it wasn’t until I did my degree that I started to believe in my illustration work and really wanted to explore that. So, this time round I started November 2019, working with a business mentor in the months leading up to actually starting to trade.

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Ashleigh Brown Studio

Many artists don’t see themselves as business-people which I find fascinating as that is what they are! Do you see yourself as an artist or a business-person or both?

I suppose I am both, but I definitely wing it a lot of the time, haha. It took me a long time to take myself seriously as a creative (I still struggle to call myself an artist) because I saw these things as ‘hobbies’ and not as a serious business. I am just learning as I go but reading Lisa Congden books has definitely helped my creative confidence.

Winging it is a creative skill set – it’s all about evolving, being resilient, adaptable, entrepreneurial – professional at winging it right here! So tell me about your creative space – Do you have a studio? Where do you design?

I have a second bedroom in my flat which is my little creative haven. It’s a good job, its small because I would fill whichever size room I had with supplies. Hoarder over here!

I go through periods of hoarding before chucking too many things in the bin and regretting it. Tell me about your products – what do you sell and make?

I sell cards, prints and digital printables that people can print at home as well as stationery and stickers. I have a huge list of things I want to make and sell and I am gradually adding new products to the shop. You can visit HERE to view and purchase!

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Ashleigh Brown Studio

I know you take commissions – what type of work do you normally get?

I am currently working on an exciting project illustrating a page for a positive baby book! I get a lot of quote print requests and some custom cards too. I also did an illustration for a dog charity book. I’d love to work on more book related projects as this is something of a passion of mine.

I’ve just started a Silent Book Club – ohh book lovers! I first fell in love with your watercolour work (crazy cat lady right here!) – can you tell me a bit about that?

Thank you so much! I started doing some pet portraits during my degree and this was during the new craze of internet cats; this gradually turned into me just doing random illustrations of cats in jumpers. I love combining simple watercolour with ink and then adding detail like with the jumpers.

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Ashleigh Brown Studio

Cats in jumpers…. We are friends for life! Do you ever make art just for you? If so, what types of art do you make?

I do and it’s very therapeutic! But it’s tough once you get into the business mindset, everything becomes a potential product and even things I just did for me have ended up in the shop sometimes. I did the Frida Kahlo portrait just for me and I ended up loving it so added to the shop. I am loving exploring with portraits right now as it’s something I’ve never had the confidence to do before. I also did a Marilyn Monroe one which I need to play with digitally.

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Ashleigh Brown Studio

Do you find it hard to balance making to sell and keeping the creative love and flair going?

Honestly, no. I love what I do so much. Every day feels like I’m a kid in a toy shop; noting down ideas and playing round with concepts. The hardest part is working towards a goal and feeling that sense of accomplishment as I can tend to go off on tangents and not every idea works or is suitable for the shop. Some days I have little to no motivation (especially right now) but I have learned to accept that; I realise that not every day has to end with new products to list.

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Ashleigh Brown Studio

Where do you seek inspiration from for your design work and typography choices?

Pinterest is a huge source of inspiration for me but also Instagram. I have curated my Instagram feed so that it is filled constantly with positive messages and beautiful art and interiors. This means even when I scroll mindlessly that inspiration is leaking into my brain and leaves little room for negative voices.

I love to take inspiration from different genres of art and design; right now I am obsessed with soap makers. There are CRAZY beautiful bars of soap on Instagram haha! I also love seeing the slabs of clay people design to make into jewellery. As well as beautiful weave and embroidery. I like to be influenced by many creative paths.

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Ashleigh Brown Studio

A lot of your products/prints embody the “positivity movement” on social; it has been a mindset life line during COVID-19 for me – do you follow any other creative accounts by artists/creatives/makers that you’d suggest we check out?

I love positivity. Like you say it’s super important; especially in this time, where we are either alone and probably lonely or trapped with family under our feet at all times. Everybody is working through stuff right now. I love Stacie Swift, @blessthemessy, the sad ghost club, @lettershoppe, @thecosmicfeminist… I could go on forever haha

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Ashleigh Brown Studio

You are smashing it on Instagram with your product photography set up – how did you come up with your on-brand scenes, props, visual merchandising etc?

Haha! Thank you. It was actually a total accident; I love pastels so normally work with some sort of pastel palette in my work. I bought some polka dot tissue to wrap orders and discovered it went really well with my colours. Then when I decided to buy some back drops, I picked those colours and patterns to keep it all tied together. The props I use have just accumulated over the years really, I did buy the peace hand from Tiger, especially for photos but aside from that I just grab yellow and pink things to tie my colours in. Told you I am WINGING it 😀

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Ashleigh Brown Studio

You’re across multiple platforms selling your products – can you tell me which ones you use and which ones you’d recommend?

My big plan was to be a multi-platform business goddess. HA! But I honestly haven’t had time to dedicate to most of the platforms yet. I want to have multiple income streams eventually. Right now Etsy is my main one and the main focus. But as many people know, Etsy is adding more rules and regs and more fee’s all the time so I do want to have a stand-alone website too. I am working on this. I love society 6 and definitely need to work on my shop there too. I’d love to find a washi tape printing place so I can do my own line of washi too. So many ideas.

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Ashleigh Brown Studio

Said like a true creative – sometimes when I shut my eyes – the eyes are like screaming white noise and colours in my brain! So many of them! You’ve recently just launched – any hints and tips for creative product businesses/individuals starting out?

