AN AFTERNOON WITH ELLIE BRENNAN
We sat down over a Zoom Call with our good friend Ellie to catch up on what they have been up to since MADE IT 2019. Here's what she said:
SS: How have you been getting on post-graduation?
EB: It’s been fine, I think I’ve probably taken the most stereotypical artist route; I work in a bar and do art on the side, but I’ve been pretty lucky in that I’ve had two different studios in that time, I had my space at Islington mill and I’m now at DMZ in New Islington and that’s pretty cool because I never thought I’d have a studio this new out of uni. It’s really hard because you don’t have your student loan anymore and you’re restricted in time, I work 40 hours a week and have like 8 hours straight time where I can actually work on something significant. I’ve had to manage my expectations of what I think I can actually do in a day, I can’t make a rug in a week anymore; basically at uni you’re getting paid by the government in order to make art but when its coming out of your pocket and your time it’s harder.
SS: How does it feel being out of university as a practicing artist?
EB: I think what happened is that after uni I got a bit sick of it all, and the thing is when you’re in uni – or at least when I was – you’re kind of gifted this wonderful community of artists who are so inspiring and so clever and so into what they’re doing, and you get a pretty good network of tutors, people that are willing to listen and stuff like that, but when you leave you kind of have to find all that stuff again for yourself, and I was so lucky to be in some of the opportunities I’ve been in. Like, MADE IT 2019 and the other bits and bobs I’ve been involved in, even just to speak to people about art again. Customers in the bar don’t want to hear you talk about your art they just want to have a pint, so building up that community after you leave is really important, but I never expected to have studio or even continue making that much I just thought I’d work on stuff in my bedroom and post on Instagram occasionally like “I’m still here!” but it’s worked out quite well actually.
SS: Is it anything like you expected it to be, for better or worse?
EB: I think I left uni with absolutely zero expectations that I would ever do anything again, I was kind of a bit sick of being an artist and I didn’t know if I wanted to be an artist or a textiles person or just work in a bar, like when I started working at the bar I’m in now, I was really into that and really liked working there and I still do like working there, but it’s like anything you do full time, it wears you down after a bit.
SS: Take a second to reflect on your year as an artist – are there any experiences (good or bad) that have really stood out for you?
EB: The last few months have been quite unusual in terms of exhibiting work, because I like exhibiting work, but I wanted to take step back from that and spend more time actually talking about art. I never really did that at uni because I was always scared to be wrong, but I think that has kind of come from my self-development after uni to know it’s not really a bad thing to be wrong, you just have to accept that you are sometimes, or learnt things in an odd way or don’t understand something properly. I went to London, that was very cool, I did a guest lecture with Babeworld and whinegums who are *chefs kiss*. I love them very much; they are very dear to me that little group of friends. I’ve actually known Georgina and Ashleigh online for quite a long time, because we all talk about invisible disability in art and how it is never really taken seriously, so being able to talk about that was pretty cool. I never really thought that I would be able to talk about something like that or that anybody would want to listen to me talk about something like that because I’m not an expert on it I’m just talking about my experience and how that feeds into my criteria for how people can cope with their experience a bit better.
I also got chosen to do a residency in America which is unfortunately cancelled for now, but I wrote an application and got references from people and put a lot of work in to get it right. The pandemic’s just getting in the way at the moment innit? I think MADE IT 2019 did launch a lot of cool stuff, I just felt a lot more comfortable talking to people after that because I felt like yeah, I did just graduate, but I feel like we should all be taken a little bit more seriously and we can all come together to make a very slick professional looking show in a pretty cool venue. It just really helped to like make me see oh yeah this is something I actually can do, it’s not that far out of reach.
I really don’t think I would have kept going with art if I hadn’t have gotten a response from that open call, I would have just been like ah I cba anymore. It gave me the confidence to apply for other opportunities like More T’North at the Harris Museum which I was in more recently so now I have experience of working with a county council and a bigger institution which is pretty nuts, and I never would of thought I could do stuff like that. Being a graduate is really fucking hard, but if we all work as a community instead of going after each other as individuals for opportunities we can make shit happen. That’s what I really like about you and Babeworld and whinegums and a lot of the online Instagram based collectives, is that it’s all about helping other people and not necessarily helping yourself to stuff, I think it’s important to remember there are other artists out there and you don’t necessarily have to apply for every open call because you could be taking away an opportunity from someone who would be so much better suited to it.
