Holly Hendry says she was taken aback to be announced as the first winner of the Woon Tai Jee Fellowship, a prize consisting of a £20,000 bursary, the use of a studio in Newcastle for a year and mentoring by Turner Prize-nominated artist Christine Borland who is also Baltic Professor at Northumbria University.
“I was very shocked,” she insists. “I hadn’t even considered it as an option. I enjoyed the process of entering and thought, well, we’ll see what happens.
“When they were calling out the prize winners they did the smallest ones first. When there was only one left, I thought, that was a shame – I’d have liked to win some money.”
The big prize, of course, had Holly’s name attached to it.
Suddenly the prospect of a year on Tyneside opened up for a girl who was born and grew up in Surrey and had just graduated with first class honours from the famous Slade School of Fine Art, part of University College London.
“I didn’t know a single person in Newcastle,” remembers the 24-year-old.
The Woon Tai Jee Fellowship is the most valuable among a clutch of prizes – all aimed at final year fine art students – established through the generosity of Wee Teng Woon, a businessman and art patron from Singapore who studied law at Northumbria University.
One of those alumni all universities must dream of, Wee Teng Woon wanted to honour his parents and benefit the institution where he had studied while also giving the latest generation of artists a helping hand. His awards, worth a total of £40,000, are collectively more valuable than the Turner Prize.
The work of this year’s shortlisted contenders can be seen at Northumbria University’s Gallery North until Tuesday when this year’s prize-winners are announced.
The gallery will then be made ready for Holly Hendry’s exhibition which will occupy the space from September 24 to October 15. It will be a chance for people to see what she has been up to during her 12-month residency in the North East.
In the Woon Tai Jee Studio at Baltic 39 on Newcastle’s High Bridge, where Christine Borland and the BxNU Institute of Contemporary Art are based, Holly is in the process of making stuff – and gleefully spilling over into the half of the studio usually occupied by somebody else.
A metal grid is taking shape on the floor and there are large pale shapes occupying a considerable amount of floor space. They look as if they ought to be soft and squidgy, like outsize cushions, but in fact they are hard and hollow – plaster casts of things that would presumably have been nice to roll around on.
Holly is not of the miniaturist persuasion. She is a sculptor who clearly likes to wrestle with big stuff.
“I was really into art and textiles at school but my textile-based work was always pretty sculptural,” she says. “At A level you’re encouraged to fit the curriculum with portraiture and painting and I enjoyed it but I felt I could say things with sculpture. Making things is really exciting for me because it relates to materials.”
The textile work, I suggest, could have led her towards the commercial world of fashion design.
She says she dabbled in fashion but ended up creating a garment with “weird great mushrooms that lit up”. It was fashion struggling very hard to be sculpture – probably not the sort of stuff that would have flown off the racks at M&S or Primark although you can imagine Vivienne Westwood giving it a go.
Holly, who was born in Effingham, near Guildford, and then moved with her family to Dorking, did a foundation course at the University of Creative Arts in Farnham and then went to the Slade. Her parents, exiled Scots, encouraged her.
“I think I’ve always been quite creative because my family is creative,” she says. “My dad is an architect and he’s had quite a big influence on my work. My mum works with children but she always wanted to go to art school.”
She adds that she has a brother studying medicine. We agree that that has to be creative too, in a way.
The architectural influence was evident in Holly’s degree show at the Slade which earned her those first class honours. She had subtly – and sometimes not so subtly – altered the appearance of the grand old Slade building, altering its spaces and contours with pink latex screens and inflatables.
“I set out to use the building in a very physical way,” she explains. “There was a giant pink balloon in one space. I wanted this bubble of tensile material in a space that was narrow and claustrophobic.”
This wasn’t just any old pink. Holly’s research turned up Baker-Miller pink, a shade used by one Alexander Schauss in psychological experiments. The colour, when applied to the cell walls, was found to have a calming effect on inmates of a correctional institution in Seattle.
Holly’s efforts at the Slade evidently impressed her tutors although she recalls, a trifle ruefully: “Some people using the building didn’t even notice.”
Having been shortlisted for the Woon competition, she had to submit something for the exhibition at Gallery North. The piece she came up with, another pink latex inflatable to be pressed against the gallery ceiling, was a variation on the theme of her degree show but with one crucial difference.
Because the work of all the shortlisted artists had to be accommodated in the gallery, Holly wasn’t really able to tailor her work to a specific location as she had at the Slade. Hence her reservation before the winners were announced.
Holly says she only entered a couple of competitions when her time at the Slade was nearing its end. She submitted her Woon Prize application in February last year, months before her degree show. “You get certain feelings about certain prizes... the way they’re written, the judges. It felt like the right thing and the prizes, of course, were really exciting.”
Her initial feelings proved correct, despite her later reservations. The fact she was nearly late for the announcement, travelling up from London, can hardly have dispelled her feeling that probably it was not to be.
But having emerged as the big winner, she set about making plans for a move to a city she had never even visited before the Woon Prize brought her to Newcastle.
She found a flat-share near Dance City, becoming friends with the girl already in residence, and started exploring.
“You have to feel comfortable and confident in a place before you can start making work and I suppose I was shocked at how beautiful it was up here.
“I didn’t know what a striking city Newcastle is and it annoys me now when people don’t seem to understand that. I was struck by the friendliness of people and that there’s such a nice, close-knit art scene.
“Graduating from a London art college you think, Oh, God, I don’t know how to navigate this world. You come out of this bubble you’ve been working in. But this has been a lovely prize to win because it’s so far from London and suddenly not everything focuses on London as a place to go for art.
“I think in the next few years Newcastle and Liverpool, Glasgow and Edinburgh will be the places to be for the majority of the artists who are the middle ground between being able to work full-time and having to do other jobs.”
That said, while London has a lot of artists it also has a lot of art buyers. Holly says: “My friend at a London gallery has people like Russian millionaires coming in who just have to spend money to not have to pay extra tax. It’s insane.”
As soon as Holly’s exhibition opens at Gallery North, her hold on the Woon Tai Jee Fellowship – named after Wee Teng Woon’s late father – will end.
This year’s winning artist will take over the studio and Holly will be off to London – not to court Russian millionaires but to embark on a Masters course at the Royal College of Art.
She says she’ll miss the friends she has made in the North East but she may be back one day, perhaps as the next big thing at Baltic. She smiles at the thought: “I wish...”