• Phil Fry

The opportunity bestowed upon you: A full account of my first solo residency

In 2013, I began what I considered then to be a great opportunity for my first tentative steps into the artworld. I had graduated with a fine art degree not too long prior, but my work had taken a back seat in lieu of finding ‘real work’ – at the behest of my former partner.

The relationship fizzled out and with my new-found free time had quickly secured an opportunity to display my work at a newly opened recording studio in my hometown. It had been a chance encounter, two of my friends were playing there with a new body of acoustic work and I had agreed to get some photos.

First contact

My opening email to the owner was an observation of a lack of music themed work on the walls, followed up by a solution: I could provide some art for the walls and sent over some examples of what I had been making in secret when I should have been ‘doing proper work’.

At that time, I worked in a DIY store. My job badly sucked. Badly enough, if I had to go back to it today I would honestly and happily rather step out into busy motorway traffic, naked. Without a doubt I had then been defined as belonging to the minimum working wage world: I am equipped to clean up after you, park your car and drop chips into a bag as you drive past a window. And unless something happens to you, there you will stay – pigeonholed for eternity.

I needed a way out, this opportunity going to be it.

The Owner invited me to visit. We agreed on terms including a price structure and what sort of commission they would take, signed some contracts, then I set about planning the first body.

I could not afford artist paint or materials to work on. To create the first body, I would need to use reduced stock from my job. I keenly liberated emulsion tester pots, fabric from end of range curtains – primed with more emulsion - and the frames were made from offcuts of MDF. All screwed together with the loose screws which were common to every DIY shop.

I had no good computer in the beginning, so I worked from a sketchbook. Today my process is almost entirely digital until it comes to putting brush to paint. Something today will take me minutes to achieve what took me then a whole weekend.

After some discussion with The Owner I formulated the name Canvas Acoustics to refer to the collection as.

We decided to have an open night to celebrate Canvas Acoustics arrival at The Opportunity. It was a great night, there were guest performers, I had specially printed hundreds of prints of which we sold quite a few. The sales of the original paintings started to come in over the next week or so and I found myself needing to create new work to replace what had sold.

Soon after, The Opportunity was invited to the 2013 Hertfordshire New Business awards, I was invited along too.

London interest

The first showing with The Opportunity yielded a great contact from a gallery in Camden, London who were interested in Canvas Acoustics. Being right on the limit of what I could afford and with a bare studio I needed to create an additional body of work for them. And with the help of two friends, got the train down and weaved through the London Underground and busy streets of Camden market.

I branched out and bought proper materials for the Camden opportunity – which became my inaugural credit card debt.

This was the day I realised that being an artist does not make you immune from idiots. In some sense it attracts them.

Tower 47

I had once before been to T47 on reconnaissance and to meet the owner and agree the space and what they needed.

I needed to create ten more paintings for them in the Canvas Acoustic style.

The day we arrived to put it up I was welcomed with open arms, free coffee and cake – I could not complain about any of that – the coffee was life changing.

As soon as I finished that coffee, it all fell apart.

The gallery room I had been promised and agreed to had now become a grubby narrow corridor leading to a toilet. The size of the work I had brought with me swamped the space, had I been told of the change, would have made less and smaller work and would not have needed two helpers.

Today that sort of mix-up warrants much swearing and gesticulating of hands. Back then I was more of whatever the opposite of a pessimist is.

It was embarrassing. But as they say, you are there now, and one must deal with thy shit.

I had expected some sales from T47, being that it was central on Camden high street with a high volume of traffic. The Opportunity was selling well and tucked away in a tiny hither to unknown industrial enclave in the back waters of Stevenage. What is that word opposite to pessimist again?

This feeling transpired until I received a message from a friend who had gone to see the show.

Just a week after we had gone through the utter chicanery of miraculously getting the work unscathed to T47 and the better part of a day to hang it.. I find myself analysing a picture of it stacked on the floor at the bottom of what I recall being a busy public flight of stairs.

Seriously – I cannot just pluck ten bloody paintings out from thin air for them to be left on a flight of stairs. If I could then everyone is welcome to stair paintings. Stick your foot through one and get two free!

