Simon Kirk is a talented British artist whose work http://www.simonkirkfineart.com/ really captures the spirit of everyday people yet it’s also quite sophisticated. I enjoyed his postings on social media for some time before I contacted him for this interview. I’m so glad I did because we had a great chat. Here’s Simon …
“… I think a room with original art on the walls is far more interesting than one with commercial prints. Original art stimulates conversation. It allows people to share thoughts, feelings and ideas that they might not ordinarily share …”
MICHAEL: Simon, I must say that I've never seen art quite like your work. It's hip and edgy yet friendly and fun at the same time. I can tell that you're a very serious artist, but you're not trying to intimidate or overwhelm me with your brilliance. Am I on the right track?
SIMON: Thank you so much Michael. That is much appreciated. I’m really glad you picked up the friendly and fun element. That is what is great about collage. It is a medium that is simultaneously serious and tongue-in-cheek. They say a bad comedian laughs at his own jokes, but I do often chuckle away to myself. I think it has a lot to do with the nature of how I create the work.
Ideas are developing and decisions about the composition are taking place on the pieces themselves, without the traditional transition through a sketchbook. Because there’s not that extra part of the process, I can be more spontaneous. Ideas filter through me quicker and I think the audience responds to that. You could say I go into a kind of ‘trance.’
In my mind, I’m planning what I will do with the piece in front of me several ‘moves’ ahead based on what juxtapositions of text and collage I can see in the boxes around me. It can be a memory game; this piece of collage would be perfect for this piece, now where did I see it? But other times it happens in seconds – images and text collide and create observations that I wasn’t expecting. At that moment, I am kind of my own audience seeing the piece I have created for the first time. I can have an honest reaction. It’s taken years for me to develop my style and it’s the way I feel most comfortable working.
MICHAEL: So many young artists feel they have to develop a style, but is it about developing a style or recognizing their style?
SIMON: Good question. For me, the two things happened concurrently. When I was younger, I was predominantly a figurative painter, very traditional in that sense. When I went to art college, I began to feel extremely limited. It was a very frustrating time. I couldn’t see how I could solve the problem of first deciding what I wanted to ‘say’ and then how I would ‘say’ it.
My first real development came through sculpture. I knew I was no longer a figurative painter, but I wasn’t ready to leave the figure behind entirely. So I’d sculpt a body or a hand and then focus on one part of the piece and make abstract drawings and paintings from it. The sculpture was my figurative security blanket! I still felt a connection to the figure, but I was expressing myself in an entirely different way.
I discovered the work of William Burroughs and began introducing text into my work, which then evolved into incorporating elements of collage. I experimented with screen printing, which I found effective but unsatisfying. For a while, colour disappeared entirely from my work, which is hard to believe now. I was working purely in monochrome. One of my tutors would always say that the worst thing that can happen is to reach a creative peak at art college, and that rang true. It was a wrestling match for the entire 3 years I was there. I left in 1999 with all the elements of my work in place, the things that would inspire me going forward, but I’d say I was still developing my style up until about five years ago, when it all clicked into place perfectly. I compare it to learning an instrument in so far as you can’t express the music in your head if you don’t learn the mechanics first.
MICHAEL: And so …
SIMON: In addition to that, what I would say to young artists is be honest with yourself. Don't work backwards by trying to second guess what people want to see.
MICHAEL: Yes, I totally agree. Much of what I see of your work also has a slightly folksy narrative. Each painting seems to have a story that may be unclear, but it's there. Is that intentional?
SIMON: Definitely. I want to engage the viewer’s imagination and leave space for their own stories to emerge. I love films, especially those films that don’t have a linear plot, like David Lynch films for example. You recognise all the scenarios, you can understand the language and you almost know what’s going on, but not quite. It’s open to interpretation.
I like the use of the word ‘folksy’. The work has to be unpretentious, or it loses its charm. As you said in your first question, I’m not trying to intimidate or overwhelm people. When I talk to people at exhibitions and they say to me, “This is probably wrong, but I see this…” I always let them know their interpretation is as valid as anybody’s. That's part of the beauty of combing otherwise unrelated images and text. The resulting narrative is always greater than the sum of its parts. People bring their own experiences and associations and make their own connections.
