Tracey Meek talks inspiration, ceramics, jewellery and more…
Derby based artist, ceramicist, and jewellery designer/maker Tracey Meek kindly steps outside the studio, and her whirlwind of side projects, to tell us about her work and creative approach...
My media is often mixed. I draw, first and foremost though. I’m most comfortable using a brush over a pencil. I enjoy working with collage, as well as clay, and wire / paper sculpture. I’m inspired by people, nature and science and I play these out visually, often using simile and metaphor; similar to what you might find in folklore, I guess.
There is often a narrative within my work, though it’s subtle. I enjoy the quiet, gentle beauty of the mundane.
I guess what makes me different is my northern humour. I’ve a distinctive style, which I’ve been trying to snap out of for a while. I think it’s good to be recognisable, but it can start to feel a bit stale as an artist, to always be following the same path. I’ve been experimenting with clay and larger, more colour and texture based, minimal painting. With the ceramics, I’ve managed to pick some comic characters right off the paper, and mould them into these life like creations, that are also really sellable products.
I grew up in the North East. It all started round my Grandma’s dining table. The whole family would go round on a Saturday afternoon and we’d sit and eat, draw and play games. I’d practice drawing people and copying birds from bird books. We weren’t the sort of family to visit galleries or anything like that, so I guess I began taking inspiration from other things, like family and social situations. I didn’t realise it at the time but it’s definitely where my sense of humour comes from. I was also a bit of a strange child, I had an imaginary friend but it wasn’t a person. It was a dog called ‘Petras’. I used to walk around like I was holding his lead.
I have the ability to draw insight from people and look in on different behaviours and relationships in a way that connects with people and they can relate to. I’m like a therapist without the money or cats.
I didn’t really get on with university. It was more about getting out of Middlesbrough than following some big career path. Looking back, I really didn’t have the imagination back then. It’s so strange to think back to that. It’s like looking at a completely different person. A few years later I had my Daughter, Milly. It was really from there that I began to think like an artist. I’ve always had a natural skill, but she brought out the passion and the soul. I very much have her to thank for that.
My work has evolved naturally over time. I guess it ‘officially’ began when my daughter went to school. I’d spend my free time in cafes, drawing people and picking up the buzz of comings and goings. Then a group of friends started an art collective. It was never a serious thing, just a bunch of creative nuts throwing ideas about and drinking red wine. Somehow we managed to get hold of this lovely, crumbling four story building and spent a good few months in it, larking about and just being free and creative. It was a beautiful time. We opened it to the public and had exhibitions, film nights, and performance art. And that was that. I decided I’m never going to be a 9-5 person. If I’m honest, I decided that when I was about 18. But now it’s no longer about maintaining a hedonistic lifestyle!
I got a studio, and slowly went self employed. It wasn’t plain sailing though. I found it ever so difficult to split my time and headspace between being a single parent and becoming an artist. When I say that it feels like a cop out, and I’m sure some people can manage everything, but it wasn’t right for me or my daughter. So, I sort of put it on hold a bit, while keeping my toes in the water.
I then decided to apply for a residency in Derby last year, working with the local museums collection. I suddenly found my momentum. During that time, I had the opportunity to experiment with ceramics. Taking inspiration from a couple of very old Adelie penguins I began my quest to make over 100 small ceramic penguins, to be suspended, as if swimming majestically, somehow captured in time. I also created an interventional piece, nestled in amongst the museums ceramics gallery; tiny comical busts and cute, twisted figures that looked ever so slightly out of place.
The products themselves have really developed quite naturally. I like making things that make people happy. I love the personalised element to it, especially with gifts. A lot of people come to me with a commission for a friend who has a pet that they love dearly, or they want me to pull their personal quirks out from. I just love the thought of them opening this completely unexpected gift. A couple of friends were getting married and they wanted to include their pets in their wedding invites. So I turned them into their cats. They absolutely loved it and I guess it’s like the greetings cards that I make. They’re kind of indispensable.
I really want to take the ceramics in a more conceptual direction. I can see them popping out of walls and twisting around the gallery spaces, full of colour and pattern!
At the moment I am working on a slick jewellery collection. I used to work with polymer clay but no matter how cool the design or illustration I was always limited as to how I could market or sell them. They would look nice but then you’d pick them up and they didn’t have the weight. I feel like working with ceramics has really upped my game. The pieces are nice to hold and have something really special about them. I’m excited about where it will lead!
I’m continually developing my practice, be it finding new approaches to work through, experimentation, connecting with artists, or taking part in local training sessions. Nottingham is really on it for creative training, so I’m quite lucky. ‘Big House’ have put together a string of workshops next month that look at how to set up your own Pop Up. So I’m booked on that! It really feels like Nottingham has all the dots connected and a lot of it is grass roots. More often than not, carried by driven, young people, which I guess cuts out some of the bureaucracy bull-shit.