The next week I travelled to Camden and stood outside the shop as I phoned to ask how things were going. According to them, apparently, they had just hung the work in the window. It was not. I was stood at the window and the art was still clearly on the stairs. Putting the phone down, stepped inside the shop, thanked them for wasting my time and told them I was taking it all back.

I was appreciative of my mother’s help to rescue the paintings. It felt like a defeat and I was sad that she had to see something so promising get stamped down the toilet and thoroughly flushed.

Upon return from my misguided foray into Camden, I now had a fair amount of work to re-stock The Opportunity with. Over a period of several weeks when things were sold, I could now easily re-plenish and older paintings which I didn’t think worked too well I could replace with better ones.

Everything which went to Camden was soon sold.

U6 guitars

Things were ticking over nicely. I began having more money and started driving lessons. I could feed myself better and started to put on weight, I was no longer a skeleton, I was a skeleton with style. The Owner incepted my mind about crafting a custom guitar. I had built a few in the past, thought it to be an interesting development.

This brought about the birth of the U6: Named after the unit The Opportunity was based in and derived from a design I had recently made for myself. It was soon up for sale and after several weeks had also sold for a nice sum of money.

Oddly, this victory is also where things began to sour.

A new member of staff had began working the reception, the kind of person who invariably finds their way into lower management in retail and stays there, making it everyone else’s fault.

The gentleman who had bought the guitar wanted some modifications made to it – this new member who I shall refer to as Member – agreed to it on my behalf, without asking. Though this sort of behaviour is not cool.

Out of courtesy I spent my time making the necessary modifications.

Strange occurrences

The routine oddity: Every Thursday for a period of months I would need to visit The Opportunity to replace price labels which had been removed from my work. The Owner was always present in the building but never really available; always receiving phone calls or being called away. I made my concern known but nothing ever happened about it – just keep coming back with new labels seemed to be the answer.

Member had become quite dismissive of my presence. I was never sure why. Maybe it was some kind of eco thing with the number of labels I kept printing.

Member kindly declared he did not like my work. That’s okay, I don’t expect everyone to – but I don’t expect to hear it from the person representing my work AT THE PLACE OF WORK.

My relationship with The Opportunity had become strained. Member had become a filter to The Owner an encapsulated an attitude in the way you would expect if you were sleeping with someone’s husband and trying to talk to the husband through his wife who knows full well what you are both doing.

Soon came a day came when I needed to drop off some new work for the extension.

Still not privy to car ownership, I needed to rely on lifts. Being deposited outside a fully shuttered building – I found myself phoning The Owner and with no time to say hello, a female voice told me in no uncertain terms he was on holiday and promptly hung up.

I had to wait a long time to get that lift home again, with all my work. But long enough for the steam coming out my ears to die down.

This wouldn’t be the last time this happened, five times in all when I was on my own, but for the sake of keeping this account a reasonable length I will mention it this once.

The first extension

The Thursday label trip to The Opportunity quickly became a chore.

With the Tower 47 expedition and having to see little Member every Thursday, my faith in Canvas Acoustics was bottoming out. And when the people representing you have no faith in it there is no help.

I tried talking to The Owner about it. The he did not have much time to talk to me about anything. Not even if we had the privilege of being the last two souls on earth, he would still likely have to make that important phone call the moment I opened my mouth, or some faint voice would call him away.

More than once I would get a finger, well-rehearsed in the training of canine, quickly point at me with the accompanied narrative command of ‘wait there’. Then he would take off down a corridor and never come back.

There is only so much one can take of this kind of behaviour. It always seemed, if hope took the form of a sinking boat; just as it was about to slip beneath the waves a single bucket would bale just enough water out to keep the bow from going under.

I received a text message one day, direct from The Owner. It was about the new extension and a need for artwork to fill it.

There would be an open evening too, just like the first one. Outlining what we had done before with social media, posters, leaflets and adverts – I said we should do it the same as before and will have no problems.

Eventually the new extension was opened, and we had the show.

If you could have called that night, the same as the first time round then let me be stuck down by a monsoon of fat ladies falling from the sky right now.

The social media accounts Member was managing failed to mention the show, the posters I had put up had been removed with the same enthusiasm as the price labels and I found all the leaflets I had printed for the front desk in the bottom of a bin.

