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NTU Student MJ the Art Traveller to Appear on Sky Arts' Portrait Artist of the Year 2019

14 February 19 interview: Caroline Barry

It's that time of the year again. Portrait Artist of the Year returns to Sky Arts with a new round of contestants ready to get painting. The set-up is simple: paint a portrait of a surprise celebrity in your own style in be in the chance to win a £10,000 commission for a major British Institution, plus £500 of materials from Cass Art. What’s not so simple is that you are judged by some of the best art curators and artists in a portrait you can do in four hours under the glare of TV lights. This year, the competition features Nottingham Trent MA student Michael Sheppard aka MJ the Art Traveller...

MJ the Art Traveller

How did you get started in art, what was your background?
I always loved drawing in sketchpads, notepads and colouring books as a kid. I tried to teach myself how to draw but I think my skills started to develop when I was in school. I became more passionate about it and would always stay after school and work. When I went to university, I met other artists, expanded my studio practise and developed new skills which really helped me.

I’ve done a year of my MA at Nottingham Trent University and my practise is mostly based around drawing and film making. The course has opened me up into new areas of research and being more involved with the city itself, especially the art scene. It’s really diverse and interactive, so I was able to throw myself into working and creating art in the city compared to a local town.

Are you from Nottingham originally?
I’m from Kent and grew up in a place called Tunbridge Wells. That’s my hometown but for years I have been in North Hampton. At first, I wasn’t convinced that I wanted to study in Nottingham but then I came across a two-year masters’ course. I went to an open day where I met the tutor, the students and felt really welcome straight away.

Where did the name MJ the Art Traveller come from?
It started when I was doing my degree at Northampton. He’s a quirky artist who goes travelling on his own to understand the environment and what he sees. He tries to compare the differences between cityscape and landscape. He looks at chaos, natural and urbanised areas that might be more defined.

That name has become very ambiguous, but I decided to try make it more defined in what I was investigating. I think it’s important to stand out as an artist. I like to go places and understand how they’ve been created. I take a sketchbook with me to record what I see in front of me.

What inspired you to enter Portrait Artist of the Year?
I’ve always been interested in looking at fine art and I have been working on my degree in art. I first came across the Portrait Artist of the Year competition back in 2013 when it was first introduced. It really fascinated me how artists could go in and take part by painting and drawing. I also like the fact that it’s free to enter. There are quite a lot of competitions that you can enter but you have to pay quite a bit of money for them. When I found out I was shortlisted, I was really happy.

What was the selection process like?
It was condensed down into a small number of people from the thousands of people who applied for it. I was amazed when I was shortlisted because before I had applied to be on Landscape Artist of the Year. There are so many great artists who take part in it. It’s so competitive when making yourself known to the media and getting opportunities.

They just had general chats with me about how I work, what I’m interested in and from there I went to London. I won’t reveal the name of the gallery it was shot in, but you’ll get to see when it starts on TV.

What was the biggest challenge of the show?
I don’t think there was a big challenge. I wanted to go in there to show my skills and what I’m made of. It can be fun to create art without taking it too seriously. It was quite chilled. It felt quite natural to do something out of my comfort zone and not try to keep up the routine of being artist.

What were the judges (Tai Shan Schierenberg, Kathleen Soriano and Kate Bryan) like?
They are tough critics but approachable. I’d be drawing, and they’d come up and start talking to me out of nowhere! It felt like a really good opportunity to meet the top curators and one of the world's best painters. It was actually brilliant to speak with them on TV and for them to share an interest in how I draw and what I create. It's just amazing and a once-in-a-lifetime experience. I’d recommend it to anyone who is interested in portrait art. You don't know where it will take you.

Any advice for those thinking of entering?
I would go for it. It doesn't matter if you’re an artist or not. For anyone who wants to go beyond and get their work out there, it’s a great opportunity. It’s also a great way of networking.

What's next?
I'm waiting for Portrait Artist of the Year to be on TV. I'm going to see what happens with that and see if I get any response for that. I have two exhibitions coming up, one is in Sussex and another in Kent, so I will be promoting that. Just creating work and keeping on going.

MJ the Art Traveller is showing Sea Sail Thru the Journey at St. Paul's Café in Worthing from 5 Wednesday 5 – Thursday 27 June

He’ll also be exhibiting Senses Sea Sail Sights at Trinity Arts Theatre in Tunbridge Wells from Monday 1 – Monday 8 July

Portrait Artist of the Year 2019 is showing on Sky Arts every Tuesday

Sky website

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