Monday 18: How to generate a practice and write about it

This morning we enjoyed three lectures given by artists at varying stages in their careers.

To open the talks for the day, George Shaw gave an autobiographical and entertainingly down-to-earth presentation, which he titled The Age of Bullshit.


“To be quite honest, I think the majority of what I’m going to say, is so antiquated, it’s going to be of absolutely no use to you whatsover. It just seems like the romantic dribblings of an old man on his way out.”

George quotes George Orwell’s Politics of the English Language (1946) to sum up the way in which artists use language to talk about their practice… “‘Orthodoxy of whatever colour seems to demand a lifeless, imitative style.’ I know quite a lot of artists that do quite interesting work, they’re quite interesting people, and when I’ve read some of the statements about their work, I don’t recognise them or the work they’re describing. It’s like they’re describing the work of someone else.”

What’s wrong with writing what your work is actually about? “Are you frightened of sounding like an idiot? If you have to lie, I suggest the thing you’re lying for isn’t worth having.”

From Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letter to a Young Poet (1903)

“‘You ask whether your verses are good. You ask me. You have asked others before. You send them to magazines. You compare them with other poems, and you are disturbed when certain editors reject your efforts. Now (since you have allowed me to advise you ) I beg you to give up all that. You are looking outward, and that above all you should not do now. Nobody can counsel and help you, nobody. Search for the reason that bids you write; find out whether it is spreading out its roots in the deepest places of your heart, acknowledge to yourself whether you would have to die if it were denied you to write. This above all- ask yourself in the stillest hour of your night: must I write? Delve into yourself for a deep answer. And if this should be affirmative, if you may meet this earnest question with a strong and simple, “I must, ” then build your life according to this necessity; your life even into its most indifferent and slightest hour must be a sign of this urge and a testimony to it.’ …You have to ask yourself whether or not what you’re doing is worth that effort, or whether you should just give it all up now and go work in a bank.”

“The only thing I’ve got is my life to give to you, that’s all I’ve got.”

When George finished art school he had no idea what to do, much like the rest of us. He found a job as a film technician, but shortly after having to film a gender re-assignment surgery, he thought “you know what, I don’t want to do this anymore’.

“I thought of myself as an artist, and then I was doing this day-to-day job, and I thought, what the hell am I doing? I have this great hope to be an artist – I’m getting to work for nine in the morning, with an hour commute, going back, earning…I think it was £7500 a year? I don’t even think it was that much. But earning just enough money to live on, didn’t have any friends, didn’t know anybody in London, had nothing to do whatsoever with London life. And all I was looking at were things that I used to think about, all that excitement I had as a kid about how I wanted to be an artist. And how it all went a little bit bent when I went to art school.”

Francis Bacon  ‘personified the romantic artist in the garret’ for George. “I’d become obsessed with his studio, so I thought, I’ll give up all this life in London, I’ll go back to Sheffield. Things seemed to be a lot more straightforward there. I’ll get a studio, because I was friends with some people who rented a studio down by the canal – they seemed to be having a great life: Got up in the morning, went to the studio, went the pub at 12, came out of the pub at 2, went back to the studio, went back to the pub at 7, drinking ‘til 11, went back to bed, went back to the studio  – how was it funded? On the Dole. Perfect!”

George talks about his old Blast Lane studio in Sheffield…

“I went down there last night, it’s now full of apartments and trendy places, when we used to go there, it was full of dead rats and artists. There were no windows…it was perfect…It was like a garret. I remember somebody came from, I think it was Yorkshire Arts, came down, looked at it, were completely horrified, and left. Five hairy-arsed men drinking themselves into oblivion, painting as though the 20th Century hadn’t happened.”

From the film, Of Human Bondage (1934), based on the 1915 novel by Somerset Maughm…George references the scene when the main character, Philip Carey, who is trying to become an artist, asks his tutor for a final tutorial on his paintings:

Tutor: ‘Have you any money?’

Philip: ‘A little, not enough to live on.’

Tutor: ‘Then I must tell you there is no talent here, merely industry and intelligence. You will never be anything but mediocre, and it is very cruel to discover one’s mediocrity only when it is too late. I should know. You see that?’ pointing to the artist’s signature. ‘That does not belong here. It belongs somewhere else. Take your courage in both your hands and make something of yourself.’


Whilst teaching at a school for children with learning difficulties, George became inspired. “I loved the kids’ drawings… I thought, ‘Why can’t I draw like this? This is the best art I’ve ever seen!’ It really was. It really shocked me because it was being made out of necessity, it wasn’t being made out of style, it wasn’t being made because it was part of a project, it wasn’t responding to an exhibition that they’d read about in Frieze, it was coming straight from inside themselves. After about four years, I did start to think I would like to do something…If I could manage to be as honest with what I wanted to do as what these children were…”

George applied to the Royal College of Art and was accepted onto the MA course. It was here that George began to make paintings of places from his childhood and home town in Coventry. “I’m just going to make a painting of the house I grew up in. I don’t care if it’s a good painting or not. Orwell said, ‘be clear about the work you want to make.'”