MICHAEL: London seems like a super-hip art city to me. Maybe even more than New York. How do everyday people in Britain view contemporary art? Here in America, most people prefer sports and other things.
SIMON: Yes, London has a great reputation for contemporary art and houses some of the greatest collections of art in the world. It’s a very wealthy city, so it has the money. It’s the biggest city in Europe with over 8 million people, so it has the audience. It’s also very multi-cultural. For instance, more French people live in London than in Bordeaux. So artists have access to an incredibly wide client base.
Londoners pride themselves on their cosmopolitan attitudes, so they’re very receptive. But London is not representative of the rest of the United Kingdom. I’d say that outside London, the general attitude to art is very conservative and traditional. Don’t misunderstand me – people appreciate contemporary art outside London and there are artists working and creating all over the country, but that ready-made audience is unique to London. You have to work much harder to find your market if you’re not in the capital.
In terms of the average person in Britain, I’d agree most prefer other things. I think most people have an inherent suspicion of contemporary art. For instance, when I was at art college, the Young British Artists (Damien Hirst, Tracy Emin et al) were exhibiting in the ‘Sensations’ show - a collection of contemporary art owned by Charles Saatchi. It was a controversial show. You had Damien Hirst’s half a cow in formaldehyde, Marcus Harvey recreated a large image of a notorious child murderer using a cast of a child’s hand as print tool, Marc Quinn created a sculpture of his own head using his own frozen blood and so on. The media jumped on it, people flocked to see it and the artists became very rich. I think it polarised the population; more than ever before, people had an opinion on the state of contemporary art. Everyone knew who Damien Hirst was, everyone could see his fame and wealth and drew their own conclusions accordingly. To many people, the whole endeavour was baffling and exclusive, and reinforced those pre-existing notions that contemporary art is not for them. Most British people will choose commercial prints over original art.
MICHAEL: That’s sad, but that’s the way it is even here in America.
SIMON: I saw an episode of ‘Artland USA’ in which the presenters interviewed a couple whose house was filled with incredibly valuable pieces by some of the most famous names in Contemporary Art. Their collection started when as a wedding present to themselves they agreed to buy each other a piece of art for not more than $95. I’ve been looking for the episode on the internet to get more information, but I've never managed to find it, suffice to say one of the artworks was a very early career Rauschenberg print. Through astute purchases over the years they built up their collection. But aside for the potential for investment growth, I think a room with original art on the walls is far more interesting than one with commercial prints. Original art stimulates conversation. It allows people to share thoughts, feelings and ideas that they might not ordinarily share. Children love and are fascinated by art - original works have an energy to them that they respond to. It's a shame most people feel excluded.
MICHAEL: I think you're talking about Herbert and Dorothy Vogel. They're my art collecting role models.
SIMON: Ah, brilliant! Thank you. Yes, that’s them.
MICHAEL: You know, I think many people would rather be dismissive and suspicious of contemporary art because it takes time to understand it. People don't want to spend the time which is actually the fun part. Anyway, does the city inspire you or are you more inspired internally?
SIMON: Yes, it does take some time to understand. The actual art on the wall exhibited is a small percentage of the art world - the amount written about it all is far greater. I suppose you could say that about most things. But like you say, that should be the fun part. I think people feel precluded from reacting to a painting on any level because they think they might be wrong, as if there’s a right and wrong answer to begin with. So they go on the defensive, shut down and dismiss it because it’s easier. But it’s all potential conversation – we can talk about football or we can talk about art. Ultimately it’s all human interaction.
I do love London, but I think I draw inspiration from cities in general. I actually live about 30 miles outside of it now, and when I’m back, I realise just how compressed everything is, not just in terms of space and volume of people, but also information coming at you from every angle. You almost need to take a step back to fully appreciate it I think. My work is the world filtered through me – my personal edit of information I gather from all around me, and there’s no richer source of that than a city.
MICHAEL: Do you come from an artistic family? What's your first memory of art? In other words, how did you become an artist?
