I ran into Kerri Ainsworth in a coffee shop in Surry Hills a few weeks ago, the last time we had seen each other - a good twenty years - she was a Designer and was using, my then, studio for a shoot starring the singer Wendy Mathews. We caught up to talk about her latest chapter...
LG: I’m Talking to Kerri Ainsworth about her new enterprise, http://arttraveladventures.com.au and her life before.
KA How long do you want this to be? …laughs .... I am over 50 after all!
LG Indeed .... a long story
KA : I’ll try and keep it reasonably brief … Laughs … the story begins with Art School, four years studying painting, sculpture, drawing, printmaking and photography at the ANU in Canberra and then in Melbourne. When I graduated, I did exhibit for a short time, but soon realised it was too solitary for a social girl like me.
After a couple of false starts, I decided to become a freelance illustrator and cartoonist, which was an unusual career choice back then. However, after about 5 years, for a restless spirit like me, being bound to a desk, just didn’t work. So when an opportunity came up for me to storyboard a film, I jumped at the chance.
It wasn’t easy breaking into the film industry. I had absolutely no connections, but what I did have, was a great deal of determination and tenacity. For many years I worked as a Production Designer and Art Director, responsible for running the art department, and the look of a film or television series.
My work in the film industry led to invitations to work on some very large-scale events, including the Opening Ceremony of the Sydney Olympic Games. That was a great experience, if somewhat harrowing.
Designing and overseeing the construction of large-scale sets and environments led to several commissions to design art installations, including the Sydney Harbour Foreshore Authority, the University of Technology and the Commonwealth Bank. The first was the “Australia Day Spectacular” in 2014, which floated on a barge in Darling Harbour. It was so large, that they had to open Glebe Island Bridge to get it into position. The second, in the same year, was commissioned by the Commonwealth Bank for their conference, “Wired For Wonder.” This was an interactive installation which sat in the grand foyer at NIDA and is now in their permanent art collection. The Events Faculty at the University of Technology Sydney had commissioned three smaller sculptures, to be created, using sustainable practice.
That commission inspired me to do a masters degree by research in Public Art Installation and Event Design Using Sustainable Practice. In the meantime, the work was drying up, and after a few attempts at teaching, decided it wasn’t my thing.
Which brings us to my latest venture ART Travel Adventures!
Three things lead to this new business. Unusually for me, there was a lot of synchronicity. Firstly, while resting in a town called Guanajuato, in the mountains of central Mexico, after a kayaking trip around the islands of Panama. The host, of the 17th century hacienda, where I stayed, turned out to be an artist and we soon developed a really lovely friendship. He mentioned he did art workshops and showed me this fabulous coffee table book of a workshop he had done with a group of guests from the United States.
This probably planted the seed, but I didn’t realise it at the time.
When I got back to Sydney, work was really slow. On top of that, the graphic designer in my studio had moved out, so I had to advertise for a replacement. A young woman who runs a tour company, contacted me to arrange a viewing. When I googled her, and saw that she was an intrepid traveller, I was keen for her to move in. I’ve always been a bit of an Indiana Jones type of traveller, exploring some amazingly remote places, totally off the grid. And she seemed to be doing the same. However she was heading off to India, so we arranged to meet when she got back.
The third part of the story, happened over coffee with a very well known artist and his wife; friends for over 30 years. I told him that I hadn’t had any work for several months and was worried. He looked me in the eye and said, that he hadn’t sold a painting in over a year. That was such a shock; a real leveller. I realised that I wasn’t alone, that perhaps that chapter in my life was closing.
He said to me, “Kerri I can’t afford not to work, so in between painting and exhibiting, I also give art workshops.” He went on to say that most of his students were retired, 50 something professional people, that he took to the outback to do landscape painting. “Why don’t you should do something like that,” he said. I laughed and said “don’t be ridiculous, no one wants to learn how to be an installation artist or set designer at that age!” But of course I’d misunderstood. He meant that I should organise them and offered his support.
It really was a life-changing conversation. I went away and thought about it, and developed this idea based on my three greatest passions. … Art ,Travel and Adventure. And then I took a risk. I sent an email to a woman I’d never met, the one who was going to look at my studio space when she returned from India and ran the idea by her. Unbelievably, she wrote back straight away saying she thought it a fantastic idea and would like to support it. And so began a brilliant collaboration!
LG So what is her skill base?
KA She is a tour operator and runs a a very successful company called Crooked Compass https://www.crooked-compass.com Last year, she was one of the contestants on Shark Tank and, as a result, Naomi Simpson, of Red Balloon fame, is now her mentor.
You see, that while I have good connections in the art world, and with my film, television and events background can organise just about anything, the one hitch is, that apart from Mexico and Australia, I don’t have any foreign travel contacts. That’s where Lisa comes in. She organises the logistics of my overseas tours and I organise the artist and the artist’s retreat.
