Interview with Workie Ticket Theatre & Dr Alice Cree; Magnolia Walls, military lives and theatre as a means to amplify voices and demand change. #BeAWorkieTicket

Working with and celebrating unashamedly bold, brave and brilliant folks is one the reasons I set up The Culture Vulture and it’s what gets me out of bed in the morning with a spring in my step. Strong empowered women, empower women and my favourite empowered women are ones that use their power to enable, platform and amplify unheard voices. For me, it’s all about building that type of community – ecosystem over egosystem every day of the week.

One of the theatre companies that I connected with early on in my Culture Vulture journey is Workie Ticket Theatre. They caught my eye for the name Workie Ticket – being a workie ticket in the North-East means you misbehave, but progressively it’s been a really positive term that alludes to the fact you disrupt the norm, challenge convention and not afraid to speak your mind; absolutely all about that. Workie Ticket Theatre are just that – an extremely talented bunch of workie tickets, enabling stories of unheard women and their (often) everyday forms of social activism to be heard. And they continued to do just that across the pandemic, through a project Womxn Up! (more on that later!).

Ahead of Workie Ticket Theatre’s new show – Magnolia Walls at Northern Stage 24th – 25th June, I thought it was time for another Culture Vulture interview – as you all need to know about this theatre company, their ethos and amazing work – especially the Artistic Director JoJo; she’s not only a brilliantly talented human, she’s also grown into a gorgeous friend of mine.

Magnolia Walls shines a light on the impact of war and military life, based on research by Newcastle University. Set in Northumberland, this play follows the tumultuous lives of Roxie and Pen, two military wives who form an unlikely ‘Thelma and Louise’ style friendship. Drawing on interviews, focus groups, and a series of theatre-based workshops with a group of 35 military partners, ex-partners, and widows from across the country, the research sheds a light on the long-term consequences of war and military service on personal relationships between armed forces personnel and their spouses and families.

As you’d expect, the play tackles important topics such as domestic abuse, trauma, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), suicide, and racism. It also exposes the isolation and lack of community support experienced by many military spouses and partners, most of whom are women. But it does this in a very real human way, there is light within that darkness.

‘Magnolia Walls’ is based on research by Newcastle University’s Dr Alice Cree and Dr Hannah West, in collaboration with Workie Ticket Theatre CIC and funded by the Economic and Social Research Council.

It is hoped ‘Magnolia Walls’ will help start a conversation about what it really means to be a military spouse in 2022. And that is what really interested with this project – the idea that academic research, can be used to underpin a theatre show that shares the real-life experiences of military wives. Theatre becomes the creative tool to communicate and bring to life real academic research, making it meaningful, more accessible and a powerful vehicle for social change.

I can’t wait to see Magnolia Wallsthere are limited tickets left ; get them HERE – read on to hear more from Team Magnolia Walls – Artistic Director JoJo Kirtley and Dr Alice Cree from Newcastle University……

Workie Ticket Theatre Artistic Director JoJo Kirtley and Dr Alice Cree from Newcastle University

Hi both, first up – can you introduce yourself for my fellow Culture Vultures….

JoJo- I’m JoJo Kirtley, the artistic director of Workie Ticket Theatre. I write and produce plays, facilitate workshops and I’m a mam to three little workie tickets! Workie Ticket is a female-led, Tyneside-based theatre company. We provide a platform for women to have their say through drama and amplifies unheard voices and stories. My own work has been performed at big venues such as The Lowry but you can’t beat working in community centres and putting on plays above pubs.

Alice– I’m Alice Cree, I’m a researcher at Newcastle University based in the School of Geography, Politics and Sociology. My work focuses on gender and the military, particularly the use of creative methods in military research. I’m the research lead for the Conflict & Intimacy project which our play Magnolia Walls is part of.

Artistic Director JoJo Kirtley and Dr Alice Cree from Newcastle University //
photography credit: Denise Kidger

What does being a “workie ticket” mean in 2022?

JoJo – Being a ‘Workie Ticket’ in 2022 is very different to what it was when I first set up Workie Ticket in 2017. Lots has happened and the World has changed. My World has changed too; I was a mam of boys then and now I have a little girl too. I guess seeing the #MeToo movement unfold in different industries, the pandemic’s impact on women, Reclaim the Streets etc… changes everything. Seeing all that has made me want to push harder, not give up and definitely not shut up. My Grandad Joe used to call me a ‘Workie Ticket’ so I adopted this as the name to reflect the fact that I wanted to shake things up a bit; but now…. I want to shake things up A LOT.

I loved your project Womxn Up – it was such an important project and you all can access the audio plays and recordings now HERE! For those that don’t know – What was Womxn Up? and how did it come about?

JoJo – Womxn Up? was such an immense project and I am so proud of it and grateful that we got to create during the pandemic. Womxn Up? was our response to pandemic, it highlighted North-East women’s stories through a series of audio plays and real-life interviews. We also made a film called ‘Her Primal Scream’ – you can watch that HERE.

For this project, we explored the impact the pandemic has had on women at home, work, in the community, on our mental health and on our bodies. Our Womxn Up? Project consisted of three, brand-new audio response plays all inspired by our research which were written, performed, directed and produced by women from the North-East. My play was about my Nana. I wanted to explore how it must have felt for our elderly watching the World fall apart but also questioning what was going on too.

What did you learn through the Womxn Up? project and listening to the experience of all those women?

JoJo – I learned how broken we all have become because of the pandemic. Me included. I don’t think it will ever be the same again.

Although (and sadly) I expected the bullshit misogyny and the massive impact it had on women; the Handmaid’s Tale horror stories but I underestimated how tough and rough it would be for so many. That kind of broke me…

I remember interviewing these sex workers in South Shields with Lauren (Workie Ticket producer and Womxn Up? editor) and we both came out shaking our heads in disgust; these women had been treated terribly and taken advantage of by men during the pandemic.

Whilst there were many terribly sad and tragic stories that came out of our research but there were actually some lovely positives; like socially-isolated, lonely women finding connections with others online and real community champions who worked tirelessly to support others. One story, I loved, was a couple who fell in love with each other again because they got a chance to spend time together and re-engage with each other.

Well that makes my heart sing – Womxn Up? has been submitted into a museum archive – you’ve enabled these stories to have a life and place forever….

JoJo – This is going to happen this Autumn with the Feminist Archive in London which is at the Bishopgate Library. It’s exciting. I love how they don’t just want to archive our transcripts or recordings; they’re also after notebooks, photos, workshop sessions and a branded T’shirt!

A little team of Workie Tickets will be heading down South to accession the project and all that we have learned about the pandemic and its impact on women in the North-East. This will be preserved so in hundreds of years’ time…our ancestors will learn about the pandemic through our stories, Herstories.

In your opinion, how do you think the pandemic impacted womxn?

JoJo – Globally, an increase in domestic violence and sexual exploitation occurred during the pandemic …women were denied access to maternity appointments, labouring on their own, some being forced to wear masks whilst doing so. Women were being forced to miscarry on their own…just horrible situations. Family courts were taking place in homes via Zoom.  I don’t know what genius thought this was acceptable when survivors of abuse were having to zoom their abusers into their own living rooms with their children next door, most likely listening but it happened and shouldn’t have.

We heard stories from women denied contraception and sexual health appointments…they were juggling parenting, home-schooling, adapting to working from home without support in the form of childcare. Health including mental health was sacrificed while prioritising their children and family needs, loss of income, employment, wages, prospects and increased extra caring responsibilities…

It was a big step backwards for women and I think it’s only the beginning of what is to come.

The world is a difficult shit show for women’s rights at the moment – you have a little girl – what do you hope for her future?

JoJo – I hope Luna turns out to be a ‘workie ticket’ just like her Mam and gets to be who she wants to be. Most importantly, I want Luna and her friends to be able to do what they want with their bodies, without being dictated to; that would be my ideal future for them all.

Workie Ticket Luna

Tell me about Magnolia Walls – what is the piece of theatre/story?

Alice‘Magnolia Walls’ is based on 2 years’ worth of research by myself and Hannah West at Newcastle University as part of the ‘Conflict & Intimacy’ project, with funding from the Economic and Social Research Council. What we’ve been trying to do is look at the military home as a site of military violence. Exploring the question: ‘how does war impact home life and intimate relationships?’ So, what are some of the unseen, positive but also maybe not-so-positive impacts of military service on their families? What does it really mean to be the partner of someone in the forces today?

‘Magnolia Walls’ is a way of telling some of those stories and asking us to rethink some of our assumptions about military family life.

JoJo ‘Magnolia Walls’ challenges the stereotypes of the military partner and explores how home life and personal relationships are impacted by war. We wanted to set the play in the North-East so it’s set in different areas such as Blyth beach. We also wanted to create characters that represented our real military partners and came up with Roxie and Pen who form a ‘Thelma and Louise’ style friendship.

Roxie is this rocker, a self-proclaimed ‘Geordie’ Stevie Nicks and she instantly bonds with Pen the wanna-be writer, veteran and naval officer’s wife. Both have supported their husbands in their careers and choices, but now it’s time for them to shine…or rebel! We love a female rebellion!

Professional actors – Alex Tahnee and Rachel Brownstein //
photography credit: Denise Kidger

Why military partners? What is it about their voices and experience you want to explore and share?

Alice – People have always been interested in war stories, but we don’t often hear from the perspective of their military families. And when we do, those stories are very heavily politicised and geared around narratives of heroism and sacrifice. We wanted to shed a light on the kinds of experiences that we don’t usually hear about, ones that perhaps challenge or complicate our understanding of life in a military family.

I think something that is often not recognised is that militaries absolutely rely on the unpaid labour of military spouses. So that’s stuff like childcare, looking after the house and the home, but also the emotional labour of providing love and support during difficult periods of deployment.

And, because of the make-up of the armed forces, that labour is mostly undertaken by women (although of course, not exclusively!) Plus, spouses are at the very ‘front line’ when it comes to providing support for mental health problems experienced by a lot of veterans and serving members of the armed forces. Without all of that work, the military wouldn’t be able to do what they do. Effectively you’ve got this massive, complex institution that is all about state power and security, but at the root of it all, holding it all together are the (mostly) women who do it because they love their partners. Which is really interesting.

Something that I hope will come through when watching Magnolia Walls, is the diversity of experiences that our participants have had. This ranges from struggling with the expectations of being a ‘military wife’ when they have chronic health problems or disabilities, to navigating the constant presence of the military in their homes, their sex lives, their relationships with their children.

They are an amazing group of people and I really hope we have done them justice!

What do you want the audience to take away?

JoJo – I generally think they’re going to take away a lot of warmth and love from this play. But the audience will also be shocked at some of the themes we are exploring. I think you’ll all genuinely fall in love with the women who we have worked with. Essentially Magnolia Walls is a sort of love letter to them, thanking them for being so courageous when sharing their stories with us.

How are you feeling about staging the play, the first for several years due to the pandemic?

JoJo – Lucky to have the opportunity. Nervous. Fingers crossed for me.

Can you tell me about the research element of the project?

Alice – This has been a big piece of research involving nearly 40 participants who we have worked with quite intensively since the project officially started in August 2020. Hannah and I conducted 1:1 interviews with everyone, and then we had a series of about 20 theatre-based, discussion-based, and writing-based workshops that were facilitated by Workie Ticket Theatre Company.

By the end of the process, we had a HUGE amount of material; we will probably spend the next ten years publishing! The biggest piece of learning that came out of the research was that the military often has a controlling and even violent presence in the lives of military spouses – and in ways you might not immediately expect.

But you’ll have to see the play to hear more!

What is it like being a military partner in 2022 – what resources and services are available for support?

Alice – In many ways, it is the same as it has always been; very few institutions change as slowly as the military! Much of the support for partners and families is provided by charities. There is still a lot of work to be done in making sure folks can get the kind of support they really need.

JoJo – The problem is, where the funding is going and if the right organisations are receiving it. That has to be addressed too.

Tell me about the characters Roxie and Pen and their relationship? How did those characters develop?