The music card for the night had not been agreed until the day of the show with one person pulling out just hours before. We ended up in a huge room surrounded by all the new work and merchandise. It was a mortification of the highest order.

At least it would have been, had anybody turned up.

The whole venture was an exercise in how to throw away time, money and materials and gut your enthusiasm.

By now sales had dried up of the work in the main building too. I turned to drink.

The second guitar and booze

Before the start of my relationship with The Opportunity I had another corrosive one with booze. Remaining sober for a long time, after these recent experiences I began receding back into alcoholism.

I did not know it then, but one gains a lot of self-worth out of putting on a show. What I came to understand is artists – musicians – actors etc. put a lot of themselves into what they do, and its seriously easy to crap all over it. You need a thick skin for this game, and I didn’t yet have one.

How I felt became obvious in my work – I had hit a bit of a wall.

What money I had earnt was going on my new obsession with cheap red wine and cigarettes. I could easily drink two bottles of red to myself every evening, chased by a couple of pints and still function for work the next day. My studio began looking like a crappy bar – or possibly something very avaunt-guard, depending on how you looked at it.

A bucket bales some water out again: someone had asked if I could paint a guitar in the same aesthetic with which my most recent body had been completed.

The Owner came to me and suggested I create a body for this paint scheme which is a more familiar shape for customers – which I did - and so came into existence the Les Paul U6 custom.

After much money and labour, the guitar arrived to fan fair at The Opportunity and placed happily on a wall display behind the desk – with a nice overly-big price tag tied to the headstock with heavy duty kite string.

I felt great about this guitar. Really proud and had some stella feedback for it.

Within a week it was laying on the floor in an unsecure broom cupboard. The price label had gone missing along with the strings and had picked up some lumps notched out the body like a medieval wood carving.

It seemed to me that someone had been using it in a game of rounders. Not the kind of thing you could put back on sale.

Utterly shat on.

Despite prior agreements to treat it the same as the first guitar sale, U6 Les Paul had not appeared on social media. I do not think anyone knew it had ever been for sale and I was questioning why I had gone through the time and expense when I could have spent the time more efficiently by feeding my alcoholism.

Again – I truly wish I could pluck handmade guitars out of thin air for people to shit over. But it takes time to craft a toilet, especially when you are giving it away for free.

I gave up going to The Opportunity to check on my work.

My life in this period was defined by lyrics by the Rollins Band number ‘Hot Animal Machine 1’:

Looking at the bottom, what do I see?

I see the bottom staring back at me

That was the only song I was listening to from any album of any genre. Not knowing it at the time, I had by now already drifted and was well entrenched into a mental breakdown of sorts.

My work was being crapped over by an establishment who was doing just enough to lure me into giving ever increasing numbers of work and other ‘opportunities’ for exposure to make me feel like the pain was worth-while.

The thing I learnt was by knowingly putting myself through something which obviously was making me feel undervalued wasn’t a sign of strength and resilience or that I could take it – it was a sign that I had already been ground out.

I took the blades off the hook

Ripped my flesh as I shook

my head from side to side in disbelief

(Rollins Band: Stray)

A reprieve

A really good friend of mine had just graduated from university and wanted to see my work.

We arranged a trip with The Owner of see it, so asked when a good time was when no one would be about we could walk everywhere without disturbing anyone.

Predictably it was closed when we turned up with no one on the phones.

Later we went for a surprise visit. After numerous conversations between myself and my friend we agreed to work together on new website ideas and developed a new aesthetic direction.

This would be the foundation which my work stands on today.

This guy really helped me out when things had got to their worse. Nothing mentioned here as I want to keep it light, but let me tell you he really did put his hands in to help when it seemed like no one else would – and really seemed to understand this arrangement I had lost control of was the cause for much of it.

The big push

Everything would be made digitally. I could then create prints and paint the digital work on canvas as I saw fit.

My dad kindly helped with investing in a new photo printer, paper and inks.

I started working a four-day week at my ‘proper job’ and concentrate the remaining three on art –the big push.

