If someone had asked me to describe how I picture the modern artist, I’d assume moody and edgy. Understated in charm and appearance; perhaps even slightly egocentric on some level. An enigma who is intently serious about their artistry. The type to shrink from a crowded room and who spends more of their time alone than not, but there again, I don’t spend much time with visual artists and there are always exceptions to the rule.
On the outside, 24-year-old abstract artist, Alexandria Robinson-Sutherland, has a warmth about her that suits her day job as a school Art and Catering Technician, but at the same time, is all business.
As I arrive for our interview, I stumble into an exchange of details with a gentleman from the networking event upstairs at Urban Coffee Company. Apologetically she excuses herself while she runs off, to show him the product of her current venture, Project U-Neek, here in Urban Coffee, where we were just two weeks before viewing the works of an artist she helped showcase. A tentative hug is shared before we make our way to the café next-door where there’s lots of wooden furniture and ironically, artwork plastered on the walls. Swayed by comfortable seating, we direct ourselves to a table near the wall and get off to a not-so-prompt but relaxed start.
‘I babble a bit, you know, you might have to wave and tell me to shut up.’
‘No, it’s fine if you babble, the more the better.’
But Alex doesn’t babble much at all, though she couldn’t hide her nerves and admits to not enjoying the spotlight that, inevitably, publicising Art By Alexandria will bring. ‘No, no. I don’t like being centre of attention. I know that may sound bizarre but I honestly don’t,’ she begins laughing. I can’t help but think that it’s a nervous giggle. ‘I like helping people and I like being acknowledged, but in as much as being famous or one of those people who are on OK! magazine – I like my privacy and my own space.’
The more we talk, I discover that Alex’s modesty runs deep, much like her background which has as much fuelled her creative talents as hindered them. ‘I think at the time it affected it [her art] because I couldn’t even afford basic art materials. Unless I was at school I wasn’t really able to do art which was why I had to go into resources at home like pasta and potatoes.’ Moments before, Alex parodied her mother in a Jamaican accent telling her off for wanting to bring her pasta necklace malarkey home. I laugh, as it’s something I can secretly relate to. ‘It was hard times so we couldn’t really afford to waste stuff, especially food, but as soon as my mum’s back was turned I was in the kitchen drawers! I got in trouble many times.’
School, by her own accounts, was her artistic playground; the place where she first realised that the coloured marks she made on her mum’s walls was in fact ’art,’ however, her relationship with school wasn’t at all harmonious.
‘Creative people at school tend to be slight oddballs and misunderstood. Were
you one of those kids?’
‘Yeah. [Laughs] I was kind of a recluse to be honest. It wasn’t that big of a school so I knew almost everyone but no, I didn’t enjoy it at all, I was actually bullied.’ On hearing that, I rush in with an intrusive, ‘why were you bullied?’ but kick myself metaphorically for my lack of tact. Still, there’s no embarrassment and she doesn’t shy away from addressing the subject, rather uses the time to reflect on something that’s been the catalyst for her extremely positive attitude to life and work.
‘I wasn’t as confident then as I am now, but I believe all those experiences have helped me stand up for what I believe in. One thing I’ve never been is a conformist, so if ever I was instructed to do something unjustified, well I wouldn’t – maybe that’s why I was bullied? I’ve always drifted between people which is probably why I always knew everyone because at one point or another, someone didn’t like me or I didn’t like them – for whatever reason.’
Now I was starting to figure what Alex valued the most – independence. Failing to see the perfect career she craved and no job in her field after graduating with a degree in Interior Architecture and Property Development from Wolverhampton University, she transitioned her hobby into a business, giving her a new sense of freedom. ‘I just thought, I need to be in control of my own income, I can’t rely on anyone else and in order for me to be in control, I have to be self-employed.
‘I’d actually hate having to wake up everyday and do a job that I absolutely despise. With self-employment, yeah, I may never, ever get a hundred thousands pounds a year but knowing that I can get by with what I earn – the satisfaction and the happiness that that gives you is so much better than working with people that you really dislike everyday.’
