Is the end of Pick Me Up a loss to the UK’s graphic arts scene?

This month would usually see the launch of graphic arts festival Pick Me Up at London’s Somerset House. But after six successful years, the event has been scrapped. Will it be missed?

In 2010, Somerset House announced the launch of Pick Me Up – billed as the UK’s first graphic arts festival. Writing for Eye Magazine ahead of its opening, curator Claire Catterall described it as “a hybrid of exhibition and fair” – a dynamic event that would capture the energy and excitement of a growing creative scene.

“We’ve invited a selection of collectives and galleries to set up a ‘world of themselves’ rather than a ‘shop’ or a ‘stand’,” she wrote. “As well as working on their own, they’ll be inviting other designers and artists they know to come in and work with them on live printing projects.”

With its focus on participation and live events, Catterall hoped Pick Me Up would engage the wider public and provide a space for the creative community to “meet, chat and play”.

Pick Me Up 2016 at Somerset House © Kevin Meredith
Pick Me Up 2016 at Somerset House © Kevin Meredith

The event would also showcase up-and-coming illustrators through its Selects programme. A panel of judges would choose a small group of illustrators to display their work at the event, in an exhibition that would represent the most interesting illustration work around.

For the next six years, Somerset House ran Pick Me Up for ten days each spring. Thousands attended the show to browse and buy prints, take part in hands-on creative workshops and see talks from emerging and established talent. There were screen printing demos, drawing, workshops, film screenings and radio broadcasts. Collectives and galleries set up spaces selling ceramics, prints, books and printed ephemera, while artists and designers from Rob Ryan to Studio Hato set up temporary studios there.

For designers and illustrators, Pick Me Up was a chance to showcase work to a large audience in the heart of central London and meet potential employers, employees and collaborators. For the public, it was a rare chance to see work from a diverse group of graphic artists in a single space – and try their hand at a range of crafts. Axel Scheffler helped children hone their illustration skills while letterpress legend Alan Kitching ran typography workshops.

Pick Me Up 2016 at Somerset House © Kevin Meredith
Pick Me Up 2016 at Somerset House © Kevin Meredith

The festival showcased work by some of the UK’s best-known graphic artists – from Anthony Burrill to Modern Toss – and many of the up-and-coming creatives featured in its Selects programme have gone on to become hugely successful. Kate Moross now creates music videos and album art and designed an arena tour for One Direction, while Kristjana Williams has applied her intricate artworks to fashion, furniture, homeware and commissions for luxury hotels and restaurants.

But in November last year, Somerset House announced that it was cancelling Pick Me Up. In a statement explaining the decision, Catterall, who is also director of events at Somerset House, said the time had come to focus on new projects and events.

“I am immensely proud of Pick Me Up’s seven-year run and how it became an established event in the graphic art scene’s cultural calendar,” she said. “It is heartening to see how the public has become more and more engaged with illustration and graphic design, and so many wonderful festivals and events springing up around the UK since the first Pick Me Up in 2010. With a host of new champions for this community, we feel the time has come to focus on new projects which are equally energetic and exciting.”

It was a really hard decision, but it just felt right

Speaking to CR, Catterall says: “It was a really hard decision, especially for me because I’m so personally attached to [PMU] but it just felt right…. There was nothing at all of its kind [when PMU launched] and back then, the way people were working seemed so different and new and exciting. That scene is still there but it’s not hidden anymore, and I think there are many more opportunities for young designers to get their work out there – it’s not quite so difficult to make a bit more noise now.”

At the time of Pick Me Up’s launch, illustration and design blogs were just taking off and social media had only recently been invented. The internet offered designers and illustrators a chance to reach a wider audience with their work and raise support for new projects – be it publishing ventures or online stores – leading to a range of exciting collaborations.

Illustrators now have many more ways to showcase their work and new art and design events are popping up across the UK. There are print fairs in Leeds, Manchester, Sheffield, Norwich, Liverpool and London, London has an illustration fair plus several affordable art fairs and design events, and over 7,000 people attended the Design City Fair at Design Manchester last year. In Glasgow, design studio Warriors has launched Graphic Design Festival Scotland, an innovative event that combines one and two-day workshops with free exhibitions and events connecting students and graduates with the industry.

Pick Me Up's 2016 identity, designed by Studio Hato (more on the project here)
Pick Me Up’s 2016 identity, designed by Studio Hato (more on the project here)

The idea of an show-cum-fair was always one of Pick Me Up’s biggest draws, but with everyone from Vans to Nike launching experiential spaces or pop-up events that combine shopping and art, this format is no longer a novelty – nor is the event the only one of its kind.