Honestly, just show up every day, even if it’s just a little progress each day. It gets you closer to your dreams and goals. Make lists, tick stuff off, even the tiny stuff.

A bit of REAL question – but I have to ask it! How has COVID-19 effected your business (and you!) and how have you responded?

It has been up and down. The first few weeks were hard and very quiet; this was actually good because I could barely function. I had a weird time coming to terms with this whole thing. Now it’s sort of got back to normal, I have off days personally but I just allow myself that. I have a chronic illness so I am used to pacing myself with these things.

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Ashleigh Brown Studio

I’ve really struggled to engage my creative brain during lock down – I require space to walk and get creative in person, societal consumption and absorbing things from inspiration around me, triggers my creativity  – have you felt more or less creative in lock down? What’s your process like getting into the creative zone?

At first, I had a total mental block. I was seeing all these creatives using this new found time to create amazing things and I felt completely broken. But as time went on, I just treated myself as kindly as possible. I listened to music, read some books, watched my favourite films, baked some treats… This past week has been another hard one. I have had the block again but this time I am planting new plant babies and catching up with friends on zoom. My coping mechanisms have been plentiful and there definitely isn’t just one thing I keep doing.

Instead I keep mixing up my routines and tasks. Also, my monthly Gousto box has been a god send. It has kept me busy in the kitchen and been a nice reminder to nourish my body with good food when all I want is to eat ice cream and chocolate.

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Ashleigh Brown Studio

I know it’s really hard to think of right now – but what are your aspirations for your business/practice longer term?

Growth and expansion! I have a little list of huge goals that I want to accomplish on my wall as a reminder of where I am heading. I want to expand my range of paper goods, I want to get work published in some books, I want to sell in lovely local arty shops and galleries. And in the meantime I just keep working through my to do list!

That list never does end though! Anything else you want to tell me about?

I’m currently working on new cards which will be slightly different to the ones I offer now. Also working on some party goods, banners, cake toppers etc. My shop is just evolving constantly!

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Ashleigh Brown Studio

You can check out Ashleigh’s shop and social by following the link HERE! I am so excited to see Ashleigh’s business adventure unfold and creativity develop! There is something magical about speaking to a creative at the beginning of their current chapter – opportunities and lushness a plenty!

Thank you Ashleigh!

Until next time Culture Vultures xx

What is a curator? What do they do? I interviewed The Biscuit Factory’s curators to find out!

Curators are defined by The Oxford Dictionary as “the keepers or custodians of a museum or other collection”…. But what does that actually mean? Who are they, what do they do, why are they important to important to museums, galleries, heritage centres and the creative and cultural sector…..? I honestly believe the majority of folks out there have no idea what curators do and as a profession, as it’s not front facing to the public and a lot of what they do is behind closed doors – even in the cultural sector, their role can be perceived quite mysterious, there is a lot of misunderstanding and (in my opinion) there is often a bit of a disconnect between artists and curators.

Over recent years, the words “curate”, “curation” and “curator” have all be absorbed into popular culture and are so overused to the point of diluting their meaning. Folks now “curate” displays, a sandwich, a playlist…. The overuse of the word is a weeee bit of a trigger for me to go on a rant (understatement of the century – but we all have our burdens to bear)……you did not “curate” a sandwich, you simply made.a.decision.

So as part of my mission to shine a light on curators in general and what they do, I thought I’d reach out to The Biscuit Factory curators and see if they would be up for a Culture Vulture interview. The Biscuit Factory is the UK’s largest independent commercial art, craft & design gallery set in the heart of Newcastle’s cultural quarter of Ouseburn and one of my favourite galleries – I love the variety of work displayed – it’s full of colour and very different types of art and interiors. If you haven’t visited yet or haven’t for a while, it’s a must visit – it’s obviously closed right now due to COVID-19 but will be open once more in the future. You can check out The Biscuit Factor online gallery here to see the artists and art works they have on their books.

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The Culture Vulture at The Biscuit Factory – photo credit Marion Botella

I was delighted that the curators accepted, it can be quite scary Mary to have a stranger come in and question your work and processes – so I was prepared for the “no”.  But I got a big fat yes and I had the pleasure of spending a few hours with them (they were so lovely and lush!) asking all my questions…..and believe me, I had a lot thanks to my question call out on my social channels from my fellow Culture Vultures. Consequently, it was less of an interview and more of a creatively curious interrogation (my Line Of Duty obsession, has made me an EXCELLENT interrogator….”Mother of God..!”). But we did have a lush chat and strayed away from curator talk into debating creative careers and opportunities…..

So here we go, an interview The Biscuit Factory curators; Sam Waters, the 3D curator, Sam Knowles – 2D curator and Mika Browning – jewellery curator; this is a long LUSH interview, so buckle up and it’s perfect for your lock down reading.

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The Culture Vulture at The Biscuit Factory – photo credit Marion Botella

The Culture Vulture – Right, let’s start with some intros for my readers and followers…  

Sam Waters – 3D Curator: My name is Sam Waters; I’m the 3D curator at The Biscuit Factory and I have responsibility for sourcing, managing and displaying the items which fall within the 3D product group here. Things like sculpture, ceramic, glass and furniture; basically stuff which is not wall based, although occasionally wall based too. I also look after the cards for the gallery and a few other sort of ancillary things. I’ve been here since 2010 so coming up to ten years.