JoJo – I was really interested in exploring female friendships as a whole and also what it was like to have friendships, that you had to give up suddenly because your family was being posted somewhere else. I remember when Alice and I had our first writing meeting and I said…we need two characters that embody the women we’ve been working with; one of them needs to kick-arse and the other one learns how to kick-arse like Thelma and Louise, so we created Roxie and Pen.

Team Magnolia Walls // photography credit: Denise Kidger

Tell me about the chorus element of the show?

JoJo – The chorus are a pre-recorded element of Magnolia Walls and are made up of our real military wives (and a husband!). Originally, the idea was for them to perform on stage but the pandemic stopped that, so we decided to fuse film and theatre together. They’re very excited to be part of the show and have spent some time rehearsing and learning performance skills. They’ve been amazing and I am so proud of them.

Alice – They are people who have been involved in the project since the beginning; people who have been so honest and brave in sharing their experiences with us. So, it’s been really amazing to see them use their own voices to tell those stories. It is very powerful.

Team Magnolia Walls & chorus // photography credit: Denise Kidger

Tell me about the creative team behind Magnolia Walls?

JoJo – We have a lush creative team and I am so proud of them.  We did the usual auditioning and recruitment.

When we appointed Corinne as Director, I was so happy. I’ve worked with her a few times before and she is one of the best directors in the North-East. There is no BS with Corinne, she cracks on and gets things done. Just the way I like it.

I also had to take on extra producers to assist me -Ashlea Sanderson and Lauren Sanderson who have been ace. We have a consultant Helen-Marie who is a real military wife too. We have Simon Cole designing our lights and film-wise we’ve been working with the Young Women’s Film Academy.

Our professional actors are Alex Tahnee and Rachel Brownstein who came to an audition we held in April. There was a spark between them, so I knew they had to be our Pen and Rox. We are also really excited to be working with The Set Guise who are creating our ‘magnolia wall’.

Team Magnolia Walls // photography credit: Denise Kidger

What do you hope happens as a result of the show? What do you want the legacy of this work to be?

JoJo – I want the women to feel empowered and listened to. I hope we can turn this into a film and maybe tour the play. We’ve also talked about a festival…

Alice – We also ultimately want people in positions of power and influence to sit up and listen. Military partners and spouses put up with a lot of shit, and they are not getting the support that they need. I hope that the play will help move that conversation forward.

Team Magnolia Walls // photography credit: Denise Kidger

This piece digs into military home lives and the impact of war and being in the military has on the day to day. Across the pandemic and lockdowns, we can all relate to feeling that work and the impact of pandemic stress, impacted our homelives – like a pressure cooker. That’s how I imagine, it must feel all the time for military partners – rollercoaster of emotions, trying to do your fucking best and hold the shit together, feeling isolated but stuck together at moments of stress and so much more. This makes this piece relatable and relevant to all.

Alice – I think that’s absolutely right. Our participants also said a few times that the pandemic forced people to get comfortable with plans being changed or cancelled at the last minute – something that military spouses are very familiar with! What’s also really interesting is that in the pandemic, we’ve seen the ‘front line’ take a different shape, and suddenly it became doctors, nurses, paramedics, hospital cleaners and so on who were the ones risking their lives to keep us safe. And I think our research and the play both potentially raise really interesting questions about what the long-term impacts of that might be for NHS workers and their families. Our participants talked not only about how their partners changed after traumatic military experiences, but also their own lingering kind of ‘PTSD’ attached to difficult periods of deployment or their spouses going off to war. Is that going to be the same for the families of doctors and nurses?

Time will tell, I suppose.

You hinted at an upcoming project you got a small pot of funding for – can you tell us more?

JoJo – We have two new projects. One of them is an extension of the Womxn Up? project. It’s called #AllMenCan and aims to engage boys and men to fight against VAWG.

And the other is our ‘Drama for Wellbeing’ programme which I started in 2019; pre-pandemic and delivered a lovely session to a group of female veterans. It’s a fusion of a programme I delivered years ago for Manchester Adult Education, a self -care course and drama activities. Our launch is in my hairdressers- All That Sass. Bringing drama to people in unexpected places. I want to show how you can use drama to support better mental health and self-care.

Then what’s next for you and Workie Ticket – do you have another project on the horizon?

JoJo – Always! We hope to maybe look at the female veteran project again and we’re working on another bid to explore what it means to be a ‘Geordie’ woman in 2022.

Anything else you want to tell me about?

JoJo – I am really proud of Magnolia Walls and the work we have done to make it happen. It’s been an immensely tough year for me personally and to get to this point is very overwhelming. I promised myself during the pandemic that I’d never take this job for granted so I’m happy at whatever outcome. I’m lucky to have had this opportunity and can’t thank Alice enough for being so encouraging and supportive throughout this process.

Thank you JoJo and Alice – fascinating interview and I can’t wait to see it. There are still some limited tickets for Magnolia Walls at Northern Stage – you can nab them via: https://northernstage.co.uk/whats-on/magnolia-walls/ Friday 24th June, Newcastle University welcomes the audience to a Q & A after the performance. Friday show is live captioned and Saturday show has BSL interpreter.

(#AD) What to do with 24hrs in Co.Durham….the choice is endless!

My partnership with #Durham2025 has been going down a storm – seems like you Culture Vultures are all cheering Co. Durham as a finalist in the running for UK City of Culture, just as much as I am. I’m so excited about what this could mean for the county, but regardless of win or lose, it has shone a light on the lush spaces, places, faces and happenings across Co. Durham. I have officially fallen back in love with Durham – it has so much to offer and if you haven’t visited for a while, well the Summer months are a perfect time to do just that.

The Culture Vulture at Bowes Museum // photo credit: Marion Botella

So, if you’re planning a day out or a staycation in Durham – I thought I’d pull together a little blog post to give you some inspiration and Culture Vulture suggestions of how I’d spend 24hrs in Durham.

The Culture Vulture at Gala Theatre enjoying the BFG exhibition // photo credit: Marion Botella

Durham has real energy about it at the moment and during my visits across the county, the best thing was the people (lush) and strong sense of community but it was also interesting to see whilst the infamous attractions, architecture, history and uniqueness remains, there have been some redevelopments, new buildings have popped up, creative communities thriving, art murals and areas of the County have had a bit of a glow up, whilst maintaining the character and integrity. Certainly feels like a new chapter for Co.Durham.

Durham City Centre // photo credit: Marion Botella

So where should you go on your visit to Co.Durham, I hear you ask, well I’d first suggest you check out my listicle posts – that might give you some inspiration as a starter for ten whilst you’re planning  your trip.

For Top Indies Durham City Centre click HERE

For Top Picks of Attractions to Visit click HERE

For My Review of Bowes Museum click HERE

For Top Picks of Places to East click HERE

For Top Picks of Summer 2022 events click HERE

For My Review of Ushaw Historic House, Chapels & Gardens click HERE

There are LOADS in those listicles – you could spend a week in Co.Durham exploring and enjoying using those.

The Culture Vulture in Durham City // photo credit: Marion Botella

My other suggestions and some of my go-to things to do when I visit Durham are:

#1 Take in a Riverside walk

I go to Durham to walk along the River Wear often in all the seasons – it’s beautiful, it’s pretty flat, I feel so relaxed and it’s like an oasis escape mentally during the hustle and bustle of the daily grind. I used to visit when I was younger and go walking with my Dad, lots of very happy memories.

The Culture Vulture walking along the riverside // photo credit: Marion Botella

#2 Hire a boat

Whilst you’re walking along the river, you may take inspiration from the rowers training and decide that you want to hire a boat yourself. I’ve certainly done that. This is a really fun way to spend some time with pals and partners – it’s only great as long as you share the rowing, as it gets tiring! I laughed so much last time I did this; my pal and I were gloriously TERRIBLE.

Durham Riverside // photo credit: Marion Botella

#3 Visit Durham Cathedral

I virtually think it’s a physical impossibility to visit the city centre and not go to Durham Cathedral. It just has to be done – I must have visited close to 100+ times and it never gets old. It’s beautiful and I thoroughly recommend booking a slot to climb the 325 steps up the central tower, I did that a few years back and loved it!

The Culture Vulture at Durham Cathedral // photo credit: Marion Botella

#4 Visit Durham Castle

Love a castle! The thing I love most about Durham Castle, is that students who live in the castle (yes you read that right), actually have to give public castle tours to tourists, as part of the agreement of living there. The tours are actually really good, tour guides hugely knowledgeable and it still makes me giggle thinking that those students have the biggest flex for life – “I lived in a castle once”.

Durham Castle // photo credit: Marion Botella

And if you’re thinking of staying overnight, there are two magnificent suites available to book and you can take breakfast in a medieval hall ahead of getting back to exploring the city.

Durham Castle // photo credit: Marion Botella

#5 Potter Around

Sounds like a cop out – but actually, it’s my favourite thing to do in Durham. Take in the streets, their character, enjoy the cobbles, seek out indie cafes and shops, look out onto the river from the bridges. There are 12 castles and historic houses in and around Durham, alongside many churches – so it’s just lovely and it’s such a special place.

The Culture Vulture Pottering in Durham // photo credit: Marion Botella

#6 Indoor Market

I really hate that we’ve knowledge down and got rid of so many markets across UK cities – it’s not only a fun way to shop and usually a treasure trove, but it’s also one of the most affordable way for small businesses to get their start. If you want to support small business or shop local, indoor markets are a great way to do it. And Durham Market Hall has such an eclectic mix of stalls and stands, I was in love with it.

The Culture Vulture in Durham Market Hall // photo credit: Marion Botella

#7 Palace Green Library

This is a brilliant gallery space, you folks know I’m a big art gallery lover, but I also love museums and this space seems a perfect combination of both. Every time I visit Palace Green Library, I learn so much (my most recent visit about the Romans!) and their exhibitions are always really well put together.

The Culture Vulture at Palace Green Library // photo credit: Marion Botella

#8 Head to Barnard Castle

It’s a lush market town in the Durham Dales –the type of town that makes you love living in the UK, like out of a film! It has a great selection of B&Bs, you’ve got Bowes Museum walking distance away from the market square, lots of indie shops and cafes and whilst you’re there, why not get a famous eye test!? Apparently people drive far and wide to Barnard Castle for them! Oh, and make sure you visit Ruby & D, it’s a lovely shop selling unique vintage items, interiors, art and more and Raby Castle isn’t too far away by car….

Bowes Museum // photo credit: Marion Botella

#9 Head to Bishop Auckland

Bishop is having a total revival – across my partnership with #Durham2025, I’ve met so many artist folks from Bishop, heard about creative projects in Bishop, folks recommending Bishop as an exciting bubbling hub of happenings. So of course, I’m all over it. The Auckland Project brings together several venues and attractions; history, grand house, galleries, gardens, museums, visitor’s centre and a tower, meaning that Bishop Auckland is a full-on day out.

Mining Art Gallery (part of Auckland Project) in Bishop Auckland

#10 Head to Seaham

I always forget that Co.Durham has a gorgeous world renowned coastline. Stretching 14km, the coastline is home to incredible views and the cliff-top harbour town of Seaham. This coastal town is has picturesque views, a lovely habour to walk along, seaside indies galore and tasty ice cream! People travel from all over to visit this beach and hunt for sea glass – there’s an abundance available with each tide thanks to Seaham being home to the UK’s largest bottle works between 1850-1921. And that’s not all, Seaham also has its very own food festival which this year is happening on 6th & 7th August; perfect excuse to visit for some lush scran by the sea!

Seaham beach and coast

#11 Old Cinema Launderette

It’s an iconic must visit culture vultures; by day it is a retro-chic, professional, family-run launderette, offering washing, ironing and dry-cleaning services to customers in and around the Durham area with a canny café! And by night, it’s one of the most unique and intimate music venues with a programme of live music and a bar. It’s just a beaut and has to be visited to be believed – so go visit The Old Cinema Launderette.