Alice Bowsher was one of Pick Me Up’s Selects last year. The event helped her career – “I met some real good friends and got a lot of exposure and jobs from it,” she says – but she also says it was at risk of becoming a little “monotonous”.

“I always enjoyed the Selects part of Pick Me Up. It was great to see emerging and exciting work displayed in a gallery, rather than in the usual commercial setting alongside inspiring special events such as the Comms Bureau Radio Broadcast in 2014 (a radio station run by designers and broadcast from Somerset House throughout the festival). Unfortunately, they always seemed to get drowned out by the sea of screenprints,” she says.

Bowsher is positive about the opportunities Pick Me Up afforded young creatives, providing artists with a chance to show their work in a space that would normally be out of reach, and connect with people outside of a community of like-minded creatives. But she also says it was in danger of becoming “less of an exciting showcase and more of a marketplace”.

Pick Me Up 2016 at Somerset House © Kevin Meredith
Pick Me Up 2016 at Somerset House © Kevin Meredith

Finding the right balance between showcase and marketplace was always a difficult challenge – and many visitors were critical of paying to see a collection of pop-up shops. But the event offered more than just a chance to buy things. It was a chance to watch makers at work and to meet and talk to the people behind prints and products.

Gabriella Marcella, founder of Glasgow design and risograph print studio Risotto, says it provided an invaluable platform for small studios. “It blurred the lines between a fair, expo, and festival; which is great for a studio like ours where we don’t always fit within the parameters of a standard print fair,” she says.

“Being based in Glasgow, it was also a great opportunity for us to pitch up in front of a London audience and interact with new faces. The best part for us overall was meeting the other exhibitors. Spending two weeks with the same faces outwith your normal context is a rare but wonderful thing; being able to build new relationships, trade knowledge, share resources and collaborate.”

Today there is a dependency to consume and promote work online through accessible digital platforms, and less so on the tangible aspects; experiences, people and objects

Creatives can now reach global audiences via Instagram or online shops, but Marcella believes there is still a need for events like Pick Me Up that foster a sense of community and a chance for people to interact with makers.

“Today there is a tendency to consume and promote work online through accessible digital platforms, and less so on the tangible aspects; experiences, people and objects,” she adds. “And although I do feel that social media has been a huge contributor to Risotto’s success to date, I think it also increases disconnectivity with the producers/makers and our products. We need events like Pick Me Up to support emerging practitioners. It’s important that festivals and fairs make their way into venue programmes, as it supports a vast number of creatives,” she says.

Pick Me Up 2014
Pick Me Up 2014

Given its location, size and the media coverage it attracted, Pick Me Up was hard to beat for that. Its reliance on generating revenue through print sales presented many challenges, however. Work had to be innovative and beautiful but it also had to appeal to the broadest possible audience, and look great hanging on a wall or sat on a shelf. Over the years, this led to criticism that Pick Me Up was more focused on showcasing work that would sell than work that pushed boundaries or asked difficult questions of its audience.

Professor Lawrence Zeegen, Dean of the School of Design at Ravensbourne and author of the book 50 Years of Illustration, feels the festival missed an opportunity to showcase more provocative or hard-hitting illustrations.

It had a polite, art school thing about it

“It did show a number of people who went on to build pretty strong careers but I think it tended to showcase quite commercial, quite polite work,” he says. “It had a polite art school thing about it … without anyone trying to achieve anything other than speaking to their contemporaries and people happy to buy t-shirts.”

Zeegen has previously written for CR about the need for illustrators to look beyond their craft and engage with the outside world. And he believes there is a need for an event that looks at art which passes comment on society – that aims to challenge opinions and change perceptions.

“The most remarkable work that comes out of illustration or graphic art … are images that become iconic because they are connected to strong subject matter, whether they’re political, cultural. They’re important images and they remain in the psyche of people that experience them,” says Zeegen.

I think there’s room for us to be looking at illustration with a stronger magnifying glass, and looking at the significant cultural impact it has made

“I think there’s room for us to be looking at illustration with a stronger magnifying glass, and looking at the significant cultural impact it has made – and I’m not sure Pick Me Up was interested in doing that,” he continues. “It was very surface level, very glossy, it was not going to upset or offend you … but I think there is an opportunity for an annual exhibition that digs a little deeper, that looks at the work that has been important, that artists and designers are trying to do outside of the commercial realm.”