Before this I was very briefly at another local gallery which doesn’t exist anymore called the Artworks Galleries where I did a mixture of things and event space things predominantly. Before that I was a self-employed copywriter and photographer. And that’s about it.

Sam Knowles – 2D curator: My name’s Sam Knowles, I’m the 2D curator which means I’m in charge of paintings, prints and photography; the bigger part of that by far is the paintings and prints. I spend my time sourcing and inviting people to the gallery, managing their artwork, suggesting what comes here and what might sell the best, cataloguing it when it arrives, displaying it, looking after work in the store rooms that’s not currently on show, making sure all the stock is as it needs to be, putting on displays, making sure the gallery is constantly sort of replenished, should anything sell or be moved or sent back to artists and being the person to get that work ready should anyone want to collect stuff either having been sold or being returned to them for other exhibitions elsewhere.

I’ve been here since 2007; I originally started as a gallery assistant, then took on photography which used to be a bigger part here with a lot of graduate exhibitions. Now I spend most of my time in charge of paintings and prints and beyond that I’ve got some responsibility for how the gallery physically looks in terms of wall colouring and floor layout.

Mika Browning – jewellery curator: I’m Mika Browning, the jewellery curator and I’m quite new; I’ve been here for a year now. I look after all the jewellery that comes in and the display; it’s quite interesting for me because before this I’d been self employed as a jeweller myself for quite a long time, so I’ve kind of stepped to the other side.

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The Culture Vulture at The Biscuit Factory – photo credit Marion Botella

The Culture Vulture: With you looking after three different departments within one gallery space, how do you all work together and collaborate as curators?

Sam Knowles – 2D curator: It can be ad hoc coming together and collaborating. Often we won’t be totally aware of what each other’s booked in but when we’re putting a show together, we’ll make sure that things complement each other.

When we have an open call out like the recent Contemporary Young Artist Award 2020; we will go through the submissions together to pick out submissions to be a part of the exhibition – we had about 1200 submissions from all over the world and we worked together to display the work and shared the load.

But a lot of the time, we’re just in our own departments, getting in our own work; but once the work is here, we realise there’s common ground and if it will work together. There can be any number of reasons why one piece of art can go with another; its subject or colour or style or just the sort of person we think it might appeal to, even if the work itself is nothing like each other. That process tends to be something that happens once we are all actually out on the gallery floor, putting work together, working with what we have and often feeling our way through things.

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The Culture Vulture at The Biscuit Factory – photo credit Marion Botella

The Culture Vulture: You mentioned the Contemporary Young Artist Award 2020 open call out, how do you decide which pieces of art are included in an exhibition shortlist or “make the cut”?

Sam Knowles – 2D curator: Well, ultimately it comes down do our knowledge, experience and what we like, which I appreciate is very hard to unpick and very subjective. We display work because we think it is interesting and to attract people to visit the gallery.

But a key decider is if we think it’s got artistic merit in how it was made and as we are a commercial gallery, we have to think whether or not it might appeal to someone to purchase or be of interest to someone commercially.

Sam Waters – 3D Curator: We use the same principles in choosing successful submissions from this Contemporary Young Artist Award 2020 open call out, as we do for the main exhibitions. But we probably have a little bit more leeway with this, to take a few more chances and to add a few things which are on the margins of what the main, day-to-day gallery exhibitions are. That’s kind the idea of doing this type of exhibition; we try to stretch the Biscuit Factory’s comfort zone a little bit and bring in newer and more progressive work.

We get submissions to the gallery from people wanting to exhibit on a daily basis. The basic cornerstones of the criteria we use to select pieces for all exhibitions, includes 1. the quality of the craft, regardless of what the subject is or what the medium is, 2. the standard of professionalism AND 3. the quality of presentation and the artistic vision. The Biscuit Factory is a very diverse space in terms of artwork displayed but everything that we have here, regardless of its aesthetic or its taste or its style, is of a high quality. The pursuit of quality helps us make choices when selecting work that might not be our own personal taste but we able to appreciate the quality and recognise that someone else might love it.

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The Culture Vulture at The Biscuit Factory – photo credit Marion Botella

The Culture Vulture: As a commercial gallery, how do you tread the fine line, between selecting exciting, new, experimental and groundbreaking pieces and knowing your audience and knowing what they actually want to buy?

Sam Waters – 3D Curator: We are aware of what sells and we have a sales system, allowing us to see various different product groups and how they are performing – e.g. How many pieces of sculpture have sold in any given period or how many paintings have sold by a particular artist.

So we’re aware of that and we have to be guided by that to some extent. But there’s always a balancing act between being sales driven and the ethos of trying to show a range of works, some of which you accept may not be so commercially viable and we can’t just keep selling and displaying the same things; our visitors wouldn’t want that.  In a way, progression and sales have to go hand in hand because we can’t just keep selling the same type of work or the same artist’s work because eventually the sales would dry up.

Sam Knowles – 2D curator: I think the scale of The Biscuit Factory is so big, that actually there’s room for a very wide range of work here and we can afford to take some chances and have some really different things. I think a lot of people who haven’t visited us before would be surprised how big the range of work is here – there’s some very contemporary things, some very quirky things and some very traditional things; they all sit side by side quite well, quite comfortably because they are of a certain standard.