I wrote essays about the new aesthetic, created hundreds of new works to experiment with, bought cellophane bags and card mounts for the new prints so the whole thing was scalable and treated as a ‘real business’.

Seeing the buzz on my social media, The Owner came in contact. We had not spoken in a long time and apparently there was another new extension to the building which needed populating with work. This could be a good photographic opportunity and something I could point people to when I branch out to other galleries.

I agreed to create some new canvases and digital prints – I must have spent about £200 on picture frames alone. It left me again, completely flat broke. The thing is, I was starting to become sober again with my friends help. I considered everything which had happened in the past was somehow my fault? – Never let anyone or yourself feel guilty for something that is not your fault.

Product testing

I built a stall from scrap wood liberated from my day job and began experimenting with the new designs at a local market to see what would sell best and at what prices; getting customer feedback, growing and refining the aesthetic with each market and one-off gallery events.

The new digital work, customer research, market testing, the website and refining the process took a year to complete. With everything I earned from my below living wage job and market sales feeding it.

I established a meeting with The Owner in one of the new rooms to talk through some sales opportunities within the shop – he expressed a great deal of enthusiasm for the aesthetic, the branding and the samples I took with me. I showed The Owner a stand we could sell prints from in the new shop area or by the till – the agreement was made to bring it in.

I had an idea that we could do a show once every quatre – changing all the work to keep it fresh, meeting new musicians in the process and being digital – would massively reduce my overheads.

With great enthusiasm he agreed to it, even going as far to suggest a section of the shop be dedicated for this clean cut branded digital work.

Then came a call he had to take and it was just like before. He left the room and I didn’t see him again for another 45 minutes, so I left. I didn’t hear back from him and my calls went unanswered.

The following week I brought in the stand we had discussed and a bunch of prints he liked the look of. These were the best sellers from my stall and website. I started to feel like things were getting back on track. Member had left too, I felt much better about stepping foot inside without having to deal with captain personality disorder delivering flush hands of weirdness my direction.

I had my own car and happily drove everything down. The Owner predictably was in the building but not available. Setting the stand up, which took up the footprint of an A4 paper, I left and vowed to return the following week:

The stand and all my work had been moved to the back of a storage area, facing away from the customers. This was just piss poor salesmanship.

The Owner skimmed past on his way somewhere, I told him it should be the other way round as he sped down a hallway. “Yeah mate” was the reply and just like that, he was gone.

Falling back into habbits, I started returning regularly to see what had happened to the prints, until one day I just picked them up and walked out.

Here is that bucket again, coming to give me hope. The Owner approached me for a new opening night – both of us still dreaming of the scenes we enjoyed on the first-time round. By now they had a much larger social media presence which was promised to be used. I thought that Member had gone, things may have changed. They did not.

Sliced up

Id hung the new work the day prior, knowing I had a friend arriving the day of the show – I wanted to keep my diary open. An hour before we were due to open doors, I arrived to make sure everything was okay – then when someone told me one of the paintings had a massive gash through the middle of it. My heart sank.

I requested we get the CCTV footage of what happened – there was a camera trained on the picture which was damaged. It came to nothing, after the night I could not get hold of The Owner long enough to get a sentence out – a usual case. I started giving up again.

It did not matter anyway, the show had not been posted on their substantial social media, the posters had been removed and the leaflets put in the bin.

Why did I even bother? Things clearly had not changed and now they have even more of my work for their walls.

The dark period

After this I gave up with my involvement at The Opportunity. Dedicating myself to a new body of work, it had absolutely nothing to do with music. It was something which makes me happy and more importantly I had control of. I was starting to fall in love with art again.

Incidentally, this is the reason why I have two quite different bodies of work.

All the work with the website, developing the practice and customer research I left to wither on the vine. I was in such a state I could not bare to look at any of Canvas Acoustics for at least two years.

That came with quite a lot of regret. All the time my friend had put into me, just for me to faulter. I’m sorry buddy.

4th and final show

Then came a call out of the blue from The Owner. He was expanding again and needed some new work, in exchange for a new open evening. I had not seen or spoken to him in a very long time.

I felt like things were different. Erroneously, of course. But in a way they were – I had a new fiancé and all the new work I made from before which went straight into storage. All I need do was turn up and handover loads of new work. With price tags.