LG So it’s now become your full time business, how many trips are you doing a year?
KA Yes it has. While I started setting up the business in mid 2016, this is the first year where I’ve had a full complement of workshops and tours.
The very first trip in late October 2016, was to Mexico. Most of the guests were friends, including Idris’ wife Glennis. The only two that were not, however, were the wife and daughter of Reg Mombassa. Having guests from a famous family in the art world, gave my business a certain cache.
This year has been very busy. It begin with a business trip to Mexico, to line up the next tour and to trial working remotely. Then the year kicked off in March, with a workshop in the Hunter Valley with two teaching artists, Idris Murphy and Ross Laurie. Then in April, artist Debbie Mackinnon, who creates these fabulous travel diaries full of paintings, sketches and collage, held a workshop in Currawong, a beautiful and remote beach in Pittwater. In April/May I travelled through Morocco on an art expedition with English artist, Noel Bensted, our own guide and driver. The highlight being the artist’s retreat in the famous Sahara Desert.
Then in late May, Idris Murphy and I headed off to the Red Centre with a group of 13 artists, staying at a historic homestead in the East Macdonnell Rangers. Having Idris on board, has been great. It gives my new business a great deal of credibility. He has been a wonderful friend and a fantastic support. He comes with enormous experience and a great knowledge base about how to run a workshop and has that magical quality of being able to tap into the individual styles of other artists, and guide them accordingly.
The next couple of months will be spent planning workshops and tours for 2019. Then in August we have a workshop in the Royal National Park with Idris again and another with Debbie Mackinnon back in Currawong.
in late October, we head to Mexico for the Day of the Dead Festival and a workshop with Mexican artist, Hugo Anaya (who appeared earlier in the story), in Guanajuato. Then at the end of year we are doing a tour which includes an art workshop and visiting beautiful and in some cases, historic gardens and quaint villages around Tasmania. This is a collaboration with the Friends of the Royal Botanic Gardens Sydney …And that’s it!
LG That’s a lot
KA Yes that’s a lot
LG What size are the workshops?
KA It really depends on the location, and if there’s one or two teaching artists. In Australia if its one artist, we have no more than twelve student artists and with two artists we have fourteen to eighteen. Overseas that number would be too cumbersome so we take a maximum of eight workshop participants. That way, the groups are very immersive and intimate.
LG What is the demographic.
KA The majority of participants are professional women from 45 to 65, however we always get a few men, especially on the overseas trips and occasionally a 30 something person will join us. Age or gender doesn’t matter. What they all have in common is a love of art. And of course it depends on the guest artist. The workshops with Indris Murphy tend to attract very experienced art practitioners. About 30% are professional artists themselves. The overseas art tours attract people of various levels of experience.
LG Starting a business later in life how has that been?
KA Its been great. I’m really loving it. For someone who is so goal orientated, those slow years prior to starting the business were extremely frustrating. Back then, I was a gun for hire and relied on people commissioning my work. Now I have a product and am in control of how I work and when. I love being busy and involved. And of course, love travel, exploring new places, meeting people and most importantly, building a community of like-minded people.
At the moment, I’m dreaming up new adventures and creating for myself an interesting and engaging life.
LG What motivated you to start the business?
KA I guess the motivating factor was to turn my life around. I went through a really bad patch where a close friend died and my partner and I split up. For awhile I was completely consumed by grief. And I had to face the real possibility that I could be single for the rest of my life. Although I’ve got lots of great friends, I was starting to feel that my world was shrinking. I really believe this is a reality for many people over 50. Your social life slows down, you no longer party till dawn. I didn’t want that to happen.
One of my credos is to take artists into places that really inspire them. We don’t choose locations randomly. For Indris and Ross, it’s the outback, for Debbie Mackinnon it’s coastlines and interesting architecture. It’s simple. If the artist is inspired by the location, then they’ll be inspiring teachers. They also have to have certain qualities; a high profile, good communication skills, teaching experience and a solid following. My artists tick all of those boxes.
This business, for me, has really opened up my world and turned my life around. I’m involved in so many new and wonderful things and along the way, have made many lovely new friends. I really feel I’m contributing to people’s lives and creating a community of like-minded people. And above all, it’s great fun.
Let’s face it there are a lot of women like me, over 50, professionals, the kids have grown up, they have more time on their hands, are more affluent and are now thinking ….. right at this stage of my life I want to do something for myself, something that I really love. Part of this journey is to make new connections and share ideas within a safe and supportive community. That sense of belonging is so important. And along the way, I’m creating my perfect lifestyle. And guess what? There’s a whole lot of people out there, who want exactly the same thing!
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