It’s a weird one, I’ve done so much in this past year; and yet there’s still all this pressure to be doing more. I think some of the stuff I’ve enjoyed most hasn’t been exhibiting, but getting to talk to people and getting to teach people how I make my work and sharing thing with each other (she discusses her workshops at Convenience Gallery in Birkenhead). I think it’s very important that artists aren’t secretive about how they make their work, I feel like if you really want to help out graduates you should be sharing more, whether that’s skills or resources or anything really. Sometimes that helps more than opportunities, like actually getting to teach people how to do stuff. I nearly cried on the train home after that workshop because it felt so good to help people in that way.
SS: Has your practice changed at all? If so, in what ways and why?
EB: My practice has had to change significantly, in uni I would go in work 8 hours a day and do loads of work outside of uni and that was my entire life, I worked at weekends, so I had the rest of the week to full immerse myself in my practice. Now I do odd shifts with little consistency so it’s hard to find time to actually make art, but you feel more satisfaction when you finish a piece because it may have taken you months instead of a week, you’re not just churning shit out anymore you’re thinking about it more carefully, like it doesn’t just have to be a part of a course work body it’s something to kind of be in a portfolio of work to get you places I guess. I do more hand stuff now (needling) and more slower processes, because I have like infinite amount of time to make a piece I don’t have to rush at all, and I can make work about what I feel like rather than what I’ve written about in all my sketchbooks.
SS: As an emerging artist, do you think there are enough opportunities to put yourself out there? How have you found navigating the art world?
EB: I think it’s nice to have the comfort of labels sometimes, and specific opportunities that are just for people who are at like entry level to the art world. It can be limiting as well though, there are some opportunities you just feel like you won’t get into because if I sent them my art CV they’d probably laugh at it! It’s nice when there are opportunities out there though from people who just want to give you a chance, like fuck it, do what you like, which was how I felt with the American residency a bit, I felt the need to justify myself but they were just like “you are the youngest person to do it, but we really like your work, and that’s all that matters really” which was really nice. It can be hard to find where you fit in, but I think the Manchester art scene is very welcoming to emerging artists.
“Big opportunities aren’t always for late stage artists – they can be for people like me too, who have only just graduated and work in a bar.”
SS: If there was something you could change about the art world, what would that be and why?
EB: I think in general there needs to be a massive shift in the way we treat artists from different backgrounds; working class artists, artists with disabilities and invisible disabilities, artists of colour… there’s definitely a lot of racist, sexist and transphobic undertones in art and that’s why Instagram is such an amazing place for artists nowadays because you don’t really have to tip toe around all of that, you can just be yourself and you get to meet people who want to work with you because of that or despite that. If you are from a working-class background you should still be able to have all the opportunities, you shouldn’t have to pay for application forms or anything like that. That’s one thing I’d like to see abolished. I understand why it happens a lot of the time, and a fiver is fair most people could probably afford that, when you’re asking for like £60+ it’s mental. Basically what needs to change in the art world is there’s a horrible classist thing, there’s a lot of discrimination happening, and most of the bigger galleries probably contribute to it because it’s easier to have artists who are able to do stuff with them and who can afford to do stuff with them. Sometimes you’ll see a line up for a show and think “that’s definitely just your friends and who you think is easy to work with”. It’s changing with the rise of digital communities – not digital degree shows – but activism happening online like your Queer Contemporaries open call or what Babeworld are doing for disabled artists for example – it’s just about saying this is what it’s like being an artist and this is what needs to change. Hopefully by sharing these experiences we can convince people how important these changes are, but it is really hard to do that.
SS: Do you have any advice for upcoming graduates on how to prepare for their year ahead? What can they expect, and do you have some tips for keeping going?
