Art Thoughts: Rhianwen

Life After Uni and Navigating the Art World

It’s been about 6 months since graduating my degree in Fine Art and Art History at MMU, and in that time, I’ve discovered lots about myself, my practice, and a bit about navigating the Manchester art scene. One of the hard truths I’ve learned is that pursuing an art practice is hard without an unlimited about of money and a lot of free time (who would’ve thought?). I’m slowly but surely finding ways of doing things in my own time and my own terms – so here’s my experience so far, as well as some thoughts and advice on (sort of) navigating the art world after uni!

To start off – my first bit of advice would be to look into some sort of volunteering with an arts company/institution/gallery etc. If you’re still in university, I would recommend is looking into opportunities that the university themselves have to offer – I was halfway through my third year (and also during a national lockdown) when I began my internship with Cotton On MCR through Rise at MMU, so it was great for me to be able to get some work experience during a time where it seemed near impossible. Working with Cotton On MCR has kept me motivated and involved in the Manchester creative scene, as well as giving me some really valuable work experience in areas such as social media, art fairs, exhibition curating, and more! It’s only one day a week, but it’s enough to give some structure to my time and to keep me in the loop of the arts. Alongside my work with Cotton On MCR, I also work a job in hospitality, as well as (trying) to keep up my creative practice. It can be difficult to juggle the three, but it’s not impossible! I’ve been fortunate enough to secure a few commissions, show work in exhibitions such as Short Supply’s Made It!, as well as co-curating and organising a group exhibition last summer at Aatma. Although it can seem like a squeeze, it’s all about putting a few days aside every now and then to ensure I’m staying creative and active, and keeping aware of any new open calls and opportunities. The main way I’ve found these exhibitions and projects is through networking online, and using websites such as Instagram to my advantage. The pandemic has really shown the power of the internet when it comes to art – there’s plenty of ways to be active with your practice online too! I’ve learnt to try and always (within reason) say YES to opportunities that come my way. Despite the hard work, it’s always worth it, and it’s another thing to add onto the CV. One piece of really valuable advice I was given at uni is to join or make your own collective – I’m lucky to be closely surrounded by creatives, I find that really helps to keep each other motivated and in the know about art opportunities – having a strong network is so important!

Some work on display at a recent exhibition at Aatma

Another piece of advice I would pass on is not to be afraid to put yourself out there – if you don’t ask, you don’t get! Although it can seem daunting to put your work out there, I’ve found that the more I exhibit work, whether its online or physical, the more confident I get in taking future opportunities. My practice is something very personal to me, and at first it seemed quite scary to put out to an audience – but for the most part, being vulnerable and taking a risk almost always pays off, or it ends up being a valuable learning curve. Unfortunately, the biggest obstacle I’ve had to deal with is the financial side of things. It’s no secret that funding cuts for the arts in the UK is an increasing issue, and it’s generally a very difficult field of work to enter if you’re not already wealthy or have connections in the industry. I won’t lie about the fact that it’s hard to make time for art whilst working full time, but without my job, I’d struggle to financially keep my practice up – so it’s a bit of a double-edged sword. It’s easy to feel a bit hopeless at times, but an important thing I’ve learnt is not to be too hard on myself, and to trust the process. For example, before graduating, I assumed that I’d be able to easily and affordably access a studio to work in. It’s unfortunately been proven difficult, but instead of feeling like I’ve failed, I’ve decided to view a studio as a long term goal to work towards in the future. One thing to be aware of is various grants and awards – so not all hope is lost, it’s just about keeping in the know!

‘A Place to Grieve’ (2021)

One last bit of advice which no one really tells you is that it’s also fine to take a break from art if you need to. It’s totally fine to put your practice on the back burner to take time to focus on other things such as mental health or working – it doesn’t mean you’ve failed, it’s just being sensible. This romanticisation of the ‘struggling/starving artist’ is dated and unrealistic – don’t feel bad for taking time to relax, or for working a ‘normal’ job to support yourself. At the end of the day, it’s what pays the bills! Overall, I’m still learning all the time and I definitely have a long way to go, but taking pressure off of myself and doing what I can in a way that is accessible and affordable is the best way for me at the moment. It’s hard not to compare yourself to others when platforms like Instagram exist – but try to stay focused – trust the process and make art that’s true to who you are. Take opportunities where you can, network wherever possible, and don’t be afraid to put yourself out there in whichever way you can! It will all make sense in the end (or so I’m hoping!).

Upcoming exhibition: ‘Art For Our Sakes’ at Pot Kettle Black, Ancoats on Monday 15th November, 7-11pm.

Our guest blogger is Rhianwen Williams: ‘Hi! I’m Rhianwen, I’m an artist from North Wales and I’ve just graduated from MMU studying BA Fine Art with Art History. My practice revolves around abstract painting, which I use as a way of exploring topics such as memory and grief. Art is something really cathartic for me, and alongside painting I also love printmaking and zine making! I was really drawn to working with Cotton on MCR for their accessible approach to the arts – this is something I’m super passionate about, and I think is really important in achieving a more diverse and inclusive art world!’ @rhianwenart

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