International Women's Day 2023 - Underbank Studios

Mar 01, 2023

Underbank Studios is a community-focused, female-led arts project creating opportunities for artists and local people to develop existing practices and engage in art activities. They provide a shared and supportive studio space as well as access to workshops, exhibitions and events.

Can you tell us about your journey to your role? Did your education set you in this direction or did you have a less conventional path to where you are now?

Heather:  Underbank Studios is the result of artists coming together to create something they felt was lacking in Stockport. Through optimism and hard work the Studios were created to fulfill artists need to have a space to work and play in. ‘Build it and they will come’ seems like a really fitting quote - once we found a space to rent, and made it a suitable space to work, our ideas and collaborative projects started to run away with us. Stockport helped us found this space, with the local residents donating over £8000 to our fundraiser. Without this support, we wouldn’t have been able to rent a building in the first place. Myself and Luca have both held a vision of founding an artist collective / studio space for a long while. We both studied at Stockport college together, which had its own buzzing energy that spurred us on. Being from Stockport fills you with a particular sense of drive; a town of industrialism and home to a historical market which has been full of bustling traders for years. I think there’s no coincidence between this history of doers, and Stockport having a cultural revival now. We are seeing more and more Independent businesses, and hubs of artists and musicians. When we first started our project there were only a few, it was these few spaces that inspired us to do something in the Underbanks ourselves. 

Growing up on a council estate, I have always appreciated community hubs such as libraries and community centers. Spaces for the local people, especially those who are looking for comfort and companionship. It feels only natural to be a part of founding a space that welcomes people to connect through art. My personal practise of illustration came about like most, through playing with pens and paper as a kid. I found something comforting in creating my own world, as the one around me was hard to be in. I loved school so much, people thought I was weird. There’s something about having a place to come to for support, and inspiration like that. As I grew older, and went to uni, I started to really enjoy the having other artists around me to share work with. My own work thrives when I am around the energy of other creatives. The print room, and the risograph printing / book binding room was my favourite space. There’s a really empowering feeling I get when I see materials and equipment. It’s the alchemy, and the process of making, I am so happy creating something out of ‘nothing’. And what better thing to create and hold than a book? So satisfying. 

Luca: My higher education journey studying illustration at Stockport College has a lot to do with where I am now - my tutors were legendary and instilled a confidence and curiosity in me that drives everything I do. The course was so broad as well, it encouraged interests way outside of the field and inspired an expansive view of the world. Since then, the desire to build a community and a place that operates a like an art school has been a dream for both of us and, as Heather says, we were in the right place at the right time to make it happen with Underbank Studios.

If you could redesign your learning and career journey to this point, would you? And if so, what changes would you make?

Luca: I wouldn’t change my university experience, it was really unique and special. And the freelance, multifaceted project-based career I currently lead certainly suits my natural desire for newness and freedom right now! However, I didn’t get many GCSE’s/early education qualifications (for personal reasons) so I never received the academic foundations for some of the interests I’ve been drawn to so much as an adult such as history or science. I’d love to have had more chance to explore history particularly as it inspires my work and life so much. Maybe that would have changed the course of my higher education journey and I would have gone on to study medieval history or art history, but I know I would have always had an artistic practice either way. For now I’m happy with it being a somewhat ‘magical’ influence and discovering it on my own!

Heather: I wouldn’t want to redesign my path, I enjoy learning and the process of growth. Making mistakes, and playing I think is a huge part of growth, so I wouldn’t change much. I feel very grateful to have gone to university, as the first in my family to do so. I only wish to continue my learning / career and keep evolving! To spend the majority of my time making art, with others and solo, and then have enough money to survive is my dream. I’m pretty much living that, so I’m content. I couldn’t ask for a more fulfilling career. Our  project, Underbank Studios gives so much back. I have a zest for my personal art practice, and I feel inspired by our artist collective / studio project. If I could study art for the rest of my life I would, I love education. I want to be a sponge eternally. I’m interested in lots of areas of art and design, printmaking, art philosophy, illustration, design theory, ceramics, fine art, graphic design and on and on. I’m sure if I chose to specialize in ceramics instead of illustration, my career would be marginally different, but whether that’s for the better is uncertain to me. No matter the subject I studied, I feel I would always have the urge to work in multiple disciplines. One thing I would change is possibly traveling further a field to study my MA, somewhere warm and novel in Europe. In the near future I hope to continue studies, possibly through a PhD.

What advice would you give to women looking to move toward a role in your field, particularly those whose education and career thus far has been in a very different field?

