Urban Scrawl -the de-brief Part One

Its a bit early for a complete debrief as the Urban Scrawl show is still on until 18th June but its a good time for me to gather some stories for you about how the preview event itself went and what lessons I learned from it. All the photos in this post are by Paul Hart who kindly agreed to be my official photographer  for the night and wielded his extremely subtle Fujifilm XT-1 mirrorless camera with skill.

My previous post showed the room as it was before people arrived  which I felt looked good but empty. Cold despite the baking hot day. Soulless even. A room with stuff in.  But once the people arrived and started to interact with the art, it seemed to come to life and suddenly it was vibrant and buzzing. The key to that happening was without a doubt the wonderful Matuš Bagár who came to play the grand piano for me. He chose mainly to play improvisational jazz as his response to the art.

Matt Bagár does his stuff. And does it fabulously

I know he was nervous before hand and the gallery owner caught him hiding out of the landing just before opening, taking a few deep breaths. So I thought it kinder not to tell him that Mike McCartney was coming. But it was a highlight of the night to see his face after Matuš told Mike he really wanted be a musician and was told in response that he already was a great one. I agree with the esteemed Mr McCartney.  If anyone needs a pianist, let me know and I will put you in touch.

matus, Nisha, Ro and Mike
Matt Bagár, Nisha Katona, Ro and Mike McCartney

Indeed, it was the people who attended who made the night for me. I had colleagues, former bosses, fellow artists, students, customers of the gallery, family, the parents of my very first boyfriend from pre-Uni days who I hadn’t seen in years, book club members, friends of friends, four members of the Press, and I couldn’t turn around without someone new wanting to talk to me. I was staggered that people travelled from as far as Ealing and Durham making weekend trips based around their desire to see the show. There were so many guests that the bar was struggling to cope and particular thanks has to go to my Mum who snuck into to the kitchen and spent a good proportion of the evening washing glasses!

The turn out was particularly humbling to me because one of the main  mental battles that Lisa Call my coach helped me through in the last year or so was the fear of ‘coming out’ as an artist at work and what people would think of me. It proved to me ( as she had tried to convince me long before I believed her!) to be a totally unwarranted fear. I was astounded, delighted and brought to tears by the support I got from everyone in my day job, both those that attended and those who sent messages of support.

Joanna and Tom
Colleagues Joanna Mallon and Tom Fazakerley. When it got hot in the room the postcards proved useful fans!

I had four main series on show under the umbrella of  Urban Scrawl. The ones I had been least confident about being suitable for an art gallery normally dealing with painting were my Left Behind series. They were pure fabric and paper collages with hand and machine stitch. No paint at all.  Yet, these were the most popular with the buying public with only two remaining as I write. I think a part of that was the fact that there were two large ones at £270 ( one sold) and eight smaller ones with a deliberately more affordable price point of £85. I am very conscious that art is a luxury in the current economy.

However, the reasons people gave for liking them (whether they bought or not) was the story behind them which was about Chinese seamen deported after World war II leaving families behind. I had that on the walls and also in printed leaflets which had articles about all the pieces and which were left for free on the tables in the room. Many people talked to me about how they found a personal connection with the story (some people knew families affected, one was an architect working on a memorial garden). Others spent a lot of time looking closely at the pieces and finding ways to interpret the fragments of cloth and paper and the placement of the stitches. One of those ladies – an old friend of mine – had been bashful when invited  to my show saying she had never been to an art gallery and wasn’t sure what to wear or do. But she was eloquent and confident when describing what she saw in the piece she bought.


Eloise contemplates the overhead railway pieces
Eloise looks at the Overhead Railway pieces

I have long started with stories as the base for my work, right back to my starting days as an art quilter with the Twelve by Twelve group. The Overhead Railway set had a story too and also sold pieces. I was touched that the gallery owners said they sat for an hour in front of those pieces looking and discussing them before the show started. It was confirmed to me that I am right to think about going back to those roots in story telling and to deliberately cultivate that aspect of my work. I realised as I write the leaflets in the last days before the show how much the stories I tell in my art mirror the stories and concerns I choose to deal with in my day job. So, although I might be telling other people’s stories, the fact I chose them and how I interpret them also has an autobiographical element.

alan and me
Taking a moment to greet a good friend from my days as a solicitor, Alan Morris.

I was a little worried that the graffiti based pieces, Street Tags, Inner Court Yards, Empty Streets and Yellow Lines would remain unloved. these have no story other than the story of me turning myself in to an abstract artist and learning to make art I liked, for myself and with confidence. I think it is fair to say that the absence of a story made it harder for some people to connect with those pieces. I was amused when a Policeman present told my husband he could not imagine them in his house because when he looked at them he simply  thought “criminal damage”! ( I never got time to educate him on the art of legal graffiti!).

However, I did in fact make four sales of these pieces and it was noteworthy that one went to a friend who I had predicted would come to support me but would not like the style of art.  In fact they bought a very abstract piece for a relative and when I asked why that had picked that one, they told me that the title : Down by the Riverside reminded them of the summer birthday that this relative had and where they lived. So even then the story – or at least the ability of the viewers to create their own story from a hook given in the title  – seemed to  help.

Shirley and Bill
Bill “the Builder” and Shirley Moore. Bill built my studios – without him, no art and no show. He is an artisan in his own right. 

I had also debated about the ‘best’ way to finish the abstract works: stretch over canvas or framed. ‘Best’ both as in how they looked and how I thought they would sell.  I personally loved the way my textile pieces looked when professionally framed. They felt like real art! To my surprise the gallery owner preferred the canvases saying he thought the glass deadened the art. ( His colleague disagreed!).

It seemed to  be matter of taste with both types selling. That said, Bill the Builder was debating between two pieces, one canvas, one framed. His wife made the choice for him choosing the framed  piece as it would get less dusty. Maybe a decision particularly important in the house of a man who frequently rips his kitchen out and replaces it just because he is bored!

CJ and me
Christine “CJ’ Johnson explains how she was acting for a ‘telephone bidder’.

I had just two pieces in the show in my Skyline series. I knew them to be probably the most commercial but chose to focus on work that most fulfilled me rather than making small variations of these. Of course, I could have sold these three times over and I do have a commission to do another one. I was thrilled with the homes these are going to. One was chosen by  the inspiring (and beautiful)  Nisha Katona ( see photo above) founder of Mowgli Street Food and author of Pimp My Rice. A celebrity sale! The other went to a colleague who had decided to buy even before the show and had asked a friend to take images and send them to her for her choice as she could not attend. That amount of premeditation and deliberate support  took my breath away.

Sue and Skyline
Sue Sherriff takes photos for a lovely blog review she had online before I even got home

I think that’s enough for now. Sometime soon I’ll do another post about the practicalities of putting on the show and what I learned from that. Thanks for reading!

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