After completing the course, George moved back to Nottingham to find a studio. He now lives and works in Devon.

“I still make paintings of all the places I grew up in. I’m quite obsessed with my own origins.”

On The Rebel (1961), starring Tony Hancock… “When I was allowed to teach at art schools on a regular basis, I used to show (the film) in the first hour of students being there, and any that were left, were worth teaching.”

“I think the question is, if you want it badly enough, you’ll do it. And if you don’t want it badly enough, I suggest you turn it in my good man.”


Next up we had James Clarkson, an artist in the early stages of his career. James graduated from Sheffield Hallam University in 2010, and has now exhibited internationally, both in group and solo shows.

“That six months after you graduate is the most important…it’s like a really steep hill, and if you get off it along the way, it’s really hard to get going again because you’re already on that incline. You’ve just got to keep going, however hard it is.”

Check out the links page to see the list of websites James recommended using to search for opportunities after graduation.

James’ advice…

  • USE YOUR INITIATIVE – James emailed artist Haroon Mirza and started working for him as an assistant. Through this work with Haroon, he gained valuable knowledge about life as a professional artist, the inner workings of a gallery and was able to make useful new connections with people he never thought he’d have the chance to meet. James recommends getting in touch with an artist who is showing regularly, whose work you are interested in, so you can speak with them and find out first-hand what it’s like to be a practicing professional artist.
  • DO YOUR HOMEWORK – Instead of applying for every opportunity that you come across or submitting an application to any competition, have a look at past winners, people who have submitted work previously. This will give you a better indication of what level of work may be expected from applicants. Look at the CVs of artists who you like or have an affinity with – at which galleries did they exhibit early on in their career? It might be worth starting with these, or with galleries that you know accept work from early career artists.
  • BUILD YOUR NETWORK – With his second solo show at artist-run Rhubaba Gallery in Edinburgh, James was able to build upon his growing network. He was given an opportunity to speak with other artists, ask them where they have previously exhibited, and learn how they are maintaining themselves as artists.
  • COLLABORATE – Working with other people is a great way to build your network and gain experience from others. Collaboration allows you access to other artists’ community of people, thus strengthening your own network as you’re integrating with those outside your own community.
  • BREAK OUT OF THE UK – Try to exhibit outside of the UK. Doing so will put you in contact with new galleries, new artists and help your work to sell.
  • LOOK OUT – Keep looking at new art, visiting galleries, and finding out what is happening in the art world right now. In which galleries do you think your art would sit well?
  • KEEP MAKING WORK – It is vitally important to keep making new work, even if you have little money. Experiment with inexpensive materials and use your time effectively.


Emilie Taylor took a 6 year break before she began making again. Her practical approach to re-starting her creative career involved asking herself various key questions, mapping out her intended progress, and trying to foresee any setbacks.

Where do I want to be in 5 years?

  •  How much money? Where will it come from?
  • How many hours will you work?
  • What kind of studio?
  • Where will you live?
  • What kind of practice?
  • What scale?
  • Production/commissions/residencies/teaching?
  • Local/National/International?

If you know what your desired end result will be, start from there and then trace back every move you think you’ll have to make in order to reach that final goal.


One of Emilie’s goals was to make work that is: Accessible, Attainable, Aspirational

Studio work/place of work/local collaborators/garden shed/friends, family, colleagues/local galleries/open studios

Life/Work Dialogue – Emily wanted to involve her work in her life and her life in her work. She used the resources that she had in her city to get dialogue going beyond her studio. Again, collaboration was valuable to Emilie – if she liked someone’s work she would email them or ask to go for a coffee with them, speak to them about future collaborative projects.

Find opportunities for support and feedback…

  • What do I have? What can I use? Who is interested?
  • Who would you invite to your exhibition?
  • How your work may relate to others?

Adopt a Reflexive Practice:

Is this in keeping with my values?

  • What will it add to mu future practice (will the impact be long term)?
  • Whit will I add – why is my practice relevant?
  • Is it in keeping with my planned career path?
  • Have I got enough time to do it well?
  • Evaluate!

Ask these questions to yourself before beginning any new venture.

Emilie referred to Kolb’s Learning Cycle when speaking about how she develops her work:

Kolb's Learning Cycle

“Utilise inspiration, continue in situations of adversity… If you continue to be creative your work will develop and new opportunities will arise.”



Read about International Art English – the name given to the distinct type of language used by those in the art world.

Take a look at BANK’s Press Release project from 1999.

Go to Artquest for helpful information on how to write your artist statement.

Access Penny McCarthy’s Statement Writing Guidelines for more tips on how to write your artist statement and exhibition proposal.



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