Heather: Be eager and open to experimentation, this is how you learn. Everyone's path looks totally different, there is no lineage of success - do what makes you happy and your work will attract the right people. I think anyone can make art a career, especially with tools like social media. I would suggest utilising everything that is on offer, and take it all in. Go to exhibitions, chat to creatives working in the field, read books on the discipline you’re interested in. To develop your artistic skills, and style it is important to be in touch with your work. Trying to fit in regular time to explore how you work, and what you enjoy creating will help you to find your visual language. I like the phrase ‘don’t ask, don’t get’ and creating a career in the arts means you have to be brave and talk about your work a lot. You also have to ask for stuff. Seize opportunities to talk to people who you could potentially work well with, and don’t be afraid to suggest a collaboration! Working for free is a contentious thing. I 100% feel artists should always be paid for their work. I have and I still do occasionally work for free or to a clients budget, this is at your own discretion and needs. If the project is something you will enjoy, you have some spare time and you can see it potentially leading to paid work or good portfolio pieces I say why not.

Luca: Value your unique perspective! I have found myself working in theatre design and creation over the past few years, and even though I didn’t study set design or theatre making it’s always been something I have been fascinated by. The fact that I have come into theatre from a completely different arts background gives me an advantage as I see things with a fresh perspective and I’m not stifled by the theatre industry’s norms or trends. You always have something to give that someone else hasn’t considered!

In your experience, is there anything that you think businesses could do to be more supportive of women in the workplace? Or is there anything that you think is really positive in your workplace? 

Luca: Consider women’s strengths, and be adaptable to how each woman works best. This might mean allowing flexible working for those struggling with mental health struggles or ill health as a result of menstrual cycles or the menopause for example. I know a few women who haven’t been able to work to their full potential simply because of a strict and outdated working model that doesn’t fit with their personal needs as a woman.

Heather: Giving women the space and time to talk openly about their experiences is important in acknowledging that they can sometimes feel unseen or dismissed. Creating an accepting environment that gives enough space for a women to have presence in a room. Providing women with opportunities to be in powerful roles.

Can you tell us about any strong female role models that have inspired you in your career? These might be friends, family members, or women who have blazed the trail before you.

Heather: My mum has always spurred me on, and made me feel like I can do anything. My problem solving comes from her wizard-like DIY skills, and my can-do spirit is a result of her cheerleading. Fellow female artists of Underbank Studios are a constant source of inspiration and encouragement to me. Women working within community arts have had a huge influence on my own passion for this area. They have provided me with incite into the good that can be done through this type of work. Lucy Sinclair, founder of Lips Inked, Community Arts Organisation based in Levenshulme, ran a poetry class I used to attend. Her encouragement and support of young women was such an incredible energy to be around. Deborah Bower, made a huge impression on me when I was studying at Sunderland University. Seeing her design work, and community projects with Foundation Press and The Star and Shadow Cinema, opened my eyes to the role that design, and printmaking has in community arts.

Luca: Most of the women I value as role models demonstrate a totally unapologetic curiosity and creative outlook on the world, it’s as if the whole world is theirs to play with and it reminds me of my freedom I so value. The women that come to mind are: Nishla Smith - singer, storyteller and someone I consider a friend, collaborator and mentor all in one; Joanna Spicer - one of my illustration lecturers at university and a wonderful illustrator; and all the Underbank Studios women who inspire me everyday to be free and make things! I have so many more women who inspire me everyday but to name them all would fill the screen!

What do you do outside of work?

Heather: I love to cook, that’s one of my joy-bringers. Cooking for friends and family with some nice wine or beer to share is something I love to do. I’m working a lot on Underbank Studios and my freelance illustration work, so my free time is sparse. I have a need to write, I keep a diary and I have since I was about 10. I sometimes write poetry but I mainly use my diary as a way to reflect, process emotions and take a moment to be grateful. I listen to a lot of music alone, there’s something really cinematic about listening to music alone. I love emotive or narrative based music that makes you really feel something. Whether that’s in the lyrics or in the sound. I am one of those people who loves sad songs! I get a lot of coaches up north to visit family and friends, this is the time for me to really go hard with the ‘sad songs and journaling’ identity. I go to yoga twice a week, I would love to do this everyday but I don’t have the discipline. Mostly I enjoy going for some really good coffee and people watching. In the winter, as it’s pretty cold in the UK I tend to hibernate and become a bit of a navel gazing nomad. I really love going for long walks and foraging, would like to do this more and learn more about the abundance of nature around us. Being honest, I spend a shocking amount of my spare time in charity shops, searching for treasure. And finding room for the unnecessary things I bought. This is a ‘hobby’ I need an intervention for. 

