‘What’s Holding Me Back?’ (2016)
2016 solo show ‘What’s Holding Me Back?’ examined the challenges faced by freelance creatives when producing new work. The show at The Gallery at Bank Quay House was an opportunity to ask questions about practice, working methods and what it means to be an artist and illustrator. The work took a more informal approach enabling learning and play at all stages of the research, preparation, making and curating.

In order to gain new insight and extend the opportunity for enlightenment a number of artists were approached and asked two key questions:

“What type of obstacles do you feel you come up against when making work?”

“What habits or processes have you adopted to overcome these creative blocks?”

The pieces included in the show were produced in reaction to the responses to these questions. Common themes included practical difficulties such as lack of money, time, resources or space and the responses also touched on the psychological blocks that cause a halt to creative production. Some of the research pointed towards the possibility that theses blocks, difficulties and stresses actually contribute to the final output and are a necessary part of life as an artist or creative practitioner. The uncertainty, imbalance and insecurity helping to shape the work however the cost of this on health and wellbeing must also be brought into question.

The exhibition was a starting point that will hopefully lead onto deeper investigation into the subject at a later date. The work provided a brief insight into life as a freelancer touching on practical solutions and exploring some aspects that are more personal to the artist.

A huge thank you to the following artists and writers for their contributions to the exhibition:
Lauren Phillips, Lydia Catterall, Bess Martin, Sophie Megan Lee, Lucy Vann, Libby Scarlett, Gail Stubbings and Kirsten Hawkins

The exhibition contained five new pieces of work described in detail below:

‘A list for all occasions’

Risograph prints


Gathered from notebooks spanning 2010-15 this compilation of lists demonstrates my continual reliance on list-making in all areas of my life. List-making is evidently a process that I use in order to gain control over stressful situations particularly chaotic work schedules or busy periods. Certain jobs roll over to new lists for weeks on end and the process of adding them to a new list sets my mind at ease for a while despite the task not actually being carried out.

When making a new list I find myself carefully writing out a title and date, repeating words unnecessarily and generally wasting time that could be put to use more constructively. It felt necessary to emulate this form of procrastination through the process of making this piece of work so rather than scanning or reproducing my existing lists I opted to rewrite them by hand using a stick and ink. A laborious process which took hours but allowed me to feel as though I was contributing towards the exhibition offering me time to think and consider the other pieces while almost mechanically rewriting the list. Even when preparing for print I ended up involved in a lengthy process organising each individual line by length and laying them out carefully over the spreads.

During the beginning of a new project or commission I often seek out a task requiring little thought or creativity in order to feel productive. I often guiltily thought of this as a form of procrastination on my part however working towards “What’s Holding Me Back?” and focusing my mind on the reasoning behind these tasks has helped me to understand that these monotonous or tedious assignments give me time to think about the next stage of the work while sating my need to actively produce work.


Silk-screen prints


When collating the responses from fellow creative freelancers there were a number of themes that surfaced over and over as the cause of obstacles and difficulties. Time, money and balance were the crux of most problems and these three issues tend to operate cyclically to cause hold ups when working in the creative industries.

This series of prints encapsulates these themes visually; the shapes and colour choices used in the backgrounds acknowledging the cyclical yet often erratic nature of these problems with the imagery of the moth and the tight-rope artist representing the themes in a metaphorically cliched manner. The fictional chart aims to document the potential benefits and drawbacks to common working patterns established by creative freelancers - based on a combination of my own experiences and observations and those of my peers, the information aims to quantify the effect of work on time, money, security etc. The outcome is (quite appropriately) confusing, chaotic and inexact providing a fitting representation of the uncertain and unpredictable nature of working as a freelancer.

It’s also hard to know which ideas are going to work and which won’t without actually doing them.’

Mixed media – mono-print, collage, inkjet print


The idea for this series of works came about after reading a section of Lucy Vann’s response:

“I also sometimes find it hard to justify the time spent on making abstract ideas physical or visual. Sounds stupid, as that is what art is, but when an idea is in my head it can just seems ridiculous or pointless. It’s also hard to know which ideas are going to work and which won’t without actually doing them. You have to spend a while doing crap work for the good bits to come through, which can be frustrating.”

Most of my work is made in response to a specific brief or project and I seldom have the opportunity to make work that is completely focused on personal exploration. With this in a mind I chose to create this series of work without any preconceptions or final ideas in mind. The work began with mono-printing, a process which I have been keen to revisit for some time – the drawings produced were not thought out but produced extemporaneously. The work has developed naturally using further revisited processes such as collage and montage photocopying. I’m unclear myself about the meaning behind the content of the work – some of the images feel autobiographical and contain themes and images that have reoccurred in my mind countless times in the past few years but until now have never been reproduced physically. The production of this series has been a process of decluttering; addressing concepts that have been overlooked or pushed aside enabling a clearing of ideas in preparation for future work.

‘What next?’

Silk-screen prints


See individual page for write up: ‘What next?


Black acrylic ink on card, hand-made box


Feelings of self-doubt, inferiority and a lack of confidence were themes raised by almost all of the artists and writers in their responses to the research questions. In the past I’ve been guilty of exuding an air of disparagement when presenting my work, making needless excuses and generally adopting quite a negative opinion of my own talents, accomplishments and abilities. Discussing these issues with my peers and realising that I’m not alone in my feelings of self-doubt has been a really important process for me; although it’s safe to assume that most artists suffer from a lack of confidence at times, I’ve found that it was necessary for me to have this reiterated on a more personal level for this fact to actually be absorbed.

These cards are a collection of comments and quotes lifted from the responses; pocket-sized and ready to carry around and refer to at any time as a reminder that everyone has these thoughts and they can be used as a positive tool to thwart complacency and encourage discussion and reflection.

Photos by Emma Kelly, Tony Culpin and Dean Hughes.

© Emma Brown 2010-19