Amber Creswell Bell
By blending her love of art and design with her affinity for the written word, Amber Creswell Bell has managed to carve out a creative career on her own terms. After the success of her first book, Clay, Amber is now an inspiring figure in the Sydney art landscape. Fortunately, she was kind enough to take some time away from writing her second book to share her experiences with me. I chatted to Amber about the importance of supporting emerging artistic talent and how -at the age of 30 – she transformed herself from a corporate consultant into the writer she always wanted to be.
As an independent curator, you have combined your passion for art and ceramics into an essential component of your creative career. Can you explain how this pathway of curating exhibitions came about and how has that grown over time?
Completely organically! I was working as a freelance writer, researching and writing stories about artists, designers and other creatives for various publications. But writing can mean you spend a lot of time on your own, with your computer. Initially I thought it would be great to curate just one show, and produce something tangible and ‘in real life’ rather than just the written word. That concept for the show was a way I could pull some diverse local talent together – painters, photographers, ceramicists and floral stylists – really in the name of fun! It was such a success, I thought I’d do another. Well, that was 12 shows ago – and I now have a schedule of shows curated right into mid 2019!
On your website you describe your job as an art, design and lifestyle writer, a curator, a speaker and a creative hustler. Does this blurring of roles keep you creatively inspired and how do you make it work?
They are all part and parcel of the same one thing I think. I write about creatives, I produce exhibitions for creatives, and behind the scenes I am helping to promote the work of creative individuals and businesses helping them put their ideas into words, and words into actions. Because I naturally have so many contacts, and ideas – I like helping to ‘connect the dots’ between other creatives to help them achieve their aims – which is the ‘hustle’ part. And then due to all of this – I get invited to speak about what I do and how I got here! I think I am happiest doing all of it because it just makes sense to me. I could never choose one part over the other.
It takes courage to take the leap from a corporate career to a more creative vocation. Was the change of direction something that you felt was inevitable, and if so, was there a defining sea change moment?
It could be courage – or maybe just necessity to stay sane! My corporate career came out of key decisions made at age 18 – decisions made based on good marks, well meaning adult advice and limited life experience. I studied psychology and economics at uni, and went on to do various corporate consulting type roles. The thing was – I always knew I wanted to be a writer – but I got ushered onto another path. Anyway, when I turned 30 I realised that I was over-stressed, under-satisfied, and was spiraling into depression. I quit my job (thanks to a very supportive husband), took some night courses to help me change gear – and the rest is history. I am now 40 – and it has been the most rewarding 10 years of my life.
Your first book Clay was released almost this time last year – what did you learn from such a transformative experience and how has that influenced your approach to your new work in progress?
Writing Clay was one of the most rewarding, enjoyable and self-nourishing undertakings in my whole life. I was pregnant with my third child throughout the writing of it, and there was something about quietly growing a baby, and immersing myself wholly into a project that satisfied my personal loves of both words and ceramics. Being able to get lost in the personal stories of the subjects, and really getting into the ‘zone’…. I can only describe the process as meditative. I learnt to trust my gut instinct for telling stories, and compared with writing the shorter more editorial pieces that I was used to, I felt like I was really able to find my voice. That baby who was in my belly is now a rambunctious 2 year-old…. so the writing of my new book feels slightly less self-indulgent, as Ash likes to yank me out of my ‘zone’ whenever possible!
How does an idea for an exhibition come to fruition? Do you discover an artist first and create an exhibition around them, or do you have an idea for a show and then find the artists to suit the theme?
A little bit of both. For group shows I sometimes serendipitously happen across a cluster of artists at the same time whose work feels very harmonious to me, or that they are all approaching a common subject in a very personal way. Sometimes I am just driving and I hear a line in a song that makes me think of something, that makes me think of an artist… and then before I know it I have curated a whole show in my head. Sometimes (often) I cannot sleep, so I fall down Instagram ‘rabbit holes’ and stumble upon artists that I am so excited by I email them before the sun has risen!
By fostering many young and emerging artists and ceramicists you have assisted in giving them a platform to grow, where once gallery exhibitions or exposure may have seemed unattainable. Why is it so important to support emerging talent?