We sometimes think we know what is going to appeal to a particular type of Biscuit Factory visitor, but we are often wrong; you know someone who you’d assume would buy a traditional landscape actually goes for the really quirky portrait, or really minimalist etching.  Or they might be interested in all three!

We take pride in the fact that there’s something here for potentially everyone; behind our doors is a whole range of work waiting to be discovered all tucked in here.

Mika Browning – jewellery curator: I think in terms of the jewellery, it’s a different sort of position because most of the jewellers that I work with are more commercial and used to that side of galleries. The jewellery is made to wear and own, rather than being looked at in a gallery, so that makes it a little bit easier for me when choosing between more ‘out there’ stuff.

Jewellers can send in more of their work as it doesn’t take up as much space; they might send a piece that’s kind of really high price and out there in design but then it can be paired with quite a lot of other pieces from a range which are really wearable, so that’s quite a fortunate position to be in as a curator that I can kind of manage to get in both.

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The Culture Vulture at The Biscuit Factory – photo credit Marion Botella

The Culture Vulture: How would you describe the role of a contemporary curator and how do you feel about the overuse of the word “curate?

Sam Knowles – 2D curator: Personally, I’m not precious about the word curator and I’ve always been aware that it’s a word that has many different applications or nuances and, people think of it in different ways.

I think it depends where you are as well because there are different kinds of curator and curation so it’s hard to be precious over; if you’re in a municipal gallery or the BALTIC or whatever it might be, even within one city there’s varying different sorts of curators, that aren’t really very comparable.

Sam Waters – 3D Curator: I guess “curate” is a word that a few years ago was quite niche and not used in the mainstream with connotations as quite highbrow. Now it’s become quite an everyday word and quite trendy, which is perhaps a bit odd.

I’ve been here a long time and what I understand of the word “curate”… or how I understand my job is not necessarily through the prism of being a curator; my job is what it is and when I read about other curators, they’re not necessarily particularly relatable positions to this one.

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The Culture Vulture at The Biscuit Factory – photo credit Marion Botella

The Culture Vulture: For me, I think it’s more… I speak to early stage career artists and creatives in the industry that would like to get into curation and I feel that misuse of the word is removing the respect of the profession and understanding of it as a legitimate career path….  

Sam Waters – 3D Curator: It’s diluted it a little bit but you can see that happening anyway through the democratisation of things through the internet and DIY elements across all creative activities. You don’t have to go to a web developer anymore to set up a website for example, you can do it yourself. I guess, the old gatekeepers who defined what a curator is and controlled the role, are dispersed a little.

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The Culture Vulture at The Biscuit Factory – photo credit Marion Botella

The Culture Vulture: Everyone’s artistic taste is subjective…. How do you feel if someone doesn’t like an exhibition you’ve curated or a piece of work you’ve put pride of place in the exhibition? Do you take it to heart?

Sam Knowles – 2D curator: We’re slightly sheltered from people’s comments about an exhibition on a day to day basis because we’re tucked away in our office getting on with the next exhibition. We do feel it more when you’ve spent 18 months talking to an artist and they’ve then made the work and it doesn’t sell as well as hoped when it gets here.

You can look back and think “maybe I didn’t quite get it right” or “maybe it was a bit too far out for here” but the fact is that sometimes, you can get someone in who you think is perfect for the people who, largely come here and it still won’t sell; that can be very frustrating and disappointing for you and for the artist.

There may be a reason you can identify but sometimes there’s no reasoning for it, it can just be a matter of bad luck or bad timing; you’ve got to get a lot of things right to sell a piece of artwork –  the right person has got to walk through the door, it’s got to be at the right time for them in their lives and head and it might be that there were hundreds of people that loved the work  but they just didn’t or couldn’t buy it. Sometimes when you send work back that hasn’t sold, days later someone will come in saying “have you still got it because I’d like to buy it?”….. A lot’s got to come together all at the right time, and sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn’t.

Mika Browning – jewellery curator: I think you can still take heart in that, even if you get something in that you love and then it doesn’t sell, it still kind of feels good that you put it out there; people might not be buying it but at least they’ve seen it. Maybe they love it but they can’t buy it for whatever reason, but it still feels nice to be able to be putting stuff like that out there.

Sam Knowles – 2D curator: And you never know what it might do for an artist’s career longer term, the fact they’ve been seen. It’s another exhibition on the artist’s CV, another opportunity to display their work and that feels rewarding.

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The Culture Vulture at The Biscuit Factory – photo credit Marion Botella

The Culture Vulture: Sometimes there’s a bit of tension between artists/creatives and curators in regards to how work is displayed and some curatorial decisions of exhibitions…..

Sam Knowles – 2D curator: I don’t feel I’ve had that very often; I guess you can’t please everyone 100% all the time. I think largely the artists, certainly in my department, are very happy to be here and we all work hard to make sure their work looks good, is well presented, nicely lit, hung straight and hung in an interesting way; I think more often than not the experience is pretty positive.

