Words by Mercedes Smith
A childhood encounter led Mercedes Smith to a career in the appreciation of art.
‘Straze Rocking Vessels’ by Alex O’Conner
Explaining how she went from art fan, to arts writer, to modest collector, Mercedes Smith also tells us why you should consider investing your time and money in contemporary art. Art is a subject that attracts passionate advocates and equally passionate disdain. One thing is certain though: beautiful objects are good for your soul, your mind and can even, given time, enhance your bank balance. If you live in Cornwall, you have access to some of the best artists in the country, and some of the most respected galleries, so if you’ve ever been tempted to make a significant purchase, let Mercedes Smith encourage you to go with your instincts.
Mercedes, tell us what first inspired you to follow an education in fine art.
My first real encounter with art is perhaps the most vivid memory of my childhood. On a school trip to London, aged nine, I was taken to a gallery on Cork Street where our class was marched in with firm instructions to ‘touch nothing’. Around the edges of the gallery were objects I understood to be art - paintings and little models on plinths - but at the centre of the space stood a massive object that I literally had no words for. Constructed from curving walls of core-ten steel, it towered above me at over twenty feet high and drew me into a labyrinth of gleaming, unearthly space. Inside this ‘walk in’ work of art I found myself entirely alone, and risked running my fingers, rather naughtily, along the surface of the sculpture, listening to the echo of my footsteps and getting lost in its strange twists and turns. I know that sculpture now as a work by artist Richard Serra, but at that moment I only knew it was a curious kind of thing that I had never, ever seen before. Looking back, I think it woke my senses up to the thrill of the utterly nonsensical, and the beauty of shape, space and surface that have no definition in the real world. As we left, I pressed my nose against the gallery window for one last look, and in truth I’ve stayed that awestruck nine-year-old ever since.
What led you to write about art for a living?
I was raised in a home where big thoughts and big concepts were regular topics of conversation. My father, in particular, had a masterful grip on the English language and was the sort of man to encourage theoretical argument just for the fun of it. At university I studied Fine Art, but it was years before I put my love of art and language together. Whilst studying for an MA in Art History in my early thirties, I came to the delicious and frankly life-changing realisation that in writing and theorising about art you could never be wrong, and never be right. What lay before me was a wonderland of endless theoretical argument that could literally go on forever. Like most art students, I was practiced in defending my passion for art to friends and family who saw absolutely nothing in it, and it was a good-natured push and pull that I had always enjoyed. Here, then, was a chance to spend my life talking the hind legs off a donkey about my favourite subject whilst getting paid for it; I honestly never looked back.
‘Pomegranate Grey’ by Jessica Cooper
What’s the greatest barrier to the appreciation of art?
I think there is a preconception that fine art is an exclusive arena, but the idea that art is only for those ‘in the know’ is absolute nonsense and is not helpful for the success of artists or galleries. Because of that, it’s important for writers like me to do away with ‘art speak’ and to try and bring art into the everyday. Without new audiences and confident new collectors, the fine arts will not survive, and our culture will be all the poorer. Appreciating art is no more complicated than walking into a gallery and saying, ‘I like that’ or ‘I love that!’ or ‘that means nothing to me, it bores me senseless’. No special knowledge is required for the appreciation of art, and in fact the less seriously you take it, the more fun you will have. If you want to learn more about art, that’s great. Just pick up a book on the subject, but don’t be afraid to collect art based purely on your own tastes and instincts. When you buy a work of art you really love, you’ll be making a valuable contribution to the art scene, and a valuable contribution to your personal happiness. You don’t need to be a master of Italian cuisine to enjoy a carbonara, and you don’t need a degree in English to enjoy a good novel. You just need to know what you like, and that may take a little exploration. If my writing can persuade more people into galleries to look at paintings, sculpture and pottery, then I’m doing my job properly.
‘Conical Vessels’ by Jack Doherty
What would you say to aspiring collectors?
The first thing I’d say is that, contrary to popular belief, you don’t need piles of money. If you have piles of money, that’s lovely, but its not a requirement for start-up collectors. The first painting I ever bought cost me less than twenty pounds, and since then my collecting budget has remained very, very modest. The second thing I’d say is be clear what you like and why you are buying. Personally, I like to buy abstract paintings, since as previously stated, the simple beauty of shape, space and surface is what the nine year old ‘fan girl’ in me still lives for. In the back of my mind, perhaps I hope these works may appreciate during my lifetime so my kids can cash in on my smart investments, but that’s never certain, so only spend what you can afford to lose. Buying new work from galleries or direct from the artist is the least expensive way to acquire art and brings with it the pleasure of supporting new talent. Your investment may prove lucrative over time - or not, since new artists are unproven in the market - but there’s fun in taking an inexpensive gamble on a great new work of art. Buying from art auctions or at sales of previously purchased work can cost a great deal more, and the financial risk is just as unpredictable, but works like these may have a comforting track record of increasing value you can actually see on paper. More importantly though, I’d simply say JUST BUY ART. Enhancing your life with paintings, sculpture or pieces of pottery you love is a wonderful thing, and supporting new artists is a uniquely ‘feel good’ experience. Good food, great music and fine art are cultural pleasures that take life from the mundane to spectacular. You really mustn’t deny yourself.
‘Coste Faena’ by Liz Hough
‘Dancing with Bull’ by Toby O’ Brien
‘Placing Stones’ by Paul Fry