At any given time, its’ really about continually bettering myself as an artist, and as a person. Some people learn academically, others through social activity and experience. I’m definitely the latter. At the minute, I’m applying for all kinds of residencies and commissions online, even if they’re way out of my league. I think it’s just good for the practice, and a good way of developing ideas.
For a long time I have worked from home, which had its ups and downs. I could wear my PJs all day and play my music loud, which was nice, but I would generally make a huge mess on my living room floor. Then my daughter would come home from school and have to tip toe around it, risking a telling off for spilling something or standing on some final piece of art. I guess it was a bit like Temple of Doom for her back then.
Thankfully, I’ve now found an amazing studio in Nottingham. It’s really communal and full of good vibes. None of this bright white walls and tiny cramped spaces that are shut off from everyone else. It has a burner, a kiln, a roof terrace and a real cool bunch of artists. (all women) It’s a bit of a commute from Derby but like many smaller cities right now, there doesn’t seem to be support for creative initiatives. A shame when there are so many empty shops and buildings everywhere! That said, there are a few exciting initiatives in the pipeline that I am hopeful about. There is Derby Makerspace, which is kind of a hack-space. I know these guys want to eventually become some sort of support to many of the studio-less creatives in the city. People looking to work in a funded, accessible work space.
I think we’re all going to be effected by Brexit. We’re already effected and it hasn’t even happened. I mean, is it really going to happen, or are they going to drag it out for so long that someone else has to make the decision? The longer they leave it, the more holes appear in their ‘plan’ so I’m dubious. It will effect artists and small businesses without doubt. Anyone that struggles financially in any way will get hammered because let’s face it, that’s how this country works unfortunately.
In 10 years time my daughter will be 25! I’m in the 35+ crew, you have to work in 5 year jumps, maximum! I’m a very fluid person. I don’t plan as such. But that doesn’t mean I don’t work hard or have aspirations. I just like to trust my gut as much as possible. I’m working towards getting bigger commissions and when my daughter has finished school I’ll be applying for international residencies. As long as I’m still producing work that I am happy with, and my daughter is doing well, that’s good enough for me. Too many people live their lives according to other people’s standards, or ideas of success. I want to travel, and experience and make and paint until my hands stop working.
Social media is really important for any creative business. It’s a tool that is forever changing and updating. You have to stay on the ball to get the most from it. I don’t use it half as much as I should. I would say that Instagram is my first port of call. It feels like the easiest platform for sharing anything visual, for obvious reasons. Though it can be easy to lose track of what’s important to you. In that you’re bombarded with artists that are perched on these pedestals of success, and if you’re not careful you can, as a friend put it, fall down the rabbit hole and feel like you’re not doing enough.
That said, it proved to be really successful for me over Christmas. I got a lot of orders for my Positive Role Models and the Family Portrait Russian Dolls, with orders as far as the Philippines and Chicago. I kind of feel like I upped my game quite a bit this year and with the combination of my new website and Instagram, and of course a lot of hard work, I managed to drive quite a bit of online traffic.
I have plenty of side projects, and was saying just the other day, that sometimes I feel like a Jack of all trades. I get bored easily and find myself diving into something new. It’s that battle between going with instinct and trying to slow everything down, to really get the most out of yourself. In the last six months I’ve created a whole new range of ceramic wares, including some pretty fine jewellery. I also seem to have thrown myself into the world of abstract painting. Something that is completely alien to me, because my work is usually so character driven. I’m really into minimalistic japanese artists, like Ando Hiroshima and Katsushika Hokusai. I love the colour and texture, there is something magical about them. I think there is a lot of influence from this kind of style in the new work I am producing.
At the moment I’m submitting proposals for festivals and pulling together a little creative collective. Not your usual art collective, made up solely of artists. In this case the majority are creative facilitators, focusing on workshops for young people. It’s quite nice really, there’s about 7 of us and we’ve been friends for years. We’ve all got kids, go to festivals together, and we’ve all got loads of experience in participatory arts. We’ve been saying for years we need to do something together, but of course, everybody has their own family commitments.
I think as an artist you have to just go with the flow and trust your instincts, but it’s difficult when you’ve got the pressure of making a living. Most people get up and go to work, and thats it. It’s not that simple for an artist, there are times when there’s just nothing happening.
In between all of the above, I’m spending time touching up my drawing skills. It’s a skill I rarely use. I like the innocence and naivety that my line naturally has, but when I really put the extra effort in I know I’m actually pretty good, which, if anything is a healthy ego boost. So I plan to get myself out there and have some life drawing classes this year, and do some fine tuning.