Every month we interview one of our members about their practice, inspiration and much more. This month we asked artist Charlie Birtles a few questions. Charlie will be an artist in residence at our sister organisation NCCD this month, as part of the Hatch ’19 exhibition.
Design-Nation asked: Please tell us about your practice and how your business began.
Charlie Birtles answered: I am an artist who makes site-specific installations and sculptures for public spaces. I lead a socially engaged practice; how an audience engages with a piece and the conversations that it generates is just as important. I like to work on projects with different people and places, responding to historical and social issues that exist within communities. The work I make therefore changes, but shares a similar aesthetic, using repetitive processes and tactile everyday materials.
I began my business shortly after graduating from Manchester School of Art after completing an undergraduate BA hons in Three-Dimensional Design. Much has changed within my business since then; it has been a steady process of learning what is right as well as what is wrong for me.
D-N: Who has been your most influential teacher or mentor?
C.B: There have been countless people who have really helped me along the way since graduating. Two big influencers and mentors in the early stages of setting myself up in business were Jennifer Collier and Iain Perry, artists and co-owners of Unit Twelve Gallery. Shortly after exhibiting at New Designers, I received an email from Jen and Iain inviting me to apply for a mentoring programme ‘Cultivated’ for new graduates. I remember after an unsettling period of getting my graduate work out there, I felt a huge anti-climax, but this email felt like a golden opportunity. I applied and luckily got onto the programme. As a result, I set up base in a studio space at the gallery, where I stayed for another two and a half years. My time there was really important in discovering how I would create a business out of my craft. Without the generosity and honesty of information shared by Jen and Iain during my time there, I genuinely do not think I would have continued practicing.
I also have a lot to owe to my mum. When I was making decisions about what I wanted to study in further education, I hadn’t considered a creative career as an option. I had always been creative since I was young but, without any role models that showed me it was possible, I had limiting beliefs. Mum suggested I look at an art foundation at my local college and I believe without that encouragement, I don’t think I would have had the confidence to follow this pathway. Both my parents have undoubtedly influenced my accomplishments to date from their continued support.
D-N: What inspires you? Please tell us a bit about your design process.
C.B: I love to visit sites that I am making work for. Looking into collections and the history of a site can be a massive source of inspiration for me. I like that every place has its’ own story. A common theme I explore when I make is repetition; I like to use slow, repetitive processes so the work develops overtime. Because of this, I am fascinated by different forms of machinery, particularly textile, and watching them in action. I often develop ideas by playing with materials first and producing maquettes. I like to learn about traditional processes first, to be able to choose elements and adapt them for the result I want to achieve.
What is a very important aspect of my design process is dedicated thinking time. I will often make something then allow the piece to sit in my space for a while, giving me the opportunity to consider any further developments or solve any problems with it. I also have a close group of fellow makers who I can trust to act as an honest sounding board for any new ideas. This is an important part of my design process as well, to look outward and seek critical feedback.
D-N: What is the best thing to have happened in your business to date?
C.B: One of my proudest moments was in 2017 when I was selected for Hothouse, a talent development program run by the Crafts Council. To have been selected for such a widely competitive and well-thought-of program really felt like a stamp of validation for me, that I was worth investing in.
I have to say one of my best moments recently was the response to my first major public commission for the billboard project ‘In Another Place’. As part of the publicity for the project I was interviewed by BBC TV and radio, with the piece featured on BBC local news. My eldest sister, who is a primary school teacher at the very school I use to go to when I was younger, shared the TV segment with her class; she played the clip about five times after her class kept asking to see it! They were so excited and couldn’t believe that I was once in the very seats they were sat in. That for me was a real special moment, to excite, inspire and show dreams can be possible for those young people.
D-N: What is your workspace like?
C.B: I work from a studio shed in my back garden. I am a bit of a collector of materials, so I have lots on boxes of treasures in my space. The space changes and moves according to whatever I am working on at the time. Having worked in a shared studio space before, I recognise I work better in an environment on my own, but I do find critical dialogue amongst my peers really important. Because of this, I make a conscious effort to be present at opening events and meet up with fellow creatives about once every two months to share progress and voice concerns. If I didn’t do this, I’m sure I could feel isolated.
D-N: Do you work hard on your PR or do others help you to market your business?
C.B: I am responsible for my own branding, marketing and networking. This is something I have had to learn a lot about during these early years of setting myself up in business, particularly in ways of communicating effectively and having a structure in place to be organised and consistent. I find this the most challenging aspect of running my business. What helps me to promote my business are referrals from previous clients to new potential clients, word of mouth works well for me in spreading what I do.
D-N: What are the main challenges in your practice?
Seeking and making my own opportunities.
Competition for funding.
Politics of ‘engagement’ and meaningful impact.
Managing my time.
Forecasting income and being paid appropriately for my time.
Convincing others what I do is valid.
D-N: Where would you like your practice to be in 10 years?
C.B: After 10 years I would like to be creating work that is even larger scale. I want to be working on longer term projects that involve still making work, but also helping to generate conversations and ideas with others, in venues, public spaces and unexpected places. I like change and variety within my practice; hence I want to be working on different projects. I also want to have a greater involvement with the next generation of makers, so I am working towards a leadership coaching/mentoring role in the future.
D-N: If you could collaborate with someone new who would that be?
C.B: I’ve always thought it would be interesting to collaborate with someone outside of the creative sector. I’m interested in the intersection of where Science/Engineering meets Art so would be really interested to work on a project at allows these two sectors to interact. I haven’t worked in a formal collaboration setting before. However, I am currently in talks about potential collaborative projects with fellow Design-Nation members Winter and Kurth and the Design Studio May Wild. Watch this space.
D-N: If you weren’t a designer what would you like to do?
C.B: I think I would train to be a midwife. I also find it interesting watching the workers changing our roads, so maybe a civil engineer.
D-N: Why did you join Design-Nation? What is helpful about being a member?
C.B: I joined Design -Nation during my first year in business after graduating, originally under the umbrella of Design Factory. During that first year in business, I was wanting to build my network as well as experience a range of different exhibitions/events that would help me to discover how to have a sustainable business long-term. I attended a lot of the continued professional development (CPD) sessions during that first year; they were really useful. They gave me a lot of know-how that I needed to consider whilst developing (things like selling to retail or trade/how to access funding/marketing myself); information that would have otherwise been difficult to access.
Now, I continue to benefit from my membership at Design- Nation. I exhibited last year as part of the ‘Greenlight’ showcase at London Design Week and, of course, I am exhibiting in Hatch through my involvement with Design- Nation. As I work in a studio by myself now, I really value the opportunities to network with other makers and get critical feedback, at events and through the regional cohorts.
D-N: Do you have you any exhibitions, commissions or events coming up that we should know about?
C.B: I have two public projects ongoing at the moment which are set to take place in the autumn; one associated with Nottingham lace and one based closer to home in Manchester with links to past scientific inventions and innovations in the city. That’s all I can share at the moment but definitely more to follow.