Louise Spokes – Visual Artist and Jewellery Designer & Maker
Louise is a Visual Artist and Jewellery designer/maker, Visual Art Coordinator for An Áit Eile and board member at 126 Artist-Run Gallery.
Tell us a bit about yourself, your path to where you are today?
I'm from London. My parents are from Donegal; they moved back when I was 16 - they're both from Buncrana in Donegal and they're living there still. It was a bit of a change, moving back, but it was great. There was a lot of freedom in Donegal compared to London. I loved it. I was the very stroppy teenager not wanting to move, but as soon as I was over here, I had the best time. Some of the friends I made there, who I'm still friends with now, are living in Galway as well.
I did my GCSEs in London and then I did my Leaving Cert in Buncrana. Then I did two years of Fine Art in art college in Derry, then I my BA in Fine and Applied Art in the University of Ulster, Belfast. After that I moved back to Donegal for a while, and then came to Galway, so I've been here for about four years now.
Were you always interested in art?
Yeah. My mum is an artist as well. She did a foundation course when she was 17, but she couldn't take the pressure of art college at the time, but when I went back to art college, it inspired her and she went back afterwards. So now she's painting full time. She's very good and she works in an arts organisation in Donegal, so she was very encouraging of my creativity when I was a kid. I remember doing a copy of a watercolor of Van Gogh's 'Sunflowers' when I was a kid. Mum laminated it and it was up in the kitchen for about ten years, so she was very supportive of creative things and my dad was a carpenter, so they were very into making and doing. I think I got that from them.
Why did you come to Galway?
I came here for a weekend when I was 16 first and I did love it. So it was always in my head I wanted to come back. Then I did the usual thing - you come down for the weekend, have a good weekend with some friends who were here so I said, 'Screw it; I'll move to Galway'.
So it suits your sensibilities...
It does. Growing up in London - it's a big city and there are so many things happening and it was just getting fun when I was leaving at 16, but I don't know if I could deal with the chaos and the travelling. Whereas Galway's got a lot of things happening; there's always something going on here, but it doesn't have the downside that London has.
There's a big group of people around your age doing some really great stuff...
I've heard a few people say that. Take An Ait Eile - that grew out of a group of us that are friends who wanted to make stuff happen ourselves. There's David Boland - he runs Citog and he's Citog Records too. He's been massively into the music scene in Galway for years. Conor McDaid is a web and graphic designer, Chris Cullen works in block d in Dublin and Thomas is into mental health awareness, so we all come from different arts backgrounds but we're all at the same point where we all see this gap in Galway and we want to make something happen.
Our main goal is to get a creative space in Galway, which isn't a unique goal. The whole of Galway seems to want this at the minute - it's a big vacuum - we just want to be able to make creative work, live in Galway, and not struggle. We want to have the facilities to live here and work here and survive as creative practitioners, so we came together with that goal to get a space where we can have hot desks or have studios - have everything in one place where you can meet with each other from different backgrounds, but in the meantime we've been doing events - like a market place and a gig afterwards. We had a big event in Nun's Island in June. So at the moment, we're just trying to build this community - we've been meeting other groups like access music projects who all have the same aim, so really we're just creating a network of people who want this to happen and we've been running gigs and events temporarily in the hopes of proving that by working together we can have this space, this future. And it kind of linked in with 2020, but not really intentionally. It was born around the same time as 2020, so we've been working quite closely with them developing proposals and things. So it seems like the right time. I think if it's a few years later, we might have gotten disillusioned and given up or if we'd been a few years younger, we might not have been around long enough to push for it, but now definitely seems like the moment.
When its up and running, this vision that you have, what's it going to look like?
My vision would be to have a place with recording studios and art studios and shared spaces where people could rent out a space for a week, but working with someone else, maybe from a different discipline. Or it could also be a marketplace where you could come in with an idea, you could work with someone else, you could make that idea happen and you could display that within the same place. From start to finish, in Galway, not outsourcing, not having to go somewhere else to find those facilities. That would be my dream.
What about your involvement with 126 Gallery?
