The Royal Academy Summer Exhibition is the largest open call for Artists, with over 16,000 entries each year. https://www.royalacademy.org.uk/
I’ve never found the courage to enter the show but always known it was there. It combines showing Royal Academians, who are selected automatically, with ‘other’ Artists who go through the brutal roller coaster stages of the selection process. Every year there is an exhibition coordinator. Last year, for the 250th anniversary, it was Grayson Perry https://www.royalacademy.org.uk/art-artists/name/grayson-perry-ra who put on a Graysontastic barn stormer.
At the start of this year I decided that I needed to face the prospect of brutal rejection and embrace it like a flea riddled animal. To stand on the precipice and see where the wind takes me. With so many entries you know that the odds are stacked against you, but still getting an ‘it’s a no from me’ can still take the skin off the heel.
I saw that Jock McFadyen https://www.royalacademy.org.uk/art-artists/name/jock-mcfadyen-ra was coordinating this year with the theme of art that describes the world. I’ve admired his work for years, he’s a painters’ painter. And there’s the added fact that he has painted the road I live on, not to mention scenes from the Scottish Isles which inspire me greatly. So it seemed right to try this year. It was clear that this year’s show would be one which I would find interesting regardless of the outcome. I spent a few seconds fighting back that faithful hound of doubt and entered two paintings: PYLON and E1. The submission went into cyber space and I returned to planning my next series of work.
You’ll know from my previous blog https://wp.me/pat44M-1iX that I love pylons. Another confession: I am a power station tourist. To be specific coal fired cooling towers. More of a groupie really. They are the crown jewels of the modern British landscape, or ‘the lads’ as they are affectionately known to me.
I’ve often tried to photograph them during my many trips up north visiting family. Most train journeys are spent with my camera pressed against the murky glass with the hope of at least capturing a decent line up of pylons. But when a gang of towers hove into view, that’s when the frenzy of trying to capture the right image begins. On my regular route to Liverpool I know exactly where they hang out, but on a diversion, or unfamiliar turf they can take you by surprise. On a fast train to the East coast of Scotland you can find yourself surrounded by concrete castles, flanked by forts of modernity. Their sudden incongruous presence can take your breath away when you are least expecting it. Then it’s a do or die situation with the camera.
I realised that I had never actually been up close and personal with them so on one dismal Monday morning as commuters flooded into Kings Cross I boarded an empty train to Ratcliffe-on-Soar. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ratcliffe-on-Soar_power_station Where? Here lies a beautiful monster. Built in the sixties it used to burn 5.5 million tonnes of coal a year. In the nineties it ran for a record 250,000 hours. Attempts have been made to tame it. One activist Mark Kennedy… that’s another story. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mark_Kennedy_%28police_officer%29
With no idea of what I was to expect I arrived at East Midlands Parkway station, right at the foot of the sleeping towers. I asked a café worker if I could get close, right into the belly of the beast. She looked at me suspiciously and said, ‘if you do security will be all over you’. Only slightly phased, I began to take photographs from the station platform. Security warning announcements competed with the sonorous sounds of the rapids – water falling at the base of the towers. After moving on to the edge of the motorway bridge for some obligatory pylon photographs, I took a lonely path which led me to an open field. Sheep stood grazing, blackened by the shadow of the towers. Boats lay abandoned on the soft ground, from a time when the river soar flooded. The towers broad and tall dominated the arena. The sky turned blue and the mid-day sun began to beat. The surreal conditions were perfect: the chance meeting of a sheep, a concrete tower and an abandoned boat. Ankle deep in mud I took my photographs and unpacked my sandwiches.
The Gods of modern industrial structures were kind.
Back in the studio I reflected on the heat of the sun and the obvious cooling process of the towers. I produced a series of pieces which involved heating and cooling materials.
Meanwhile, I checked my emails. Notifications were appearing on social media about getting through to the second round of the RA Summer Exhibition. And YES! PYLON had gone through to the ‘hanging committee’, a term which made the next round feel even more brutal. Another wait.
On the final notification day for applicants I checked my email and had a brief, ‘god this is stressful’ cry before reading it…. YEP. F%&KING YES! I was on my way to the royal Academy Varnishing Day!
Varnishing Day is a wonderful preview for exhibiting Artists – or commonly known as that bit in the Turner film where Timothy Spall adjusts his painting with red paint to attract attention and piss off Constable. It suddenly struck me that PYLON would be hanging out (literally) with Paula Rego https://www.royalacademy.org.uk/art-artists/name/paula-rego-ra and Keifer https://www.royalacademy.org.uk/exhibition/anselm-kiefer and too many others to mention.
On the day itself a steel band led us to a nearby church. I’m normally strictly weddings and funeral only but this was a service to bless the Artists, so I couldn’t miss it. I walked back to the RA somewhat awestruck by the recognisable Artists around me and the prospect of seeing my pylon painting along side their work.
Jock McFadyen created a splendid menagerie in the entrance to the exhibition hall. I had three thoughts, ‘this is incredible, where’s my work and my god that buffet looks good’.
I nervously sought my painting out and couldn’t be happier that it was placed in a room curated by Scottish painter Barbara Rae https://www.royalacademy.org.uk/art-artists/name/barbara-rae-ra. The room was relatively sparse, works linked together beautifully with a clear nod to the environmental issues of today.
Former president of the Royal Academy, Christopher Le Brun https://www.royalacademy.org.uk/art-artists/name/christopher-le-brun-pra gave a speech to the Artists against a backdrop of David Hepher’s monumental Hey Wayne on the Meath Estate https://se.royalacademy.org.uk/2019/artworks/david-hepher/272. A nervous ripple went around the room when he pointed out that our work is hanging on the same walls as Constable and Turner. He assured us that we should and must be proud.
It was great to take family friends and students to the subsequent private views and an added compliment that PYLON was bought on the first day.
I am grateful for all those who supported me and I am grateful for the beauty in the brutal.
If you’d like to see more of Alison’s work, including more stunning cooling towers, or if you’d like to know where she is exhibiting, visit her website https://alisonstirlingfineart.com/ or follow her on Instagram https://www.instagram.com/stirling.alison/ Facebook https://www.facebook.com/StirlingAlison/ or Twitter https://twitter.com/StirlingAlison
You can also contact Alison directly about commissions or exhibitions at email@example.com