Old Cinema Laundrette gig

#12 Durham by Night

I’m often visiting Durham at night for events or to eat, and Durham at night is so magical. Everything you see in the day, just hits different at night – especially in the warmer nights, when you can enjoy a stroll through the city and stop at riverside bars with outdoor seating. If I’m staying over in Durham, I tend to stay at The Town House as a treat, it’s a beautiful boutique hotel, outdoor hot tub, yummy breakfast and I love the décor – very Instagrammable. And if you like Durham at night and lights, well keep an eye out for one of my favourite North-East events, Durham Lumiere – a light festival across Durham city centre with light art installations and projection. It happens every couple of years, so next one will be 2023 or 2024.

Durham Cathedral at night // photo credit: Marion Botella

Well then, that’s it – that’s your lot from me and all my suggestions! If you’re planning a visit to Co.Durham – This Is Durham is their tourism website and has lots of information on there so you can dig even deeper beyond my recommendations.

The Culture Vulture at Durham Cathedral // photo credit: Marion Botella

Durham. No Ordinary County.

Part of Culture Vulture x Durham 2025 campaign partnership.

Durham is now one of just four locations shortlisted to be UK City of Culture 2025; title announced late May.

Find out more & back the bid at Durham2025.co.uk

#Durham2025 #lovedurham

Interview with artist Wild Lamb – Paige Livingstone – let the lass eat cake!

There is nothing more exciting than finding out that two of my favourite artists are collaborating and doing something lush……Slutmouth and Wild Lamb Illustration have been collaborating in the most perfect way over the last few months.

Slutmouth – Bettie Hope; Love her beyond words and her work – I’m a total Instagram fan girl over this lass. Her mixed media work explores sex, sexuality, gender inequality, identity, queerness, feminism, rejection of societal taboos in a really playful, empowering, interesting way. I’ve interviewed Bettie before and you can read that HERE!

Slutmouth – Bettie Hope’s work at Let Us Eat Cake at Pineapple Art Gallery

Wild Lamb – Paige Livingstone; I discovered her work as always, via the good old ‘gram! Her work is a fierce visual treat, bold, colourful, collage, illustration, exploring portraiture in such an iconic way and her style evolves – her work like Bettie’s, has a touch of expect the unexpected. In Paige’s artworld, any and all folx identifying as women can be and are icons! At least, that’s what I feel looking at her work. Oh and she loves cats. So….. winner for this crazy cat lady.

Paige Livingstone

So Slutmouth and Wild Lamb have been collaborating together on a project called Let Us Eat Cake and is all about celebrating and exploring all aspects of what it means to be a “woman” and of course, all the wonderful female identifying creatives in our lovely North East.

The project was supported by Teesside’s lush creative gallery space Pineapple Black and took the form of an online exhibition, which was just fantastic. I sat down to take it in thinking about 30mins would do it, and 3hours later, I was still sat looking at each piece and looking up the artist. The digital exhibition featured work from local, National and International female identifying artists and visually explored contemporary issues important to and effecting women today. The digital exhibition was Pineapple Blacks most popular online exhibition with over 1000 virtual visitors – that’s an amazing figure! You can view the digital exhibition HERE.

They’ve now launched the physical Let Us Eat Cake exhibition at Pineapple Black and it’s available to view from now (started on 25th June) until 23rd July (last day). And I couldn’t recommend it more! This new physical exhibition, featuring some different work to the online exhibition, includes local, national and international female-identifying artists of a working-class background, is underpinned with the passion and purpose to create an empowering platform and to inspire a new, forward-thinking generation of artists.

Let Us Eat Cake exhibition poster

The exhibition and wider project title is, of course, a play on the phrase commonly attributed to Marie Antoinette; Let Them Eat Cake, which signified how disconnected she was with the realities of the everyday people in her power. What I took from this exhibition connected with that symbolic moment; that many, when they think of feminism or women, are so unaware and disconnected from the gender inequality that exists across the full intersection and the contemporary issues that impact women.

I had the pleasure of reading some research recently, in which male business leaders, expressed views that gender inequality was not an issue and that women were treated “the same” as them. Such sweeping statements, very much, reminded me of that Marie Antionette “Let Them Eat Cake” moment…..

What Let Us Eat Cake does so brilliantly in this exhibition, is invite you to step inside the world of women, celebrate it, connect with it, engage with intersectional issues and see the world through the individual artist’s lense. It’s also an empowered cry/demand to be seen and this exhibition, provides a platform for that and for each artist to be celebrated.

As you can tell, I bliddy love the exhibition and LOVE Bettie and Paige for pulling it altogether (go see it!). I thought it was a lush opportunity to interview Paige and find out all about the exhibition, her work and to finally get to the bottom of why women are pants are bigging themselves up?! Read on…. you won’t be disappointed.

So here we go, an interview with artist, lush creative and one half of Let Us Eat Cake – Paige Livingstone // Wild Lamb Illustration.

Paige Livingstone

Hi Paige, please introduce yourself for my fellow Culture Vultures?

I’m Paige Livingstone; I work under the name ‘Wild Lamb’ and I’m a collage artist /illustrator and co-curator of ‘Let Us Eat Cake’. I graduated from Northern School of Art in 2019. You can check out my work on my Instagram page.

How would you describe your practice and what you do?

I am a multi-media visual artist; my work and style tend to change slightly depending on whatever project I am currently working on. I don’t ever want to be limited by styles but I’m currently enjoying painting and starting to move a little bit away from collages. They aren’t something I will ever completely stop but I have just fell in love with getting messy and back to basics which I haven’t done in years. Lockdown has definitely been, a good time for me to pick up the paints again.

Paige Livingstone’s work

Were you creative as a mini?

I’ve always been creative; as a kid I would draw every day and scrapbooked a lot. I think is where my love of collage has come from.

Tell us about your journey into the creative industries?

I still feel like I am still just starting that journey! I’m showing my work in exhibitions and curating my own. I’m also working on commissions from both individuals and businesses and my “bread and butter” is selling prints. To be honest it has been such a weird couple of years, I’ve decided to set myself more personal projects and try and carve my own way, it can be a bit disheartening applying for the few and far between creative jobs here in the North East; so at the moment I’m focusing on my own personal development and working for myself.

Paige Livingstone’s work

Yasss – love the focusing on your professionally! So, tell me about your work? What inspires you?

My collage work tends to be inspired by a lot of the old renaissance style paintings; religious iconography, mythology and astrology. I like to use a lot of symbolism in my collages and in a way there’s a lot more depth to them than my illustration work. When it comes to my illustration work, I’m all about just getting the pictures out of my head and on to the paper. And really, there’s no deeper meaning other than “yeah that looks cute” or that was what I was thinking about at the time.

How would you describe your art style?  

I think my collage work is thoughtful; it can sometimes be more tongue in cheek and fun but with a lot of feminist undertones. My illustrations I would describe as some kind of kawaii and creepy cute cartoon chaos.

Paige Livingstone’s work

More chaos the better; your work tends to come in collections – different themes and styles. Tell us a bit more about that….

Yes, I really love doing usually about 12 pieces to a collection. I don’t know why, but when I look at one piece of work it never feels finished until its surrounded by others. I’m also a bit of a hoarding maximalist so the more the merrier but I think 12 or 6 depending on the work and then I feel the collection is complete; I get a buzz out of seeing the whole collection together.

Paige Livingstone’s work

I really love your collage work – do you plan them or do just happen organically in the moment?

I do sit and think about them, whilst I’m doing them, but I don’t plan per se. If I’m doing am analogue one, I might cut out lots of interesting parts and arrange them after. If there’s a theme, as there is with my icons or horoscope collection, I’ll think about it and I’m going to spend time searching for images based on that theme.

Paige Livingstone’s work

I love the contemporary characters, the cats, the retro vibes…….and even the clowns! Can you tell me about those…why do they feature quite prominently in your work?

I absolutely love clowns, dolls and puppets! I’m starting to realise how many people are actually terrified by them (haha!), so I might have a job selling my clowns. I’ve always loved the aesthetic of the circus; anything gaudy and tacky. The retro vibes are probably just my own nostalgia seeping into the work, I think nostalgia is a very powerful tool in reaching your audience.

And cats…….. well everyone loves cats or at least they should!

Paige Livingstone’s work

So let’s more onto your work with Bettie! How did you partnership and collab with Slutmouth come to be? How did you meet?

I think we met at Disgraceland in Middlesbrough for Picasso baby (an interactive arty party) and I’ve always loved her work. Also, just for being ballsy enough to have the name Slutmouth, I was a fan from the start! We just got chatting and we were wanting to do something last year, but because of COVID Beth didn’t get in touch till Jan and we were just like “yeah let’s go for it!”.

Paige Livingstone’s work

From your perspective what is Let Us Eat Cake? How did it come about?

Let Us Eat Cake started out as an exhibition but as it has gone on it has become more of a community; or dare I say it…. a movement?? Well, at least locally for us and the artists who have contributed.

We wanted to focus on women in art and get rid of the Fine Art elitist white man bullshit and showcase female artists with a focus on working class women. Let Us Eat Cake is a spin on the famous Marie Antoinette quote because yeah, let us fucking eat cake we deserve it!

Paige Livingstone’s work

What does working class mean to you? What does being a working class artist mean?

Working class to me means salt of the earth and hard working people; I think as working class people we sometimes tend to undersell or pigeon hole ourselves. We don’t always do the job, we want to because it’s not seen as realistic, which is why giving this platform to emerging artists who don’t necessarily have the links in the industry is so important to me; helping them get out there and sell their works.

Why is it important to amplify female identifying artists right now?

Again, I think women are notoriously bad at bigging themselves up, but we have no problem when it’s another woman’s work! So, it’s nice to create a community where everyone encourages and supports one another. Giving people the confidence, they need in their work to truly succeed as an artist is one of the main goals of Let Us Eat Cake and it’s a great feeling to be able to do that.

Paige Livingstone’s work

Tell me about the initial digital exhibition? What was the response like?

We actually became Pineapple Black’s most viewed exhibition, think we smashed the previous one within an hour and a half of going live, so yeah that was another great feeling ! We couldn’t have done it without all the amazing contributing artists’ work; the quality of work submitted was unbelievable.

And we can see the actual exhibition in real life when and where? What can folx expect?

From 25th June – 23rd July at Pineapple Black Middlesbrough. You can expect a lot of big paintings and a good range of styles.  Oh and of course; CAKE.

Let Us Eat Cake Exhibition

Are you originally from Teesside? What’s the Teesside art scene like?

I am originally from Teesside, yes! As for the arts scene, I would say it is still getting to where it needs to be. We have a great talent pool here but limited by funding. I’ve been to some good exhibitions, but I honestly think Let Us Eat Cake is one of the best exhibitions Teesside has ever seen. And that is me being polite by saying ‘one of’, because actually I think it is THE best, hahaha! (What was that about women being bad at bigging themselves up?)

Paige Livingstone’s work

For someone new to or visiting Teesside, which galleries and bars would you suggest they visit?

Pineapple Black, The Auxiliary and MIMA. We also have an amazing Christopher Dresser collection in the Dorman’s Museum that everyone seems to forget about; it is the largest in the world! I’d recommend anyone interested in ceramics to visit there!

Cafe Etch is an amazing art cafe in the captain Cook Square in the Old engravers. I love taking my sketchpad and doing some work there whilst enjoying the cakes and coffee. And they serve booze now too so even better.

Disgraceland on Baker Street along with the other bars around there is always a good shout too and my fave place to drink at the mo, is Alchemy cocktail bar.

Paige Livingstone’s work

Tell me about three Instagram artists – you’re following, that we should follow too….

@mrbabies does amazing surreal collages

@vonnart does beautiful fantasy illustrations

@dariahlazatova does amazing folks surrealist illustrations and portraits

Followed and in love. Do you take commissions? Do you sell prints?

I do both – you can connect with me on my Instagram and contact me that way! Insta: @Wildlambillustrations

Paige Livingstone’s work

What other projects or things have you got going on?