I've been on the board of 126 since last March; I'm the treasurer at the moment. There's over 160 members who all pay a nominal fee to support 126 and to get opportunities to exhibit through 126 as well. There was about seven of us on the board although we've just lost two people. You're only allowed to stay on the board for two years - it's all completely voluntary - no one gets paid, we just put in our time so after two years, that's it, you move on; someone else takes your place. So it's constantly rolling, constantly changing.
Can you tell us about your jewellery?
Years ago, I did a fused glass making class so you cut the glass and layer it and melt it together in a kiln. I loved it. Myself, my mum, her friend Deirdre and my aunt, we all had an exhibition together when I was about 18 or 19. We sold a couple of paintings each and we decided to chip in together and buy a kiln so we could melt the glass and all do it together. Then we started doing craft fairs, selling pieces of glass jewellery. Then I went onto college, kind of forgot about it for a while and after I came back to Donegal, I started to take it up again because I was back home where the kiln. I did a start your own business course and did a business plan around selling jewellery. I was trying to sell art as well, but that was harder - there was more of a market for the jewellery. Especially at craft fairs, people go to buy presents, and jewellery is an ideal gift, whereas artwork is a whole different thing; it's very hard to sell and oftentimes, the kind of things people want to buy aren't the things you want to be making either, so I expanded from that and I got into making silver as well. I spent two years as a self employed jeweller/artist but I was mostly focusing on jewellery, but I had to take a break from jewellery making. At the minute, I just make things for myself and my friends because I wasn't making enough money to live off and it's expensive, especially working with silver. If you make one you don't like, it just sits there for years and no one buys it and you've just wasted this material. So I went back to college then last year and did the MA in Arts Policy and Practice at NUI Galway, and that was mainly because I found it so hard to try to make a living as an artist and a jeweller, so I said I'd learn the administration side of it and be able to get a job. And then I ended up doing voluntary work, but you know, that's the way it goes sometimes!
What about your artwork? How would you describe the type of art you produce?
I'm inspired alot by roughness. It's the same with my jewellery; I don't like minimalist clean things. I like scratchy and rough - the mistakes and the naturalness. I did darkroom photography as well - that was one of my big passions at art school and actually afterwards, I set up a dark room in my parents' basement and seeing the handmade element of that and the scratches on the paper and the fix stains - they're recurrent across everything I do. If I was doing a painting, there'd be loose bits and there'd be details in some areas. I do things like abandoned buildings, forests, dead trees. Places and things that were once innovative but have gone into decline a bit. There's an old military fort up in Donegal that inspired a lot of my paintings for a while. I like using traditional methods in a contemporary way, but more rustic. There are veins that run through everything I do that would be similar, but I'm not consciously aware of them.
What aspect of your work do you enjoy most?
I like making things - it's kind of like a craving and I can get that from different aspects. In 126 Gallery, when we put on a show and you see it come together, that's kind of the same as finishing a piece of jewellery for me or finishing a painting. I like working with people; that was another problem I had when I was making jewellery full time is that it was always just me, whereas I find it more inspiring working with people and working together on projects. If I had to pick one thing, I don't think I'd ever be fully happy. Before I went back to college, I did an illustration for story books course and a dressmaking course... and I've got a whole list of other things that I want to do like glassblowing and welding - things like that. I think I'd always want to be trying something new, but as long as I was creating in some way, it would be OK I think. I can't imagine doing the same thing every day for years on end. I'd go mad.
I have a studio at Engage Studios at the moment. I've been here for a year and a half now. After painting at my kitchen table in my house for the first couple of years, I finally got a studio and I was really excited about it. Then I started the MA two weeks later so I wasn't using it to its full capacity. It was a little bit wasted. I've finally been back in again making a little bit of jewellery and painting. I didn't realise I missed it because I was really busy, but as soon as I had a bit more free time again to get back into it, it was great. It is something that I was missing without being fully aware of it, so I have been back in a lot in the last couple of months - it's exciting to get back into making things.
What drives you to do what you do and create?
After art college, I thought 'I want to be an artist, I want to make my own work', and I did try that and I'll always want to be making my own thing, but I can get that same feeling from making other people's things happen or making events happen; it's the same kind of experience. I'm not that comfortable doing an interview right now, I don't necessarily like being the centre of attention. I'd rather be part of a group, be on the sideline but pushing everyone forward.
