There’s perhaps no greater creative cliché—or truth—than the notion of the struggling artist. But, thanks in part to the digital age, more and more creative entrepreneurs are figuring out inventive ways to turn the idea of the starving artist on its head. Take Spaniard Pablo Berástegui, whose Portugal-based Salut au Monde photographic gallery is funded by subscriptions, with members receiving prints in return for their support. Or San Francisco-based Jack Conte, who founded Patreon, a platform that enables fans—or ‘patrons’—to support their favourite artists, writers, musicians and independent film and video makers with monthly payments in exchange for exclusive content.
Sophie Tea is another fine example. The British artist has carved out a highly lucrative career by shunning galleries and opting to use social media to market and exhibit her work, which is then sold online with options to spread interest-free payments over a year—a prescient move given the current coronavirus-ridden climate of uncertainty.
“It’s quite different to anything else in the artwork, selling originals like that over 12 months,” Sophie tells me over the phone from Sydney—the artist is based between the UK and Australia. “We know we have payments coming in which is a blessing. As an independent artist, you get to write your own rules, but with that comes complete financial responsibility which is made even greater when you employ a team, which I do.”
Before her foray into the artworld, Sophie studied business. I ask if she puts her success down to her business training as much as her artistic talent, but she credits it more with acumen than what she was taught.
“I learnt far more in the first two months of setting up a business than I ever did studying it an uni. People think that I just paint all day, but there’s so much more to it than that. It’s as much about branding, and this is branding in its purest form. I’m constantly thinking of creative ways to bring product to market, to make more money, and to build the team. We have just opened a new shop front in Sydney, adding to the one in London.”
There were reports late last year that Sophie was on track to earn £1 million on Instagram—not a bad return on four years’ hard graft—while many have also praised her for revolutionising the art world with her approach. Does she believe it’s the way forward for all artists?
“It depends on the individual. My strengths are communication and storytelling, online. If you’re shy and couldn’t think of anything worse than projecting your voice online, then the best bet is the more traditional route. There is no right or wrong, it’s just a case of playing to your strengths.”
Do you have to deal with trolls?
“I do get them, but nothing like to the scale of other influencers I know with similar follower numbers. You need to understand that what they’re saying is really all about themselves, not about you. It used to affect me more than it does now. My team manage my DMs and delete the negativity. It’s important to be nice, especially after everything that happened with Caroline Flack [the recently deceased UK television presenter]. Online hate really does have consequences and people need to watch what they’re saying.”
Sophie cites Tracey Emin as an influence and inspiration, and references the way the legendary British artist dealt with criticism of her infamous 1998 work, ‘My Bed’, that comprised an unmade bed surrounded by everyday paraphernalia such as slippers, soiled underwear, cigarettes and used condoms.
“People told her that anyone could have done it, and her response was, ‘Yeah, but they didn’t, did they?’” says Sophie. “I think that is so powerful because it’s the same for everything. What I’m doing is not rocket science, I just got up off my arse and did it. It’s a mantra I follow: ‘go do it’.”
Sophie did recently make an exception to her ‘no gallery’ rule, allowing her work to be exhibited by Maddox who also represent the likes of Damien Hirst, and her idol, Tracy Emin.
“That was quite out of the ordinary for me, but to be in a gallery surrounded by those names is amazing. It’s a really progressive gallery, and the exhibition, HerStory, was a curation of emerging female artists in honour of International Women’s Day.”
Do you believe art should always have a message?
“I think a lot of artists will start with a message or a concept and work backwards in order to create something from that. I know that, traditionally, art is supposed to stand for something, but I had no formal training so for me, it’s all about aesthetics, the creating, the exploration of new materials. If there’s no meaning, that’s fine, so long as it brings joy and happiness hanging on someone’s wall.”
As well as walls, Sophie’s art has graced actual human bodies, including her own. She (in)famously first went viral in 2016 posing topless while adorned in with paint, jewels and glitter, sparking the ‘glitter boobs’ trend, and has since turned her talents to painting nudes on canvas. Last December also launched her Send Nudes exhibition which comprised women gracing the catwalk unclothed.
“I have this amazing online following and so asked if any of them wanted to be my muse,” she says. “I asked that anyone who wanted to be painted to send a naked picture. I was in Bali at the time and woke up to more than 1,000 images with descriptions of why they found it important to get in touch.”
Sophie reveals that the women were of all shapes and races, aged from 20 to 75, some pregnant, some with mastectomies, some with stretch marks and some with self-harm scars. There were messages of heartbreak and of loss and of cancer, while others were humorous and light-hearted with lines such as: “I never send my boyfriend nudes, but for you, here we go!”
“It unintentionally became a feminist movement,” says Sophie. “We got them involved in the live show, walking down the catwalk naked and painted, with my art in the background.”
For as long as she can remember, Sophie says she always dreamt of running her own business, she just wasn’t sure what kind. I ask what she was like as a child, and she laughs that she can’t recall—though her mum has lots of pictures of her with a brush in hand, including one that would foretell her future: painting her little sister, naked!