elam highlights: connectivity sparks early career success
The snowball effect speaks of something, initially small in significance, building upon itself, gaining momentum and increasing in size, substance and impact. For Elam alumna Grace Wright, since graduating with a Bachelor of Fine Arts (Honours) in 2014, opportunities have emerged exponentially as a result of her involvement in other projects. “I’ve been thinking a lot recently about connectivity,” says Grace. “Things happen because of doing other things, and you have to take those opportunities to promote yourself and your work.” As an emerging artist cementing her style, carving out her area of contemporary painting, Grace has made the most of the opportunities and connections which have come her way.
For many Elam students, the Grad Show is more than a celebration of completing their studies. It serves as an introduction of their work to the art world; a debutant moment attended by art lovers, critics and industry influencers. A few months after the 2014 Grad Show, Grace was approached by Warwick Henderson Gallery, who have traditionally represented more established artists. “I was emailed in the January following the Grad Show, saying they had seen my work and were quite interested. After they assessed my work in the flesh, I was picked up by them.” Grace feels honoured to have a gallery stamp of approval so early in her career. “It has been one of my biggest successes so far. I held a solo show, Spearmint Fantasies, at the Gallery and they represented me at the Auckland Art Fair, which was fantastic in terms of exposure.” Grace’s paintings at the Grad Show also caught the eye of known art writer and collector Warwick Brown, who recently included Grace in his five Kiwi artists to watch, following his column in House and Garden magazine last August which introduced her to a large readership. “It has all been really good timing,” Grace says. “It comes back to connectivity. Making a name for yourself is an evolving process which might take a while, but you’ve got to take the chances when they present themselves.”
A standout feature of Grace’s paintings is the colour. “The underlying concept of my work is visual pleasure, the pleasure of looking at something,” she says. “It’s quite light-hearted, rather than dealing with heavy conceptual or political work. It’s still underpinned by conceptual ideas however, and it is very process-drive practice.” She credits her four years at Elam for helping her explore depth and intellect in her practice. “It’s not about the finished product at Elam, or if it is aesthetically pleasing. Fine arts is much more philosophical than that; it’s the thinking behind it all.” She chose not to take the critical feedback and teachings from Elam’s experienced staff personally, seeing it as a way to prepare her for the realities of the commercial art world. “You need to see it as a learning experience; if you’re not making the most of the critique, you’re not making the most of art school.”
For better or worse, social media is an undeniable facet of any industry in the modern world. Grace has an active Instagram account, which she says suits her work. “Because of the colour in my paintings, it comes out well in photos and presents well on such a visual platform,” she comments. Her followers tripled after being mentioned on the Studio Home blog; resulting enquiries saw her sell all of the work produced during her time at Elam. “I feel like you have to have some sort of social media presence these days,” she says. “It works for me. I do believe that you need to be somewhere else as well, and I’m fortunate to have gallery representation. I wouldn’t rely entirely on social media, but it has served a good purpose for me and my work.”
It was her Instagram account which lead to another opportunity for exposure. This weekend, Grace will feature at the Make It, Made It conference in Newcastle, Australia, after being awarded the Honorary Speaker Prize. The organisers of the conference approached her after seeing her work on social media, feeling she would be a good fit with the other featured guests. Grace is looking forward to networking with other creatives. “The conference focuses on creative practices in general. Other speakers include a set designer, a jeweller, a media arts lawyer and installation artist, so there’s a lot of variety.” Given how the conference came about, Grace’s theme for her speech will be connectivity; how one thing often creates another, both in life and in practice. “There’s a theory that says ‘Painting exists in a network of connections we draw between other works’. You need to know where you’re situated within that, with your influences and conceptual ideas,” she says. “I’ve never done anything like this before, presenting about my practice. The process has helped me refine my ideas and I’ve had the opportunity to be quite reflective, which is always good.”
While hopeful additional opportunities arise out of the conference, Grace already has a few projects on the horizon for the rest of 2016. She is currently in the planning and conceptual stage for an exhibition with another Elam graduate Aiko Robinson in Christchurch in early 2017, and is discussing offers to show her work in Asia later in the year. These projects will be juggled around her job at Te Tuhi Gallery, where she works three and a half days a week in audience engagement and administration. “I was looking for something to allow me to be in studio at least half a week,” Grace recalls. “I didn’t want to compromise on my commitment to my practice, and working at Te Tuhi gives me the opportunity to remain immersed in the industry.” The role helps with financial stability, which is often an unknown for a fine arts graduate. “There have been a few tight spots, I’ll be honest, and it’s not easy to do this, but you find a way,” she insists. “You have to juggle other things to make it work, and if you commit to it, and love it enough, you make it happen.”
When the timing is right, Grace sees herself completing a Master of Fine Arts to advance her practice. “I enjoy the academic side of art, understanding why you do what you do. Artists don’t retire; it is a constantly evolving process, and I think I’ll know when I need that next level of thinking.” For now, her long term goal is perhaps suitably broad. “I just want to make a positive contribution to painting.” After all, who knows how her career will snowball from here?
Words by Heather Dawson for the University of Auckland, Creative Arts and Industries.