Where would you like to see it all going? Do you have a dream for what you want to happen with your work?
I want to be constantly challenged, to constantly be trying something new and meeting new people, but also facilitating other things happening. That ties back to 126 Gallery in a nutshell. If I can produce things or events, also providing an environment where other people can produce and people just feed off each other, it makes everything better and more creative.
I'm quite honest I would say, quite blunt at times because I don't like lying; I find that stressful and I've got very little time for playing games. So if you ask me an opinion, I would give you an opinion. People have said lately that I'm quite driven; I would have found that laughable a couple of years ago, but I find the more I do, the more I want to do. I've really noticed the last year or two that every spare hour I have I want to be doing something. If I'm sitting in the house and I'm like, 'Great, I don't have to write 20 emails right now', I'll dye my hair or do something else. It's like making the most out of every spare bit of my time. Whereas if I sit and watch TV for a day and a half, I start to go mad. I think it's great at first, then I get that craving where I need to be doing something or be making something, so I'm not home very much lately. Before I did the MA, my background was very visual arts-based but as part of the MA, we had to do a module in theatre studies and a module in traditional music and a few different things so now I try to have different experiences as well.
What about mentors or people who have inspired you along the way?
It feels like a bit of a cop out saying it, but obviously my parents were a massive influence - my mum particularly. I would ring her up regularly or she'd ring me up and we'd chat about the latest exhibition we'd been to or we talk a lot about art and events that are happening or discuss what funding applications to apply for. It's nice to have that kind of common interest. And that's really developed a lot since college in the last number of years, so that's really nice.
I did a work placement with James Harold [Galway City Council Arts Officer] as well last summer. And that was really interesting because it was the other side of being an artist, seeing behind the scenes - the funders' view of artists and I sat in on a couple of meetings. That was a brilliant experience, because it was so different from living as an artist or working with an arts organisation like 126, just to be in behind the scenes of city hall. And to know that things that would slip you up, hearing why people get disqualified for things like funding. That was a really good experience. It was also great for meeting everybody. I thought I knew a lot of people in Galway from being here for a couple of years and being involved in the arts. But no, when you're with James Harold for a while, it's ridiculous how many people you meet. That was great.
What's your opinion with where Galway's at at the moment with regards to creativity?
I think it's in a bit of a limbo at the minute where there's so much potential but it could go either way. It's a very exciting time to be in Galway and I love being in Galway right now with this group of friends. It seems like everyone is really inspired, but there's a lot hanging on it as well. So it feels like the world's our oyster in Galway and it could be great but you just never know. It's like gritted teeth, going, 'Yes, we can do this'...or else we'll all be very disappointed and bugger off out of town.
So what's really keeping you here? Do you ever feel London calling?
I think it's the community in Galway. In 126, there were six of us on the board and we're all working on it together and with Ait Eile, there's five of us. Then you walk down the street and you see someone else and they tell you about a great event that's happening and everyone wants to do more things. Whereas in London, it's isolating and tough. I've still got friends who live in London and they spend all their time working. Even if they have passions and interests - one of my friends is into spoken word and she goes to these events regularly - but that's a side thing once a month, she doesn't get to live that, whereas in Galway, you can live the creative life and it's not that much of a struggle, at least in the short term.
How are the majority of people your age in the creative sphere earning a living?
They're not really, to be bluntly honest. There's very few people that are earning. We're all doing this out of passion. That's why we need a space to make, produce and sell. I think the ideas and the skills are here, the market too - people come to Galway for its creative culture so it's mad we don't have a gallery or a space, it's a bit disheartening when it could be great. It's got so much going for it but it's just missing so many other things.
Apart from what you guys are driving towards with An Ait Eile, what's your overall vision for how you'd like the scene to go in Galway in the next few years?
My vision would be mainly that people can make work and stay in Galway and sustain that lifestyle long term. If you could just be like, 'Right, I've been in Galway for ten years and I don't have any plans to leave because Galway's got everything I need' - that would be great.