The Northern Art Prize nominee candidly admits that her fine art career did not immediately take off following her BA at Edinburgh University
‘I was absolutely clueless really!’ Emily Speed confesses. ‘I didn’t make work for about 3 years, I almost felt like it wasn’t good enough. I knew I wasn’t quite ready, so I went off to Japan to teach English for a couple of years. I definitely wasn’t an immediate star. It was a very slow, and not at all strategic process.’
This is surprising. Within the last few years Speed has exhibited in Austria, Milan, New York, Switzerland and Rome in addition to our very own Yorkshire Sculpture Park. Last year she was praised as one of the Guardian’s Artists of the week and has been shortlisted, along with fellow Liverpudlian Rosalind Nashashibi for the Northern Art Prize. Her work will be shown next year in Leeds Art Gallery before judges deliberate on the winner on the 23rd May. Her trajectory towards recognition is encouraging and somewhat gratifying for struggling arts graduates. However Speed emphasizes that the process of establishing herself as a practicing artist was not without difficulty.
‘I guess an MA was really what I needed,’ she tells me in her thoughtful, considerate way. ‘The key to it all is really having interest in arts – if you’re going to see lots of things and talking to lots of people you build up really natural networks’.
This is a great point. We laugh about the forced and artificial nature of networking and its sleazy, slightly 80’s connotations. To professionals and artists alike ‘networking’ is a necessary but slightly cringe-worthy evil.
‘You put a lot in to get a lot out,’ she continues. ‘It does mean finding spaces and doing things with your mates that aren’t paid. There is something about it that is just about holding on. If you’re still doing things 5 years down the line people are interested. People will pick up on your work if you’re really persistent.’
It is perseverance, rather than desperation, that pays off, Speed stresses.
‘Things build very slowly but the more you do, the more people are exposed to your work. Work has ‘work babies’: it definitely breeds itself!’.
Our phone connection wavers a little. Based in Cheshire, Speed is somewhat ‘out in the sticks’ although her studio is in central Liverpool. We move on to discuss her most recent projects.
‘The last thing I’ve done recently is a group show in Rome. It was a 3 person show: a chance to make work with a bit of support, which is good.’
When asked whether the diverse location of her shows means she lives a glamorous lifestyle, Speed laughs off the question .
‘If only. I’ve been lucky though. I mean this year’s been really crazy; I’ve been to Rome 4 times. There is a lot of travelling which is one of the good things. When you travel it changes your work gradually. Most of the places I work I try and install the work myself as I often work quite site specifically, or, I’m in the work…’
She is referring to pieces like her ‘Mattdress and Drawers’, where multimedia structures act as physical manifestations of the way we build layers around ourselves. Recently, Emily has been experimenting with performance art. She admits she experienced a considerable amount of stage fright at the performance of the Human Castle at Edinburgh Art Festival.
‘For the northern art prize I’d like to do a performative work but its quite difficult with the amount of visitors they get. They have a ridiculous amount of visitors and the exhibition is on for 3 months.’
Unsurprisingly the prospect of performances day in day out, ad infinitum, does not appeal.
‘If you hadn’t gone on to be a practicing artist, is there something else you would have fallen back on?’ I ask as our interview draws to a close.
‘You know, I just can’t think of anything else I would do’ Speed replies simply. ‘If I’d been better at mathematics I might have been an architect. I’m not really patient enough though’.
Speed’s work reflects this. Her pieces can be described as architecture without the boring bits, structural and conceptual in equal parts.