Lu Williams has followed their creativity across disciplines, using research and community engagement to combine a love of social history, DIY culture, queeness and accessibility through art. In 2015, they created Grrrl Zine Fair, a home for self-publishing and DIY art, music and culture surrounding feminist publishing. In 2017, the Grrrl Zine Library was born and hosted 600+ queer feminist zines, housed at The Old Waterworks, and they continue to host zine workshops and events with new communities.
With their keen interest in accessibility throughout their work, it’s perhaps no surprise that one of Lu’s latest endeavours combines her love for physical and practical art with another love in her life – her Medical and Mental Health Assistance dog, Poly. In 2020, they co-founded Dog Ear, dog toy sculptures and accompanying publication with artist Emma Edmondson.
Below, BRICKS hears how Lu followed their curiosity and creativity across disciplines to produce works that spark joy and engage communities.
How did you first get into your practice?
I’ve always wanted to be an artist and have always been making things. My first memory of being ‘good’ at it was winning an airline drawing competition when I was 5 which meant I got to see inside the cockpit. I knew I might have some innate talent that meant I could have a proper go at it when my secondary school art teacher took a pencil drawing of dragons away and gave me dentition because he thought my parents had helped me, or I took the work from someone else (yes I was into dragons in year 7). I dabbled with other possibilities like anthropology, interior design, and animation, and ended up studying Art Foundation at Central Saint Martins, where I was told my ideas were too conceptual for interiors. I then applied to Oxford University’s Ruskin School of Art, mostly because my boyfriend at the time said there was no point trying and I wanted to prove him wrong, and because there might have been a chance I could meet some other Dragon loving nerds, plus they paid for your materials which was pretty great.
I graduated in 2016 and was on Universal Credit for a fair while before I got fed up of demoralising interviews and designing social assets for brands. Instead I started making things happen myself – putting on zine fairs, making print instead of sculpture because it was more affordable, putting a shift in writing my first 70-page arts council application and generally making and producing where I could, whether that was casting tiny car tyres to make earrings to sell or DJing. I would say my practice now focuses on zines, sculpture, writing and print, with an interest in ephemeral media, stickers, badges, zines, fridge magnets, patches, prints, souvenier, merchandise, contemporary relics and offcuts of visual culture.
If you could describe your work in three words, what would they be?
Collaborative, ephemeral, utility.
What are some of the biggest challenges of being an artist/creator?
Finding balance across your practice and sustaining yourself, whether that’s creatively or financially. The ideas are always the easy part – I might have 10 ideas but six are on the back burner, waiting for funding, the right collaborator or the right timings. One might be funded and going ahead but is intense and you’ve got to be careful with you energy so you don’t burn out. Another might be low paid but chime with your practice and you’re working with good people, while another could be long term that excites you and you’ve got to manage a budget over the period of a year. Others might take just a few days work, are something you know how to do and can easily replicate, or pays well but doesn’t challenge you creatively.
That and the admin, as a neurodivergent person dealing with planning permission apps, engineer drawings and never-ending arts council app writing, it sometimes feels like 90% admin, 10% making.
I love it when I get emails from people saying how much they liked the work – I’ll never get over that – but seeing comments like ‘what a waste of money’ on social media doesn’t affect whether I think I’m successful as an artist anymore – art is too embedded with personal taste for that to define a whole career.
Who has been your biggest supporter?
My dad Dave, for sure. He will always come to my events and when I get a setback, his phrase “don’t let the bastards get you down” helps a lot. He’s been there for me through bad mental health patches, but also wangled permission for a life-size replica of my leg (made from ice) to sit in the freezer of a well-known pizza restaurant to freeze for 2 days while he was a delivery driver. The tips he’d get would be my school lunch money. He also helped me paint 6ft walls at 1am, lit by his car headlights when I was installing a festival stage. A true legend.
Do you have a collective or a community that inspires you?
Definitely! It took me a while to find but I now work at a studio full of artists making very different things producing lots of different work, either public works, commercial or private sector, and having their support and critical eye when developing work is so important. The Old Waterworks studios runs very democratically, and we have a pay charter where everyone is paid the same rate per hour, from cleaners to the co-directors.
I think Southend has a wonderful creative community that’s just outside of London enough that you avoid feeling pressured to keep producing shows or fit to trends of work, but is close enough you can dip into the scene and make work at your own pace. We’re now a city which has strangely bought a bit of funding and institutional support with it, so there’s more room to propose ideas and make things happen.