At the time there was a hit show on TV, the voice, with one of the contestants from the show promised to perform at no cost. We are bound to attract some customers with this.

Again, it was the same story as before. This time we only had myself, fiancé and friend in attendance – plus the mother of the performer. It was a good performance to be fair – how often can you claim to have someone from the TV sing just for yourself? I could tell she was put out by the lack of crowd and I don’t blame her. I already knew it was going to be like how it turned out – I had predicted such to my fiancé, it was a sort of joke to us that it came to fruition.

We laughed that we should have put the leaflet printer straight over the bin to save ourselves some time! She always makes something good out of a bad situation and in that moment knew that I would need to start planning to bring my work home.

The penny drops

By now I had become fully resigned to the fact this The Opportunity was not an opportunity at all.

Perhaps only in a sense that it had become storage space for a vast amount of art.

Or maybe the opportunity it had afforded me in these years was to allow the festering feelings of self-doubt, fatigue, and exposure to flourish. Yes, exposure to an institution willing to take advantage in a way which lines their hallways with thousands of pounds of highly stylised entirely custom art at absolutely zero cost to themselves. And clearly I am the fool for letting this go on for as long as it had.

If there was any good what came out of this is the realisation that I had localised all the shitty times an artist could expect to have with a gallery in one Stevenage back water. I gather those un-lucky enough to have bad experiences collect them over a series of different galleries. I was just fortunate enough to consolidate it all in one simple, easy to pay, debt of shit.

When I started Canvas Acoustics I was very naive. Some years on I now I have the grace of 2020 to look back and say “fuck me, that was shit!”

It’s worth another shot, isn’t it?

Remembering the art guitar was still in The Opportunity I thought it best to retrieve it. After several missed attempts to contact The Owner I found myself walking unannounced through the front door with the same intensity as Patrick McGoohan in the opening scenes of The Prisoner – and I was going to bust that guitar out – no doubt.

No one at the welcome desk, I steamed to the broom cupboard and picked up the guitar by the neck, slung it over my shoulder like a pickaxe and used my best Desperate Dan stride to exit without being seen or spoken to by anyone.

To this day no one has contacted me to tell me it had been stolen.

No stealy – no showey.


Long racking my brains on how to remove my work, I received a call from The Owner. Suspecting it may be about the missing guitar. Hope denied. It was expansion again, and a need for a new body of work to be created: 5, maybe oh, ten new large, framed prints... perhaps the same number of canvases… yeah, right!

I thought it best we wait until the end of the first lockdown and asked he call me back then. I used this as thinking time. The Owner called back, unsurprisingly, and asked what I had and when it could be delivered. I had some problems with my car at that point and decided it would be best to concentrate on that, nothing moved forward. I received a further few calls, plus a number of missed ones asking what and when, along with some Facebook messages. It is good to be wanted. I was playing hard to get this time and it the nature of our relationship seemed to show. I had more contact from their side then I had in years because they needed me.

A threat and a liberating experience

Considering the request to populate yet another wing of this facility and with lockdown closing us all in it gave me a chance to reflect on the relationship with The Opportunity and what it meant to me.

In one hand I valued the exposure it gave my work being permanently hung, as well as having somewhere to store it of course.

On the other it had not done anything for my social media following, neither was it obvious who the work was by or if it was even for sale. I had not made a single sale from them in years.

No one who worked there had noticed I stole my own guitar.

As it turns out, I have spent all this time money and effort to decorate a business with a highly stylised unique body of original artwork for free at next to NO BENEFIT TO MYSELF.

That was my final understanding of where this relationship now stood and if they kept asking for more and I kept giving it for free then shame on me for allowing myself to be used and not recognising it.

Second lockdown began to loom.

From all our previous dealings I knew I’d find it difficult getting all my work back if I told The Owner straight how I felt. I told him I needed it all for a photoshoot with a national magazine and I’d mention the facility.

I gave one week notice of the day and time and if the paintings, half of which were in one recording room, could be made available. I had timed it several days before the second UK national lockdown and said I would probably return something when it ended in early December. I spent days fretting over what to return.