I’ve currently been working on the branding for Pop Bear Essentials for Pop hairdressers in Middlesbrough; it’s really fun and cute! Go and check them out for vegan friendly affordable hair care range @popbearessentials

And we’re hopefully going to be doing more with Cake and I’m going to be focusing on my painting for a bit longer! So stay tuned!

Let Us Eat Cake Exhibition

Thank you Paige – such a beaut interview and excited to see your next collection and for more empowering, unapologetic cakey shenanigans!

You can follow Paige on her Insta and please do, if you can check out Let Us Eat Cake at Pineapple Black in Middlesbrough – it’s an amazing exhibition, my favourite so far this year!

(#AD) The Hancock Gallery – a beaut Newcastle commercial gallery – a MUST visit and a gem!

Culture Vulture visit to The Hancock Gallery

The Hancock Gallery – Mark Demsteader’s work – (Image Credit Coffee Design)

I recently, had the pleasure of being invited along to The Hancock Gallery in central Newcastle a few weeks ago, to take in their figurative exhibition ‘Between  Distance and Desire’ featuring headline artist Mark Demsteader, Billy Childish, Ron Hicks, Milt Kobayashi, John Smyth, Chris Gambrell and many more.

If you haven’t heard of or aren’t aware of The Hancock Gallery, well you need to add it to your *must* visit list – it is a beaut commercial gallery space in a converted terrace Georgian House on Jesmond Road West in central Newcastle. It is nestled right next door to Newcastle University’s Robinson Library. Their opening times are Thursday – Saturday 10am-5pm and they sometimes host events in connection to their exhibition programme; their exhibition programme tends to change approx. twice a year. They are a fully COVID-19 secure venue and adhering to all social distancing measures. Ahead of your visit, I would check out their website, just in case anything has changed (i.e. a local lockdown or change in opening times). All the art displayed in the gallery space is for sale and they also offer the Own Art scheme, enabling you to purchase work via a flexible payment plan.

The Hancock Gallery – (Image Credit Coffee Design)

I was first invited to visit a year or so ago when The Hancock Gallery first opened and it was quickly added to my fave galleries to visit in Newcastle list. The exhibition then, was headlined by Alexander Millar with his wonderful industrial working and football loving Gadgie portraits and other collections of his work. I’ve always been a big fan of Alex’s work so as you can imagine, that was a dream exhibition to view. During that visit, I experienced a warm, friendly welcome, very knowledgeable, relaxed gallery staff and a beaut open, light space which was just a delight to inhabit whilst taking in the exhibition.

The Hancock Gallery – Mark Demsteader’s work – (Image Credit Coffee Design)

Moving on to my most recent visit, well I was excited about this visit to The Hancock Gallery for four reasons – 1. This was my FIRST gallery visit since lockdown. So, I had pre-Eurovision excitement level butterflies (what can I say? I’m a big Eurovision fan!). I was so excited to get back into a gallery space and take in some art. 2. The exhibition featured artists that I knew but had never seen their work in real life, like Mark Demsteader AND 3. It featured artists that were new to me, like Ron Hicks.  It is fair to say, I was hyped and spent my pre-visit, reading up on the different artists and checking out their Instagram. 4. This exhibition was a figurative one (i.e. depicting figures)! Whilst, I’m much more abstract and conceptual in my art preference, through lock down, I’ve found myself drawn to hyper realistic art of people….. maybe I’m craving human connection in a socially distanced world or may be my taste has broadened, either way, I was looking forward to this exhibition.

The Hancock Gallery Manager Chris – (Image Credit Coffee Design)

For this visit, I had a socially distanced gallery tour (check me out!) with Chris, the Hancock Gallery Manager who took me around the two floors and allowed me to ask him all the questions under the sun – which was brilliant for someone like me who is ever curious. I started my visit with getting some hand sanitizer from one of their hand washing stations and getting comfortable. We launched into conversation about the provocation “Is paint dead?” – like with many things, art goes in trends and things come in and out of fashion. Painting and work using paint, has for the last decade been considered a bit old fashioned…….moreover a few years ago, if you told me, that I was going to see a figurative exhibition of paintings, the images that come to my mind are indeed conventional and a bit……. well dull and not to my taste. The exhibition ‘Between Distance and Desire’ is so much more than that- it was so vibrant, beautiful and for me, really proved that paint is back *in* and how artists use paint SO differently. I was really blown away, how different artists approach figurative work and hats off to Chris and his selection of artists for this group exhibition, because it really worked.

The Hancock Gallery – (Image Credit Coffee Design)

As we moved into the main space, Chris told me more about his role, his ambition for The Hancock Gallery and we also debated the North East arts scene. Chris explained that he is responsible for the curation of the work and selecting artists to exhibition in the gallery space and managing those relationships whilst having the ambition for the gallery to present Internationally renowned artists in the North. As the Culture Vulture, I’m all about championing Northerness and Northern artists but actually, I can get too focused in on that bubble and completely forget about the International art scene, so I really relish having a gallery like The Hancock Gallery  in Newcastle to remind me of the bigger wide world out there; introducing me to new artists and reminding me to dip into the International scene!

The Hancock Gallery – Mark Demsteader’s work – (Image Credit Coffee Design)

Chris and I started my tour of the exhibition ‘Between Distance and Desire’ by naturally starting with the work of headline artist Mark Demsteader. Like with many artists, Mark’s creative journey to become one of the top figurative painters in the UK, was not conventional. Born into the 60s, whilst passionate about art and gaining two foundation courses to enable him to pursue a creative career, due to lack of opportunity he ended up working in the family whole sale butchery business, before eventually in the 1990s taking a school art technician, where he worked for just over a decade. During this period, he kept building his portfolio, but during a time when figurative work was not of interest to many galleries or the art market, he made little progress but kept chasing that dream; eventually he got his lucky break and was selected to exhibit at a Greenwich gallery alongside other artists and sold several pieces. From that moment, he’s never looked back and is a very successful commercial artist today!

The Hancock Gallery – Mark Demsteader’s work – (Image Credit Coffee Design)

I first became aware of Mark’s work, when he was drawing his Emma Watson (actress) collection – she initially approached him for a commission and he asked if he could paint and draw her. This eventually turned into a beautiful collection of work which I remember being in the press in 2011. Beyond that, I’ve been aware of Mark’s work as it’s popped up in other exhibitions or in the news. It was wonderful to take in a showing of his work right here in Newcastle.

The Hancock Gallery – Mark Demsteader’s work – (Image Credit Coffee Design)

Mark’s pieces often feature women with 90s fashion model proportions; the work was beautiful to see up close and to me, it depicts a conventional and idealised version of femininity. Chris talked through the work and I was interested to find out that Mark often paints with his hands, a knife, uses sand-paper alongside “painting by accident” using different layers to build elements of the work. Mark’s pieces seem so precise and neat, so I was surprised to hear this. It was also interesting to learn that Mark has a rotation of 6 models, he uses for his work AND that he thinks about what work might sell, before painting; his best sellers are his figurative works of women, so of course, it makes sense that this is what he paints most of. I found his work really special, atmospheric, beautiful with a hint of comforting sadness – I can’t really describe what I felt was sad about them; may be the facial expressions of each woman connected to the weird sadness I am feeling at the moment in my life, but I felt connected to them. My favourite pieces were the yellow ones – love bold yellow!

The Hancock Gallery – Mark Demsteader’s work – (Image Credit Coffee Design)

We then moved upstairs to take in the rest of Mark’s work AND the other artists exhibiting. First up was Billy Childish. Billy is a painter, author, poet, photographer, film maker, singer and guitarist. Since the late 1970s, Billy has been prolific in creating music, writing and visual art. I’ve always considered Billy to be an unapologetic rebel and free spirit, therefore my interest has often been in him as a person, as opposed to his work. He is just one of those glorious humans that creativity and uniqueness flows through their veins and pulsates into everything they touch and do.

The Hancock Gallery – Mark Demsteader’s work – (Image Credit Coffee Design)

In this exhibition, Billy’s work was a beautiful and brilliant contrast to Mark’s; it really highlighted how broad “figurative art” actually is. His work was colourful, playful, unapologetically Billy and nods to the fact, he’s known as being a “pop culture outlier”. I wasn’t surprised to hear from Hancock Gallery Manager Chris, that Billy has often rejects the mainstream art scene and yet, finds himself drawn back in time and time again due to his popularity and folx curiosity. Chris also told me, that Billy Childish used to be involved with Tracey Emin – that info I treated like art world gossip and I’m hoping it, may help me in a pub quiz in the future!

The Hancock Gallery’s Chris – Billy Childish’s work – (Image Credit Coffee Design)

Next up was Bristol based artist Chris Gambrell and his work – his pieces were stunning, colourful and crayon seemed to be the material used. His work caught my eye as soon as I walked into this room – I loved the colour, the angles, the layers, their unfinished nature and just a hint of *diva* in them. Hancock Gallery Manager Chris shared with me, that Chris had a background in fashion illustration and you can really tell – his work is SO fashion and that is what makes it special!

The Hancock Gallery – Chris Gambrell’s work – (Image Credit Coffee Design)

Then we moved on to a new artist discovery for me and a personal favourite from the whole exhibition, American artist Ron Hicks. Ron is a brilliant black artist and his recent work often depicts people of colour in his work – “Static series” (not on view at The Hancock Gallery) represents his feelings about being racially profiled and black representation. Ron is a fascinating artist to read about and to look back at his back catalogue of work – as you will see he used to paint rather traditional and romantic depictions of people, before really flipping his style into something more impressionist and much more to my personal taste. I could certainly see a Hicks hanging up in my house and his work, reminds me a little bit of my fave muralist Dan Cimmermann which is probably why I love it so much!

The Hancock Gallery – Ron Hicks’ work – (Image Credit Coffee Design)

I next took in John Smyth and Milt Kobayashi pieces! Scottish artist John was another new artist for me! His beautiful figurative paintings at The Hancock Gallery, use decorative patterns to make them feel a bit more abstract. They felt so Instagrammable and perfect for a particular styling of interiors. American artist Milt, was also a new artist discovery (honestly, what a morning, full of new artists!) and I LOVED their work; it’s sophisticated, ethereal, sometimes playful and brought a big smile to my face.

The Hancock Gallery – John Smyth’s work – (Image Credit Coffee Design)

My tour with Hancock Gallery Manager Chris came to a close with me finding out about what the next exhibition is and potential future exhibiting artists – I was sworn to secrecy not to tell, so my lips are sealed but I’m MEGA excited for it and thrilled it’s happening in Newcastle. I’m sure I will be posting all about it on Vulture, so keep your eyes peeled!

The Hancock Gallery’s Chris – (Image Credit Coffee Design)

Post tour, I went back round the whole gallery space taking my time, taking it all in on my own and doing Instagram Lives (you may have seen them if you follow me on Insta – @theculturevulturene). I made a wish list of pieces I’d love to buy – I’ve collected so many pieces of art and I can’t wait to fill my forever home with it all. I also spent some time in The Hancock Gallery Art market which is a beautiful space full of cards and art books to purchase – my two favourite things. Art books are such a weakness of mine and they had an amazing book for sale all about womxn artists – which of course was my vibe. They have the most amazing comfy seating in this area, so I chilled whilst checking out a book or two.

The Hancock Gallery (Image Credit Coffee Design)

On the way out, I stumbled onto Elizabeth Power’s work (not officially part of the exhibition but on sale) and it was textbook Culture Vulture – so much so, she’s hopefully the subject of a future Culture Vulture interview.

I left The Hancock Gallery with a huge smile on my face- I had a wonderful time. Social distancing was very well managed whilst feeling really welcoming and it was a lush experience. You can find out more about the gallery, the artists exhibiting there and have a deeks at their online exhibition via the website. Their opening times are Thursday – Saturday 10am-5pm; so, go on and plan a visit to The Hancock Gallery soon and keep an eye out on their socials for future exhibitions and future events.

And thank you The Hancock Gallery and Chris for such a lovely time!

Until next time Culture Vultures.