Pick Me Up’s talks programme included some thought-provoking discussions, but its focus was firmly on providing a fun, accessible and family-friendly event. In the past 12 months, however, various events have prompted designers and illustrators to use their skills to speak out against intolerance – whether racism, sexism or xenophobia – to protest the election of Trump, and to show support and sympathy for others in the face of devastating events such as the terror attacks in Paris. In times like these, it’s difficult to ignore design’s power as a tool for expression – and perhaps graphic arts events like Pick Me Up could have done more to explore this.

It would have been great to have done PMU one last time … all the work would have been super political

“I think we did address [some serious issues] in the talks programme … but perhaps my regret is that it would have been great to have done PMU just one last time, as I think this year, after Brexit and Trump, all the work would have been super political,” says Catterall. “The graphic arts is incredibly powerful at delivering succinct messages (Jean Jullien’s Paris peace heart for example), and I think PMU would have provided an incredible platform for the graphic design and arts community to be really vocal. In a way I regret that we didn’t give them that opportunity,” she adds.

Zeegen worries that prioritising polite work over illustration that asks difficult questions of its audience could ultimately have a negative impact on the craft. He believes that some students now feel there is “a formula” to creating quirky and successful work – leading to a culture where emerging artists are more focused on achieving instant success with work that delivers an instant visual hit than they are on refining their craft and trying to create something new and different.

Felt Mistress workshop at Pick Me Up 2013
Felt Mistress workshop at Pick Me Up 2013

“The best people who are working today, that have careers with any longevity, are people who have developed a way of looking at the world that is their own and unique,” he says.

“I know I’m in danger of sounding like a sad old git, but there’s something to be said for people who have decided to fine tune and hone their craft and their skills before launching [their work] on the world. There’s a lot of pressure and responsibility felt by younger illustrators and graphic artists today that they have to make their mark very quickly … but it can take some time after you’ve graduated from art school to find your signature, and what interests you,” he says.

It’s a great chance and challenge to create a new event

Pick Me Up may have had some shortcomings – but it was an important platform for artists and designers. As Ken Kirton, co-founder of design studio Hato and sister company Hato Press, points out, it enabled students from all over the UK to meet graduates and professionals from London and beyond.

Students in London have access to a wealth of networking events and exhibitions – “but for the smaller universities outside of London … to come down to one venue, where they could meet not only a lot of recent graduates but so many collectives from a wide range of sectors that they could talk to and meet and listen to talks from and so on, that was quite a lovely thing,” says Kirton.

Hato Press has exhibited work at Pick Me Up while Hato created its identity last year. (The identity was open source and Hato created a digital tool that allowed people to create their own letterforms, resulting in over 3000 submissions). Like Marcella, Kirton praises the event’s sense of community and the chance to meet like-minded industry folk as well as people who might never have heard of Hato.

An exhibition of letterpress prints by Alan Kitching at Pick Me Up 2016 © Kevin Meredith
Pick Me Up 2016 at Somerset House © Kevin Meredith

“It was more than just designers or illustrators communicating – it attracted a lot of people in the food industries, fashion or even banking – a wide range of demographics who were interested in printing and illustration,” he adds.

Kirton, Bowsher and Zeegen all say they are sad to see Pick Me Up come to an end. But all three agree that perhaps it was the right decision. Its departure creates an opportunity for new events to spring up – whether in London or further afield – and allows existing ones to grow.

“I think Pick Me Up had its place and a good run of seven years, but now it’s a great chance and challenge to create a new event and experience that can celebrate illustration and graphic design in a more exciting way,” says Bowsher. “I see its ending as ultimately a good thing, as now it might give those who would have aspired to be a part of Pick Me Up or have already shown at Pick Me Up a reason to take matters into their own hands and create new and exciting illustration and design events, breathing further life into the scene as a whole.”

More from CR

Roisin Swales Big Hid

Advice for grads on how to handle early success

Big Hid, a beautifully illustrated children’s book, has been published this month by Flying Eye Books. It was created by Roisin Swales when she was a student and discovered by the publisher at her graduate show. We talk to her about managing early success and what advice she would give to this year’s grads to get attention for their work

Exposure: Campbell Addy

Art Director Gem Fletcher examines the work of Campbell Addy, in the latest installment of a series looking into talent in photography, from recent graduates to photographers breaking the rules…

Senior Creative Designer

Monddi Design Agency

Head of Digital Content

Red Sofa London