EB: I would say the most important thing for that first year of being an artist is to go into it making sure that you are financially okay, you need to find a way to support yourself in a way that works for you. If you can’t support yourself you’re not going to be able to make art, and if you can find a supportive community that’s really important too. I can’t really give specific advice on how to do that, I just chat a lot and it worked out, but it really is important to visit shows when you are able to or chat with other artists online. Like talk to other graduates, get their take on it, support others and you’ll get that support back. I can’t speak for this year’s graduates because they will have a completely different experience with the situation being fucked up by strikes, covid etc. but try to have confidence in what you were doing and just make sure you are still enjoying what you’re making because if you’re not there’s no point in doing it. I can genuinely say that every piece of work I’ve made I’ve enjoyed making, or found some comfort in making it or learned something from it. Don’t always make work with just an open call or application in mind, just make work and opportunities will find you and you’ll find them. Also, we got told to blanket apply a lot, to just apply for everything you possibly can, but you’ve just spent three years doing that; give yourself a little break. Apply for what interests you and what you think will be beneficial for you. You don’t have to stress about bigger stuff.
SS: What’s the most important thing you’ve learned over this last year that you feel has had a significant impact on yourself as an artist and/or your practice?
EB: I think that the most important thing that happened this year was learning a little bit of confidence; when I got accepted for that residency that was just incredible, like it really boosted my confidence and made me realise that all these people who you look up to your tutors doing cool residencies, popular artists on Instagram with thousands of followers and you get told that won’t happen for you; it does happen, but you have to be confident in what you’re doing and saying. People will know if you doubt yourself, they will see holes in your practice before you do and it’s about realising not everybody is going to like what you do or be your biggest fan. In uni I found I had a really positive experience and people were really supportive and told me they liked what I was up to a lot, and then in third year the tutors were like “what are you doing??”. You aren’t making work to please tutors, you’re just making work and getting on with it and exploring stuff you may not have done before. Big opportunities aren’t always for late stage artists, they can be for people like me too who have only just graduated and work in a bar. If you aren’t confident in yourself, take a break and reflect on why that is. Honestly a lot of it is blagging it, and sometimes that works. You learn as you go.
SS: Are there any projects from the last year or any current projects you’re working on that you’d like to talk about?
EB: I’m just enjoying making work at the moment. I was really focused on getting a good body of work to take to America, but now that’s postponed I’m just chilling. I might set up a little shop to sell some tufted bits, you know. I think what I want for the rest of this year is to just spend time doing things, even if I think that I’m not necessarily going to get an opportunity from it, I want to make for the sake of making and do things that make me feel good about myself – like baking bread and making blankets and sourdough starters! It’s hard to plan more than that at the moment, but that’s okay. I am quite interested in maybe starting to work in mental health, or work on projects that help get the word out about things that really matter. It’s important to have something besides art, it’s good to have a job and be distracted by other stuff sometimes, I think if I were to be an artist full time I’d go mental – if I had to untangle wool for 12 hours a day I’d lose my shit, so I think now is a good time for me to start thinking about building a career outside of art. The world is fragile, you have to know how to adapt to that.
SS: Bonus Q – Any shout outs for artists, organisations, gallery groups, websites, resources etc that have supported you over this year or that you just want to recommend graduates and emerging artists look out for?
EB: I would love to! Get me on my soap box! Babeworld (Ashley and Georgina), whinegums (Ellie) – what they’re doing with the lecture series at RCA is really important for giving artists like me a platform to just talk about what we want, and not expecting it to be really formal and that. Like I just sat with my laptop and spoke about cat memes and being a bit weird sometimes! What they’re doing is really important, and I really appreciate everything they’ve done for me, and they are very sweet people. Also, convenience gallery in Birkenhead who’s supported me doing workshops and stuff, they’re incredible, very good people. Also, Robyn Nichol, sweet little sausage, I love her she’s incredible too. She’s actually one of the first artists that I was nervous to meet because she’s so cool, she made me feel like well if Robyn can do it I can do it; we can all make a living off our art and it doesn’t have to be commission based or anything like that. I just love her work and I think she’s an incredible person. Just everyone I follow on Instagram is so lovely. Also, my little team and the Pilcrow where I work – they’re amazing and I love them very much and they’ve always been very supportive of me doing art, just letting me be the weird strange person I am with all of them. I appreciate my work family so much.
Thank you so much to Ellie for taking the time out of her very busy schedule to answer our questions - she's one to keep an eye on!