Sam Waters – 3D Curator: I’ve occasionally had artists sort of grumble about where their work is, that it’s not their first choice location in the gallery or how it’s displayed; but in most cases that is because they have not quite appreciated the scale of the place, how things are laid out and that it’s necessary to display work alongside other artists’ work – you can’t always get the degree of separation that some artists would like because we have so much work to display.  Our role is to make the best decisions overall and to bring together cohesive exhibitions on a bigger scale. Occasionally that might mean that a particular artist’s work is not 100% how they’d want it to be displayed or they might personally not like another artist’s work that is visible somewhere beyond their work in the sight line.

But, most people are appreciative that you’ve made such an effort to display their work in a sympathetic and considerate way, and are aware there’s a lot of work to juggle and that you’ve made decisions for the best presentation of the gallery as a whole.

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The Culture Vulture at The Biscuit Factory – photo credit Marion Botella

The Culture Vulture: As a curator do you go to other exhibitions and reflect on the curation?

Mika Browning – jewellery curator: I recently went to the new gallery at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, it was really inspiring!  Also, their shop space was really inspiring to me because that was where their jewellery and some ceramics were; I thought that it was beautifully curated and displayed.

Sam Knowles – 2D curator: I get out far, far less than I should; I go to the degree shows, just out of curiosity but I feel further and further away from that now with age. I’ve got young children which means my free time is at soft play and not galleries. But I do love going to art fairs, I quite like going to places where there’s a big mix of stuff rather than just going to see one person’s exhibition, but yes I’d like to go out more.

Sam Waters – 3D Curator: I don’t get out as much as I’d like for all sorts of reasons. I’m always very aware of retail art things and maybe that’s what I’m kind of more influenced by, more aware of and absorb. I’m interested in the psychology of retail and people’s subconscious decision making, so in art retail situations I am aware of trying to read how things are set up, colour temperature, sightlines, positioning of things and the way they arrange the spaces.

Sam Knowles – 2D curator: When you work here it is hard to kind of turn off working here and to just enjoy an exhibition or art fair; you’re always thinking, that person could be good in the Biscuit Factory, taking a card or photographing the work or name of artist – so it’s hard to full immerse.

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The Culture Vulture at The Biscuit Factory – photo credit Marion Botella

The Culture Vulture: What is the process of seeking out artists to exhibit at The Biscuit Factory and how far in advance do you go planning?

Sam Waters – 3D Curator: We do get submissions, some aren’t appropriate or quite right for us. The process is mostly us finding things, going out into the world and seeing it in person or online. Using Instagram as a platform is becoming increasingly prominent as a way of finding things for us.

For the big shows, we often book over a year in advance. Sometimes, if we have space available, we might find things and come across things that if the artist has stuff available, we might get work from them in very quickly. As our space is so big and we have such a variety of different ways of displaying things with a flexible display space, we can often shuffle things round and create some space.

The exhibition timeline can be anything from working with someone that we’ve worked with for ten years and booking them in two years in advance for a big show or coming across someone new and having their work here two weeks after you first saw it and everything in between. We have a big quarterly changeover but within that we have an ongoing evolution of displays and bring in new work in quite often; it always keeps the job fresh for us and hopefully fresh for our regular visitors.

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The Culture Vulture at The Biscuit Factory – photo credit Marion Botella

The Culture Vulture: What would your advice be to artists and folks who want to get their work into The Biscuit Factory? How should they approach the gallery?

Sam Knowles – 2D Curator: A lot of people want to show you the complete range of what they’re doing, so you might get a charcoal drawing of an animal, followed by a portrait, followed by a landscape and unfortunately that’s not much help to us. What we really need to see is a coherent collection from somebody, whether or not that’s the animals or landscapes. We’d prefer them to limit themselves to presenting one collection at a time. Some artists try and show you everything they’ve ever done and can do which is too much, instead of honing with focus. And we only take submissions by email.

Mika Browning – jewellery curator: It just has to be really good; what I’m looking for are pieces that are really impeccably made and that is something that takes a long time to learn and produce.  The submissions that come through, that are a goer, you know straight away; they come in with confidence, they know what they’re doing, even if they haven’t worked with galleries yet and they’re new graduates, they still have total confidence and a passion about their work. They send in good images because they know that it is worth taking a good image because it’s a good piece.

Sam Knowles – 2D Curator: Often with paintings we’ll get terrible images of the piece – it will be pixelated or they’ll be photographed next to a heavily patterned carpet in someone’s living room….

Sam Waters – 3D Curator: It seems an old-fashioned thing to say but when there are typos and spelling mistakes, it sets you on the back foot. When you’re approaching someone for the first time in a gallery, I think it’s very important to be very precise, deliberate and hit the mark in the quality of your photographs and presentation of the work. We don’t have the time when receiving hundreds of submissions to de-pixelate photos or read through paragraphs of art speak. For the best chance, it’s about focusing on editing your work down to the best stuff, investing into quality images, reflecting on the way you’re presenting yourself and your tone of voice.  Top tip: you’re much better sending 3 really strong images than those three being hidden in amongst 15 things – edit, edit, edit, be tight, be professional and get good photographs.

Mika Browning – jewellery curator: If someone comes in or sends a good email and is really nice to work with straight away, we think, “yeah I can see us working with you for 6 months and that’ll be pleasurable, easy and we know that we can rely on you”.

Sam Waters – 3D Curator: When you depend on people to fill a gallery, you’ve got to be able to communicate with artists and them communicate effectively with you, build a rapport, have confidence in them that they can deliver, be reliable and you can get along with them. That’s what we are trying to gauge from their submission.

