Tracey Emin is no stranger to hardship. Surviving below the poverty line in order to pursue art, Emin’s tenacious and industrious spirit kept her focused during the most challenging time period of her life, her 20s. After a letter-writing campaign and successful solo show garnered attention, Emin finally made serious traction in her career and finally starting “making a living from art.”
In this interview, Emin talks about her letters, what she believes truly makes you an artist, and her first solo show.
Iconic London-based artist Tracey Emin has been has been recognized as one of the leading figures of the ‘90s YBA (Young British Artists) movement. She is noted for her provocative and sexually explicit work and was inducted into the Royal Academy of Arts in London in 2007.
Tracey Emin was born in 1963 in the seaside town of Margate on the English coast. After leaving school at an early age, Tracey enrolled at the Maidstone College of Art, Kent, to study printmaking and continued her studies at the Royal College of Arts, London.
Emin lived in poverty throughout her twenties, struggling to sustain herself as well as pay off her student debts.
Tracey, however, broke through the art scene in her 30s with the following works:
In 1997, her work Everyone I Have Ever Slept With 1963–1995, a tent with names sown on it, was shown at the Royal Academy in London.
Today, Tracey is regarded as one of Britain’s most significant contemporary artists. She is internationally recognized for her blunt, personal, and revealing style, which elicits a broad spectrum of emotions ranging from shock to empathy to self-reflection. Drawing on personal experiences, Tracey often portrays painful situations with brutal honesty and poetic humor in a wide variety of media including painting, drawing, embroidery, neon, installation, sculpture, and film.
My 20s were probably the most disastrous years of my life, in many my most unhappiest.
In my 20s it wasn’t that I didn’t have enough money, it’s I had no money. I had a tiny tiny little co op flat and I would have a decision, I could either put money into the electric or money into gas, and sometimes I would sit there and just have to toss a coin to decide if I would have no light or nothing to cook with, and when you get to that level it’s really impoverished, and it’s very hard to continue believing in art and thinking art is important when you’re that poor.
The thing that kept me going was I kept thinking it can’t get worse than this. It can’t get worse than this. When you’re really at rock bottom there’s only one way and that’s up….
Whenever I saw opportunity I would take it. And I’m not lazy; I’m industrious, and about the letters that I sent out, that was absolute desperation, it was either jump off a bridge or do something radical. And of course everyone thought it was really brilliant conceptual piece of art, and they thought it was really clever.
I came up with an idea out of pure desperation of people investing in my creative potential. So I had my doll money, and after I paid back my debts every week I had 12 pound, I went and got a load of letters, photocopied forms, and I asked people to invest in my creative potential for 10 pound. I spent all my money on stamps, photocopies, and envelopes and I sent these letters to every single person I knew and the next week I got 8 letters back, which was 80 pound. And these people had invested in my creative potential and that made me feel really good. And slowly the letters started coming back, 10 pound, 10 pound, 10 pound. And people would send me 10 pound cash or postal order, and they couldn’t send me a check because I didn’t have a bank account.
So, within the terms of my poverty, I was learning a lot as a I went on, and it enforced a set of values in me to do with art that were unbreakable and unshakable. I really knew that I wanted to be an artist that would actually affect people’s lives and change people’s perception of things. I didn’t want to make pretty pictures.
So, I wasn’t standing still. I wasn’t lonely, I wasn’t complaining. I was trying to make my life better all the time.
When I had my show at South London Gallery, I made, we sold work, not a lot, but enough for me to live on. Not excess money, but enough for me to be able to go out to dinner or enough for me to be able to buy a pair of shoes without thinking about it. And I suddenly thought, “Wow! I’ve made it! This is it! This is the beginning!”
Everybody always says to me, when did you think you were going to be an artist? And I said the opening of my South London Gallery show.
That’s right, I was 30 when I had my first show, and I was um you know um, I didn’t start making a living from my art until I was 34. I didn’t start making a living until I was 34, and then every year my income doubled.
Cinematography: Gabe Wilson & Danielle Calodney
Audio by: Andreina Velazquez
Edited by: Danielle Calodney
Interviewed by: Laura Lehmann