How do you define success as an artist/creator?
My idea of success would be taking on projects that inspire me, make me excited to make and work with others, and to be able to do that in my own time and sustain myself financially. I’d love to wake up and start making in my studio on projects that push my arts practice without worrying about how to pay my rent. I love watching the Tate shorts where artists show behind the scenes in their studios – they’ve got a whole team helping them make and they can take their time on projects, realising a work and knowing they’re not going to bankrupt over it. Public recognition is cool, but I work in the public realm a lot and while I always appreciate a critical eye, discussing ideas with collators, fellow artists and curator friends is where we have worthwhile conversations. I love it when I get emails from people saying how much they liked the work – I’ll never get over that – but seeing comments like ‘what a waste of money’ on social media doesn’t affect whether I think I’m successful as an artist anymore – art is too embedded with personal taste for that to define a whole career. Nominations for awards would also be nice, wouldn’t it?
How do you find new opportunities?
By tediously scrolling on jobs boards, a-n network, artsadmin, arts council jobs or from good pals forwarding me opportunities. The other option, which I tend to do quite a lot, is to make the opportunity for myself – have an idea, gauge with the people around you whether its good to actually a bit shit, try to find funding for it and some people who are also into it and want to make it happen. I’m very DIY in that regard.
The other option, which I tend to do quite a lot, is to make the opportunity for myself – have an idea, gauge with the people around you whether its good to actually a bit shit, try to find funding for it and some people who are also into it and want to make it happen. I’m very DIY in that regard.
What would be your dream project?
I love take-away art, art you’re allowed to touch and take home, so I’m hoping my dog toy brand Dog Ear, made with friend and collaborator Emma Edmondson, takes off to the point where we can commission other artists to make dog toys with us. We currently make art for dogs from 100 percent environmentally friendly materials and toys come with a publication inside a doggy bag, making in a way where we’re thinking about smells and textures, not just objects that look good. Each text included in the doggie bag talks about art in an accessible way and, of course, you can put your new toy on a plinth or your dog can pull it apart. My dream would be for all dogs to own art haha!
What’s been your greatest accomplishment so far and why?
There’s been a few moments through Grrrl Zine Fair that have felt pretty unreal – one has got to be hosting an entire festival area at Village Green with an art exhibition, Nail Transphobia, Southend Pride placard making, eco-screen printing, a full line-up of women, trans and non-binary bands, a talks tent co-curated with gal-dem and a zine fair of 40+ artists across 3 stages. Working with BFI, V&A and taking the Grrrl Zine Library to China. I’m also working on my most challenging but exciting work to date, creating a huge sculpture at the top of Southend High Street informed by 4 months of public consultation. It could be my greatest accomplishment so far but we’ll have to wait and see, I’ll be looking out at the Southend Echo Newspaper comments section for sure!
If you could change one thing about the creative industry, what would it be?
The idea of the singular, genius artists! I get a bit grossed out by individualist culture and ownership over ideas or materials. I also think it’s dangerous to pigeonhole yourself as ‘the artist who makes this kind of thing’ – it’s giving into the commerciality of artists as brands or ideas to be consumed, almost self-gimiking, and then leaving no wiggle room to challenge yourself.
I also think it’s dangerous to pigeonhole yourself as ‘the artist who makes this kind of thing’ – it’s giving into the commerciality of artists as brands or ideas to be consumed, almost self-gimiking, and then leaving no wiggle room to challenge yourself.
Art and culture is made up of hundreds of thousands of people making things and things happen who are responding to the human condition; the idea of collective good should replace this idea of individualism. Every artists in history has been inspired by a long line of artists and those most well known today work with huge teams of people. I want to see behind studio doors and I want all the studio assistants to be credited!
How would you like to see the art industry in your community grow?
I see a lot of ideas stifled because it sometimes seems impossible to make money from them. Artists often end up producing the same works over and over to sell, through a commercial art practice, or they’ll have their work co-opted by brands because that style is currently on trend, only for brands to move on the next month. I think every artist should be part of the Artists Union, for artists to feel empowered and supported, and to ask for their worth, both rates wise and time-wise to produce works.
I think the works that add to our understanding of culture and society, which can be challenging, which push us forward as artists and humans and benefit communities and people in the future are often seen as risky, so it’s important to be brave and continue to spread out into the unknown. Have more difficult conversations and make work that challenges yourself and contemporary culture.
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