Luca: If I’m not at home getting up to mischief with my 2 cats Polly and Pearl, I’ll most likely be frequenting other arts events, at the theatre or out dancing on the streets of Stockport town! I also love to read, sew and upcycle furniture!

When starting a new piece of work, where do you begin? Is the process the same every time, or does it vary? 

Luca: It can be different every time, but generally I have a large bank of drawings that I refer to when thinking about starting a piece. These might be of historic buildings, patterns, symbols, sculpture or people, something that’s caught my eye and mostly from life. I might consider a feeling I want to evoke or a story I want to tell. Most of the time it’s a process akin to building a ‘set’ on paper - bringing in symbolic props and building a transformative yet protective world around them. I usually work fast, scribbling and forming an image quickly or multiple times til I’m happy. I never edit, I just start again. I only slow down and take more care when it comes to bringing the work into print.

Heather: My process tends to start with research, and note taking. If the project has a brief or subject matter it’s inspired by I start there. I like to do things like look into the etymology of words related to the subject, and follow wherever threads of research take me. Sometimes reading inspires me and sometimes its images and artifacts. Once I’ve found whatever it is that chimes, then I will start to get ideas for visuals and make sketches. I like to make a lot of drawings at this stage. This way I can figure out what motifs and compositions are working, then I add in color later. Sometimes at this point I might move onto digital work, but that depends on the project. That’s typically how I start most projects, mural designs, illustrated poems, and work for clients etc. Ideally, I like to have time for my thoughts and ideas to mature. I like to stop halfway through this process and start something else, then I put that particular project on the back burner for a little while. Either way there's distraction, whether it’s purposeful or not. By new ideas for other projects so I tend to work on a couple of things at once. Ideas create new ideas and so on, it’s an endless cycle of influencing yourself. I usually lay out all my sketches to look at regularly. Whenever I come back to work on it after this short break things seem to have become clearer and more exciting. If im creating a painting, I like to stare at the blank canvas and paint onto it without any mapping out or sketching, I feel this jolts my flow. When painting like this I have a slight reference point, maybe an element of a sketch or a color combination I want to try.  Similarly, I avoid rubbing out when I'm drawing. I like my lines to be confident and energetic.

How has your process evolved over the years?

Heather: I think I spend more time on pieces than I ever have before, I also spend more time mulling ideas over and letting them mature in my mind. I am less experimental with my approach, I guess I have become comfortable in certain mediums. Working big is my favourite thing, through lots of mural projects over the past few years I have come to find I am confident working large scale.

Luca: Over the years I’ve just developed a much more multi-disciplinary way of working, drawing on different skill sets and straddling slightly differing industries whilst staying attuned to the thematic threads that interest me. I’m still evolving a lot, and I think part of this stage is just gaining more varied experience, collaborating and challenging my comfort zones.

Is it challenging when creativity evolves from something you love to also being a source of income? If so, how do you navigate that?

Luca: Yes. It’s the hardest part about it all. I remember the shift after university when I began to find ways of capitalising on my work, which before that point was so pure and inventive, it created such tension and friction. I’ve just had to learn to accept that the tension will always exist. I’ve been trying hard to see myself as a whole person with lots of skills and interests, and not have so much of my identity wrapped up in the art I make, I think this helps. I have also always had a part time side job and I love it, it takes the pressure of the art so it can evolve more naturally.

Heather: It can be difficult turning a creativity into a career or source of income. Your work can turn into a different type of pressure, and you can become obsessed with it. I try to take regular time away from my work which helps. Not being too precious or too much of a perfectionist is something I’m trying to adopt. I also try my best to say no to projects that I might not enjoy, (if I have the financial privilege to at that time, which is very rare!) and don’t give yourself an unmanageable amount of work. 

Since you started working in this area, have you taken up anything else as an outlet for expression or relaxation?

Heather: definitely, Yoga and meditation for relaxation! Long walks, And I like to dance in the morning after coffee. I also like to take weird photos. 

Luca: I’ve developed a love for interior design that has certainly evolved from both my interest in set design and art. I love sitting and redesigning my home or visiting places that make me feel romance in a space! I’ve also become really interested in astrology - a totally indulgent pastime that taps into my love of stories and intrigue around human existence! 

More articles