There is a huge chasm between emerging out of tertiary art studies, and being represented by a commercial gallery. For artists – that chasm can seem big, and dark, and that you might be stuck in it for years. There are SO many talented artists out there, who are not represented, but whose work I feel deserves to be hung for all to see. What I like to do with my artists is to give them the opportunity to enjoy a gallery experience, to see their work hung beautifully, to be part of a big opening night that celebrates their work, and know that people are experiencing their work up close and personal – rather than just via e.g. Instagram where everything morphs into a little uni-sized digital squares. It offers opportunity for the artists to get real feedback from visitors to the exhibition, to connect them with passionate art buyers – and also get noticed by galleries. I have curated many shows where it is the first time the artists have ever actually shown their work – and when you watch them sell out in a sea of red dots, it is such a thrill and does wonders for their confidence. Often emerging artists are a bit lost about the ‘business’ side of selling art – the documentation, pricing, framing, invoicing – so it is a good exercise in covering all of that too.
A few years ago, you made the move from inner Sydney to the upper North Shore and created a beautiful garden at your new home. Do you draw inspiration from the seasonal changes in your garden for your exhibitions?
The garden for me is more like my yoga. It is where I can spend time alone, and get a little lost in my thoughts, and mentally work through problems and find solutions. I can sometimes cure writers block after an hour in the garden. It can be vigorous and physical or else it can be gentle and relaxing just seeing everything grow, and flower and change with the seasons. Sometimes I just really get a kick out of picking flowers and arranging them in my home! Gardening (for me anyway) is timeless, trendless, and about as close to ‘nature’ as you can get (aside from hiking in the wilderness). My life can be really noisy – with 3 kids, and so much talking to so many people – with interviews for my book, and artists for my shows, and visitors to my exhibitions etc. Sometimes it is good for the soul to just go and be with the flowers!
Your home is often filled with a stunning variety of flowers from your own garden, do you have a favourite flower or does it change with the seasons?
Haha, yep. Whatever is in flower at the time is always my favourite! I love the old nanna flowers that people don’t tend to grow so much anymore. I deliberately seek to plant things that remind me of the random bunches of flowers that I used to pick my mum on the way home from school (from other people’s gardens!). I love things like old-fashioned roses, freesias, camellias, azaleas, gardenias, hellebores, clematis, weigelas, irises, poppies, sweet peas, spireas, hydrangeas… I could go on for days! Our house had next to no garden when we moved in – so I find it hugely rewarding after only 4 years for people to admire it.
Has your own personal collection of art and ceramics grown since you started curating exhibitions? Are there any pieces that hold special significance for you?
So much! It’s hard when you curate shows largely to your own tastes…. how can you not acquire constantly?? I have had to set rules for myself now… I am no longer allowed to cherry pick before the show opens. Throughout the exhibitions some piece will invariably get under my skin. I have a couple of Vanessa Stockard pieces from her Derek Milkwood series which were in my Cold Comforts show that I absolutely adore – especially as I really love Vanessa – a top human. I have a few Matilda Julian pieces that I will never part with. The first solo show I ever presented was for Matilda, and it was a really crazy experience as it practically sold out in 15 minutes in a buying frenzy! Matilda is a very special soul who I have as big soft spot for. My ceramics collection is made up of pieces by people who I now call friends – Alison Fraser, Tara Burke, Alex Standen, Milly Dent, Ulrica Trulsson, and Keiko Matsui to name a few. My favourite pieces however come from French ceramicist Cecile Daladier, who I befriended throughout the writing of Clay. Getting emails from Cecile and her husband during that time were amongst my favourite ever things for reasons I can’t quite explain. Cecile made each of my 3 children a little bowl, hand decorated with their names, and for me one of her ‘Pique fleur’ vessels which I completely adore (and which features often in my Instagram posts).
Daily rituals allow us to stop, take a breath and slow down by reconnecting with ourselves and the world around us. Do you have any daily rituals that bring you joy?
Having 3 kids aged 8, 6 and almost-2 doesn’t allow for a whole lot of slowing down or relaxing rituals I have to say! But, in the morning I like to make my 3 kids breakfast, and then go for a stroll around the garden, coffee in hand, and check on all the flowers to see what is flowering, what is budding etc. I am in the habit of checking in with myself every day … “are you happy today?’ ‘Are you stressed today?’ Generally the answers are yes and no accordingly. I think that I am fortunate that I re-engineered my professional life to bring me more joy on a personal level.
What’s coming up next that’s inspiring you?
I have curated a schedule of around 12 upcoming shows – which is very exciting! Over the last couple of years, my shows have tended to be skewed a little towards female artists with only a smattering of males. Well, that will change in 2018 with some great bold male solo shows in the mix. I am also neck deep in my second book, which comes out next year –a very beautiful book ‘of a painterly nature’.
Photo by Jacqui Turk
All other photos by Amber Creswell Bell