SIMON: Yes, I like to think I do. My uncle, Joel Kirk, is a renowned wildlife artist. My grandfather would sit with him and my father and they’d draw together on a wall in the house (I come from a working class family and it was cheaper than paper!) My father channels his creativity into making things with wood, as did my grandfather on my mother’s side who was a carpenter. My aunt, Joy Chant, had many novels published when I was young, while my mother would make my clothes for school.
I was an only child so I had plenty of time to myself and I’d spend it drawing. I remember watching the ‘Tarzan, Lord of the Jungle’ cartoon then spending hours practising drawing noses and hands, those things I could see from my own drawings that I wasn’t very good at. So when I started school, I was recognised as having talent and that was extremely pleasing to me. The ‘hard work’ was paying off! I decided then I wanted to be an artist and that never changed.
I was also seen as having talent for writing, which again, I was delighted with. I read a lot of books and it came very naturally to me. I wasn’t sophisticated enough to combine the art and the writing in any meaningful way, but they were in place from a young age.
MICHAEL: Wouldn't your life be easier if you were a doctor, teacher or electrician? Those jobs have steady paychecks.
SIMON: When I left art college, I got an agency job to pay the rent. It was working full time with a stockbroker of all places. It was culture shock (I’d not even studied economics at school), but I needed the job so I stuck it out. The job became permanent six months later and I ended up working there for about eight years. In the end, I had to leave. I was painting, but I didn’t have the time to do it justice. It just wasn’t going to work any other way. I definitely miss the steady paychecks, but life would not be easier. Having said that, I now do voluntary art teaching and tutoring and I find that extremely rewarding.
But going back to your original question, yes – at the moment, things are tough all over, for most people. I compare being an artist with starting a small business. It’s not enough just to do the work; you need to promote the work too. And you need to be able to budget effectively – materials, cost of travelling to shows/delivering work, entering competitions to raise your profile, etc., all need to be considered. It sounds like a cliché but I believe in the power of a good positive mental attitude. Things are going to be tough enough; you need at least one person on your side!
However, we have the benefit of the internet now which is invaluable. Artists can now work outside the conventions of the gallery system, avoid the traditional art market and make their own sales to people all around the world. Artists now have access to a wider audience and collectors can view a much wider spectrum of art than ever before. I do both – I have work with galleries and I also sell directly. Likewise, I don’t leave all the promotion to galleries. I can effectively promote myself too.
MICHAEL: Finally Simon, What's the point of art? Most people are living full lives without it. Why should people even care? It's not like art is solving any of the world's problems.
SIMON: I agree on some level. Like you say on your site, people will pay $200 for an iPod, but wouldn’t consider buying a painting. Art is not important to many people. But I think art does solve some of the world’s problems. It not only enriches our lives culturally, but also financially and that is often overlooked. Look at the culture-led regeneration of deprived areas such as The Docklands, Chelsea and Notting Hill in London or SoHo in New York, for example. In the UK, the government has cut arts funding to fit in with its austerity program, but it’s one of the most efficient industries we have here. Government subsidy was only 7pence per £100 of public spending, yet the pro rata return on this was £7 for every £1 spent. The numbers really do speak for themselves - the arts return billions to the economy. I mean, it’s incredible really how little the arts are valued by many people that these cuts can be made without more protest. Any other business that returns on a 7 to 1 basis would be hailed as an incredible success story. Maybe we need some artist CEOs!
SIMON: But seriously, I’d question the point of many things, but art would not be one of them. From a selfish point of view, it’s my raison d'être. But art as a whole fits right in there with music and literature in terms of sharing experiences amongst ourselves. Every time you buy a painting, you become the owner of a unique piece of work. It’s healthy to surround yourself with humanity, with someone’s expression that you feel a kinship with rather than just filling wall space with a mass-produced print. I can’t think of anything more pointless than that.
MICHAEL: Excellent chat! Thanks Simon. It has been great.
SIMON: Michael, Brilliant! Thank you. Really enjoyed it.
Check out Simon Kirk at http://www.simonkirkfineart.com/.