Interview with an Alum: Sarah Fortais, PhD Fine Art, Slade School of Fine Art 2018
By skye.aitken, on 24 November 2020
Read time: 5 minutes
Interview with Sarah Fortais, PhD Fine Art, Slade School of Fine Art 2018
What is the core purpose of your role and what typical activities does it involve?
As a self-employed artist I create work for exhibitions, performances, private commissions, and public artworks. These include large-scale, permanent bronze works as well as ephemeral works made from found materials. I also teach, running courses during the Slade Summer School and giving lectures both across London and in Canada. My specialisation is sculpture and performance and so most of my teaching revolves around these subjects, but sometimes it also incorporates the study of creativity and ways of implementing creative methodologies, which relates to my PhD research.
I live and work in my studio and so a fair chunk of my time is spent ensuring that all my equipment is running safely and also coming up with new ways of storing more and more work.
Another important part of my day-to-day operation is organising logistics for installation and delivery of artworks, and keeping up to date with necessary safety training and licensing. This has at times involved learning to use different types of 3D rendering software, so as to ensure work can be approved before installation. Because I build and install most of my works by myself, staying physically active is extremely important to my job, and I try to take time away to hike and stay active. Most of the time however, I seem to get my exercise by wearing spacesuits or carrying giraffe parts across London.
What kind of people and clients do you work with?
I have worked with UCL on a number of projects including the UCL Donor Wall, which involved working with hundreds of different people including students, staff, volunteers, charities, private and corporate benefactors, and recipients of research scholarships or patients of medical procedures directly resulting from UCL’s research. I also work with artist groups such as London Sculpture Workshop and London Bronze Casting and institutions like the Pompidou Centre and the Victoria & Albert Museum. I have taught students aged 10 and upwards but primarily I focus on teaching University students completing a Bachelor’s degree in a creative subject. In addition to lecturing on fine art programmes, I have also lectured for London College of Fashion because my PhD research focused on defining cool, which also included defining concepts such as trend and copying. Through exhibiting and performing my work I have been able to travel across the UK as well as France and Canada, and have been able to work with local residents, tourists, refugees, and first-time gallery goers. Part of why I have chosen to be self-employed is because I enjoy working with continuously changing clients.
How did you get to where you are now?
I completed my PhD research in 2018 and so I have only been self-employed in the UK for the last year and a half. In order to gain contracts I first answered a lot of open calls for artworks and volunteered my time invigilating exhibitions for my peers, in order to gain a back-catalogue of work and experiences that I could draw from when applying for paid contracts. I still sometimes exhibit my work for free or for a small financial loss for the exposure which I feel has led to many groups independently contacting me with offers of commissions and performance opportunities. I also try to experiment with my performances in public and document them whenever possible. This means that even when I have a work-in-progress I can get public feedback and sometimes even free materials or meals!
What have been some challenges to your role due to Covid-19 and how have these been responded to/managed?
Seeing galleries and campuses close to the public has meant that many of my contracts/commissions have either been postponed or cancelled outright. I also lost a commission due to the fact that the client felt that they were no longer able to support an artwork that encouraged people to come together, which was a real shame because for me that’s what makes art-making worthwhile. As a result of losing these opportunities, I took on two key-worker roles in London, one as a part-time Art Technician at a public high school, and another at a bakery, to make ends meet. I have since left the bakery position as enough of my fine art contracts have picked up again, but I used the position as an opportunity to practice my fine motor skills, to increase my knowledge of health and safety in the public sector, and to divert/recycle food waste. I have found working as a technician with high school aged students to be very rewarding and it’s inspired me to begin private tutor sessions as well as revisit some mixed media projects that I did not resolve while on my BFA. Furthermore, as a key worker I have been able to commute without interruption and subsequently I produced a performance series with artist Emma Burdon to chronicle how London’s coffee shops have been adapting and changing over the past months.
How do you see your work, or that of the sector more generally, impacting on societal wellbeing as we learn to live with Covid, and do you see any signs that investment in the arts will increase as part of the health and wellbeing response?
I think most people are aware that both making and experiencing artwork can have a profoundly positive impact on wellbeing. It’s also acutely apparent that there are many, many groups of people underrepresented in the arts and excitingly, I have seen a positive shift at the grassroots level toward supporting artists from a wider range of backgrounds. At the same time, I feel that most large institutions have yet to reflect these changes, and I also feel that overall, the arts industry places far too much emphasis on exclusivity both for its commercial viability, and for determining its conceptual and social value. What I would like to see is a large-scale reimagining of the fine arts sector and for artists to become employed across a wider range of disciplines, so as to more deeply integrate art-making into every sector. I have always preferred to find art in unexpected places and so I feel that personally, in order to make work that I feel is relevant to other people, it should take place in any setting that people are willing to constructively criticise, interact with, or enjoy it. In 2018, artist Zeinab Saleh curated an exhibition titled Widening the Gaze at UCL’s Slade Research Centre, which included an astounding array of works by artists whom I feel are already challenging and profoundly impacting the arts industry in ways that can only result in improved societal wellbeing.
How would you go about getting experience (placements, work experience, internship) in the industry you work in?
There are many online opportunities available on an international level that have recently become exclusively online. As for work experience, I would suggest that artists continue to answer open calls (many groups like A-N and Curator space have been posting calls consistently over the last few months) and asking for feedback whenever possible. I also have found it immensely helpful to look outside my industry for experience. For example, while completing my education I worked as an Assistant Foreman and Environmental Resource at Habitat for Humanity, and also was employed by my Students’ Union while studying at Central Saint Martins. As it might not be possible at the moment to gain experience invigilating or assisting other artists in their studio, I would instead suggest honing your skills on small, manageable projects or experiments and document them in a way to build up a portfolio for future assignments.
What is the one thing students can be doing right now to boost their career prospects at a time where opportunities in the arts may be limited?
As a sculptor, I would suggest focusing on resourcefulness and using any time that can be made available to develop new ways of sourcing materials, techniques, and ways of presenting, and then resolving a few artworks that can be used to showcase your adaptability to employers/clients/institutions. My advice is not to focus on self-reliance, but rather, to use the changing environment as part of the process of generating artwork and finding safe ways of being visible. For instance, I used the changing rules about travelling in London to my advantage and was able to produce a performance which took place completely masked on the London Underground. Prior to lockdown, the TFL told me I was not allowed to create such a performance but with the changing rules it actually meant that my performance became not only allowed, but became the safest way to travel. The only misstep at this time would be to stop producing artwork.
Do you have any top tips for current students who may be interested in your career area?
For any portfolio it is paramount that it includes what appears to be completed works. However, I want to stress that whether or not you as the artist thinking that the work is completed is irrelevant to whether it appears completed to others. Thus, my advice is to focus on how you frame or present your works so that each time you share them they can, for each client, uniquely and contextually be experienced as completed works. This will give you a competitive edge compared to other student portfolios that stress artworks as assignments or experiments, as they are not using their portfolio as an opportunity to demonstrate an understanding of the client’s needs or sensibilities.