Tuesday 21 November 2017

Why I never became an artist

Victoria Mary Clarke

IHAVE just become an artist, at the age of 39, and I justify this claim by saying that I am about to have my first exhibition. Maybe it's inevitable that, approaching 40, I should dream up a way to re-invent myself and avert the midlife crisis.

I may be an atrocious artist, just chancing my arm. Or I may be a brilliant one, who has been destined for this all along. Luckily for me, I have chosen to enter a world where I am not actually required to be qualified in any way.

The art world is a world where the emperor can often be naked and nobody seems to notice. People applaud what they are told to applaud. Prestigious art prizes can go to peculiar concepts like a light going on in an empty room, instead of to painters or sculptors.

My sister has a picture on her wall, kind of a squiggle that her son drew when he was five. Visitors continually overlook the Mick Mulcahys and other important works around it, and ask her where she got it. She hesitates, at first, because she could say Cy Twombly (a very famous squiggly artist) and get away with it. But usually, she tells the truth.

I have had a life-long aversion to artists. I have met some I liked, but in general I have thought them to be neurotic, vain, arrogant, elitist and insular - totally up their own asses. When I was a child, it was certainly never my ambition to be an artist, even though I spent most of my free time drawing pictures.

When interrogated, I always said that when I grew up I wanted to be rich. Other things in life would let you down, but money could buy you all kinds of things that made life more bearable.

In Ireland at that time, very few people made money. Artists certainly didn't, unless they were already dead. Nowadays, if you go to hip London parties, you will likely as not bump into Tracey Emin, Britain's most famous female artist, looking fabulous and hanging out with Kate Moss. Damien Hirst, her male counterpart, has been hanging around with rock stars for years, and is easily mistaken for a lead singer.

This month, a BBC reality TV show called Art School will feature an assortment of celebrities (including comedian Keith Allen and Ulrika Jonsson) learning to paint and draw in a real-life art school. The world of the rich and famous would now theoretically seem open to everyone - including shy and retiring Irish artists.

It was not always this way. I grew up in a family of artists, none of whom was rich or famous, or even what is known as comfortable, although most of them were very good at what they did.

My grandmother was unfortunate enough to have been the child of an alcoholic poet, and she and all of her brothers and sisters became artistic. She married my grandfather, a sculptor and painter, and they lived on a financial roller-coaster all of their lives.

Apart from the art, they produced my uncle, who became a sculptor; my aunt, who wrote a book; and my mother, who became a sculptor and painter in her late 40s after having been a fashion designer in her youth.

The extended family consisted of more of the same, mainly artists, with the odd writer thrown in. Not a single accountant or plumber or anything useful. Which was why many lived in damp, draughty houses, crammed with paintings and sculptures and some suffered with depression, anxiety, nervous disorders and other artistic ailments, including notions.

The artists' children occupied a class of their own, having something in common with the aristocrats (who take pride in living in damp, draughty houses), but more in common with the peasant class of previous centuries, living as we did on brown rice, nettles and lentils, with no modern conveniences and perpetual chest infections.

As small children, my sisters and I were encouraged to paint and draw and sculpt. We were allowed to paint directly on to the kitchen walls, and were given praise and encouragement for our efforts.

But praise for artistic achievement was not a valued commodity in our family. For us kids, it merely took the place of a telly. Anyone could churn out art. What was important was finding ways to make money for sweets.

My youngest sister studied fashion design and showed great promise, but has since abandoned it in favour of olive selling. My other sister, who is also a businesswoman, amazed me the other day by saying she always wanted to paint, but after growning up around artists, her aversion to the art world was so strong that she suppressed the desire.

After I left school, I abandoned all forms of artistic expression in favour of trying to become a glamorous millionaire. I failed in many attempts, before I first hit on the idea of becoming a famous artist.

At this time, I was living with my partner in London. Shane and I were drinking regularly in clubs like the Groucho and the Colony Rooms. These places were patronised by the glamorous young British artists like Damien and Tracey, Sarah Lucas and Gavin Turk.

Young British Artists spent every night partying. They could sell their unmade beds and sawn-off sharks for six-figure sums. I wanted to be one of them.

My strategy for success involved approaching Channel 4 with a documentary called How I Won the Turner Prize. I decided I would submit an installation of Shane on a sofa surrounded by empty bottles and fag ends, and wipe the floor with Tracey's bed - thereby winning the Turner Prize and becoming an instant success.

Unfortunately, Channel 4 sponsored the Turner Prize and wasn't impressed. After several more failed attempts (including an installation of my guardian angel, who wears Prada), I found myself in the Priory, severely depressed and suffering from exhaustion.

