A Chat With A Cumbrian Artist

Part 1. Laura M R Harrison

What it is to be a professional artist

A series of informal chats with local artists, discussing their work and what it is to be a professional artist, maker, creative in Cumbria.

You can find out more about Laura’s work on her website.

Catriona So we’re sat on a bench near the river Caldew in Dalston, 
with Laura M R Harrison. Laura, can you tell me a little about you, 
your education, your practice.

Laura Shall I start with education then?

Catriona Start with education

Laura I have a BA degree Fine Arts, and it was in 2003, I graduated 
for that. Then I had 10 years, well, just under 10 years, out from 
our practice started practising again, actually a little bit earlier 
than that maybe in 2008 went into a studio group, and then I went 
back to do my MA in 2013 to 2015 in Contemporary Fine Art. And this 
year, the beginning of this year I started a PhD in practice based 
Fine Art.
Shall I talk about my practice as well.

Catriona Yes, please do.

Laura Since my MA, so since 2013, I've been working in predominantly 
video and audio. And that's very much installation based, and I'm 
interested in how space and place inpacts reading of artwork, and I 
am just starting to incorporate object and sculpture more into my 
work as part of my PhD practice.

Catriona So, do you think that your practice has, almost in a sense, 
restarted since your MA or was it slightly before that.

Laura Yes, really the MA kicked it off again, partly because I ended 
up with a concept or a theme that I was really fired up about. And that 
just pushed the work, and it was also. That's the point at which I 
learned to connect with researching properly. And that real 
understanding of how practice and research are intertwined, and that 
relationship and that's kind of what really fired the practice off, 
and I started working at a much more professional level in terms 
of my output.

Catriona And would you define yourself as a professional artist?

Laura It's not something I find particularly easy but I think I'm at 
the point now where I almost can't. And so it's almost like the 
reverse it's like, I think once you've been working for so long at a 
certain level and because of the type of work I’m making now. So, say 
if I started in 2013, that's quite a while now, I've been doing that 
sort of work and looking at certain sort of opportunities. And so yes 
I think I do now.

Catriona So within your practice, you said that you worked with visual 
and audio and you're just introducing sculptural elements, do you 
produce products or pieces of art that are saleable?

Laura In theory, some of them could be sold, but I don't. And that's 
a deliberate choice. And I think for me, there's an issue with how 
the commercial shifts your practice and shifts how you're able to 
engage with subject matter, and perhaps what you choose to make. The 
exhibition that I did at signal film, which you saw, which was the 
bricks. They are technically objects so you could sell, but I needed 
to get rid of them actually the money went to charity. And that was 
my preference that it went back into a different sort of system. And 
it doesn't, it's prevents the work being sort of commercial commodity 
in the same way.

Catriona So you don't necessarily earn a living from your practice?

Laura No I don’t, I've never earned anything. And even when I've had 
opportunities. I've been lucky, and there's only one way I've 
actually came out and I could have paid myself but I didn't, I 
decided to invest it in my studio instead. So that is the only one 
where I've been given enough money, where I've been able to produce 
the work and technically would have been able to pay myself, it still 
would have been below minimum wage, for the hours that I put in by 
quite a long shot. So no I don't earn money from it.

Catriona So you've had access to funding you've, you've managed to tap 
in but...

Laura Yeah it's difficult because I think our location actually impacts 
that, and I think it impacts the kind of the logistics of opportunities 
if you're in a position where you have a mortgage, and you have 
responsibility close to home. It makes accessing a lot of the 
opportunities a lot more difficult because the sorts of things I'd be 
looking at are longer term residences so you might be a month or a 
couple of months working away which I unfortunately can't do at the 
moment for financial reasons. And so it limits how far you can go, to 
seek those opportunities. And also it's not been easy to get a profile 
from this area, and that is limiting. So, there's kind of a level where 
I'm kind of stuck at where I can get a bit of money, but get into that 
next bit where you're going and doing opportunities and you're getting 
enough to cover all your costs, and pay yourself is like the next step.

Catriona And so you can pay your mortgage back at home.

Laura Yeah and that next step. I think is going to be really difficult 
to hit for various reasons.

Catriona So do you work to sustain your practice?

Laura I do.

Catriona Can you just tell me a little about that

Laura So I work as a civil servant, and I work for the rural payments 
agency. And it's basically admin work. But I work maintaining kind of
the things that make an office tick, so it's been stationary, car park 
etc. I mean that's not quite as basic as that but first aid, health and 
safety sort of stuff. And then I'm about to change jobs, and I'm going 
to be "PA"ing for a department in DEFRA. So that's three days a week, 
and slightly condensed hours so the longer days that most people do. 
And that's enough to pay my bill

Catriona And to allow you time to practice, and to develop work.

Laura Yes and to do my PhD. On the PHD I’m  50/50, so 50% work, 50% PhD, 
and it allows me to split that time and so it's a part time PhD, it's a 
really long commitment of five to seven years, and but that's the only 
way that I could physically do it, or financially do it was to split 
between study and working.

Catriona Did you tell me what do you think defines a professional 

Laura My opinion on professional, what classes is professional? Because 
what you think of it for yourself and what you think of it for other 
people. I'm not sure it's necessarily the same thing.

Catriona Well we're harder on ourselves. I think we're less...

Laura Oh, I don’t know, I might be harder on other people.

Catriona What do you think constitutes a professional artist?

Laura There's there's an element of how long you've been working at it 
for. And for me, there's also an element of how you approach it. Which 
is really not very easy to define but I think, you know, I've been 
doing this on and off for a very long time now and personally I've got 
a lot of education and I don't think it necessarily comes down to 
education but I think it's an attitude around that learning, even if 
it's not formal learning. The learning through your practice or the 
learning and the way you push yourself and progress, but I guess this 
is also coming more from a conceptual art practice and, more so than 
maker designer kind of direction. But I think there is something to 
be said for the time that you've been doing it, and where you're 
placing your work and how you're positioning yourself in yourself in 
terms of your own learning. So you can't place a time on it, but I, 
there's that point where I go yeah okay I consider that person 
professional I know it's very much on a case by case basis so it's 
very difficult to define but they're the sorts of elements I would 
be looking for.

Catriona Yeah, it is just a really weird... Like I spent years not 
thinking I was some sort of imposter in my making, and now I kind 
of have got to a point where I think I'm there-ish or on the path. 
And then I've gone back to education, which doesn’t set me back 
but its...

Laura But, the thing with you is you've always pushed yourself so 
when I look at makers, just this is my personal interest it's not 
even about whether they're professional or not. I always like to 
see people who stuff, changes, they're not doing the same thing here 
and they're pushing and they're progressing and they're learning and 
you're always looking at new techniques and you're honing your, your 
glazes and your colours and you're always looking for those each 
little bits like I want this to be better or honing this bit I've 
done a bit of reading or watching or whatever about and those 
are the sorts of things I'm looking for. So when you put the output. 
I think you see it in the output particularly makers you go..

Catriona They’ve moved forward yeah or sideways, or in a different 

Laura And they’ve put a lot of effort in, you can almost see 
references, or things have been looking at in their work.

Catriona Cool. Well, I mean it's 10 minutes but I think they've got 
quite a lot in it, Thank you very much for chatting!

Date of Chat 17/12/20
Date Published 23/12/20

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