The Hancock Gallery – (Image Credit Coffee Design)

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

 

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

(#AD) Does Culture Matter? – a mass participation research project from Crystallised.

I’ve found myself really missing cultural experiences whilst on lock down. Even as The Culture Vulture, I didn’t realise how much “culture” mattered to me on a day to day personal level and how intrinsically linked going to the theatre, cinema, wandering around a gallery, is to my sense of self and well-being. I miss it and I miss feeling a part of a creative community in person. Attending things and supporting cultural venues gives me a real sense of positive purpose and now their doors are closed, I’ve spent a little while feeling lost. I am going to go on the BIGGEST cultural binge when this is all over – I want to attend, see, visit, experience e.v.e.r.y.t.h.i.n.g. all the time.

I’ve been trying to replace this sense of loss in my life with cultural streaming – watching theatre, live performance poetry, launching a Silent Book Club (and about to launch a Culture Vulture film club) alongside heading down a rabbit hole on Insta discovering new artists and creative lushness. It’s helping ease that loss….but it’s not the same!

A project that is helping me tackle some of the above and making me feel useful to the cultural sector – is Crystallised’s project Does Culture Matter?  You might have seen me plugging it on my social…. Does Culture matter? explores that question thematically by collating the opinions and insights of the Nation, during COVID-19 and beyond. Through a series of weekly questions sent direct to your inbox on a Sunday, you get to explore and reflect on what culturally matters to you, what you’re missing and what you’d normally be out and about doing.

Lead DCM

Crystallised are collecting all this data, to make it available to arts and cultural venues and sector when locked down measures are lifted. Your insights and data will directly help organisations recover, pivot, be more resilient, stronger through the power of knowledge and shape their activities by enabling them to identify what is actually important culturally to you!

So do I think my fellow Culture Vultures should get involved…..

  • It’s something a little lush to do, to get you thinking and reflecting. The questions asked are interesting and in the moment – I mean there was a question about Tiger King last week!
  • It’s something to look forward to each week; I really look forward to the questions dropping in my inbox, grabbing a cup of tea/Sunday gin and sitting answering them. Only takes a few minutes but it’s a little lush brain exercise.
  • You are a part of a cultural community who are united in sharing their insights – it’s lush to feel useful and to be a part of something happening across the UK. #peoplepower
  • It’s helping the creative and cultural sector at a time of need – the organisations that will have free access to this data need a helping hand to recover post-COVID – this is that helping hand. Knowledge is power. At a time when you can’t attend these venues, support their cancelled projects or donate to every single cultural organisation and venue – this is something you can do to help that they will all have access to.
  • The data produced could form part of regional and National government lobbying – fingers crossed – it could form the foundation to justify increased spending in culture and creative projects by evidencing what is important to the Nation; what they want, need, love.

To get involved and to sign up – follow this link to take part – takes seconds and you can do it HERE

I had the pleasure of catching up with Laura Rothwell, Managing Director of Crystallised to find out more about why they launched this ‘Does Culture Matter’ project, why it is important and what they hope to achieve through it!

Hiyer you – right first things first, tell my fellow Culture Vultures about Crystallised?  

Crystallised is a marketing, PR and events agency for ethically, socially or culturally motivated organisations.

That’s the spiel.

What that means is we work with a range of organisations. All of them with a cause or purpose at their heart. We help them promote themselves, or their initiatives, we help them reach new audiences, market their work or make some kind of change. Invariably that means we work with a lot of arts and culture organisations, but we also work with charities, NGOs, ethically minded brands and foundations.

We’ve been doing this for seven years; we’ve helped organisations reach audiences of over 30 million people from all over the world.

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Team Crystallised

Impressive stuff – has has your organisation been personally impacted by COVID-19?

Yes, big time. A lot of our work is about getting people to a place. Arts, culture or destination marketing. So, jobs have been cancelled, or indefinitely postponed. We’re seeing many of our clients putting their plans on hold until at least October.

In January, I started looking at pitching for work which was less event-focussed, because of COVID-19. I have anxiety, and actually that has come in handy here, because I was worrying about this very early on.

Snap and snap! It’s been full of devastation and an opportunity to re-imagine in equal measure. What was is about the cultural and creative sector that drew you in?

It took a while to be honest. As a kid, things like ‘culture’ (museums, galleries) weren’t ‘for us’. Sometimes we went to castles which I loved, other times we went to National Trust properties which I hated, my main motivator for tolerating those was the Kendal Mint Cake at the gift shops.

It’s marketing that got me here, it’s where I started at 17, as a Marketing Administrator. And it’s what I’ve done for the past 19 years. The first eight years or so was retail and destination marketing, very commercial environments which are incredible places to learn and to train as a marketer.

I eventually took a role which connected me to ‘art’ for the first time, albeit in a commercial art organisation. There I ended up working on projects in the museum sector, at Great North Museum; Hancock, Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery and Magna Science Centre (Sheffield).

That’s what drew me in. I saw – for the first time really – what art meant, what culture could do for people when/if it wasn’t about commercial gain, how essential it was. I very quickly felt as though I had to use my marketing experience to allow more people (everyone, ideally) to a) know what was out there b) feel like it was ‘for them’ and c) contribute to it, own it, be part of it and d) benefit from it.

I started Crystallised, and seven years on I still feel those things acutely.

We are crazily similar #kendalmintcake Let’s move on to Does Culture Matter? What was the inspiration behind Does Culture Matter? – why did you start the project?

The idea came from an Instagram group convo with a collection of excellent women I know who work in the creative sectors. We were talking about what this all (COVID-19) meant for us, for our jobs, for the sector.

I was in the middle of what I suspect was coronavirus, I felt truly awful in the mind and the body. We’d had a recent, sudden family bereavement, and my brain was just not up for anything at all.

Anyway, as is the way, during this chit-chat back and forth, inspiration struck. I just thought, now is the perfect time to listen to audiences, to learn, without an agenda. No-one is paying us to do this, we aren’t trying to meet a brief, we are simply listening.

You almost never get an opportunity like this.

Can you describe what it is and how people can get involved?

Does Culture Matter? is a mass participation research project. We want to understand how our relationship with culture is changing because of COVID-19, what it was like before, perhaps if our own definitions of what culture means are changing and what we might want it to look like after COVID-19.

We want EVERYONE to give their opinions, even if – no, especially if, like me back in the day, you don’t think ‘culture’ is for you.

All you need to do is follow and input your email address.

You’ll receive an intro questionnaire via email and then one every Sunday for the rest of the year.

Why is it important that people share their insights with you?

It’s important because culture belongs to us all. There should not be someone ‘in charge’ of culture, there should not be someone gatekeeping, or deciding what is or isn’t culture. It belongs to us all. We own it.

I believe every single human being should be able to be involved with and relate to the cultural offer of their cities or communities.

The sector talks about ‘hard to reach’ audiences, that is infuriating bullshit. Audiences aren’t hard to reach, it’s the organisation that is hard to reach, because for whatever reason, intentional or not, they have made themselves inaccessible.

So, it’s important for you all to join up and share, because when your voice gets heard, change can be made.

We have an opportunity to come out of this and shape the next chapter. I felt as though the best way Crystallised could contribute to that change, was to use our skills and expertise.

Listen to people, advise organisations. It’s what we do every day.

Have there been any interesting insights you wish to share?

Our North East participants told us their favourite places to visit in the city, at the moment, the list looks like this – the data changes the more people who join, so that’s another reason why everyone should get involved.

Tyneside Cinema

BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art

Sage Gateshead

Northern Stage

Laing Art Gallery

But, if you look at our North East respondents under the age of 25, the list changes:

Cineworld, Newcastle

Tyneside Cinema

Riverside Newcastle

O2 Newcastle

Utilita Arena

Three music venues, two cinemas. I find this fascinating, there’s much that can be explored from this data alone.

2 April Stat North East

What do you hope to get out of it after the research period?

I’d like the data to have organisations start asking their own questions. I’d like this to be the starting point for organisations to look at how they can better serve their communities.

I’d love to work with the braver organisations who want to do something bold and radical as a result of seeing the data, perhaps homing in on something specific, collaborating with audiences, flipping the narrative and to some extent taking a back seat, so that others can shine.

In your opinion, do you think Culture Matters more during this period?

Yes.

This is a horrible, terrifying time, we’re all going to lose someone or something. There are many many people, organisations, institutions that desperately need support. I’m not suggesting that an “art gallery is more important than the NHS” – which I’ve been accused of on social media of late.

No argument is that black and white.

I think culture has the power to uplift, to teach, to heal, to connect, nourish and to be fun. I think it’s essential for us to support and protect the sector if we don’t want to see a desolate, cultural wasteland post COVID-19. Our lives and societies will be much poorer if we don’t act.

Has the lock down changed your cultural consumption personally? Have you been watching any streams/online happenings?

Yes, I’ve been watching National Theatre, stand-up comedy, a film discussion and some DJ sets all online.

A theatre performance feels special even when it’s on the small screen, you can still sense the atmosphere between the audience and the cast.

How do you feel about the movement to digital culture and events through streaming platforms and social media?

I think it’s amazing and fantastic that so much has suddenly become available, the speed at which organisations have been able to adapt to the changing circumstances I think is impressive.

However, I can’t help but find it problematic that it’s taken a global pandemic for organisations to make their content accessible. It has long been the case that parts of the arts sector are inaccessible to disabled people. To now see all this readily available content filling our timelines because their able-bodied audience members are no longer allowed to attend a venue, is shameful.

The future must be radically different. We cannot live through this, witness all the change that has been enacted and then revert. That would be a tragedy.

What’s the first thing you’re going to do post lockdown?

Oh Christ! I’d like to go to Riley’s Fish Shack, sit on the beach and listen to my pals chatter, feel the sunshine on my face and be able to lie down on the sand, let my dog make friends with a Bichon Frisse, and just take my sweet sweet time outside.

What would be success for you as Crystallised for 2020?

Crystallised still existing would be success. I’m fearful of how much harder the year is going to get for business. This is going to be a slog. If we still have our full team and are on the way to some semblance of stability at the end of this year, I’ll be thrilled and relieved.

Anything other projects or happenings you think my fellow Culture Vultures should know about?

Right now, we’re working with one of our long-term clients Family Arts Campaign, who exist to make the arts accessible for families. Our focus is supporting their ambition to be the go-to national database of all arts and culture events happening online for families to join. We’ll be working on PR and influencer campaigns to get as many families as possible trying something new. Find that here: fantasticforfamilies.com

We’re also deep into New Creatives, a two-year project with BBC Arts and Arts Council England which looks to find undiscovered talent to make work for the BBC – could be a film, or something for radio. No prior experience is necessary, we’re trying to find northern creative folk under-30 who have something to say. Find that here: newcreatives.com

Other than that, we’ll be staying at home.

DCM. Share your thoughts.

Thank you Laura….so does culture matter? Well it does to me, it does to Crystallised and I think it matters to my fellow culture vultures, followers and readers. I’d love you to support Crystallised on their mission by signing up to participate in ‘Does Culture Matter?”

Remember – signing up is LUSH and is contributing to a project that could support your favourite arts and culture organisations to learn, pivot, recover, restart and fingers crossed – GROW.

Signing up takes seconds and participating in the project takes approx. 5mins a week.

You can sign up by HERE and feel free to share the project with your friends and networks – spread the word! #ganon

An interview with Mad Alice Theatre – biochemistry, drama school & making theatre that means something.

Theatre with its immersive storytelling and escapism, can really say something and provoke reflection on real life stuff. Even with family theatre – in fact the best types of family theatre are the ones with core REAL modern messages. That’s the type of theatre I love, especially when it’s made by LUSH creative folks.

I’m working with Mad Alice Theatre, based in Consett Co. Durham, at the moment on their show Rose & Robin – it’s a show for multi-generational audiences (literally 7yrs old – 107years old…) and explores love and loss, a reality of life that we often don’t want to think about. We’re often happy getting lost in a love story – but this family show also looks at “the end”, the growing old, what happens when someone (a grandparent) close to you dies, the sadness (that is ok to feel!), the bittersweet memories, the fact that life goes on but that person still exists in objects around you.