In the Priory, they used art as therapy. Because I had been encouraged, as a child, to express myself in pictures, I launched into this task with gusto and produced a series of paintings of my inner babies stabbing themselves to death, and the more I painted the better I felt. I discovered that art had a benefit to the artist beyond the obvious financial one.

When I got out, I abandoned my attempts at an artistic career. It would have been nice to have made a living out of it, but it was not to be. I became a journalist instead, published a book and was having a perfectly lovely life (or so I believed). But one fateful night this spring, everything changed.

AS A journalist, I occasionally interview artists and sometimes, if I have nothing better to do, I go to openings. To be honest, I hate openings. But in spite of my prejudices, when I got the call from Marina Guinness about an exhibition by a new Irish art movement called the Defastenists, I was intrigued.

First, because she told me that they were mostly very beautiful young men and that they liked dressing up in white tailcoats. Second, because they appeared to have a sense of fun. And third, because I love the idea of people getting together and creating something new. I like enthusiasm.

The Defastenists were not part of the Art Establishment; in fact they were dead against it.

"Dearest dearest," their invitation read. "We, the Defastenists, call upon all those who hear us to crucify bordom and destroy negativity." (Their spelling was refreshingly original). "It is our aim to encourage and incite optimism, regeneration, enthusiasm, self-excavation, and ultimately a fresh,non-elitist scene which expresses itself through the universal language of art."

In 1977, I was too young to be a proper punk. I didn't have access to fishnets, or hair dye or the Sex Pistols. But I longed, with every fibre of my little body to belong to such an exciting group. The Defastenists stirred that age-old yearning.

Was this my opportunity, at last, to join a real live revolution? I issued an invitation for the Defastenists to come to my house for tea. And they did.

Gary Farrelly, the founder of Defastenism, calls himself the Kunstfuhrer, which isn't actually rude but means 'artistic leader' in German. Padraic E Moore (son of Christy) is the Minister for Propaganda and more cherubic than Gary, but equally pretty.

They had brought me a gift of jelly beans that first evening. One could interpret jelly beans in several ways, but I found it charming. Padraic smiled and sipped water, while Gary made do with gin and chocolate, and told me of plans to establish a Defastenist republic on an island somewhere, perhaps Malta because it's sunny. Detailed plans for a Defastenist battleship had already been drawn up. He also told me that he loved me.

I was enthralled and entirely hooked. Never having seen their work, I told them that I wanted to join their movement immediately.

I attended the show in Temple Bar (as promised, neither shit nor boring) where I did battle with Marina over a beautiful fairy painting, which she won. Instead, I bought a flower painting by Defastenist Minister for the Erotic and Glamorous, Sophie Iremonger.

I was deeply moved by the spirit of Defastenism. And I began to feel the urge to paint. For several years now, I have been communicating with angels on a regular basis. Generally the communication takes a written form. But now, I was being inspired to paint.

The first picture I produced had been in my head for several months, before I finally had the nerve to paint it. It is a portrait of the singer Pete Doherty, with angel wings. To me, it looks very cute, and I am reluctant to part with it, which I feel is a good sign.

Once I started painting, I didn't want to stop. I discovered I can express joyful emotions through my angel-inspired portraits. And I end up with nice things on the wall that lift my mood when I look at them.

Sometimes, the universe has a way of pitching in. Within weeks of deciding to be a Defastenist, Igot a call from Sky One, which wanted to film me for a documentary. I said I would agree, if Sky would come to a Defastenist Happening, on July 4 at Marina Guinness's house. Sky agreed.

I hadn't mentioned to Marina or the other Defastenists that there was to be a Happening, but the event was duly organised.

Apart from a selection of Defastenist art in a marquee on the lawn, the Happening featured a coach from Dublin (complete with air hostess, on-board catering, and boarding passes), pole-dancing displays and the coronation of Marina as Defastenist monarch.

There were buckets of Pimm's, an excursion to a meteor site,afternoon angel channelling(I have been appointed the Minister for Angel Mediation), theburning of an effigy to negativityand a feast of strawberries, eaten off the naked body of Sophie Iremonger. The film crew, needless to say, was delighted withthe footage.

I would not have had the nerve to become an artist if it were not for the support of my fellow Defastenists. Luckily for me, I am now surrounded by a very pretty and exceptionally charming bunch of people, who radiate enthusiasm and energy and who offer constructive criticism and support.

Life is short, too short to always stay at home watching TV. I always thought that my ambition in life was to become a millionaire - but I wonder if I would swap what the Defastenists have given me for money? I am not so certain.

©Victoria Mary Clarke

The Third Defastenist Exhibition is at Liberty Hall, Dublin, at 8pm on September 14. Visit www.defastenism.4t.com

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