JOANNE LAWS INTERVIEWS THREE EARLY-CAREER ARTISTS ABOUT THEIR EXPERIENCES OF MAINTAINING A PROFESSIONAL PRACTICE AFTER COLLEGE.
Joanne Laws: What were your priorities and expectations upon leaving art college?
Cecilia Danell: I graduated from GMIT in 2008 with a BA Hons in Fine Art Painting. I was pretty young at the time, having gone straight into college in Ireland after secondary school in Sweden. Despite being awarded GMIT Paint Student of the Year, and feeling committed to pursuing a career as an artist, I have to admit that I knew very little about the realities of life after college. It was terrible timing, as the recession hit Ireland with full force in 2008 and the art market collapsed, meaning that everyone had to rethink what they were doing. A lot of grassroots initiatives began to spring up, so in that sense it was a very creative time, when artists made art without a market in mind, instead spending time developing ideas and collaborating. It’s not possible to live on fresh air though, so it was challenging, but looking back I miss some of the camaraderie and inventiveness, as well as the availability of empty spaces.
Marcel Vidal: I graduated from NCAD in 2009 with a BA in Fine Art Painting. It was always my expectation that being an artist would be a difficult pursuit, but that sustaining an art practice was possible. Upon leaving college my priorities were to have a studio, to continue to make art and to apply for exhibitions. The hope was also to find a job that would afford the time to be in the studio.
Bassam Al-Sabah: I graduated from IADT in 2016 with a BA in Visual Arts Practice. My expectation was either to take a break from producing art and then do an MA in few years, or to get a studio and start producing work straight away. Receiving the RHA Graduate Studio Award during the summer after graduating really gave me a clear direction for the first year out of college. It allowed me to continue to produce work alongside more established artists, whose career advice has been very helpful.
JL: How have real world experiences compared so far, in terms of access to opportunities and infrastructure?
CD: When I graduated, Facebook was relatively new and Instagram didn’t exist, so we didn’t have the same social media platforms for networking and promotion that recent graduates have. I joined VAI as soon as I finished college and subscribed to the eBulletin, which is a great resource for keeping up with opportunities. I applied for an Arts Council bursary two years after college and was successful – that was a huge boost and gave me time to learn about Super 8 film-making. The following year, I became the 2011 recipient of the Wexford Arts Centre Emerging Artist Award, which progressed my practice immensely, allowing me to realise an ambitious solo show in an arts centre for the first time. I joined Engage Studios in Galway in 2009 and am still there to this day. Being surrounded by more experienced peers helped and inspired me. I got to participate in studio-initiated group exhibitions and curator’s visits. As a professional artist, it’s about having a work ethic and investing the hours into becoming better.
MV: I was fortunate after college to have access to a large and long-term studio. Opportunities to exhibit were not always readily available in the years following college. I also took time away from applications to focus on pushing myself in my studio. I found that access to a workspace has been vital. It allowed me to develop my ideas and exhibition-making strategies, as well as a working methodology that helped sustain my current practice, which has expanded from painting into sculpture. Only recently has it been possible for me to be in the studio full-time; before that I worked part-time.
BA: I think the financial challenges have definitely been the hardest. The first couple of exhibitions I developed after college had no artist fee or funding attached. I happily did those shows because they were in artist-led spaces (run voluntarily without a programming budget). I also needed to build up my CV, experience of exhibiting and I needed some new install shots. It is definitely hard to produce artworks and exhibitions without financial support. It wasn’t until I showed in The LAB Gallery, that I received an artist fee and production budget. With that support I was able to try new things and create artworks with a higher production value. I was lucky in being awarded the RHA Graduate Studio, because I didn’t need to worry about studio rent when I first left college, which, as a graduate in Dublin, would have been very difficult.
JL: What advice would you give final year students, about the realities of maintaining a professional art practice in Ireland?