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Rose & Robin – photography: Jamie Sproates

This lovely, playful & serious, sad & happy show follows Rose and Robin’s wonderful life together as they celebrate it – From sports and stargazing, dances and dreams, music and memories. This show is the perfect play for children to enjoy with their grandparents and parents (also big kids!)!

Rose & Robin is twirling its way across the North East (I’m heading to the show at Darlington Library)-

  • Darlington Libraries Central – 15th Feb, 2pm
  • Greenfield Arts – 18th Feb, 10.30am
  • Queen’s Hall Arts, Hexham – 19th Feb, 2pm
  • Gala Theatre & Cinema – 20th Feb, 2pm
  • Arts Centre Washington – 21st Feb, 11am & 2pm
  • Maltings Berwick- 22nd Feb, 2pm
  • Gateshead Libraries Central, 28th Feb, 1.30pm

For tickets, booking info and prices visit the website

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Rose & Robin – photography: Jamie Sproates

So of course, because I’m most interested in sharing the people behind the theatre and theatre making – I caught up with Mad Alice Theatre’s Shelley (Rose in the show) for a Culture Vulture interview…..

For my Culture Vulture followers, Who are you?

I am Shelley O’Brien, (although that is only my stage name, my real name is MICHELLE PARKER!) Actress, and Artistic Director of Mad Alice Theatre Company.

Many fellow actors at drama school pending graduation were changing their names at the time but I was steadfast in keeping my real name until I discovered there already was an actress with my name!! Shelley was given to me whilst at university so that didn’t seem too remote so was happy to use that but to then only discover there too was an Equity member actress Shelley Parker so after much deliberation and many combinations and permutations I chose my surname to be a one close to my heart, named after my brother BRIAN and also with a link to my, albeit, distant Irish Heritage! A Michelle O’Brien had already beaten me so Shelley O’Brien I became.

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Shelley O’Brien

Ohh – I might start telling people “Horts” is my stage name- even though I RARELY get on the stage; it adds an element of intrigue! So what is Mad Alice Theatre Company?  

MATC is a professional theatre company based in Consett Co. Durham (my home-town) producing theatre shows and linked drama and arts workshops touring to theatres, schools, community and outdoor venues in Co. Durham and The North East as well as nationally. We also deliver regular outside of school drama and arts projects for children and young people during term time and school holidays, predominantly the Co. Durham region. We have been established for 15 years and all our theatre productions are funded by Arts Council England.

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Rose & Robin – photography: Jamie Sproates

Why did you set Mad Alice Theatre up?

Having graduated from drama school and performed with many touring companies nationally, I then found myself working with many local regional companies back home in The North East and became known by Arts Council and knew and worked with many local talented and lovely actors and theatre makers. It was lovely working back home where many of my school friends had returned after university and my family were still based so I decided then this is where I wanted to be based and it was time to grow up as it were so I bought a house back in my home town.

My house was literally at the bottom of Consett and Blackhill Heritage Park where my mum and dad had noticed it had been newly revamped with the addition of an open-air stage (well, a few paving stones!!) It was their suggestion that I put on a play. I was successful in a bid to Arts Council to fund a one-off show, delivering a week of open air promenade performances of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” where I could draw on the skills of theatre makers I knew; also an opportunity too for me to give them work as they have given me over the years which made me very happy!

The overall project was a huge success, had big audiences and the show was welcomed with great reviews! Other venues wanted the show in their park the following year and so before I knew it I was heading up a theatre company which 15 years down the line has seen me produce and act in further tours and retours of 3 new outdoor Shakespeare plays as well as tours and retours of 7 new shows! So much for just a one-off play!

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Rose & Robin – photography: Richard Ayres

Tell me about your journey into the creative arts and performing been?

Very sudden best describes it! I never did any drama or dance or anything theatrical at all as a child (apart from Irish dancing which I loved).  I was really into running and loved academia; I never had any desire or interest or thoughts whatsoever about being an actress. I was approached as a teenager to take up running professionally (800m, 1500m and long distance) but really loved studying so decided not to but instead to focus on going to university which I did to study Biochemistry at UCL London University.

However, during my ‘A’ levels I was really inspired by Rik Mayall and The Young Ones and found myself writing scripts, really just for fun and escapism; my favourite quote at the time being “Reality is for those people who lack imagination” inscribed on a badge I wore fervently on my denim jacket / school blazer. I just really enjoyed the wonderful worlds, ideas and where the imagination could take you too and in retrospect I understand this now to have been my escapism, a safe way to “think yourself out of current reality”. I was too sensible, too ambitious and too much of the mind -set that my body was a temple to over drink or go to wild parties to blot out some of the scary sad and overwhelming thoughts in my mind that presented themselves around that time, understandably due to my brothers dying. So instead taking myself into imaginary worlds seemed the most joyous and sensible coping strategy.

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Rose & Robin – photography: Jamie Sproates

This is probably where my desire to act started, although I was unaware at the time as I was determined to be a Biochemist and find a cure for Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy. But whilst studying at university I realised although I had the skills for Biochemistry, I just didn’t have the passion like others. I became more involved in writing and improvisation and literally work up one morning, looked out of the window and the beautiful sun shining on the tree branches and decided I was going to be an actress and that it was what I was supposed to do with my life. Sudden indeed!

I went to the careers office at London University and asked how I should be an actress, they gave me a few drama school brochures; RADA was next door to my Biochemistry LAB (I’d never heard of RADA) but I thought it was handy as I could still meet up with my friends. I popped in en route to a lecture but I wasn’t impressed as the receptionist was so snobby so I thought “I don’t want to go here!” (as if they would just say oh yes come in and start!!) but the ALRA LONDON brochure talked about imagination and reality so I knew it was for me!

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Rose & Robin – photography: Jamie Sproates

I hand delivered my application in person as there was a postal strike; I’d missed the first round of auditions but my passionate talk about how this school was my calling convinced the principal to invite me to join students selected for a recall, which I did in jeans and danced to Michael Jackson (everyone else had the correct gear!) and then I did an improvisation about “abortion and the confessional box” (luckily I missed having to do a speech as that was in initial audition rounds as I’d never read a play!!) and finally after ringing them about 7 days in a row they offered me a place!! I had the best 3 years ever and certainly the right drama school for me; it was meant to be.

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Rose & Robin – photography: Richard Ayres

So tell my fellow Culture Vultures your current show, Rose & Robin? Where did the inspiration come from?

The inspiration for ROSE AND ROBIN came primarily from some wonderful, inspiring, brave, emotionally honest and open and good-humoured people who we were blessed to come to know through drama workshops we delivered (myself and Pete Baynes who plays Robin). The workshops were all with participants of the bereavement service provided by Tynedale Hospice at Home. Geof Keys, Artistic Director of Queen’s Hall Arts Hexham at the time, had asked if Mad Alice would be interested in delivering drama workshops as a means to bringing participants together, raising confidence and providing an alternative creative way to share and talk about feelings around grief and also to have fun.

We invited the workshop participants to come on a journey with us to explore through improvisations and exercises ideas for a show and to see if any material generated might inspire us to create and form the basis of a new play about loss. The people we met had a wonderful time and found the workshops really beneficial; we were so moved and touched by all the experiences and grief shared and were drawn to stories of older people who had lost a life time partner.

Dancing was a strong theme as was nature; also the over arcing sense from all participants of life moving on and how it is so important to talk about feelings of grief as a means to heal. Thus, Rose and Robin emerged; a story of a couple who share a wonderful life together, from childhood to old age, full of dancing and star gazing but with bumps in the road and now one of them can’t remember where they keep the clothes pegs……We hope in our play we have captured the sense of joy, fun, and positivity of all of the participants young and old who inspired this story as well as acknowledging the pain of grief and honouring the love felt for those held dear and whom are no longer with us.

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Rose & Robin – photography: Jamie Sproates

You can tell from the way you speak, you are such a vivid story teller – I could listen all day! We met before your funding decision from Arts Council, which enabled you to make the show – how did it feel when you found out you got the funding to make the show happen?

I was dumb struck and taken aback as I heard a week earlier than expected!! I had just got off the train at Newcastle, I’d spent the day at the Edinburgh Festival and picked up a voicemail from a colleague saying we’d received the funding!!!! I could hardly catch my breath!!! Speechless initially but then so joyous and also relieved and grateful to all who had helped make it happen, excited too and then overwhelmed thinking crumbs now we have to deliver!!! I spent the evening ringing and emailing everyone to say thank you for helping to make it happen then had a couple of glasses of wine to celebrate, I was so ecstatic!!!

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Rose & Robin – photography: Jamie Sproates

I hear that a lot with creatives I work with, the excitement of the funding, and then the terrifying “oh bliddy heck…. I have to do it now” moment!  Who is Rose & Robin for and why should audiences come and see it?

We have created the show on one hand for children in KS2 (ages 7-12yrs) as we always planned to tour to schools so this was the age range we chose (Rose & Robin toured schools in Autumn 2019). We really wanted to create a show about love AND loss; after seeking advice from theatre and bereavement specialists as well as our own knowledge and experience, we thought children would be old enough at 7yrs to understand and take an interest in the concepts we were portraying, particularly about relationships of a couple growing up and growing old together.

Having said that we have found that due to the mime element, the beautiful musical underscore and the physical theatre aspects of the style in which we deliver the show, younger children are actually equally hooked and enjoy it even though they may not fully understand the deeper meanings they are entertained visually! This was our aim too, as with a family show, inevitably younger siblings come along as part of the family.

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Rose & Robin – photography: Jamie Sproates

But, the show is also for older people and grandparents too mainly because it is about the life of an older couple from childhood to old age so particularly relevant to this age group. Rose and Robin meet in the 50’s and court in the 60’s so there is rock and roll and waltzing and even the twist so music and costumes and dances will particularly appeal to this older age groups and bring back many fun memories!

So why should folks come…..well because they will truly enjoy it; they will be captivated by the story – Rose and Robin are such likeable fun characters which all ages will warm to, the story will resonate with them, they will laugh, they will find the music beautiful, happy and poignant and the set and props and costumes they will love as they are colourful and imaginative and quirky. There is dancing and an opportunity to dance with Rose and Robin during and after the show which is a joyful moment for all ages. There are sad moments too which many people will be able to relate to, thus a cathartic show and an opportunity for people to share and talk about their feelings but ultimately, it’s a gentle show and very heart-warming and a lovely show to bring old and young together. The overall message is one of love, reassurance and joy so a safe place for any feelings to surface.

Many of us have loved and lost, that could be a most recent loss, a loss from long ago or indeed a pending loss…this show is for all of you.

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Rose & Robin – photography: Richard Ayres

You’re taking the show to some “non-traditional” theatre venues and community venues – alongside some lush regional theatres – why was this important to Rose & Robin tour?

One of my reasons for setting up Mad Alice was to bring theatre to and make it affordable and accessible to those people from all backgrounds. Theatre is for EVERYONE. Community venues like libraries attract more audiences, that wouldn’t go to a traditional theatre as they are less daunting and a lovely safe space. Also, it feels that you are bringing theatre to them on their territory and that’s a wonderful experience for a company too! I grew up in Consett a working-class town and when I was a child in the 70’s no one dreamt really of being an actor and going to the theatre wasn’t really what we did…times have changed a lot now …but there remains an urgent need for affordable and accessible theatre bring brought to and offered to communities.

Equally we love performing in theatres as it’s a different experience as an actor and a rewarding one but also encouraging everyone to go to the theatre is a must … plus we can also engage more people too and develop our audiences by touring to theatres and raise our profile so more people get to see our shows which is also what making theatre is about.

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Rose & Robin – photography: Jamie Sproates

We have toured to schools and have raised funds to offer the show free to many schools e.g. schools in Spennymoor have been funded by our successful application for funding from local councillors and again this helps us ensure children from ALL backgrounds get to see high quality theatre. Plus we invited Grandparents of pupils into the school shows too!

