Award winning Julie Hollis runs Cloud 9 Art Gallery Dumfries, Scotland. Making it look easy, she works tirelessly behind the scenes to provide a welcoming and unique gallery that has become the heart of the Dumfries art scene. I'm thrilled she has taken time out of her busy work schedule to speak to me.
Julie lives in a farming village just outside Dumfries with her husband Grant and dog Murphy.
Her gallery, Cloud 9, can be found on Irish Street in Dumfries town centre.
How was your life before you decided to concentrate on your current career?
I was a primary school teacher for 27 years, specialising in helping children with additional support needs. It was an intense job which, with narrowing Education budgets, was becoming almost impossible to do in the way I would have liked. I felt as if I was constantly letting people down. My life now is very different. I certainly don’t make the same kind of money, but I don’t really care about that because now I’m less stressed, more fulfilled and basically happier. There’s a lot to be said for slowing down.
Why do you paint landscapes?
I’m a bit of a hippy, it has to be said! I marvel at Mother Nature; the changing seasons, the symbiosis of plant and animal life, the joy of the land. I paint what I see. I am also quite solitary, preferring my own company a lot of the time. I’m the one you’ll see either standing on a hill top with my arms spread wide, face to the skies, or wandering through a wood, talking to the trees! Being amongst Nature makes me feel as if I am part of something bigger. Painting those landscapes as a voyeur allows me to include the viewer as a part of my landscape. Many people remark that they could ‘walk into the scene’ and that is the greatest compliment they can offer.
How did you develop your current style of painting?
If I’m honest, I don’t really know. I can tell you that my style as a young artist was always naturalistic, but my increasing short sightedness started to make me see things in a slightly different way. Now I see light and dark, shape and form and basic colour first and then detail (once I have my glasses on!) This is how I paint, starting with the blurry and bringing it into focus at the very end. It’s not a style I’ve developed, it’s something that I do through necessity. I work very fast, but not in the sense that, like the Impressionists of the 19th and 20th centuries, I need to quickly capture a scene. I’m just impatient and, if something is going well, I want to finish it before something awful happens and spoils it!
What is it like running a gallery?
It’s quite surreal. I do love it though. No day is ever the same and I can never quite predict what might happen! I’ve met so many wonderful people, as well as one or two scary ones. The gallery is essentially my own display space, but has grown over the years into a space which includes the work of other artists. I wish I could say that I worked less as a gallery owner than I did as a teacher, but the truth is very different. I find it difficult to stop working, although I’m sure other creative people will understand that it’s hard to stop doing the thing that makes you tick. However it’s not all painting, tea and biscuits - I have a huge amount of paperwork to do, as well as promoting the gallery on the web. Social media takes up an inordinate amount of my time, but through it I can reach people who might not want to trek the side streets, looking for places like mine. It’s hard work, but I get an enormous amount of joy from being a gallery owner.
In your gallery, you feature other artists. How do you choose which artists you want to exhibit?
Carefully! I turn away more artists than I take on, and this is because Cloud 9 has an existence of its own. Everything in it, although seemingly eclectic, works well together. Initially I choose artists whose work is very different from my own and can be exhibited on surfaces, rather than on the walls. The walls are my domain. And then I do something very unscientific - I choose what I would buy. My idea is that if I like it, other people will too. It’s a bit hit and miss, but largely my technique has been successful because I can wax lyrical about something I love.
How much does making money play a part in choosing an artist to exhibit?
It has to have an effect. I am not a publicly supported gallery, so I need to know that I’m going to earn off the sales of the work I display, especially as I’m also not greedy in terms of commission. Essentially I am running a business! I don’t necessarily choose what I think would be money-spinners though. The work has to fit in here and I’m more concerned with creating the right ambience.
Does owning a gallery in a small town like Dumfries help or hinder your success?
Would I be more successful in a larger town or city? I don’t know. Possibly. When we are on holiday I invariably visit galleries similar to mine and wonder how successful they are in comparison. I might benefit more from being in smaller towns, such as Castle Douglas or Kirkcudbright, The Artist’s Town, but with so much competition there, I also might not! What owning the gallery has possibly done is make me more complacent about pursuing opportunities outside of the gallery itself. Since opening, I haven’t exhibited outside of Dumfries (unless you count being part of Kirkcudbright Art and Crafts Trail). That’s certainly something I need to address. However, without having the gallery, I know that I wouldn’t have reached as many people as I have so far. I certainly don’t feel hindered by the town, although I do wish that people could be more positive about Dumfries’ assets, rather than its negatives.