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The Culture Vulture at The Biscuit Factory – photo credit Marion Botella

The Culture Vulture: Some pieces and collections seem to stay displayed for a while at The Biscuit Factory – how do you decide which pieces stay and form part of the next exhibition and which ones come down?

Sam Waters – 3D Curator: It’s intuition. Curator’s intuition. As much as we have stats and are led by those things, a lot of it is also instinct. We also talk to artists and get a feel for how their work has been received elsewhere and how they feel it’s performing here. For some pieces and types of work like sculpture and furniture, it really responds to having longer in the gallery and it can take customers quite a while, to finally commit to buying.

This contrasts quite vividly with paintings which generally sell best at the start and then gradually the sales will reduce. For sculptures and bigger 3D things, it’s quite a long lead-in time and there can be a period where you don’t make any sales at all. So, you just commit to it and have faith that more exposure will ultimately lead to the sale.

Sam Knowles – 2D Curator: There’s different reasons why paintings or prints might stay up; sometimes it’s because they’ve done well and you think there’s no point taking it down because hopefully it will continue to do well. Other times, like Sam says, sales might not have happened but you think “I just know there’s sales to be had from these” and it’s just a matter of time or the right person coming through the door so they deserve to be up.

It can also depend on where the work has come from, especially if they’ve delivered them from a long way away or the deal with the particular artist. Also, I feel if a particular artists work is on display too long, people become a bit blind to it so we might take down so when it goes back up again it’s fresh and people are pleased to see it back up.

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The Culture Vulture at The Biscuit Factory – photo credit Marion Botella

The Culture Vulture: What’s the weirdest or the most unusual submission to the gallery you’ve had?

Sam Knowles – 2D Curator: A sculpted portrait in a jam-jar full of their collected toenail clippings; certainly a curious way of doing self-portrait with their own DNA.

The Culture Vulture: With the state of play of the world, have you seen a move towards protesty or political artist submissions?

Sam Knowles – 2D Curator: Not so much, our submissions tend to be very much about self and people.

Sam Waters – 3D Curator: Yeah, subjects like identity, gender, feminism; I see more work addressing those issues. There’s always been a lot of that with younger people, but I think there is a little more of that now.

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The Culture Vulture at The Biscuit Factory – photo credit Marion Botella

The Culture Vulture – Thinking about another contemporary issue – the environment! Have you changed any of your practices in terms of wrapping up work and things to do with environmental concerns; has that changed how you work?

Sam Knowles – 2D Curator: We’ve all been a bit more aware of it recently, in fact we tried just recently getting some cardboard bubble wrap, like a sort of textured, cardboard wrapping.

Mika Browning – jewellery curator: Not in terms of the way the gallery works but I’m really focusing hard on trying to get ethical jewellers in, because the jewellery industry is a total nightmare; precious metals aren’t always produced ethically. We’ve had an ethical showcase, shining a light on jewellers working with recycled or Fairtrade metal and it’s my big target to get as many jewellers as possible working with that. I’ve been contacting jewellers who don’t currently work with ethical metals and telling them about suppliers, trying to get that moving here as a wider movement.

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The Culture Vulture at The Biscuit Factory – photo credit Marion Botella

The Culture Vulture: When you’re working on an exhibition install – what’s it like? What tasks are involved?

Sam Knowles – 2D Curator: Well a lot happens on email before the work is here, it can be quite involved, suggesting and selecting what work, covering a range of price points and sizes. Then the work arrives; we have to check it off and catalogue it.

Using experience and intuition, I decide which prints and paintings work well next to each other without competing too much with each other – I spread out colours. styles and sizes so that there’s some balance to what is displayed. You want to be able to see the work as opposed to some heavily laboured curating; an exhibition is about the work, so you don’t want an arrangement that looks very heavily arranged. But you do want people to see particular pieces first, especially if there’s a large piece which you think is going to be a show grabber….The exhibition install is the really fun part of our jobs, we come out of our offices and get hands on.

Sam Waters – 3D Curator: The install is a surprisingly small portion of the job though; from the outside, people might imagine that it is predominantly the job. Probably about 20% of our time is spent on actual installation of work, doing displays, thinking about the layout of the gallery, the lighting and the juxtaposition of various things. That’s the fun stuff, that’s what people see and that’s what people might imagine constitutes the job of a curator –  but the job is a lot broader than that and it’s about building relationships, a lot of administration, paperwork, analysis, managing stock, working out VAT codes…..

Mika Browning – jewellery curator: I think that’s why we work hard to get good gallery submissions because you do so much work in the background and then it’s such a pleasure when you get really beautiful work in and you can take loads of pleasure in putting it on display.

Sam Knowles – 2D Curator: It can sometimes feel exciting when something’s arrived, you can forget for a while that it’s not just for you personally. For a short while, it’s like Christmas, unwrapping the “presents” and that is a nice feeling.

Sam Waters – 3D Curator: And when putting the work up, you start to get a sense of the possibilities and the gallery that you’re putting the work into is kind of ever changing. A lot of the displays aren’t really planned per se in advance so it’s about thinking on your feet; that’s quite energising sort of thrilling.

