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Gromit Unleashed

31 August 13 words: Rachel Elderkin
"Just to be put on a platform with those other names is really quite incredible"

Golden Gromit: Julie Vernon

Golden Gromit: Julie Vernon

I think we have to start with the star of the show… What has the reaction been like to the Golden Gromit?

It’s been amazing.

I started to keep a blog of the process from day one so that you could see it taking shape and the Gromit Unleashed people caught onto that. I got feedback from an early stage that they liked it and that it was different – the majority of people were painting Gromit. They featured me a lot on their Facebook page and on Twitter, so momentum was growing right from the start.

So do you find blogging a useful tool as an artist?

To be honest I’d never done one before! I’m a bit of a technophobe – when I started using Twitter my account was suspended in a week for incorrect usage! When I started Gromit Unleashed I knew I had to maximise the opportunity so I started my blog for that. I’ve seen the value in it now. It’s a really good tool and I’m going to continue.

Getting the commission for Gromit Unleashed was undoubtedly a great achievement for you as an artist…

Considering there were eighty Gromits all together, and given that a big proportion of those have gone to celebrity names and famous artists, I was really lucky to even get a chance of designing one. It’s given me loads of confidence, and it was so well received.

When it came to the launch event my Gromit was one of five chosen to be centre stage which I didn’t know was going to happen. It was put on a revolving plinth with all the press, artists and sponsors there. As an emerging artist that was great.

How does it feel to be flying the flag for Nottingham alongside Paul Smith?

Unbelievable! Just to be put on a platform with those other names is really quite incredible – a pinch me moment, it isn’t quite real. I’m alongside artists and designers like Aardman Animations (the creators of Wallace and Gromit), Axel Scheffler (The Gruffalo), Peter Lord (Morph), Disney Pixar, Paul Smith, Cath Kidston…

I knew that I’d been shortlisted in February but until that moment I only thought I had a miniscule chance of getting it – for every five things I apply for I’ll get four rejections, but I’ve always aimed high just to have a go. That’s when I raised my expectations; I got my hopes up. I had kept my diary clear so that I could go for it, so it was quite scary at that stage – it was all or nothing.

A pedicure for Gromit...

A pedicure for Gromit...

What was the inspiration behind Gromit?

I worked completely freeform. I didn’t sketch anything out, I just worked freely around the contours and shapes of the body and let them inspire me, guide me almost. I was just working day by day on it.

Can you talk us through the process? How did it differ to other works?

It was a very physical project. I knew I was working on a tight deadline and there was no way of speeding it up – there were six and a half square metres to cover and over six thousand tiles, all handcut. It was seven days a week for six weeks, often in my pyjamas! I did wonder how I would finish it but I knew it had to be done.

I started on the small things first, working out in my head how the next stage was going to be. I had no idea how I was going to do the face, but after a section of the body I gained confidence in how it was working. The hardest thing of all was the feet, because of their shape; there are one hundred pieces on one toe! I could have just stuck the tiles in straight lines but I wanted to push myself and have that design element there. These opportunities don’t come round that often. I had this amazing blank canvas and I wanted to do the best I could. I wanted to show myself and others what I could do.

Mosaicing the ears...

Mosaicing the ears...

What interests you about mosaic and why did you begin to work in this medium?

I’d painted before and I’d done Batik, but it wasn’t until I had a go at Mosaic that I knew I’d hit the right medium. It crosses over into the realm of mixed media and with all the different materials and techniques to explore there are endless possibilities; it’s a really exciting medium to work in.

A lot of your designs seem to be inspired by nature or pattern. What is it that sparks the creation of a design?

The lines and contours usually dictate the flow of the design – I draw very little out, mostly working free flow. I’m also inspired by the materials; I like to let them have an impact on and guide the work. I work with a lot of natural materials and then also professional mosaic tiles which you can cut and shape. I really like beach ceramic – ceramic that has been washed ashore, worn down and weathered; you can taste the salt in it!

Talk us through some of the pieces you are proud of or have enjoyed creating…

Gromit has got to be the biggest one – it’s my first ever outdoor public exhibition. As a public art trail that runs for ten weeks it’s also the longest thing I’ve ever done. I’ll also get to see that go to auction, which is exciting.

Also last year with the Olympics and Diamond Jubilee I did a lot of work themed around those events – I worked on some nice projects then including some jubilee slabs which, as a piece of public art, I can now go back to and enjoy seeing. I like that element.

You seem to do a lot of work in the community on arts projects and with school groups – does your art form lend itself to this type of work?

