When you enter Julia Bickerstaff’s studio, Neonunity, it feels like a dreamworld. Bright neon signs adorn the walls, making the studio seem like a halfway house between a Tokyo sidestreet and an ‘80s nightclub. The combination of flames, glass tubes and lights as Julia works looks like futuristic snake whispering.
So it’s maybe surprising that for someone whose work feels so vibrant and modern, that Julia has such a real respect for the past. And in particular, the countless artists who have come from the area. ‘Scotland and the North has always been a hotbed for artistic talent,’ she says. And that’s something she, and other Northerners, are pretty damn proud of.
We all know that Northern artists really need no introduction. Immediately, Julia mentions Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth. The mother and father of modernist sculpture are widely recognized as bringing the eye of the art world to Yorkshire. And today, the Yorkshire Sculpture Park is a compelling homage to their work, lives and contribution to art.
From the other side of the Pennines, Julia mentions L.S. Lowry as a talent whose paintings of the daily Lancashire grind are famous across the country. In Scotland, Henry Raeburn’s portraits through to JMW Turner’s landscapes all capture the power and identity of what it means to be Scottish. These are just a few, Julia says, but the North’s history is bigger than individual artists. It’s vast and proud – and, she assures us, it will keep growing.
What Julia credits Moore, Hepworth, Lowry, Raeburn and Turner with though – above technical skills, influence and celebrity - is the way that they used their Northern heritage to create works of art.
For anyone who has hiked the Pennines or looked out across the Scottish coastline, they know that there’s no shortage of gorgeous scenery in the region. The inspiring influence of the landscape is so apparent that you can’t look at a Henry Moore sculpture without seeing Yorkshire’s rolling hills in the form. Without his home county, the structure, form and appearance that so many people have admired in his work would not have existed.
Lowry approached his heritage a little differently, focusing on the spirit of gritty people and their daily lives. Julia points out that he portrays the proud industry of the North-West and his paintings are a snapshot into people who are deeply connected to the North – just as he was.
These artists, perhaps unlike any artists elsewhere in the country, were products of where they came from. They were not just from anywhere, squirrelling away in generic studios. The Northern aspect of their legacy isn’t restricted to their biographies – it’s screaming to be noticed in their actual work.
Yet aside from the landscape and people that provide such rich inspiration, why is it that Scotland and the North of England has always bred such pioneering artists?
From sculptors to painters to photographers to neon artists, the North has courted diversity. And that’s because, unlike any area in the country, it is made up of so many individual pockets. Liverpool is separate to Manchester which is separate to Leeds which is separate to Newcastle which is separate to Edinburgh – and so on. These distinct pods created different identities. Just as the landscape differs so vividly between them, so does the talent.
‘Scotland and the North isn’t just one intense melting pot like London,’ Julia says. ‘It’s full of different pockets of talent, which are all inspired by different things.’ These unique, undisturbed personalities allow different styles to develop. ‘It’s provoking,’ she says, ‘being amongst all of the different people, architectures and landscapes. It’s unlike anywhere else in the country. And that’s why our art is, too.’
Bringing the past to the present
The past is littered with stars, but what about the future? Julia is confident that the North has all the right ingredients to keep producing artists.
‘Nurturing talent will be more important than ever,’ Julia says. ‘Without mentors and investment in the future, the next generation might take their skills elsewhere or go in another direction.’ It’s about investing, she thinks, in the galleries of the future. ‘Because in 50 years’ time, it’s the next generation that we’ll be celebrating in those galleries.’ That’s part of the reason that Julia has joined TransPennine Express on The Where Next Project. It’s about safeguarding the future of the North and Scotland, she says, and ensuring the region maintains its burgeoning reputation for always pushing forward and innovating.
But if landscapes have been done, what’s next for new creatives to use as their inspiration? Julia laughs, because, in her own words, ‘inspiration is everywhere’. ‘Just look in your oven and watch the way your Yorkshire pudding grows, how it’s shape and structure changes’. Think about science, from the smallest atoms right through to huge scientific forces, like alternating current and the way that electricity moves from one place to another. Inspiration can be anything and the North should be excited about the potential that holds for the future.
Julia is a Where Next Project mentor, providing advice and inspiration to the next generation of budding artists. Find out more about our current crop of Future Stars here.