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The Culture Vulture at The Biscuit Factory – photo credit Marion Botella

The Culture Vulture – I imagine it being like…..remember the 90s programme Itsa Bitsa, where they had loads of art materials and then they’d go as a collective, pick all the stuff out and then it would all be like chaotic and then they’d create something collectively mint out of the chaos…

Sam Knowles – 2D Curator: We have two weeks of full-time install for each quarterly show and we’re just on the gallery floor. There can be trollies of paintings going up and down, things propped against walls, boxes of jewellery, boxes of ceramic, whatever it might be and we try to keep it all clean because we don’t close; we’re open to the public. There is a moment where everything is in some state of flux and change and then somehow, normally with five minutes to go before everyone turns up for the preview, it suddenly all looks rather nice and it’s weird.

Sam Waters – 3D Curator: It is weird how often really interesting displays come out of thin air and I would love to say that it was all very planned; may be at some level it is!  But also, twenty new painting deliveries might arrive at once, I might get twenty to thirty ceramic and sculptures and that’s all got to be arranged into the gallery in a coherent way that does the best for all those artists, you don’t necessarily have the fine details of that worked out but you’ve got a few days to curate it and out of that “something” happens! It just comes together in a way which is beautifully surprising and quite satisfying,

We are always too exhausted to really appreciate the exhibition at the end of the install.  The hour before the quarterly preview, we’re always generally still running around, polishing things and doing labels but there is always suddenly a moment of calm when I go “oh that’s come together and it looks pretty… pretty good and I really like how that sits with that.”

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The Culture Vulture at The Biscuit Factory – photo credit Marion Botella

The Culture Vulture: Pre-lock down – were there any current art trends or futures trends that are impacting and influencing how you select work?

Mika Browning – jewellery curator: I guess, social media is changing how you select work because you don’t necessarily need to go… I can get a jeweller in from the other side of the country but I don’t need to go see it. Some people are getting really good at promoting their work online I think that’s something that’ll happen more.

Sam Knowles – 2D Curator: Trends can be very subtle; like the colours of frames people choose or the fact that people change from making rectangular work to square work and all those things are subtly moving around all the time.

The Culture Vulture: I’m all about championing that there are so many routes into creative industries. Can you tell me what you studied and any advice you have for future creatives who would like to embark on a creative career path?

Mika Browning – jewellery curator: I studied jewellery and silversmithing in Edinburgh, so I do have a relevant degree. Then I was self-employed as a jeweller for a long time and then I had a small gallery space on the west coast of Scotland, where I got into the curating side of things!

I did really love doing my degree but if you’re interested in jewellery making, I would totally recommend going and doing an apprenticeship. Art college is great for concept and community but going to work with a traditional jeweller and getting that basis of skills will just set you up.

Sam Waters – 3D Curator: I have a degree in contemporary photographic practice from Northumbria and then I have an MA in Fine Arts Practice from Northumbria.

Advice for breaking into professional creative industries…… go out and make as many connections as possible, be open to things, attend things and broaden your horizons in any way possible. Advice from an art practice side, I’d say the same really and I think, just get good, in terms of making art!  I think a lot of people aren’t resolute or rigorous enough in getting good and people want… I guess people want to be famous, they want to be in galleries, they want to make money and obviously there’s pressures to be all of those things socially and economically but that can get in the way of building your own voice, which ultimately could be the foundation to your success. Some people want to shortcut that.

Sam Knowles – 2D Curator: I did a degree at Kent Institute in Canterbury for a year and then I did by BA at Newcastle University. Then I was a bit clueless really, I kind of floundered around for a very long time, reading the Evening Chronicle once a week hoping to find a very high paid arts job with my name on it and not knowing where else to look!

I don’t think my degree particularly did anything much to train me up to know where to find opportunities or to successfully apply for them when I found them; I did apply for various sculpture commissions and things without really knowing how on earth to put together a professional application. I spent some time working various retail jobs and then worked for about 18 months as an art technician in a sixth form college. I moved back here and became a postman, then I got a job here as a gallery assistant. I worked hard and tried to prove myself and when other opportunities came up, I applied and progressed.

In terms of advice, I suppose advice for artists would be slightly different to advice for future curators.  As much as I like my job I didn’t really set out to be a curator so it’s very hard to give advice to set yourself up to be one; I’m sure there are more tailored qualifications that would give you more chance of becoming a curator now.

Advice in terms of being a fine artist; that it’s important to hone in on one aspect of your work, even if you do lots of other kind of work for your own enjoyment. You’ve got to have something which is identifiably you, your signature, something that can be repeated to some degree to apply to galleries and connect to a specific customer base.

I guess, as Mika says, go and get some actual, specific experience, especially if you’ve done a fine art degree as it’s just so broad ranging, wide and potentially a bit wooly. I advise you to go down one route where you can start learning the skills that make you really good at something, rather than just having some ideas and tinkering. It took me a long time to do it; I was doing various part time jobs to free up studio time to make – I’d paint a portrait one week, then get frustrated and think that the new future of me was going to be landscapes and then decide it was printing and then something else… I spent years floundering around like that with nothing much to show for it. It’s only in the last four or five years, especially through working here, that I’ve narrowed everything to one or two things and tried becoming more professional on those. My advice would be to get to that stage, quicker than I did!