Now cue short-term pilot, Project U-Neek, a scheme born out of Alex’s desire to help emerging visual artists, including herself to get off the ground. The spark? A call for artists to exhibit that she saw in a restaurant window somewhere in the Custard Factory – the city’s own unique creative hub. To her disbelief, she was successful, and from this experience launched Project U-Neek, liaising with the venues on behalf of the artists. Doing this, Alex says, leaves the artists to do what they do best – being creative.
‘The aim for Project U-Neek was simple, to see if businesses in Birmingham would like changeable artwork on their walls which constantly appealed to new audiences and kept footfall coming in. That’s what I was interested in, but I wanted to make sure that there was a need for it. I’m all about commercial art and giving people exposure.’
‘So it’s almost like being a creative director, an event manager and a mentor all-in-one which is pretty cool.’
‘I guess you could say that. It’s actually more than I bargained for but in a good way.’
‘How important is it for you to help and encourage others?’
‘Extremely important because we visual artists play a big role in society but we are constantly snubbed and criticised, and too many of us dwell on this. I think every one of us has faced hardship of some sort but it’s how we react to it. It’s just one of those things in life and pursuing my dreams – sorry, what’s the question?’ [Laughs] So I guess at times she does ramble but there’s much more sentiment attached to not only Project U-Neek, but everything that Alex puts her energies into, and it’s rooted in her desire to nurture.
‘Growing up I didn’t really have a role model, so I try to be the person that I longed for growing up. I also find that people don’t share experiences, good or bad, they just keep it to themselves. Yes, you may hear about your friend’s promotion, graduation or them passing their driving test, but behind that, how they got to where they are and the work it entails – instead of being so vague and saying, “hard work,” we need to break it down and share. What exactly does hard work consist of?’
Blending the worlds of art and business, for much of her life Alex has developed the skills needed to go self-employed as she tackled the next life challenge, but more than being obviously intelligent, she’s incredibly wise beyond her years and is as impassioned about social issues and the community as she is, unsurprisingly, about art.
An ambassador for young adults having a voice in politics, Alex recently visited Palermo, Italy as part of an annual meet with peers involved in European Project, Success. Representing Ladywood, a particularly deprived area of Birmingham, Success, is made up of citizens living in various EU countries, the aim being to educate their local community on their citizen rights and empower them. The findings to emerge from research and workshops goes towards implementing positive change in the local area. Her motivations for joining? Simple.
‘I just love to learn and to help and encourage people. A lot of the time we’re all each other’s enemies for no reason and it should be the opposite. We don’t have to be best friends but we do need to respect each other. If I can educate myself and use this knowledge to help others, even if it’s just one person, it’s like, ‘wow,’ that’s one more person that wouldn’t have known, if it wasn’t for me – which is what it should all be about, right?’
Said without any hint of arrogance, as I draw the interview to a close, I’m blown away by Alex’s passion to succeed and feel that I’ve experienced the genuine article here; someone who’s driven through adversity but at no point has she stopped acknowledging others. I find that hugely endearing. Out of all the accolades she has achieved to-date, I ask her what she’s most proud of?
‘I think it would be, other than Project U-Neek, achieving my degree because although I didn’t enjoy the course or fit in socially, looking back, it helped define me as a person and allowed me to gain invaluable skills. It was always so easy to quit because of this, but I didn’t.’
‘What encouragement would you give to someone who’s in a position like yourself?’
‘I’d say to stick it out, it will get harder before it gets better, so don’t let the hardship knock you down. If you quit you will never get there and if it was easy we’d all have it. Bottom line, hard work does pay off, look at this current situation – me being here with you right now. I wouldn’t have been here had I not pursued my dreams. There will always be hardship in life, of some kind, but learn from it – look for the positive in every negative experience and allow it to help develop you, not discourage you.’
Alex will be exhibiting her artwork between the 20th July – 30th August 2013. Exhibition launch takes place on 1st August 2013 with live entertainment at Green Space Salons, Longbridge, B45 8UU. For more information or to contact Alex please visit: www.projectuneek.co.uk