It was after a near death experience at 19 that British artist Stuart Semple decided the only way he wanted to live his life was on his own terms. Those terms were artistic ones and what started with the sale of a print on ebay has lead to a collective of creative companies and Stuart finding personal artistic fame.
In 2009 his public art project ‘HappyCloud’ saw thousands of smiley faced clouds, made of soap and helium, fly into the air from Tate Modern towards the city of London and has since toured Milan during Salone De Mobile, Moscow & Dublin.
2016 saw Semple achieve worldwide notoriety after creating and releasing the world’s pinkest pink and subsequently excluding artist Anish Kapoor from using it. The ensuing ‘Art War’ on colour between Kapoor and Semple became a conceptual performance piece about accessibility, elitism and community. His colour creations can now be found in the permanent collection of the Harvard Art Museum pigment library.
We caught up with this impressive creative at his newly opened, Station Studios in Dorset to find out how he made it work.
Everyone starts somewhere…
Although the artistic journey started early for Stuart, he still did his fair stint in the 9-5 world before carving his own path. “I sold insurance for a bit in a call centre. I was actually really good at it. I hated it, but I was good at it. I also took tickets at the concert hall and got to see all the bands. Those were my only two ‘real’ jobs.”
Stuart’s not backwards in coming forwards about his more humble artistic beginnings, having no backing he simply drew a line in the sand and henceforth decided he would make his living from art, he tells us, “That was the commitment and I didn’t even know what it looked like at the time.”
It took a real leap of faith and steely determination to leave the 9-5 world behind.
“I had zero. I wanted to pay for my life with my art. That was the rule. So I rented a tiny little terrace house that cost £80 a week. The landlord came every Friday for rent and the rule was, I would have the money and I would have made it from art.”
Stuart is a perfect lesson in starting small and appreciating every victory. The first piece of art he sold was a drawing on paper, listed on ebay. The bidding started at £2 and it sold for £6. “I worked out that if I could make three things a day and keep putting them on ebay I could actually pay my rent every week. It was only £6 but I was a professional artist at that point because I was making my income from Art.”
When I ask if he feels someone could replicate this method of success today, after a minutes thought he tells me, “I think so. I think there is still space and new opportunities. In those days we didn’t have Instagram, social media, Youtube etc so there’s more access to a potential audience now. When I started, the only place you could really put an image up was ebay. It was very limited. I also feel people are much more confident buying things online from smaller outfits now. But what you are making needs to be good.”
In the early days Stuart tells me he didn’t have to think too much about how to price his work. “Initially there was the price that ebay found. Then, for my first show and larger pieces, I worked with a gallery to find a price point. They advised me. Professional help came in.”
Pricing your work and your worth correctly in any form of self employment is important, in art it’s even more so, Stuart adds, “I’m currently seeing a trend where people grossly overvalue themselves. It’s their first art show and things are priced at 15k. Even prices at student shows these days are crazy. By making my stuff start at £2 on ebay I actually built an audience and got support. That was more value to me than if I had got £100 a piece.”
Shows aren’t cheap
We talk about the costs involved for large works and shows, “Some of the big fabricated pieces I make are really expensive.” Stuart tells me, “I’ve also spent loads on exhibitions. They can be 100k-150k easily. You have a rough idea on what you are likely to sell but you can lose massively. I’ve lost massively on shows.”
Big risk or no, Stuart still thinks shows are integral to the way he works. He tells me, although he has the option of working with galleries who absorb half the show costs, he mostly prefers to go it alone, keeping maximum creative license.
“I produce my own shows which is why I’m different to a lot of artists. I’ve made sure we have the capacity to throw up a show and make it work. Putting together something that’s interesting, not just from a financial point of view but creatively.”
Although galleries do bring a lot to the table with regards to sharing costs and providing a ‘little black book’ of buyers, Stuart has realised his audience is very active in buying his work wherever it is, so giving a gallery a 50/50 split of his profits isn’t so appealing. He doesn’t think it’s the best route for everyone to begin so independently though, “ I think I did it the hard way. If you get a good gallery with a good list, you’ve got an instant audience, they do it all for you and you can concentrate on doing the work. That’s a lot easier.”
