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How I (Nearly) Made It as an Artist (or “What Not To Do”)

Back in 2001, I had what was essentially a major solo show at The Custard Factory, a large space in Birmingham, the UK‘s second city. I’ve not talked about that show on this blog, and it’s high time.

I was going through my storage unit the other day where I archive a lot of my old work. It brought back memories of this show.

It was a big deal for me. It was everything I’d ever wanted – a show that I could use to build my audience, credibility and client list.

I’d been invited up there by a friend of a friend, and it was a great opportunity, so I grasped it with both hands. Showing at the Custard Factory was and still is a big deal. It’s one of those big spaces that you can hire if you have enough money. And for that time I did. It was a gamble.

At that time, I had a studio space in South London that was sub-let to me by another artist friend. I went into full overdrive mode for 6 months, and pretty much took over the space making 12 works two metres high that were to form the centrepiece of the show, as well as other smaller works, plus I had built up a pretty good inventory of older works that I could put in. I could never understand so many artists that I knew who had so much talent, but wouldn’t put the hours in. It took me years just to get to the point where I had a studio space, and I wasn’t going to waste a second of it.

To my mind I just had to have the biggest show possible and sell all of the work, which would get the ball rolling – I could re-invest the money from the sales to bankroll further shows, and so the snowball would start. I knew that I wasn’t great at meeting people and charming them when it counted. The idea of schmoozing at Private Views is not something that comes naturally to me. I’ve got better at it over the years, but back then it was a relief to know that I was being invited up to do a show and that someone else was going to take care of all that side of it for me.

I didn’t realise that in order to get going, you had to keep going. One show doth not make an artist. You have to keep doing more shows like that over and over, repeatedly lining them up, doing other things. You probably need to start smaller and build up to it. I wanted to take the shortcut to the fairy tale gallery dealer coming in out of nowhere unexpectedly and throwing his money around, and of course it wasn’t going to happen. Looking back I can’t believe how naive I was.

Not only that, but the guy who I was relying on to get people to the show had a genuine series of misfortunes that meant that very few people came to the opening night. The magazine he had invited to cover the show went under the day before. Several people he’d lined up to come along were no-shows. I could blame him for it all, but that wouldn’t be fair. I could see that a most of it wasn’t his fault, and to be fair it was just as much about me trying to put all my eggs in one basket. I don’t hold a grudge and we’re still friends to this day.

Instead of being lined up to do the next one, I came back tired, un-sold and broke. The last thing I wanted was to put myself through the same experience all over again.

The (as I saw it) failure of the show knocked me for six and I don’t think I’ve ever recovered. I didn’t know it then, but I was pretty much at the beck and call of severe forms of anxiety, that came from what I now know to be Emotional Disregulation.

It’s fairly normal to have ups and downs in life – highs and lows are part of what happens, even the low lows. However, in Emotional Disregulation those highs and lows are magnified out of all proportion. Very innocent and innocuous comments made by people off hand, for example, can land and hit heavily with the sufferer. Lasting depression, uncontrollable ruminations and worries stagger on for days often from very trivial matters. Anxiety spirals are an issue of their own that follows on, but the simplest thing can be a trigger. When a genuine catastrophe occurs, the anxiety goes off the register, sometimes leading to total emotional shutdown. Even very small distractions render me totally un-able to concentrate. It’s one of the reasons why I like working on my own. No-one else is there, and the work is more likely to get done if I have some peace and quiet. Emotional Disregulation or Hypersensitivity is often linked with Borderline Personality Disorder. Thankfully I’ve never had that diagnosis, at least.

The show that I had wanted for so long, that I had put far too much faith in, invested a lot of time and energy in not only affected me deeply (as it would) but the hypersensitivity that has been a constant feature of much of my life magnified my sense of failure a hundred fold. I can remember driving a hire van back down the motorway with the contents of that show in the back. I thought I hadn’t screwed it all down properly and every time I hit the brake I could hear this clattering sound. I thought that by the time I got back to London, my work would just be a pile of wood fit only for the scrapheap. (It wasn’t)

Since then, I’ve gone from the boy who wouldn’t miss a day in the studio to the man who can’t get it together. Work is slow, almost to the point of imperceptibility at times. There’s a part of me that still can’t get over that show, even though I’ve had shows since.


Maybe writing this post will be cathartic. I certainly look back with the thought that through social media tools like Twitter and Facebook, that side of generating interest in your artwork has become a lot easier in recent years – it certainly eases the sting out of social interaction, and leads to the real-life connections in a way that’s a bit smoother and that I can cope with better. This makes organising things like private views much simpler and easier to do.
Somewhere, somehow though, I’m not done yet. I’m still going, even though at times progress is so slow it almost appears non-existent. Even though right now, I don’t know how or when, I’m still going. Just be patient.


Publicity shot for the show at The Custard Factory

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