Sam Waters – 3D Curator: I’d tell them to expect to have to flounder around for a bit. Perhaps now in the age of the internet. 15 years ago, when we graduated, it was a different world or it looked like a different world; it looked less easy to penetrate. Whereas now, I think people have social media and they have their own websites much more quickly;  I think that can lead to people wanting to shortcut it; but the floundering bit is character making, humbling, exposing you to failure and doubt, working out how to fit yourself into the world rather than just steadfastly standing there saying “I’ve graduated, I’ve got a website, world come at me/world fit around me”.

You’ve got to find your way into the world a little and I think it’s that, that is the source of a lot of discontent as some graduates are unprepared for the reality and competitiveness of the world.  You’ve got to expect it and understand that the world is indifferent to you at first, even if you’ve got a website and a first-class degree in Fine Art. The reality is you’re still going to have to work at it really hard; if you’re not prepared and hungry for it, it’s going to be even harder. I’m sure that we’ve all experienced difficulties in trying to find a route into the arts, with our own personal practice or professionally; but I think more than ever people are unprepared for the difficulty and it’s more competitive than ever! So you’ve got to go into an artist career with your eyes open or it can be quite damaging – the world can be quite hostile.

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The Culture Vulture at The Biscuit Factory – photo credit Marion Botella

The Culture Vulture – I do a lot of work with young people and I’m starting to see less young people choosing to go into creative industries because they are viewed as a whole mass together and that there aren’t the opportunities….if you’re looking to go into a visual arts career, then yes it’s very competitive. But if you want to go into graphic design, app development, animation, outdoor event producing, tech  – well there are LOADS of opportunities….

Sam Waters – 3D Curator: I feel like it’s irresponsible to send so many kids off to vague creative degrees and fine art degrees; many are left at the end high and dry when they finish. I had this experience in my final year of my BA, literally a couple of weeks before the end of it, we had a seminar about the outside world and how to write a letter to a gallery and it was like a one hour thing…..

Sam Knowles – 2D Curator: After a four year degree, I did not know how to apply for a commission or how to write an Arts Council grant. It’s unforgivable that you can get through that amount of degree and not know those things.

Sam Waters – 3D Curator: Some artists have no awareness of the landscape in which they’re meant to be a professional in or they are meant to be qualified and don’t know materials, don’t know the processes, don’t know what opportunities there might be or how you apply for them. It happens all the time.

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The Culture Vulture at The Biscuit Factory – photo credit Marion Botella

The Culture Vulture: It’s the same with outdoor light installation work – many aspiring outdoor sculptors/light installation makers out of University have brilliant conceptual ideas but no knowledge of the technical aspects of what it takes to make a sculpture durable outdoors and the technical aspects to deliver on a light installation….

Sam Knowles – 2D Curator:  It happens. Soon after graduating, I had this bronze commission for a school in Jarrow, a big bronze snail, I had no idea how to secure it to the ground and in about half an hour, having welded a couple of bowls, I just filled it with as much cement as I could and tried to wedge some holes into the ground. If that hadn’t worked and it actually needed to be on a stone base or welded, then I’d have been stuck. I had just had no idea at all!

The Culture Vulture: And just a final thing, I am really interesting in this “positivity” ethos at the moment on social, manifesting success and an extreme push towards “only do what makes you happy” across our whole lives – on one hand that’s brilliant but I think we’re gradually conditioning some people to forget that life is hard, that to get to where you want to be it is tough and sometimes you have to wade through a whole lot of difficult and challenging stuff…..and that’s normal and ok.

Mika Browning – jewellery curator: It’s really unrealistic.

Sam Waters – 3D Curator: Yeah, and also you might not even get there, no matter how hard you work; there’s this idea, this myth, that if you work really hard, you’ll get what you deserve.

Sam Knowles – 2D Curator:  Well we’ve all said this but our generation feels like we were told by our parents’ generation that you can naturally – unlike them, who just got a job and had to work hard at it for fifty years, that you can be anything you want to be as long as you set your mind to it but actually to become a very successful commercial artist is not attainable for most people and even if you’re trying, you’re not necessarily geared up for how much work there is involved. I’m sure there’s a lot of people of our generation, that are very frustrated that the false promise didn’t come off.

Sam Waters – 3D Curator: I think people take it on as a personal failing; whereas it is really a structural failing in a broader societal sense and also there aren’t enough opportunities for all the graduates coming out of Art School. And you know, like Sam said about his experience, you don’t really know what path it is that you’re taking and then you look back and you’ve arrived somewhere.

Sam Knowles – 2D Curator:  You just find yourself in unusual places in your life, take what comes your way and carve out your own opportunity.

Sam Waters – 3D Curator: In retrospect, it looks like there was a plan because it led you somewhere that turns out to be decent but actually it’s just a series of coincidences, circumstances, situations and chances; you find your way through it and I think people are perhaps less aware that is the reality of how it is, now more than ever. More people have bigger expectations and are fed this idea of the clear route to something; it’s pretty dubious to set people up like that.

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The Culture Vulture at The Biscuit Factory – photo credit Marion Botella

Wow – what interesting curator chat! You can check out The Biscuit Factor online gallery here to see the artists and art works they have on their books. The Biscuit Factory underpins the livelihood of over 50 staff, supports the careers of thousands of artists and attracts over 100k visitors a year into the local economy. They do not receive public funding, arts council financial support or rely on any grants to carry out work, so for the first time in their 17 year history, they are asking for support and donations. You make a donation or purchase something like a card, or lunch from their café HERE.

That’s all for now Culture Vultures. xx