Is running a gallery an economically viable income for people who would like to try?
Probably not, although I expect that depends on the set up. As a gallery owning artist I wouldn’t recommend opening a gallery if you need immediate financial success, unless your name is JoLoMo or Tracy Emin or David Hockney. Making a living as an artist is not easy, unless you’re very good or very lucky. The cost of renting a premises, even off the High Street, could make it impossible to meet additional bills and, of course, all of those bills have to be paid before you are. My expectations were never high and we own the building, so I’m not having to fork out for rent. Although I don’t owe anybody anything (my own measure of business success), I don’t make a fortune either.
Do you feel you are supported by the local council?
I wish I could say yes. I try very hard to be positive about the local council, but I don’t think they understand very small businesses or their own function beyond providing basic services. Support in general tends to go to those under 25, or to small business start ups for the unemployed or to those with larger businesses operating in certain categories. I‘ve never managed to get the support (either to start up or to grow) that I need. The Scottish Government currently assists with business rates, meaning those in buildings under a certain rateable value don’t pay rates at all - and I’m extremely grateful for that.
I don’t see the council making cohesive and transparent decisions - there doesn’t appear to be a Plan for Dumfries, or even Dumfries and Galloway. If there is, I’m missing it! Instead they appear to make a series of unconnected plans, throw money at it for a while and then leave the townspeople to deal with the fallout. It’s what makes people exasperated with them.
One plan (particularly pertinent to me) is the resurfacing and pedestrianisation of Friars Vennel. By taking far too long to complete the job, several businesses along the Vennel went out of business - leaving empty shops , totally unattractive to look at. Pedestrianisation was not enforced and so people now use the street as a car park and as a cut through, with no thought for the remaining businesses or the people walking along the street. If the council were to have presented an overall vision for the Vennel, brought local business owners on board and then followed it through, I think we would have a completely different scenario. Instead, people rarely venture down the street because it looks manky from the top, presents no attraction and is littered with cars and vans. It has a hugely detrimental affect on the shops around Friars Vennel, my own included.
I would love to see someone from the council, because they have access to far more resources than individuals and small groups, recognise the historic importance of that area and build on it. In the long term linking in with history would bring more tourists to the town and give locals something positive to focus on. Friars Vennel could be presented as the town’s oldest shopping street. It could have reminders of the friars who once walked it, the battles which took place around it and the famous names which it is associated with. Signage at either end could remind people that there is a street which travels from the High Street, across the Auld Brig to Maxwelltown beyond. We need more pride in the town and that starts from the top.
What do you do to make your gallery special?
I try to make the gallery welcoming to everyone. The general view of galleries is that they are snooty and expensive, making them inaccessible or unattractive to some people. I’ve tried to make Cloud 9 an inclusive gallery. It is wheel-chair friendly, has items starting from £1 and, for larger purchases, I operate a payment plan and have credit card facilities. There is no reason why everyone couldn’t afford to buy something original, even if that takes a few months! I also offer workshops which have helped to inspire the hidden creative amongst many people. The gallery is ethically and eco aware, using recycled packaging and Fair-trade foods. Cloud 9 recently became a Refill Station, encouraging folk to refill rather than buy a plastic water bottle. I back the things that are important to me. What I mostly do to make the gallery special is be myself. I am the resident artist, I do create a majority of the work in the gallery and I’m happy to welcome folk in.
You are an award winning business woman, what advice would you give to others?
Firstly, with yourself. My business is successful because I’ve built it on solid ground over several years. No loans, no credit. I went for several years not earning a penny for myself, but putting money back into the business.
And secondly, with others. If you can’t do something, say so. People appreciate honesty far more than a story.
Listen and learn. Speak and inform. You can learn a lot by listening to others, and you can build a good business by being open with them. (This is my lesson for the council, by the way!)
Be stubborn sometimes. My greatest asset! Sometimes you have to stick with something, even though people are trying to bend you another way. You are your business. If it doesn’t feel right for you, you won’t have the heart to carry it through. Be true to that initial vision or feel comfortable with the changes you make.