I think children in particular really love the tactile nature of the materials; some of them are really colourful and nice to handle. It works really well with groups as you can work on large pieces and everyone can contribute by working on small bits to build up the whole.

Do you find yourself doing a lot of outdoor commissions?

Yes, I think it’s because mosaic is really functional and sustainable. If done in the right way you’re creating something that’s going to be there for years to come, so it works very well outdoors.

Although I concentrate on the artwork side of things outdoor commissions enable me to work on bigger projects and scale up the work. Gromit is a large piece of public art and although anyone could buy it at auction I hope that it will stay in the public realm. It has given me a taste of the thrill of having my work out in the open and a lot of people being able to see and enjoy it.

Living Layers: Julie Vernon

Living Layers: Julie Vernon

Mosaic is of course an ancient practice – why do you think this art form has survived to the modern day when in general artistic styles are ever changing?

I think because of the functionality of mosaic; it is so hard wearing. It was used a lot for floors and a lot of the churches and buildings are clad in it as it is long lasting and the colours are not going to fade. When I was in Ravenna earlier this year I saw some of the world heritage mosaics and they are pretty much as they were done in the day. The colours are still so vivid and it’s just got that durability about it.

Mosaic is more respected in Europe, it’s more valued, and it has always been around. In the UK it sits on the fence between art and craft and some don’t see it as either. However these days I think it crosses over into the area of mixed media and that’s where it has a place in contemporary art; you can bring in so many different materials.

What are your artistic influences?

There is a contemporary mosaic artist who really inspires me called Sonia King. She’s an American artist who pushes the boundaries of mosaic. Quite often it is thought of as crazy paving – taking a hammer and smashing up tiles and sticking it into a jigsaw effect – but it’s more than that and she really explores the materials.

In general I’m just constantly inspired by lots of things I see, like sculpture and being out and about and going to shows. Travelling is really important as well.

Have you always lived and worked in Nottingham?

I came to Uni in Nottingham and then went away for a couple of years before getting a job here. It was a very creative job working for Speedo in Marketing and Product Development – I never went to Art College. When I left school that was my intention but it was just painting and drawing then. I was good, but I saw people who just have that gift and were a leap ahead and I didn’t feel good enough.

I took about ten years off work to have kids and during that time I continued with my art – it was my escape. When my youngest daughter started school I had that natural career break and I thought, maybe I could do this as a business…

Do you find Nottingham a good place to work as an artist?

Yes, I like it here. I got picked for a scheme, Notts Creative 2010, and without that I wouldn’t be where I am today. They picked ten artists and designer-makers in Nottingham at different stages in their careers – I hadn’t even stared. That six month mentoring scheme introduced us to art professionals and gallery owners. The fact that we had been selected gave us some credibility and it created a really great network of artists to talk to. We collaborated in exhibitions and we still see each other. Having that network was invaluable really, it fast tracked me and from that I started my business.

Do you feel that the independence of the art scene here helps support artists like yourself?

There are lots of opportunities in Nottingham. I just took part in Notts Open Studios and had my work at Rufford Gallery. I’ve taken part in the Lady Bay Open Studios, had my work in Nottingham Contemporary at the Christmas Craft Fair and in Craft in the City. It’s nice to be part of that collective and do those group things; working as an artist is isolating at times, so you do need that community. I’m always keen to collaborate; it moves your work in a new direction and blends different skills together.

Gromit in situ for Gromit Unleashed

Gromit in situ for Gromit Unleashed

I think we know the answer but… What have been your favourite commissions or the most enjoyable to be involved with?

Gromit, of course!!

Although equally I did an exhibition towards the end of last year at the Salt Gallery in Loughborough called Emerge. Again, I applied for this and they picked ten emerging artists to exhibit at the gallery for about a month. It was a really nice venue and it was great to see my work alongside my contemporaries. It gave us a platform and I got some good feedback and sold some work.

Any future projects planned?

In March I went to Ravenna in Italy, which is where all the mosaic studios are – it’s the mosaic capital of the world really. I worked in a studio for a week and did a course on traditional mosaic techniques and outdoor paving. I hope to create a new body of work using the skills I picked up in Ravenna and I’m keeping an eye out for some kind of community project in Nottingham where I can use the mosaic paving.

This year has been a big learning curve. Working on the 3D form with Gromit was completely brand new. It’s been about development – I now want to continue developing and try more with the 3D form as I’ve definitely got the bug for that.

Julie Vernon is an award winning mosaic artist. As well as exhibiting and selling work in select retails outlets she also undertakes public and private commissions, runs a successful programme of workshops and is involved in a wide range of schools and community arts projects.

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