Working as an artist’s assistant

Michael McManus talks about working as an artist’s assistant.

Throughout my time at University I was increasingly drawn to the idea of working as an artist assistant. I thought it would continue to develop my technical painting skills whilst funding my own work.

In my second year at University I found an advert on to work as an assistant in the lead up to the Frieze Art Fair. The job was for 5 months assisting on building a large sculpture. I had quite a specific role in the work’s realisation; the piece had a timber frame which was intricately covered in pieces of paper and it was my job to measure and attach these whilst helping to put together the frame. It was my first time working as an assistant and I developed a good relationship with the artist, who also invited me to help install the piece on site, and I have kept in contact since.

After Frieze I decided to find other artists to assist. I contacted artists that had continued to influence my practice whilst at University. I sent them an expression of interest with an informative section on my first assistant job. I found that asking particular artists directly rather than sending block e-mails to galleries was a much more effective way of getting a response. After some rejections from people who were out of the country or had no need for assistants, I received a call from a painter who knew the artist I had assisted at Frieze and offered me an internship for the next two months. Again it was unpaid and not contracted but it allowed me to engage with someone else’s painting practice for the first time. I was employed during a period where the artist had an upcoming show in Beijing and two commissions, so I also had the benefit of seeing how he dealt with various deadlines and demands on his time. I was only able to do these internships unpaid because while I was at university I had the support of a student loan. These internships proved invaluable after college when I started applying for similar paid positions.

In my final year I approached an artist I admired to request a paid assistant position. I chose this particular individual as his work drew many comparisons with mine and I admired how diverse his paintings were, constantly shifting with every exhibition. I had also written about him in my dissertation and so was very familiar with his practice. I emailed him outlining my previous assistant jobs, including a detailed (300 word) cover letter with 6 images of my work and references from the two previous artists I had interned for. Fortunately he was interested, contacted both people from my previous internships to check my references in more detail and invited me to an informal interview.

During the interview I described my practice and the work I was currently making. I was then introduced to the team of assistants and shown the paintings in progress in the studio. I began working just two days a week on a trial basis for three months. The job was not contracted, so I registered as self employed and at the end of each month I would submit an invoice addressed to the artist’s Gallery. I agreed a rate of pay with the artist and negotiated that this would be increased after the trial period. (Generally the assistants there had a higher pay depending on how long they had been working for the artist.)  During this time I trained to develop very specific painting methods, working with glazes on aluminium and using translucent washes underneath deliberate opaque marks. After the trial period the method of painting had become second nature. I could complete a painting every month and reached a stage where, even if the artist was away, I was confident enough to complete the necessary work. I took on 4 days work a week, allowing myself a 3 day weekend for my own practice. The hours depended partly on the upcoming shows but it was easy to plan in advance if I had any other commitments.

A typical working day differed depending on the upcoming deadlines and the stage I was at in the painting. When closing in on deadlines I sometimes worked extra hours and I would have to work on other jobs outside what I would normally do day to day. Close to deadlines extra people would be brought in for short periods (two weeks) and then I would need to introduce them to any tasks that needed to be completed. On a usual day the atmosphere in the studio is busy but not stressful. Everyone interacts with each other and we often talk about upcoming projects the artist is taking as well as our own work.

The only difficulty I found was being able to switch from the process of making and engaging with somebody else’s work and my own. In that sense it took me some time to be able to distance myself from what I had been making as an assistant and my own practice. Being able to achieve this happened over time and when making work for the artist became second nature.  Any such problems were outweighed by other constructive aspects of the job where I gained experiences in processes I wasn’t familiar with.  After working there for a bit, following some discussions I had with the artist about my practice, he very kindly offered me access to the workshop facilities in the studio to use for my own work. I had access to facilities for building stretchers, cutting aluminium sheets and other processes that were integral to my work. I could also ask for technical advice from anyone working in the studio. Some of the assistants had worked for the artist for ten years and were specialised technicians in various fields, (e.g.  painting, sculpture or 3D modelling)

I was invited to any shows the artist had and could see the planning taking place for solo exhibitions in spaces that I would aspire to one day exhibit work. I am about to visit an exhibition in Berlin to see paintings which I have completed for the artist over the last seven months. All the other assistants working are artists and I am therefore part of a community where everyone shares similar interests and ambitions. Some of my colleagues have many years experience and can offer advice and constructive feedback on works I show them and exhibitions of mine that they visit. The benefits of working there have been many and varied.

Article by Michael McManus, as part of Artquest’s LIFE BOAT programme, 2012

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