From a love of the performing arts to her student days in Wales studying film and cinematography, the creative world has always played a role in Alice Carter’s personal and professional life. Now, as one half of the online gallery Boxbird – alongside her husband, illustrator Graham Carter – Alice gets to work with and showcase some of the UK’s leading illustrators, printmakers and fine artists.
Her journey to launching Boxbird Gallery in 2008 recalls that old adage of never giving up on a dream – even if life does occasionally lead you off on a tangent along the way. As Alice says: “Through all these years and crazy jobs, there was always a little niggling thought in my mind ‘I want to run an art gallery…’” Here, Alice chats about her journey along with the demands and highlights of running a successful print gallery.
Firstly, what attracted you to printmaking and illustration?
I was lucky enough to have a very creative childhood. My mother is a lettering artist and my father a record dealer, so art and rock n’roll filled my home. Until my early twenties I actually pursued the performing arts before stumbling into film and cinematography, which I studied at the University of Wales. After that I struggled to get a foot hold in the industry. I worked for the Cheltenham Film Studios for a while – watching Angelica Huston, Colin Firth and Lauren Bacall walk past my office daily was a highlight!
When the studios closed down for refurbishment I decided to move on. I fell on the production skills I had gained at university and CFS to became an event manager for a children’s charity in Brighton.
I met my husband Graham in 2003. He was a practicing illustrator and he delved into printmaking shortly after we met. It was an art form I had never really discovered and I completely fell in love. Graham was a member of Peepshow Collective and I found myself studying all the members’ work. I became completely passionate about the craft, spending hours researching blogs like the AOI and Illustration Mundo, and Graham and I started to collect prints too which was such fun.
We got together with a group of friends all of whom were illustrators and started Show Below, an annual exhibition of printmaking and Illustration for the Brighton Fringe Festival. I organized, promoted and curated the exhibition, and was in my element. I think my passion for the work really rubbed off on customers, and many still come back to me now eight years on.
After a very hard year in 2007 with Graham holding a huge solo show, and with me organizing an enormous fundraising event, we realized we had barely seen each other for six months and decided enough was enough, let’s work together from now on, and Boxbird Gallery was born. We had a physical gallery in Hove for five years holding a variety of solo shows and group shows, all of which opened to critical acclaim and were just so much fun to put on. We opened with 10 artists and now have over 50.
When did you launch the print studio?
The print studio was always part of the gallery; customers could come and see the equipment, and normally someone was printing so it helped to educate customers about the process and the time, skill and energy involved in creating one small silkscreen print.
Since closing the gallery earlier this year we have now turned the space into a shared studio with a plethora of amazing illustrators and printmakers using the space. We have children’s books illustrators, an illustration agent, and a professional printmaker who works for Harwood King – so it’s an exciting place to work. We don’t currently offer workshops but you never know what the future brings!
Why did you decide to open an online gallery?
Boxbird always existed online; it’s enabled us to build a client base internationally and we regularly ship to the USA, Australia and all over Europe. One of our best clients is in Korea! Our focus was always the gallery in Hove but it became clear very quickly that the main trade would always be online – and next year we hope to have a sexy new website…
How do you source the artists you work with and represent? Do people generally approach you or are you constantly looking for exciting new work?
I’m always on the prowl for new artists and spend as much time as I can scouring blogs, magazines and Twitter. We get several submissions a week too and occasionally one of these might be a little gem.
When new artists submit work to you, what are the key things you’re looking for?
This is so hard to answer. For me it’s a physical reaction. Sometimes I will stumble across a blog or an email will ping into my inbox and I know almost immediately as a little bubble of excitement builds in me. I don’t always choose artists because it is something I would necessarily buy myself but because it’s a beautifully considered style, or piece. I know what will get my customers excited and that’s what I look for.
What are the main challenges of running an online gallery?
Keeping current, finding the new talent before my competitors, and selecting the right stock – that’s always a challenge for sure. But the biggest challenge for me is juggling the gallery and full time parenthood – that’s hard! But now we are exclusively online and I have all my stock at home, I’m much more in control so I’m finding a much better balance.
And what are the best bits about your work?