CD: Graduating is not about becoming an art star overnight; that very rarely happens. It’s about setting up a practice that is sustainable overtime. I would advise graduates to research and apply for opportunities, even if they seem like they’re way out of your league. Don’t be too disheartened by refusals; art is subjective and if your work is strong enough, there will be things out there to suit. Also, learn to speak about your work and write a good artist’s statement. Apply for open-submission exhibitions, group exhibitions, graduate residencies and artist-run spaces and take every opportunity to let curators see your work. Start small, get involved, network and make sure your work is seen. If you are committed to your practice and are strategic about what you apply for, things will happen eventually. Financial challenges are a constant struggle as an artist; any awards or grants help to take that pressure off momentarily. Working full-time and maintaining an art practice is extremely draining. Not having the funds to even buy materials is stressful too, so try to find a balance.
MV: The reality is that being an artist is not an easy pursuit and everyone’s path is different. For me, success has not come from exhibitions but from being able to make art and continuing to push myself. Creating the time and space for ideas has been key to being able to sustain and get the best out of my work. This is why I think it is important to have access to some form of studio space; a place to think, to create opportunities, to plan and devise work. Host as many studio visits as possible and have no expectations – the work should always come first. Apply for everything; every panel is a receptive audience who may not know who you are. Where possible, request feedback. There is always rejection, which just means that your work may not suit what you’ve applied for; there are many deciding factors. Keep working and keep applying.
BA: I think life after art college can be a bit of a shock. You go from being deeply saturated with creative activity – surrounded by other artists as well as all the supports that a college has to offer (studio space and equipment, as well as the lecturers and faculty) – to almost nothing. I think many graduates find themselves lost, wondering what to do or where to begin. My advice is to be as proactive as possible and to set short-term goals that will help you develop a career. For example, if a graduate thinks they need a studio environment to be able to produce work, getting a studio should be their priority. If your focus is on exhibiting work, start applying to open-calls and building up a CV. I think it is really easy to get overwhelmed by insecurity and doubt, so setting these short-term goals can help you focus.
JL: Can you discuss any of your upcoming projects?
CD: Over the past few months, I’ve participated in group shows at Kevin Kavanagh Gallery and the BEEP Painting Biennial, Wales. I am showing in ‘Futures’ at the RHA this November with an upcoming solo show at the RHA Ashford Gallery in 2019.
MV: I have a number of exhibitions coming up: ‘Futures’ at the RHA (2018); a solo exhibition in the RHA Ashford Gallery (2019); and the RHA Hennessy Craig Biannual Award Shortlist exhibition at Tony Ryan Gallery (2019). I will be creating a large-scale immersive environment for ‘Futures’ that creates a dichotomy between the seemingly gentle aesthetic of my paintings and the visceral and brutal aesthetic of my sculptures.
BA: I was recently awarded the Temple Bar Gallery + Studios Graduate Award and I am really looking forward to getting back into the studio and spending the next year exploring new ideas. I have been in a production-focused mindset since graduating, having made new work for two solo shows over the last 18 months; so I’m going to take some time to just go back into experimentation mode and see where that takes me.
Cecilia Danell has been based in Galway since 2004. Her most recent body of work, ‘The Last Wilderness’, was funded through an Arts Council Project Award and was exhibited at Galway Arts Centre and The Dock, Carrick-on-Shannon, in 2017. Marcel Vidal lives and works in Dublin. He is recipient of the Firestation Sculpture Workshop Award & Bursary 2018 and is a current member of Temple Bar Gallery + Studios. Bassam Al-Sabah is an Iraqi artist who moved to Ireland in 2004. Solo exhibitions of his work have been held at Eight (2017) and The LAB (2018). All three artists will exhibit new work as part of the upcoming exhibition ‘Futures, Series 3, Episode 2’ at the RHA (16 November – 21 December).
Bassam Al-Sabah, slide from ‘Illusions of Love Dyed by Sunset’, 2018; image courtesy of the artist
Marcel Vidal, ‘SILVERFISH’, installation view, The Dock Arts Centre, Leitrim, 2018; photograph by Lee Welch; image courtesy of the artist
Cecilia Dannel, Inside a Shadow, 2018, oil and acrylics on canvas, 188 x 137 cm; image courtesy of the artist