Non-traditional theatre spaces appeal to us as they are different and quirky and this appeals to our style and outlook. It also helps them to generate audiences too and make a museum, community centre or library a successful arts venue too…..

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Rose & Robin – photography: Jamie Sproates

From seeing the rehearsal and behind the scenes footage – I’ve had the sense you’ve all had a blast creating and making the show and it’s full of comedy and touching, bittersweet moments!

We certainly have had a right giggle!! We’ve had many laughs touring the show particularly to children in schools, as they have been so vocal and very much so when we are actually performing! One memorable moment which had us in fits of laughter was when ROBIN in the play mimes bringing a dog on stage and he says “Come on boy! Ah! You can see he’s a good dog” At which point one 8 yr. old boy shouts out “You can’t even see him!!!!”

Almost topped by a young girl who was given front of house duties in a community venue to count how many were in the audience and make them feel welcome, a ploy to keep her occupied as she’d turned up early!!! But who took her responsibilities even further when some older people were a bit tearful at a sad moment and she proceeded to go and get them cups of water during the show!

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Rose & Robin – photography: Jamie Sproates

It has also been a challenge too which devising always is, as actors both myself and PETE BAYNES (Robin) have learnt a lot of new skills to realise the work, dancing for one but the lovely Nadia Iftkhar – Company of Others was splendid and patient but we did giggle lots too!! Peta Lily was truly inspirational teaching us a lot of new physical theatre techniques and that brought so much joy to us and consequently, joy and fun to the play itself.

But yes, it is bittersweet and touching in many parts too and the fun and humour necessary in a show about loss in its many forms has been inter-weaved through a strong emotional truthful story line which Paul Harman our lead devisor helped us develop and Geof Keys as director kept an eye on in terms of shape and balance.

Donald Marshall’s design has really brought fun, elegance and beauty to the play too and Patrick Dineen’s music absolutely supports and adds to the emotional range of the show.

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Rose & Robin – photography: Jamie Sproates

What do you want audiences to take away from Rose & Robin?

For older people; warm loving memories of loved ones, joyful memories of their youth, an opportunity to share their feelings and talk about their feelings. A message of hope that after sadness there will be joy.

For children; an even stronger awareness that grandparents were young once and a realisation that they too were naughty, played, had fun, loved, lost and that they have a history! We want them to share and talk about their feelings around loss and to take away the message that it’s ok to be sad, that those we love who have died will always be with us in our heart and that we will feel happy again.

For both generations, a desire to talk to each other, for parents and grandparents to talk to children about their memories and for children and families to talk together about their feelings around loss.


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Sum the show up in three words?

Fun, emotional, heart-warming!

What else have you been up to in 2019 – tell me about another project/show you’ve done this year?

2019 saw me doing a further tour of my one woman show ‘She Wins All The Races-A Tragicomedy with Biscuits’ to secondary schools and colleges in Darlington as well as some community venues. I previously toured it 2017/18 to regional and national theatres.

It’s A show I’m very proud of, based on my true-life story, about a little girl growing up her two brothers who were born with Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy – it celebrates the courage and resilience of the human spirit, poignant, powerful, heart-breaking and uplifting, with quirky, physical storytelling and a little bit of Abba!

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She Wins All The Races

What’s next for Mad Alice Theatre Company beyond Rose & Robin?

When you produce as well as act in a new play (which is the case for me on all Mad Alice productions), it’s always very intense and quite exhausting even though exhilarating but I always say “never again”! But as always once the show is up and running you forget all the initial hard slog and do start thinking “oooh, what next?”

I certainly would like to retour ROSE and ROBIN hopefully in autumn 2020 to further schools and theatre venues but hopefully on the rural touring circuit where I can see it playing very well and appealing strongly to village hall audiences…

I’m also, very keen too to get my one woman show to London which has been on my list since its first tour in 2016….

But my mind is certainly starting to mull over a new show possibly for 2021/2022 and I’m thinking of returning to Mad Alice’s roots of open air shows but with a PASSION PLAY, something I’ve always wanted to do. My faith has always been very important to me and it got me through very difficult times, growing up with both of my brothers who died in their teens. I’ve always wanted to do something faith linked however I have a very whacky imaginative side to my nature so I’m currently thinking of how we can make a passion play spiritual as well as presenting it in my own way.

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Rose & Robin – photography: Jamie Sproates

Well thank you Shelley – I loved your journey into the creative arts and it reminds me, very much the experience for some young people,  feeling obligated and pressured to follow a specific education and career path, whilst wanting to go into the creative industries. It’s like the mind says one thing and the heart drives another – they are TORN…..whilst I’m an advocate for following your passion, I too in my younger years took the “logical” route of chasing a “proper” job by going to study law….. YIKES! Thankfully we came our senses and listened to our hearts….

Maybe we could write a show together about our alternative reality lives as a biochemist and a lawyer.

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Rose & Robin – photography: Jamie Sproates

So Culture Vultures, I hope you see Rose & Robin and bring your mini Culture Vultures….. I’m heading to the Darlington Library performance and can’t wait.

Rose & Robin is twirling its way across the North East-

  • Darlington Libraries Central – 15th Feb, 2pm
  • Greenfield Arts – 18th Feb, 10.30am
  • Queen’s Hall Arts, Hexham – 19th Feb, 2pm
  • Gala Theatre & Cinema – 20th Feb, 2pm
  • Arts Centre Washington – 21st Feb, 11am & 2pm
  • Maltings Berwick- 22nd Feb, 2pm
  • Gateshead Libraries Central, 28th Feb, 1.30pm

For tickets, booking info and prices visit the website

That’s all for now Culture Vultures, until next time!

Interview with street artist & graphic designer Mul – “if people hate what you do, do it more”

If I have one piece of advice for you Culture Vultures for 2020, it’s put down your phone, get outside more and be a tourist in your own city. Northern cities are FULL of beautiful street art – work by amazing regional, National and International street artists are waiting for you to discover. Actually the North East is well known for its street art and I discovered recently, big name street artists actually visit here, seek out mural spaces and create their own mark on a NE city or town.
And if like me, you spend way too much time with your head down in your social media feed, you’re actually missing out on this lush art to discover, different styles AND the urban landscape is ever changing with new murals.
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Alex Mulholland mural in Ouseburn (near Tyne Bar)
Over the summer, I worked on a project exploring Ouseburn Valley and all the street art there – I visit the Ouseburn all the time, but largely in a passive auto pilot manner, as I’m looking at my phone and scrolling my feed. Over the Summer, I decided to put down my phone and suddenly, paths that I’d walked MANY times before sprung to life with pieces of work and street art, suddenly popping out; they’d been there YEARS but i’d never seen them before. I discovered SO many new artists.
One of those Ouseburn street artists is local artist Alex Mulholland a.k.a. ‘ Mul’! I’ve been a fan of Alex over the last few years – his bright murals brighten up my day when I’m walking around Ouseburn and Heaton and his Insta is just lush – he regularly posts new work. He’s got such a beaut style; Alex is graphic designer, street artist and he makes prints of his work too. He also takes commissions.
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Alex Mulholland – Mul
I first properly discovered Mul when i found out he was going to be spraying a design on the side of Thought Foundation caravan in their yarden! I wish children’s play areas were as cool as that when I was a mini….no rusty nails with a broken swing and instead street art, colour and lush space to play.
Recently, reached out to Mul for an interview to find out about his practice, what inspires him and to connect with him as an artist massively on the rise, getting commissions Nationally.
So over to you Mul….
Hi Mul, for my fellow Culture Vultures, tell me who are you and what’s your practice?
I’m Alex Mulholland or ‘Mul’ and I’m an artist and freelance  graphic designer from Newcastle.
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Alex Mulholland/Mul’s work
Tell me your journey into the creative arts?
I probably started my journey when I was about 12 years old, that was when I discovered graffiti. Since then I have completed my degree in graphic design at Northumbria University and I started working for myself.
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Alex Mulholland/Mul’s work
Your pieces are so lush and bold – where do you get the inspiration from for your pieces?
I guess inspiration comes from everywhere; I never seem to find it when I’m looking though. It always suddenly pops up out of nowhere; like a van driving past with something on the side of it. Apart from those random occurrences, music can also be very influential for me alongside travelling to new places and seeing art on the streets.
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Alex Mulholland/Mul’s work
You designed and sprayed Thought Foundation in Gateshead caravan, how did that commission come about?  I know what is used to look like before, you’ve done an amazing job!  
Thought Foundation was an interesting one. I’d never painted a caravan before but always wanted too after seeing ones Sickboy had done. I wanted to make the piece as colourful and crazy as possible and it was actually just made up there and then.
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Alex Mulholland/Mul’s work
Tell us a bit about your big piece in the Ouseburn (near Tyne Bar in Newcastle)? What was the inspiration? 
That wall as really fun; I prefer painting bigger as there’s more space for creativity. I didn’t go into painting that wall with a sketch, I wanted to freestyle it and make it up as I went along.
I always have the most fun when I do that, as I’m not beating myself up if something doesn’t look how it does on the sketch.
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Alex Mulholland/Mul’s work
You have a very distinctive style, I think you can always tell your work from a mile off – how did it develop?
The current  ‘style’ has only been developing since January 2019. I hit a bit of a turning point with the art I produce and stopped what I had been doing for the previous four years. I think that if I hadn’t done that and made that decision, I’d still be stuck in the rut of doing the same thing over and over again.
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Alex Mulholland/Mul’s work
And where is the fun in that!? Do you like the mystic surrounding street artists? Often the pieces and style is recognised – but the person remains unknown….
I do understand it yes; I do think it’s more of a legal thing rather than the artist necessarily wanting to remain unknown (but not in all cases). The art I produce now I happily put my name to because it’s me and not an alias if that makes sense.
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Alex Mulholland/Mul’s work
As someone who champions and celebrates the North and loves street art – I’m thrilled people are seeing it as the exciting art form it is. There is a real buzz around street art and murals at the moment in the region – do you feel that too?
I’m glad this is becoming more accepted and celebrated up North. Places like Bristol and areas of London have been like this for a long time and I always love going to paint in places like that as it’s almost received with open arms.
Also having travelled and painted all through Europe you get a sense of how accepted it is in other places. Most cities now have designated areas for it and people travel from all over to paint and see the pieces.
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Alex Mulholland/Mul’s work
One thing I’ve always wondered is that outdoor art pieces have to survive the elements, but I do love it when it ages with it’s environment – do you enjoy the creative challenge making outdoor art?
Yeah! I mean my generation is lucky where that is concerned; we get the best paint for the cheapest price, delivered to your door and most of it will stand the test of time.
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Alex Mulholland/Mul’s work
Do you take commissions? How would people get in touch if they wanted you to create a piece for them?
I do take commissions; the last ten months have really been great for that, lots of people are seeing my work and getting in touch for a whole range of fun projects.
You can contact me through my website http://www.mul-draws.com  or drop me and email at: alexmulholland@mul-draws.com
Alternatively I’m also on Instagram and Facebook @Mul_draws
Alex Mulholland/Mul’s work
Tell us about other street artists that inspire you?
I guess my biggest inspiration would be Keith Haring; he really pioneered street art in New York back in the 70’s and 80’s. His style is fun and bouncy which I guess is how I strive my work to be.
From the UK, artists like Stik, and D-face. I couldn’t leave Shepard Fairey out either, as he was probably my first exposure to street art way back in 2006 when he and other artists did the ‘Spank the Monkey’ exhibition at the Baltic.
Some of my favourite street pieces in Newcastle are still standing from that exhibition- The Obey paste-up mural on Falmouth road in Heaton and numerous Space invaders dotted around Newcastle and Gateshead. I think that they were the first pieces I saw and have definitely stuck in my mind ever since.
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Alex Mulholland/Mul’s work
Do you have a fave piece that you’ve created? If i had a gun to your head and you had to pick one?
Yeah one springs to mind but it was under another alias so I can’t reveal.
Alex Mulholland/Mul’s work
Why do you think street artists are typically male identifying? There are some fantastic female identifying street artists too – but they seem in the minority.
Street art stems from graffiti, which is well known for being egotistical. I would love to see more females doing it especially up North. I can only name maybe one or two that do it up here which is a shame really.
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Alex Mulholland/Mul’s work
Any advice for future creatives and street artists?
If people hate what you do, do it more.
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Alex Mulholland/Mul’s work
Highlight of 2019 so far?
I had a great client that I’ve designed some hockey sticks for and a clothing line that will hopefully be going to the Olympics in Tokyo next year. I also got to produce a mural for them in Shoreditch, which was amazing.
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Alex Mulholland/Mul’s work
Final question….what’s next for Mul in 2020 – anything you can share?
I am working on a few projects for 2020 at the moment that I can’t talk about at the moment but you can expect lots of big walls and collaborations. So make sure you follow @mul_draws on Instagram to stay up to date with that.