Finding a really amazing new artist that makes me get all excited. That’s an awesome moment, and being my own boss – that’s worth is weight in gold.
Could you highlight a few of your favourite pieces or artists from Boxbird?
Cor blimey – that’s a tough one! Well, of course, anything by Graham Carter but I have to say that! Tom Frost is probably one of my favorite ever artists; I adore his work and in particular his Mammal Stamps which are just beautiful.
Helen Musselwhite is also another top favorite of mine. Helen is not an illustrator but her work evolves from an illustrative beginning into these amazing intricate paper sculptures which are simply extraordinary.
Sarah Ray is a big personal favorite. I look forward to her stock deliveries so much because I know I’m going to end up giggling in my studio! Her prints are really quite simple but full of the most wonderful humor. I think every home should have one just for those rainy days to cheer you up.
And are there other artists whose work you’re admiring at the moment?
Since having our son, Graham and I have become suckers for beautifully illustrated kids’ books and we love Sarah Dyer’s simple but wonderfully detailed illustrations, and Owen Davey’s work is sublime.
I adore Stephen Collins’ latest book The Gigantic Beard That Was Evil – wow! The most amazing illustration and brilliant book – or is it technically a graphic novel?
I’m a huge fan of Jeff Soto, and we just bought our first piece of his so very excited to get that up on the wall. Anything Sanna Annukka does is just brilliant in my book; I particularly like her work with Marimekko recently. Also I recently discovered a brilliant blog called Design Juices that features graduate and student illustrators from across the UK. I just discovered a student called Clair Rossiter – lovely stuff.
Where do you work from?
I tend to work from my dining room; I have my laptop set up in there so I can dip in and out all day between play-dates and washing up and hanging out laundry to check orders and emails. If I have a full day to myself then I have a perfectly good studio upstairs that I share with my husband, although it’s normally covered in his half-made clay sculptures and pencil shavings!
We have a converted basement which we call the granny flat, and that’s where I now store all the Boxbird stock – I love it. I have my two plan chests down there full of beautiful prints and all my wrapping materials. I hide there with the radio on while wrapping orders most evenings.
What does your typical working day look like?
I get one full day to myself a week so on that day I start with a bit of tweeting and follow up on any open orders and check my emails. If new stock has come in then it takes me a while to re-size images for the website and get them all online, and then I’ll proceed to tweet and Facebook those. The website requires constant updating so that’s a big part of my job.
It’s interesting how much social media has become a big part of my day now too. I can’t tell you how brilliant Twitter has been for us – it’s an amazing resource, but it takes a lot of attention and time to make it effective. In the lead up to Christmas I am chocka with orders and emails – that’s about all I have time for at the moment! But generally I do a little bit every day: prioritizing accounts, marketing, web updates, correspondence – it’s quite the juggling act.
How do you escape from work?
Ahhh … you see I escape to work!
If you hadn’t chosen to work in print, what would you be doing instead?
Event management – I adore it. I have organized three friends’ weddings now along with various social functions. When I have time I offer my services as a wedding consultant, which is fun.
How has your business evolved since you launched, and where do you see yourself in five years time?
My business kind of de-evolved, but in a positive way. We went from having a gallery in Hove to now being exclusively online. But during that time we went from being completely unknown to one of the most revered galleries for illustration in the UK – which was phenomenal.
With the climate being what it is retail is a very tricky industry to be in at the moment, but I do hope to have a retail unit again – fingers crossed within the next five years – and in a more prominent place in Brighton. I have plans for some kick-ass exhibitions over the next couple of years, and we will be back at an art fair near you soon…
Artworks, from top:
UnSatisifed, by Jane Ormes; Stamp Collection by Tom Frost; A Fishermans Tale by Mina Braun; Cirque De Bird: Owl Formation by Graham Carter; Robin by Dee Beale; The Lives of Others by Lucy Vigrass; Taxi Driver by Spencer Wilson; Racoon by Steven Campion; Freedom by Sarah Hamilton; Satin Bower Bird by Sally Elford.
All available at Boxbird Gallery; follow Boxbird @BoxbirdGallery.