olivia newsome & tone: leeds culture strategyBack
The Culture Strategy will be one of the ways Leeds will try to ensure it grows in a way that enhances what people love about living, working and playing in Leeds already, and in a way that matches the ambitions Leeds people have for their city, so that love can increase.
We took this concept to four Leeds-based artists, and asked them to think about the South Bank, the Culture Strategy, and their lives in Leeds, and answer us through the medium they know best. We also got them together in pairs, two illustrators and two photographers, to talk things over. Read more about Leeds Culture Strategy here.
Illustrator Olivia Newsome drew from real life, imagination, and a Holbeck brick palette to create visions of what the South Bank could be; street artist Tone used his trademark pulp iconography for a more symbolic representation.
“The gorilla represents the people in charge, and it’s holding on to the dog, which is the business people. True Romance is something I always like to put in there, and the South Bank could be a very romantic thing for the city. It could be something that everyone just falls instantly in love with.”
Olivia will graduate from Leeds College of Art this year, while Tone is about to exhibit alongside Ben Eines in Soho, and both are working out how they can do what they want to do and be who they want to be, in Leeds.
“I’ve been thinking about this over the last few days,” says Tone. “Because of this London exhibition, I’ve had a few people say to me, ‘This is it for you now mate, a step up! You’ll be living in London next year!’ But I won’t. I don’t want to live in London. I always call Leeds my home, and I need to be here, and I want to be here.
“But there are opportunities in London. I was there for three days the other week, just putting stickers out and pasteups, and the amount of Instagram photos that I’ve been tagged in, loads of people and galleries have seen it and are talking about it. If I lived in London I could go out every night and do that, and I’d probably end up being a prolific, active street artist in that area, and then you get exhibitions, and then you sell your work.
“I find that’s a struggle sometimes in Leeds. The people who see your work are people you know, and it’s hard to sell work, because people say they love it, but you’re collecting likes, you’re not collecting sales. It’s not all about money for me, I like getting out there and showing my work, but I’d like to be comfortable and live.”
That’s a health check on the art scene in Leeds, which is as creative and supportive as it gets, but doesn’t have the culture of art-buying that exists in a London or New York.
“People say it all the time about Leeds: it’s a small, massive city. One of my mates said that about me once, that I was the fattest looking skinny man he’d ever seen. That was years ago when I was drinking quite a lot and in the summer I’d have my beer belly out. He said, when you look at you, you just look like a thin lad, then you take your top off and you’ve got a bit of a chub on. And that’s Leeds. It’s massive, but when you live here, it’s really small.
“What’s happening with the exhibition coming up is, when you’re in London, you know there will be people going in there specifically to purchase, and you don’t even have to be well known. If you’ve got something nice, people are willing to spend what it’s worth. Which is good because I’ve exhibited my neons in Leeds and nobody has bought any, and I’m out of pocket. So I’ve made two more, which is a risk, but I’m 80% sure I’ll sell it in Soho, and then I’ll be able to afford to make some more.”
As an artist with a track record in Leeds and a saleable reputation in London, for Tone it’s a question of where next; and if the answer is Leeds, then where in Leeds?
“I think Leeds is a thriving city, it’s a very artistic city, with a lot of creative people. But they haven’t really got anywhere to express what they’re doing. People in Leeds don’t know where to start, gallery-wise. There’s The Gallery at Munro House, and Café 164 and Colours May Vary, they have opportunities for people; and there’s White Cloth Gallery. But where do you go next?”
Olivia has exhibited at Colours May Vary through Leeds College of Art, but when she thinks of a future in editorial illustration she says, “Leeds probably doesn’t offer the opportunities that I want to pursue, for working with publishers.”
In the years ahead, though, culture might beat opportunity, thanks to the quality of life in Leeds, and the advantage Olivia is already taking of living in a digital age.
“I’m working with someone in Switzerland at the moment,” she says. “I’m doing a job for them and having Skype calls, and it’s fine that I’m here in Leeds. It’s come from a long string of jobs starting with some work for The Guardian, and I can do that from the comfort of my own home.
“I’ve thought about moving to London, but everyone there is running a thousand miles an hour all the time, and you have to be constantly working to just pay rent and feed yourself. What I’m hoping to do is get an agent in London, with the contacts at publishers I need, and just go down now and then.
“I really enjoy living in Leeds. The culture is really rich, and Leeds has got something quite individual in that it feels like there’s a community, in such a big city.
“I did my foundation course here, and decided I was definitely staying here to go to uni, and I moved up from Wakefield. I started helping out with a youth group and that’s one of the things I really enjoy doing, helping people. It’s quite separate to my illustration, but I like investing in people and helping kids growing up, giving something back into the city.
“What I’d like to see on the South Bank, or anywhere, is a place where people who don’t have money to buy equipment, before they can even think about pursuing a career in art, could come and use a Mac, could use a Wacom tablet, with people around to help them, so they could have a chance to try. There’d be a space for exhibitions and a coffee bar for creative people to mix and collaborate. It’s a dream scenario, but that’s what it would be.”
The years in which Olivia will graduate from being student to establishing herself as a working illustrator will coincide with the development of Leeds’ Culture Strategy and the South Bank, and she expresses the optimism of someone who has recently made Leeds her home, and is excited by the potential around her. “I really like the idea of a new park, and a green area, and I was thinking for my illustration about the contrasts between that and the new buildings, and the old buildings already there.”
We asked if the dog in her illustration had a name, because we’re bottomless with stupid questions.
“Clarence,” says Tone, who is used to indulging us.
“Clarence Dog,” says Olivia. That’s in her third illustration. “I was looking at the buildings around the Royal Armouries, and I just really liked them and wanted to draw them.” We talked about how clean and crisp and fresh that drawing looked.
“I know it’s about a new area,” says Tone, “But I wanted my pieces to reflect on the whole of the city, how they’ll integrate. I know it’s going to be very fresh, and I like freshness like you see in Olivia’s piece, that everything is going to be nice and clean and crisp. And when it’s built, I wouldn’t want to spoil that by sneaking around there sticking stuff up, and having people come and clean it off and leave it looking grimy. But the city as a whole needs to be able to interact with that space, a way for people to express themselves.
“All I want to be able to do is this. When I go on holiday and see my American friends, or if I meet new people, I want to be able to say, I’m from Leeds. And for people to say, oh yeah, I know Leeds.”
“Sometimes people are scared of change,” says Olivia. “But change is good, and I feel like the South Bank will develop into something new and fresh and different. I think Leeds does need to develop and it can develop, and there’s a lot of room and potential.
“So for me and Tone, us staying in Leeds is us saying that we’re going to help build this. The common opinion around is that you need to go to London to be able to make it, but I feel like in this day and age, why not be in a different city and be able to make and do what you love? I feel like in Leeds we can.”
Originally published in The City Talking: Leeds, issue 35