A Sutton Coldfield art gallery is bringing the very best of British contemporary art to the Midlands, as Amy Norbury discovers – and you could win £150 to spend on a piece of your choice
Nestled away at the Mitchells exclusive shopping centre on the outskirts of Sutton Coldfield lies an Aladdin’s cave for art lovers.
But Artifex is so much more than an art gallery; it’s a treasure trove of the very best contemporary arts and crafts from a wide selection of independent British designers and makers. From sparkling jewellery to dainty ceramics, statement furniture pieces to eye-catching paintings, it really is a fascinating place to explore.
“I’m told that we’re the biggest independent gallery in Britain,” says Nigel Bates, who co-owns the gallery with business partner Ross Fenn.
At some 3,000 square foot, the space is indeed impressive. When you walk in you are greeted by cases of beautiful jewellery, which has been crafted by some of the country’s most talented designers. Venture a little further and there’s an area devoted to glass and ceramics, while at the rear of the gallery is a furniture showroom housing striking tables, chairs, sideboards and other decorative pieces. The walls are adorned with elaborate mirrors, stunning sculptures and contemporary paintings.
And that’s just downstairs.
The spacious first floor gallery area is devoted to original paintings, and showcases small groups of artwork from around 18 different artists at any one time.
“What we do is fairly unique,” says Nigel. “All of our artist are British, and many of them are local too. We sell British-made work which is individual, not mass-produced, and all of our artwork is original, we don’t sell prints.
‘People imagine that original pieces of art will cost thousands of pounds, but that’s not always the case at all. An original can cost less than a print in many cases but at least you know some love and care has gone into it.
There is also a dedicated exhibition space, where the gallery holds regular exhibitions of works from a variety of artists. The latest artist to be featured is ceramicist Mark Smith, who creates scenic wall plaques and quirky sculptures inspired by the sea and coastline.
One of the more unusual recent exhibitions showcased the work of sculptor Shaun Gagg, who creates incredible pieces by painstakingly bending and welding together hundreds – or sometimes thousands – of nails, coins or keys. The centrepiece of the exhibition, titled The Sorrows of Steel, was a breathtaking, lifesize sculpture of Jesus Christ composed of more than 15,000 nails welded together, while pieces including a stunning, contemporary rocking chair made from copper two pence coins are still on display in the ground floor furniture gallery.
“It’s very simple; if one of us likes it and it’s original, we’ll give it a go,” says Nigel. “We do have different tastes and we don’t always agree but that helps to keep things fresh. Art is very subjective; sometimes things we’re unsure about sell really well, and sometimes we love things but no-one else does!
“We’ve got artists from every age group, from people who are just starting out at college to people like Roy Abell, who’s 85 and was at college with David Hockney.”
Birmingham-born Roy Abell was head of the painting school at Birmingham College of Art and is a notable landscape painter, while his oils lean towards the more abstract. Other local artists with work currently on display include Rachel Tighe, who has a studio in Tamworth where she creates interesting and evolving art based on street scenes and cityscapes inspired by her travels, and Louise Rawlings, whose walks through Sutton Park inspire her whimsical paintings.
Nigel himself is an artist, whose mixed-media work also adorns the gallery walls.
“I’ve always dabbled, and I’ve just progressed over the years,” says Nigel. “My latest works were inspired by my wife who wanted a piece for the bathroom but didn’t want any colour. They’re done on two sheets of glass using a resin which moves from a liquid to a solid state.
“Other pieces are done using a different type of resin and dropping other paints and inks into it to create a sense of depth. Most of my work is happy accidents; I just play around and work with the different mediums to see what happens.”
Artifex was established in 1993 as a showcase for art and design in the West Midlands, and celebrates 25 years in business next year.
Nigel and Ross were both working as greengrocers and shared a passion for the arts when a conversation in the pub sparked an idea which inspired a complete change of direction for the duo.
“Ross and I were both interested in the arts, and we bought things, but there wasn’t a gallery in the area,” explains Nigel.
“The centre had just opened and a tiny unit was available so we did some research. I got more interested in the idea so I packed my job in and decided to make a proper go if it. We said that if we made a penny we’d carry on and if we lost a penny we’d give up.”
Happily, that first year was promising enough that Nigel and Ross continued to follow their dream. And it was after just three years that Artifex moved into the spacious unit it now occupies.
“We were lucky enough to find a building we could grow into,” says Nigel.
Originally, the gallery focused on ceramics, glass and smaller crafts, expanding to house original paintings and, later, furniture as they developed more space.
One of Artifex’s unique services enables customers to trial a piece of art in their homes before committing to the purchase, to ensure it’s exactly what they want. Nigel explains that they understand art needs to work in the space it’s going to occupy, so like to give customers the chance to make sure what they’re buying is the right fit.
“People can try a piece in their home, live with it for a few days and if it doesn’t work they can bring it back,” he says.
Furniture is another growing aspect of the business; customers can browse and buy from the sizeable selection of one-off, contemporary pieces on show from artists such as Shaun Gagg, Glimpze – a locally-based designer of stunning chairs – and Kevin Stamper, whose colourful mosaic-style furniture is among Nigel’s personal favourites. They can also opt for something a little different.
“We do furniture commissions which are totally unique to each client,” says Nigel. “We have samples of many different types of wood and will work with the customer to create the perfect design.”
Artifex will then match the client to to the furniture maker who best suits their requirements from their extensive database of craftspeople.
“There’s no compromise with us; you get exactly what you want. it ‘s a tradition which has gone on for hundreds of years; in the 17th to 20th centuries if you wanted the best of the day, you commissioned it. And that’s what we’re trying to do, keep that tradition going by selling the best of contemporary makers.”
After nearly 25 years at the forefront of the Midlands’ art scene. Artifex’s aim is simple; to make original art accessible, and to support a wide variety of artists and craftspeople.
“It’s opening people’s eyes up to what’s out there,” says Nigel. “People come in here and see what we have and find pieces they connect with, which are unique, original and not mass-produced.
“Everything is made with love and passion by people who really care about what they do.”
For more details of everything the gallery has to offer visit www.artifex.co.uk.
J’AIME has teamed up with Artifex Gallery to offer readers the chance to win a £150 voucher to spend in the gallery. For your chance to win, simply answer the following question:
Name one of the artists whose work is available at Artifex Gallery.
Send your answer, along with your name, address and telephone number, by email to firstname.lastname@example.org with Artifex competition as the email subject. Entries must be received by 5pm on Friday, November 24, and our winner will be notified by Wednesday, November 29. No cash alternative is available. Voucher is valid on full price items only. Terms and conditions apply. Visit http://www.jaimemagazine.com for further details.