Budgeting as an artist is tough and Stuart quickly learnt how tough when putting his own shows together. “You don’t know what you don’t know. That’s the point in any new business. Until you hit something you’ve got to pay for you don’t often know it exists. So with an art show, you just don’t know. There are couriers, printing going wrong, extra lights needed… a budget goes out the window. In the early days, you scrabble together, you find a way to make it work and it’s really scary. But when you’re 90% into a project and you’re running out of cash, you’ve got to find a way of making it work or else you lose everything. That’s what motivates you. It’s finding that last 10-20% to push something through.”
The side hustle
These days, as well as creating work and putting together shows, Stuart also runs several side businesses, Culture Hustle being one of them. Culture Hustle is reinventing artists materials and has given Stuart a bitter-sweet introduction to the world of manufacture and product sales. “Our main money issue these days is tracking things. We’re running into issues with accounting. Our number of transactions and the volume of orders, we literally blow up accounting software and break book-keepers. It’s taking us ages to keep on top of it which means we’re not getting accurate data. This, in turn, makes it very hard to budget and plan because we’re playing catch up all the time. The other big problem is, you can’t plan for the tax bill. It’s generally good to know what that’s looking like as you go along, rather than ten minutes before. So that’s our big thing at the moment. We’re going to throw more manpower at it.”
The business is a continuously growing one with more products being added almost monthly and more fans being found daily. It’s a great addition to the Semple umbrella that allows Stuart to take time back to do what he loves best, painting. This growing outfit takes a good £45k a month to run, with the studio and a team of 12 and it’s about to grow even larger with the recent opening of Station Studios.
“One of the big things we’re doing at the moment is starting to renovate commercial properties into shared studio space. So we’re managing building projects as well as additional projects like my collaborations, brand stuff, then the public art stuff – sculptures for cities…”
Being out of London and in the slightly ‘sleepier’ West Country has only acted as fuel for further projects. “We’ve found that students from the arts university down here in Bournemouth were coming out and leaving because there’s no studio space. We also know loads of people are moving down from London. A lot of graphic designers, filmmakers… I think that being in London isn’t as essential as it was. The fact is, the culture’s so dead you could almost be anywhere. It’s changed so much. The cultures online nowadays, you can be anywhere. That’s why we decided to start building studio space.”
These days Stuart tells me his best margins are made on Culture Hustle’s art materials. Although the largest margin per item is of course his paintings, taking only really time and canvas to produce. “Painting is always the best as it’s a pleasure.” He tells me,
“I’m not painting as much as I would like too but more than I was. When Culture Hustle blew up I had to pause painting almost entirely for about a year. I’m starting to really get back into it now, and finding I need to be in here (Culture Hustle offices) a lot less.
It’s important that I’m actually doing what I love to do. There’s no point having a great business if you don’t have the time to do the thing you actually wanted to do with your life. It’s absolutely pointless.”
Stuart’s key pieces of advice for anyone looking to take a similar path hinge on tenacity, integrity and being sensible with your cash.
“If I could speak to an earlier version of myself I would say that no matter how bad it gets, it’s going to be alright – it will end. And it’s worth it. For others I would say, make your work and be honest about it. It has to be your work, not what you think someone will buy. It has to have real integrity about it. Keep doing that and then hopefully someone will also like it. That’s the luck of the draw. You make your thing and they like it or they don’t, there’s nothing you can do about that. When it comes to money I say, save. The sooner you start saving the better. Whatever it is and in whatever form. Find a way of saving that actually suits you, something that you know about. Buy yourself a gold coin once a month or whack it in an ISA if that makes sense. The important thing is to find something you’re actually going to do. You don’t have to find the smartest, coolest, biggest return thing. The best way of saving is actually to save. Because you’ll need it.