Opportunity comes to an end

My wife and I arrived at The Opportunity in my newly restored car. We sat for a moment and I made a prediction that nothing will be ready, neither will we get two words in with The Owner.

Stepping through the threshold it was immediately apparent nothing was ready; I could not even access the work in one of the recording rooms. We toured The Opportunity and started gathering what prints we could from the wall.

We noticed over half of them now had defects.

We were ushered past a bar area. I spied several of the smashed frames which had been hidden behind some junk, along with a couple of paintings which had been completely busted in.

My wife, who now acts as my manager, brought The Owner up on why nothing had price labels on, why they were routinely removed and how people were supposed to buy anything. There is something about my wife which really puts people on the spot, if it had been me asking, I am sure he would have been called away by one of them faint voices or had a phone call.

There was no real explanation, but there was a threat of sorts. The Owner is not sure why any of this has happened, nor can he remember how much the paintings cost and quotes a random, insanely high price for the prints. He enthuses about having another show like the old days then rounds it off with something which stuck with both of us:

We are told, without a shadow of a doubt, the artist who produced The Gorillaz artwork is ready at a drop of a hat to replace my artwork should I not bring any of it back.

That ensured to me that I would never have anything to do with This Opportunity again.

My wife asked The Owner to name the artist. He gave some random name. My wife teaches art for a living, let that sink in. There is no pulling the wool, or canvas, over her eyes.

This made me doubly sure I would not be coming back.

Later in the car, my wife said she did not know who that name was and when we googled it, it had clearly been made-up.

The Owner changed conversation and we went back to the stack of damaged frames.

I had picked up several of the smashed ones, there were at least three which I found. He told me there were more elsewhere but would work on mending them. I asked about the remaining paintings, The Owner promised to deliver them personally the following day.

And promised to deliver the day after that and after that…

On the final day before lockdown I sent a message saying they need to be ready, fortunately this time they were. The Owner was too busy to talk, a familiar experience. My wife and I picked them up and without looking back, we left.

I had retrieved 12 paintings from The Opportunity, two were beyond repair. Two more needed to be reconditioned – re-framed and stretched. The remainder I removed from the frames and having completely lost faith with the whole body of work – added to storage (which to my mind is like one stop short of setting it on fire). All were grubby and had an enormous amount of filth ground into them.

The remaining wooden frames had been knocked about so badly they all were loose and needed to be rebuilt.

I really thought I’d be miserable that my display at The Opportunity was over. But when I realised it really was I woke up undeniably happy. To be happy, especially over something which you have wanted to nurture and grow, and to have killed it and been happy – is not a natural feeling. But to me, I was ecstatic it was over. The feeling came from deep down, telling my conscious mind it was wrong – deep down I feel so happy.

A return?

On the final day of lockdown, late in the evening, I received a message from The Owner to say they needed the work back on the morning of the very next day. Thanks for the notice.

I had a day or so earlier received news of a death in the family and had not picked up the message. I received a few more threatening ones about needing the work back ASAP or else Gorillaz guy would get the space.

I replied saying I had just had a death in the family and I wouldn’t have anything ready for a while as I come to terms with it, so by all means, find that Gorillaz guy.

The Owner never did acknowledge my loss and the Gorillaz never did appear on their walls.

As of writing this account, what replaced my work has been a series of £1 A5 commercial prints from ebay.

How can I sum up my experience?

Before starting this venture, I never appreciated how intertwined my self esteem and my work would become.

I had not much experience with working with an organisation.

I did not know how far someone would extort me for something I would put myself into debt for and literally starve for – just to make their walls look nice – or how far I would push myself into starvation to appease a relative stranger.

I feel took advantage of and thoroughly used. It is a horrible feeling which will take time to remove the stain.

When you are in the moment or have your vision clouded by false hopes it is easy to lose yourself to empty promises.

It is easy to lose yourself to being treated carelessly when you become convinced success lay just round the corner.

People will take advantage of you if you let them.

Most of all it has taught me that there are people who want to see you do well, genuinely – who will never ask you for something in return. That was my mum, dad, brother, my close friends and my wife.

Taking control of my own destiny is the most liberating feeling I have ever had.

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