New “artist’s statement”

I recently wrote this extract for a competition entry, but it might as well be my new artist’s statement. It was interesting to see how my ideas have changed after a year of studying at The Florence Academy of Art


I see art as an intersection between reality and the self, a way of making sense of the world around me. The subject - or image - is secondary to the process of art making, as the act of translating reality is elevated beyond mere mark making to a lifestyle and endless personal journey. Thus, art has become a rumination on the vastness of reality for which I can only humbly represent through the limitations of my medium, skill and understanding.

The underlying principle that I adhere to in both my life and practice is "variety within unity," whereby my artistic decisions are always informed and governed by the constraints of my subject. Since I work exclusively from life, this means my subject matter is reality itself.

My interest in the figure and portrait stems from my fascination of the boundary between the private internal world of human beings and the external world around them. Everything we do is a constant battle between the limitations of our humanity and the infinity of reality: the decisions we make, our ideas of ourselves and others, our own personal narratives and our views on history, are all influenced by preconceptions which we conflate with the oneness of reality. If "to err is human" and as Hogath put it, drawing is "the art of varying well", then drawing becomes a way of life.

My research is currently focused on the practice and philosophical approach of pre-modernist European and American artists, especially the mid-to-late nineteenth century. I feel that art history is too vast, deep and complex to ignore and that focusing on the twentieth century alone is impractical.

I genuinely feel that the art establishment of today is far too focused on the motifs, subject and narratives portrayed in artwork of the past, entirely missing the point. There is no doubt in my mind that the masters we all admire knew that everything is connected, as though marching to a single drum beat: every atom and electron, the cycles of the seasons, the ebb and flow of the tides and even our own heartbeat, are all instruments playing in the same orchestra. It is the artist's job to arrange the music, to make sense of the chaos, and to bring unity to the endless variety of the human experience. If you take the time to really look, to contemplate and let go, you too can tap into the flow of these rhythms.

My painting, “Thread of Thoughts,” explores these themes. Depicting a young artist at work, surrounded by her creations, one can only wonder if these are objects are physically there with her or if they exist entirely in her head. She works with sewing, crochet and embroidery; mediums often derided as mere craft, but she is very much a contemporary artist, lost in a single moment.

What to expect in your first trimester at The Florence Academy of Art

My life-long dream has come true: I am studying at The Florence Academy of Art at last. With its mantra of, “form in the lights and atmosphere in the darks,” there could be an institution with no better fit for my practice.

If you’re reading this and considering joining the school, perhaps this will give you a better idea of what life is like at The FAA.

Our days are long and broken down into three parts. The teachers and brochures will say two, but in reality it’s three. Here they are:

  • Project / Studio work: this consists of copying drawings by Charles Bargue, and then casts later in the year. Bargues help you first get a feel for pencil and charcoal, but more importantly, it helps train your eye to see shapes, read value and understand proportion. You’ll probably do two in your first trimester and start on your third if you’re studious enough.

  • Model room: another three hours, this time with a live, nude model. There is a huge misconception about why we have a black background (which we don’t always have), with people thinking that it is a stylistic choice. It is really to just help us get a larger value range so we can model the form better. In other words, it is easier to make the form look three dimensional if you use the full range of lights and darks. the nudity is there so that we can get a sense for the human form, and besides, even if you want to paint clothed figures later, you still have to understand how the form of your subject operates underneath.

  • Evening Drawing: one mandatory class a week, but in reality you should be going to three a week. These are arguably the most important lessons, even though we are simply producing humble pencil sketches. In first year we just focus on the outline and shadow line. This is incredibly helpful as this is similar to the initial block in stage of any drawing or painting, and carries the larger impression of the subject. My advice to any new student would be to go to as many of these as possible right from day one.

In addition to this gruelling 9am - 7pm schedule, we also have a casual portrait club on Saturdays (which I attend religiously), anatomy class on a Monday evening (includes drawing from a live model), and a fantastic art history lecture to cap off the week on a Friday.

The average student at the average art institution would never be seen dead at a lecture on a Friday night, but the entire school goes, without fail, every week. Be ready to entirely give yourself over to this experience.

Below are some examples of my academic study from the first trimester.

Ways of Seeing and of being Seen – Essay by Curator Dr. Michael Petry

Below is an essay written by Dr. Michael Petry for the catalogue made for the opening of "Rough to Smooth" - the exhibition at the end of my residency. 

He touches on the idea that artists need both skill and creativity in order to be successful, something which I could not agree with more. 

