We are rapidly approaching that time of year when hundreds of thousands of young people’s thoughts turn to exams, wondering and worrying what will happen if their results are not as they were anticipating.
The answer to these fears might lie in the career paths of three inspirational people who I have recently met, all of whom left school with little or no formal qualifications. One is an award-winning archaeologist with a PHD, another is now a film maker and screenplay writer, and the third (and who this article is focused on), is Kelly Umpleby, an up-and-coming artist who next month stages her first solo exhibition at Castleford’s Queen’s Mill Bridge Gallery.
I caught up with artist Kelly Umpleby in the Queen’s Mill’s Drake Room with photographs of Henry Moore and his work appropriately dominating the room. After leaving school Kelly was employed in several unfulfilling jobs, later married and had two children. Her family, she tells me, are such an important part of her life and a constant source of support.
I opened our conversation by asking if her obvious love of art had been a part of her since childhood. Kelly laughed, shaking her head, before explaining that at school her real interest had been music and playing the piano in the school band.
She told me:
“I quite enjoyed drawing but had never taken it seriously – it was just something I did as a lesson”.
It was no surprise then that when she left school without the now seemingly universally demanded passes in English and maths, she pursued art.
A pack of pencils for her birthday was where her career began
So, if not from a childhood passion for drawing and painting, where had her transformation into an artist come from, I asked. Her response was not what I was expecting:
“My husband asked me what I wanted for my 30th birthday, so I told him, a pack of pencils, a really good pack of pencils”.
Despite his immediate reaction – “What!” – it was this gift that started Kelly on her creative journey.
Kelly tells me that her early drawings weren’t very good, but in a comment that displays her determination and commitment to her art and to life in general, she told me that by practicing every single day, her work gradually improved. Within a year Kelly was producing ‘photo-realistic drawings in charcoal’. When she was 33, Kelly ventured into painting, and her first full colour painting of a horse was sold in a gallery in Doncaster.
Attaining qualifications: GCSEs, a degree, and an MA
Her next step was to study for a City and Guilds qualification in drawing and painting, where she would gain a desire to teach art to others. Laughing as she told me, Kelly said that in order to progress her dream, she needed to ‘get her GCSEs!’. She undertook functional skills level 2 and Access to HE courses.
Undeterred by the prospect of studying whilst bringing up her family, Kelly was accepted to study fine art at Leeds Beckett University, where she would graduate with a first-class degree. Completing a degree enabled Kelly to vastly broaden her artistic horizons; she no longer perceives herself as a painter or sculptor, but as an inter-disciplinary artist working across a wide spectrum of mediums including textiles and sound.
Kelly is now well on her way to achieving another first-class grade in her MA. But she’s not finished with education just yet. September will see her starting a course that will allow her to teach in further and possibly higher education.
What are the biggest influencers in Kelly’s art?
When asking Kelly about the inspiration and influence of her art, she provided a surprising, unconventional response: “myself”. There are, of course, aspects of all artists’ personalities in their work. She added:
“I’m not self-absorbed, honestly … but it is about my bodily space, my experiences, the environment, my home, and family – it comes from something internal”. When pushed she did acknowledge Anselm Keifer, Louise Bourgeois and John Cage amongst the most influential artists in her work.
Kelly’s upcoming exhibition: ‘The Colour of Process and Materiality’
Our conversation turned to Kelly’s forthcoming exhibition, ‘The Colour of Process and Materiality’. Process is important in her work, believing strongly that it is the process that is as important as the finished article, an analogy perhaps to her long, complicated artistic life journey. She continued:
“You go to a gallery and just see the finished painting or sculpture. I want to change that – I want people to see how it is arrived at. In many ways the art produces itself as a result of those processes. It is the processes that dictates the final work”.
Hope for others
Kelly, and indeed the others that I have met in similar circumstances are inspiring.
So, to reiterate, not getting the exam results you expected or desired, is certainly not the end of the world, but in fact, can be the start of an exciting and extremely fulfilling journey.
As Kelly herself said, “Don’t let anything or anybody stand in the way of following your dreams”.
Kelly’s exhibition ‘The Colour of Process and Materiality’ is at the Bridge Gallery, Queen’s Mill, Aire Street, Castleford is open to the public from Sunday 24 April and thereafter from 25 April – 8 May, Saturday, Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday 10am–3pm.