So… I’m back to being an artist again, full circle so to speak.
My earlier Sound Art work beginning more than a decade ago took me on an exciting journey from artistic creation into product design and into the commercial world that comes from having a good artistic idea, popular in an applied context.
This world of ‘popular’ appeal is essentially a world where you repeat a successful idea again and again because people want to buy it., in my case this became UK schools & Local Authorities to whom I supplied outdoor musical instruments for school playgrounds, parks and public play areas.
It feels good to hear the phone ring and listen to strangers want to place an order. You get caught up in the flattery and the feel-good that comes from having your work valued. Then you create some new, similar products that also sell, and then a few more. As you sell more, you facilitate production and manage efficiencies, you standardise technical production and then employ others to make your popular product, someone to count the numbers, deal with emails… As the years pass, the business grows, you keep subdividing the work into manageable chunks, you need more space, transport requirements, trade partnerships, suppliers, creditors, a GOOD accountant… Tax liabilities dictate company status, tentative global franchising opportunities appear. Turnover graphs are healthy, the bank’s phoning offering a loan despite being in a recession. It’s Business growth and success in every economic term. Nobody understands your business like you do, and try as you might to avoid it, there are many things that must land at your door, every day…. It took 10+ years to achieve such ‘success’.
But here is the rub. Every one of those details has its own micro details and thought processes, each level of management detail takes you one step further from where you started. You become the maintenance manager of the machine, defender against intellectual thieves, chaser of invoices and do-er of ‘everything else’, whatever it takes to make it run smoothly and all being well grow in commercial success.
BUT what happens to the art? That well of creativity that sparked the imagination and the overwhelming itch that is only scratched by exploration, curiosity and willingness to fail? In any 24 hr period that is already overfilled, where does the time come from to nourish the soul that created the great ideas from where the business started?
It is ironic that in many ways I had become a victim of my own creative successes, modest in scale as they may have been. What is absolutely true is that the artist in me gnawed increasingly at my gut, growing feelings of increasing frustration with my ‘manager’ role and a nagging dissatisfaction that I was selling out to the commercial drivers. I am an artist, not a manager. How did I paint myself into this corner? So many people rely on me keeping it all together that for me there is no relief. Aaargh!!
When I started, there was no outdoor musical instrument industry in the UK, as time went on, and accelerated by my appearance on BBC Dragon’s Den, there developed an increasing level of competition. Competitors demonstrated a cavalier approach to copying my artworks and designs, far too many for me to defend legally. Requests to cease and desist were either ignored or responded to with a ‘get stuffed’ or ‘sue me’. Already maximising our resources, we had not the money to pursue anyone, legal advice was that action would be expensive and in no way certain of a result in our favour. An immensely frustrating scenario.
A small, specialist business is always vulnerable to changes in their primary marketplace. In 2010, just as we were in advanced discussions for selling a master franchise into the USA, the government slashed 25% off all UK school budgets in one fell swoop. A sudden massive cut in our primary customer base. The effect was instantaneous as our customers ‘puckered’, stopped spending on non-core items So we watched others with bigger pockets as they profited from the new markets I created and to add insult to injury, were cynically using my designs that kickstarted the industry. We surrendered our premises, staff were let go, apprentices released, vehicles taken off the road and eventually there only existed me and a part-time administrator / book keeper. I worked from a large shed in my garden and an office in the house, back where I started a decade before.
The process of business failure provided an indescribable kind of pain, like Sisyphus rolling the rock up the hill only to watch it roll back down again. The business in which I had invested everything was on life support, only kept alive by my never-say-die attitude and willingness to work for zero wage. In 2012, two and a half years after the budget cuts, I stopped fighting. At the end of 2013 I switched off life support before it took me down with it.
Whilst losing a decade of life-investment, it would be easy to give up, but in a ‘making-lemonade-from-the-lemons mindset, I have had to become philosophical and with a range of new options opening up again, to prioritise the next stage based on developing the art at the core. No more manufacturing, no more staff, no more responsibility apart from myself. Travelling light was the priority. I started to study photography, a life-long hobby and fascination. I enjoyed the intellection stimulation and rigour provided by academia however I realised that I wanted to shoot photographs as art rather than shooting weddings or babies. I left after 12 months and was later awarded a HNC because of credit points accumulated during my time at SERC.
This ‘next’ stage involved me going back to school, the Belfast School of Art to be precise. The MFA studios became my new 9-5 office several days a week. My original intention was to formalise the years of experience in my sound art / product design field and marry that with my very practical commercial experience in functional public sound art and outdoor musical instruments.
My experience has been different from my intention however, largely due to the nature of the School of Art and to the people & amazing support network / facilities that are there. After a semester struggling with indeterminate direction it became clear that fine art photography and video art were where I needed to be putting my energies. Once that decision was made, the paths became less rocky, the challenges less challenging, the joy of creation came back.
Living with risk and uncertainty has become a way of life for so many years that I have been emboldened to take leaps of faith into the unknown. Failure is to be anticipated and only temporary. I have no fear of making a wrong move because even the wrong move is better than the paralysis of fear. Every time I have failed I have learned but most of all I have learned that the fear of failure kills the spirit.
Currently I am starting MFA year 2 and I am so excited to be back in this environment. I think I appreciate it more because I have existed outside of it and can appreciate the incredible resources at my disposal, most of all time and the environment in which it is safe to fail.
My art lesson consists of two parts.
1. I need to be be careful of what I wish for – ‘success’ will corrupt.
2. If I don’t fail, I’m not trying hard enough.