Ways of Seeing and of being Seen – Essay by Curator Dr. Michael Petry

When an artist makes a work, in most cases, they want others to see that work. It seems like a simple statement but it is rather more complex than that. If you view a work of art in a contemporary museum, like Tate Modern, you will see it in a different light than if you view it in an historic museum like the National Gallery. The context alters your perception of how important that work is, and if a painting is shown on the railings of a park, you will see it in a very different light. The American artist David Hammons sold snow balls of various sizes on the streets of New York in 1983 as a performative work called Bliz-aard for a few dollars each. Very few people thought to purchase work from the world famous artist of colour who looked rather like all the other street vendors (regardless of race) wrapped up in a scarf, overcoat and hat against the cold. His works sells for millions of dollars in the galleries and at auction houses, yet seeing work on the street distances most viewers from the possibility of seeing art.

Context is so often tantamount in our reaction to a work of art. If we see a painting in a white cube space we will immediately know that it is contemporary art. So what is a work of art in a Masonic building? That is the core question facing viewers as for many it will be the first time they have ever entered such a space. Historically, membership of Freemasonry has remained private, and masonic rituals remain closed to the public. In recent years Freemasons have become more open about their membership, discussing the meaning of the ritual and what it represents. This year they have opened their doors to an artist in residence who, for the past few months, has had unique access to many spaces. The result of Jacques Viljoen’s efforts, along with works by other artists most of whom have made specific work for this show, will be seen alongside work by two artists who themselves are Freemasons.  They have access to certain rituals that no one who is not a Freemason has, and one of them has made work about it.

How we see is also a context of what we are allowed to see. It is not only Freemasons who have chosen what level of public engagement they seek, but most institutions do so, and many artists also choose what is put out in galleries for an audience to see. The British Museum is well known for housing parts of erotic Egyptian and Classical sculptures that once so offended Victorian tastes. Ever the conservators, the British Museum has kept them, and if you are a scholar, you can write in to have access to them, but they are not on public display even to this day. The Vatican has one of the largest collections of what is termed pornography and that too is only for the Pope’s viewing and those with the right credentials. Art is a powerful force in the world, and has the possibility to disrupt. Even today, in the more liberal West, art can still shock, and it is often those who are never seen, who decide what the viewer is allowed to see.

Then there are many ways that an artist might see and then make their work.  There is no real hierarchy of how to make, or which method is best, as each has its own plusses and minuses. There is Conceptual art, Expressionism, Arte Povera, and also the Academic tradition, amongst the many ways a contemporary artist might chose to see the world and then translate it into their own work. My book The Art of Not Making (Thames & Hudson) looks at the long history of artists handing over their work to fabricators and assistants to physically ‘make’ the work but points out that the finished objects are the work of the original artist. This is a way of making art with a long distinguished history. Many paintings by Rembrandt (1606 – 1669), bought from him in his studio are now considered ‘School of’ as they were either completely or partially painted by his assistants. But do not be in any doubt, Rembrandt signed those works as he saw them as his own. He oversaw and designed them and usually painted at least part of them. They are now virtually discarded by the art world and their value decreased by millions, yet were he alive today Rembrandt would soundly defend them as his – as he sold them as his. Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680) the man many consider the father of the Baroque, famously only made small models that he gave to his assistant Giuliano Finelli to carve full size in marble. Eventually they fell out and Finelli, who was said to be the best stone carver in Italy, set up his own studio, but it was not a success because he had no ideas of his own. He could carve anything he was given perfectly but he had only a small artistic vision. He could see how to carve what others wanted, but could not see what he should make as his own.

There is an endless list of artists working in this way both in the past and present. The major minus of this method of production is that it is harder for the artists to push the material further if they have little understanding of the physical making process. That said it does not take away from their accomplishments and the same is true for the exact opposite way of making, Sight Size painting. This is a method taught in many classical art academies and requires the artist to set up their canvas so that they can copy exactly what they see. It produces realistic artworks that should also be accurate to the original, be it a portrait, landscape or still life. The system requires the artist to set up their canvas so that when they look at the subject it is the exact same size as they sketch or paint it on the canvas, making it easy to measure the accuracy of the mark making. The artist can make the size of their work bigger or smaller by moving their canvas closer or further away from their subject. Many of the artists in the exhibition use this method of art making and it gives the exhibition its unity. One obvious drawback with this method is it only allows for certain types of views as canvases are not particularly portable and artists are only rarely allowed to view places like the inside of the Freemasons’ Hall.

Equally Freemasons are in the process of seeing themselves anew and this openness is to be commended and it is hoped other closed institutions will learn by their example. Being seen is as important as seeing, ask any minority group who now demand to see their own faces on film and television. The veil has a long history in many cultures, but in the end, it is always the desire to lift it that wins the day.

Dr. Michael Petry