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Alex Mulholland/Mul’s work
Thank you Mul; that is ace and I’ve got some amazing street artists to check out from your recommendations and if you’d like to discover more street artists, put your phone away and get exploring your city, you’ll discover loads of street art. A good place to start is the Ouseburn; you’ll see Mul’s piece there too – tell me what you think of it!? AND why not, swing by Thought Foundation and check out their Mul designed caravan; they also have a lush cafe, shop, exhibition on and events programme too.
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Alex Mulholland/Mul’s work
Until next time Culture Vultures……

Dan Cimmermann – artist interview; colour, rebellion, street art and re-imaging British historical figures…

You may have noticed over on my social media accounts that I’ve been selected to be one of two bloggers in residence over at The Biscuit Factory in Newcastle. Basically, I have the glorious opportunity of creating content on Culture Vulture (and on their platforms) championing their artists, commissions, exhibitions, art of sale, residencies etc. As a passionate advocate for independent and original art – it’s a match made in heaven!

The Biscuit Factory holds a special place in my heart and lots of happy memories – it’s an independent gallery space (the largest indie commercial art, craft and design gallery in the UK); it is enabling and doing great things for the artistic community in the region, alongside bringing people like me National and International artists and their work into their gallery. Housed in a former Victorian warehouse, they showcase and sell the work of over 200 artists and makers in seasonally changing exhibitions. They champion independent, original and handmade. It’s a space that I’ve discovered so many new artists and art forms……each exhibition is an eclectic mix of art, prints, sculpture, interiors, craft and jewellery.

One of the artists currently on display at The Biscuit Factory, Winter Exhibition is Dan Cimmermann. He also happens to be one of my all-time top favourite artists, who I stumbled upon when visiting The Biscuit Factory a few years ago…. As soon as I was awarded The Biscuit Factory residency, I was determined to make sure Dan Cimmerman, would be my first artist interview.

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Dan’s work and The Biscuit Factory has long been intertwined in my head and I remember visiting the gallery space at the beginning of my Culture Vulture journey and falling in love with one of his big pieces. I didn’t know who Dan was, why I liked it so much – but the combination of colours, brush strokes and a historical female figure, made me fall in love. It was bold, it was empowering and it was exactly, the type of art I wanted to see more of and champion. Dan’s work and style is me in my visual arts comfort zone – it’s the type of art that I feel at home looking at.

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The first piece of Dan’s work I fell in love with

Then began the Cimmermann rabbit hole – I mentioned the piece to my pal Bobzilla (another extremely talented artist) and I fell into this world of Dan’s work. Those who follow my social channels, know I’ve long been an advocate for street art and street artists to be a respected genre in their own right and I’m head over heels for street art. I’m a street art addict! If you’re a street artist on Insta, I probably prolifically lurk your channel, I go on street art city walking tours, buy books on it, go to talks on it….sometimes it’s the only reason I visit a city, the street art! And I am so excited and happy that street artists are getting their rightful place in gallery spaces and commissions. It warms my heart – it really does. Dan is one of those artists; he has managed to make the bridge between street art and a gallery space……

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Dan Cimmermann in Tokyo

The Biscuit Factory, has exhibited and featured Dan’s work for a few years (he’s been making work since 2001 though) and the eagle eyed of you, if you recognise Dan’s style, will have noticed a beautiful mural outside Ernest Newcastle, which was an outdoor installation commission by Great Exhibition of the North. Folks were invited to walk him do some live mural painting…And inside Artisan event space connected to the Biscuit Factory, another mural is waiting to be discovered. It’s an absolute BEAUT.

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Mural inside The Biscuit Factory

Cimmermann’s colourful paintings and murals are a blend of ‘street’ and ‘studio’; through a process of reworking layers of paint and pen, he adapts classical works of 18th century portraiture. His work is often a reflection upon British identity and a rebellion against societal rules of old, he’s also not shy about using politics and themes like Brexit in his work. So I wasn’t surprised to stumble across more of his work in the Art of Protest gallery in York this Summer.

Dan is currently exhibiting a small selection of pieces at The Biscuit Factory as part of their Winter show – they are open to view every day between 10am-5pm. However, check out their website for their Christmas opening times as they are different. Those who know Dan’s work – will know some pieces cost well over £1000….. and some much more than that, but with this exhibition there are a mixture of price points – I’ve got my eye one…. It’s a beaut! However, if like me, a larger Cimmermann piece is the ultimate dream; The Biscuit Factory run their Own Art Scheme – a programme run in partnership with Arts Council England, the Arts Council of Northern Ireland and Creative Scotland. Own Art makes buying art easy and more affordable by letting you spread the cost of your purchase over 10 months with an interest free loan. So it could be more within reach than you think!

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On display in The Biscuit Factory Winter Show 19

So enough of me and my fangirl moment for Cimmermann and his work – and let’s hear from the man himself. I reached out to Dan a few weeks back, explaining my residency at The Biscuit Factory and was delighted he responded and agreed to an interview. A testament to despite being an Internationally successful artist which a busy schedule, that he still has time for a lass from Gateshead who loves his work! (If you follow his social, you’ll see that often his family champion his successes too – they even comments on my Insta posts when I’ve champion Dan’s work – literally so LUSH!)

So over to Dan Cimmerman….

Let’s start with the textbook Culture Vulture question, tell me about your journey into the arts?

Cleveland college of art and design, Middlesbrough and then Leeds met Fine art.

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So quite a “traditional route”….Did you always want to be a visual artist?

Yeah. I did want to be a graphic designer at first but I found working to a brief too restricting. I was more suited to fine art, doing what I wanted and with the element of chance I can pursue in painting.

You have a very distinguishable style…. how did that develop over the years?

I’ve always been interested in portraiture. It started at sixth form college, where I would imitate Freud, Bacon and Shani Rhys Jones. Also, Alison Watt, Peter Howson and Hockney too. I travelled a lot after university and found it fascinating how the world imagined Great Britain and the Brits. The stereotypes of the English gent for example or the threat of the hooligan or drunk Brit abroad.

So I started to bring this into my work via figures from British history, defacing them and disfiguring them like a beautiful old pub would be defaced and scarred over time by new generations.

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Tell us about your creative process? How do you go about painting a piece?

I work with quintessential British characters. I’ve painted Captain Cook, George Stephenson, portraits from Sir Thomas Lawrence and Sir Joshua Reynolds. Figures from high art and the upper echelons of society, something that felt a million miles away from my background in Middlesbrough. I never plan a painting or sketch first. All of the experimentation occurs on the canvas or wall. I react to what’s good and bad and build a composition from there.

Chance is the most important thing; it’s finished when it feels balanced.

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How do you select your characters to represent in your portraiture?

Something that strikes me as powerful or interesting to reproduce. It might be the pose, the history behind a portrait or the scale. Changing the scale can be really exciting – creating a large head based on a small portrait gives a new meaning and potency to the original.

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Since starting The Culture Vulture, I’ve discovered so many artists, like yourself – but I used to when I first started out a few years ago, make a tradition of visiting a big piece you had in there and used to always say “when i’ve made it big – i’m going to buy that piece”… I’m still working on it!

Let’s talk – I can give you a discount!

Now let’s chat about you and the Biscuit Factory….How did your relationship with Biscuit Factory start?

I started exhibiting there a few years ago; it was great that they wanted so many pieces for a group show. The space is so vast that their seasonal shows are like a series of solo shows in one. I showed 15 pieces the first time and then had a solo in the main space in 2017 entitled, ‘Northern Soul’. They are a great gallery to work with and they have championed my mural work too – I have produced two large pieces on site there.

I’ve visited The Biscuit Factory many times – I like that they help to make art accessible to the public and champion the work of young artists with their student prizes.

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Mural commission by Great Exhibition of the North outside Ernest, Newcastle

They are one of my fave galleries on a National scale, not just regional….Why do you think it’s important indie galleries like this exist?

The arts are suffering in state education so galleries like this are the future for creatives to meet, buy and show their work.

You’ve got a small pop up exhibition in their Winter Exhibition – tell me more about the pieces in it?

All the pieces were either produced or inspired by a recent residency I did in Tokyo, Japan. They focus on the Brit abroad, a kind of contemporary grand tour for normal folk. The smaller pieces are based on a procession of figures through the streets of Tokyo. There’s a lot of movement on the streets there, thousands of people moving in one direction in an incredibly orderly fashion.

The larger pieces try to simulate my feelings of being alone there – strange language, food, honour rituals, behaviour. Brit abroad. And the compensation for many blunders I made because I was British.

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On display in The Biscuit Factory Winter Show 19

I’m gradually growing my collection of art – in fact moving into a new place in 2020 and I’ve probably thought more about the art I’m purchasing than functional things like “buying a bed”…..Why do you think is a good thing for people to have/own art in their home?

Everyone needs something to stimulate their minds. Whether that be art, design, film, tv. Some kind of visual stimulation. I couldn’t imagine not having art on my walls at home.

You’ve got a large mural piece in Artisan space on the wall in The Biscuit Factory with Henry VIII vibes- can you tell me more about that piece?

Again this is based on my time in Japan, it was completed very soon after my return. I used figures from the Tudor period to represent the stoic, regimented approach of the Japanese. I merged these with geometry and shapes that I saw on the streets of Tokyo.

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Mural inside Biscuit Factory

What other street artists/visual artists inspire you?

Loads. Favourites at the moment are Justin Mortimer, mr Ayrz, Micheal Reeder, Tom Wood, Nicola Samori, Howard Hodgkin, John Wentz, Emilia Vilalba, Neo Rauch, Erik Jones, Ben Slow. I could go on and on.

Do you have a preference painting on canvas or on walls? Is there a process difference?

I prefer canvas in the studio as I can keep dipping in and out, reassessing and refining. But the excitement of a wall piece is hard to beat. I want the work to be immediate. I don’t want to spend too long refining a street piece, I want it to be quick and filled with the energy of that session.

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Well you certainly capture your energy in your pieces – You’ve had such a long career – do you have a highlight you’d like to share?

Portrait of my dad in the BP Portrait Award in 2001. Or getting my work in an exhibition in New York. That’s always been a dream since day one.

Any advice to any aspiring visual artists?

Work hard. Develop a style. No matter how good you are, you need to keep producing work and invest the time to develop. There’s no magic bullet.

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Any advice to artists wanting to approach The Biscuit Factory to display their work?

Get a solid series of work together and send them across to the folks there. Be honest and open about what you want to achieve.

Do you have anything planned for 2020?

Potentially a solo in London and Sheffield. Group show in New York at Booth Gallery. More work with the Biscuit Factory, Sidney and Matilda, Sheffield and Rise Gallery, Croydon.

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Well, that sounds like a busy 2020! Thank you Dan…. It’s so brilliant to see a Northern artist make it regionally, Nationally and Internationally and such a great message for the next generation of creative artists.

Also love the “work hard” message….. a career in the creative industries is not impossible – but it’s about giving 100%, working hard, being authentic…

You can check out some of Dan’s work on his website and you can also visit The Biscuit Factory to view his currently, exhibited pieces. Head on over to their website for info on their opening times this festive season!

Over and out Culture Vultures