Posted 20 June 2023
Mention Lu Williams
Interview by Lyla Maeve

Artist and Grrrl Zine Fair founder Lu Williams on the power of simply asking for work

As a queer, neurodivergent and working-class artist, Lu Williams’ career has been built on making their own opportunities, often from the things most accessible them. Finding and connecting with creatives local to their adopted home, Southend-on-Sea, helped them out of a lull of low-to-unpaid work. Specifically, it was a gig at a small music festival that led to the formation and funding of their feminist DIY publication showcase, Grrrl Zine Fair. Alongside leading its accompanying library, which has grown to house over 600 zines, they also co-founded and jointly run the sustainable dog toy company, Dog Ear, which they founded with fellow studio holder, Emma Edmondson. Here, Lu speaks about the perks of leaving London for Essex full-time, and the wide-ranging benefits of insisting on Artist’s Union rates.

Lu Williams

Lu Williams

Job Title

Artist and Founder, Grrrl Zine Fair



Selected Clients

Arts Council England, Artquest, V&A Museum, British Film Institute, Tate, Meta, Beavertown, Urban Outfitters, Women’s Prize for Fiction, University of Cambridge, University of Oxford, Goldsmiths, CSM, Art Book Fair China

Previous Employment

Schools Coordinator, Focal Point Gallery (2018–2022)
Art Technician (2017–2018)

Place of Study

The Other MA, Southend-on-Sea (2020–2022)
BA Fine Art, Ruskin School of Art (2013–2016)
Foundation Diploma, Fine Art, Central Saint Martins (2012–2013)


Social Media


What I do

How would you describe what you do?
I’m an artist making things and making things happen. Half my work is studio-based making; the other half, I work with people to make things. These could be zines, workshops, collaborative sculptures, public events, gigs, festivals or series of talks or screenings.

I also run Grrrl Zine Fair, a platform for arts and self-publishing made by women, trans and non-binary people. We share work through zines, zine fairs and the Grrrl Zine Library, which contains over 600 feminist publications.

With my fellow studio holder Emma Edmondson, I co-founded Dog Ear, a place for artist-designed dog toys and related writing. Our 100% sustainable and eco-friendly dog toys are sculptures you can play with but also put on a plinth.

I make through a lens of queerness, neurodivergence and working-class culture.

What are the main influences and inspirations behind your work?
I would say the main themes within my work include place and memory, community and collaboration, collecting, class and upbringing, accessibility and platforming and uplifting marginalised voices.

I care a lot about accessibility, care, generosity and playfulness – a way of being which often feels like sandpaper up against hypercapitalism. The objects I make – art, merch and large-scale installations – all explore the elevating of everyday paraphernalia into valued but functional “art objects”. These could be anything from zines, patches and badges, to stickers, shop fittings or portable displays. These relics, souvenirs and sculptures are often ephemeral and nostalgic, wrapped in a textured, colourful visual style that references pop and DIY culture.

“The objects I make all explore the elevating of everyday paraphernalia into valued but functional ‘art objects’.”

Fridge Magnet and Zine Display Stand (2021) at The Other MA’s group show, Tend to It
Migrane Drawings (2022)

Would you say you need any specific training for what you do?
I don’t believe you need specific training to be an artist – you just need the drive and the ideas, which can be built and practised. I decided to go to university mostly because no one in my family had gone before, [the fact that] my boyfriend at the time doubted me and I am a massive nerd. Uni education helped me as I do a lot of building [in my practice], and it was there that I learned how to cast and use resins and waxes. But that’s something YouTube can teach you, too.

What I would say, though, is that studying art is great because it gives you a type of criticality that you’ll find comes in handy. I’ve basically had six years’ experience of people picking my work apart, learning when criticism is fair and when it’s not, picking up the pieces and moving on from it. This helps a lot when you have a job that needs you to apply for lots of grants, commissions, residencies and so on, as you’ll need to get used to a lot of rejection. You don’t need to study art to be an artist, but I do think everyone should have a go at studying art – every school should be an art school!

“Studying art means I’ve basically had six years’ experience of people picking my work apart and learning when criticism is fair and when it’s not.”

What’s been your favourite project to work on from the past year, and why?
Can I say a few? Two are in progress: I’ve been developing a new zine with a group for under-25s in Milton Keynes with Offset Projects. It’s being finished in the next few months but the group is incredible and the young people we’ve been able to commission and, importantly, pay for their work have been great. We’ve really pulled apart the idea of “public art commission” and have treated the budget, and the work itself, as democratically as we could. The end result will be down to the young people – I’m just their art worker – and the zine has been put together in such a way that subsequent groups of young people can take it on and make it their own.

I’ve also just finished my drawings for a large-scale public sculpture at the top of Southend High Street, which has been heavily influenced by my public fridge magnet-making workshops. I worked for three months creating a public consultation, [putting] ads in newspapers and flyers in community spaces and organising workshops in shopping centres. Residents’ fridge magnets were made up of memories, utopian dreams and symbols of place and home.

I also launched Grrrl In Print issue five [Queer Utopias] in March! It’s an 80-page zine featuring 23 international contributors, exploring utopian dreaming through art, photography, poetry, recipes and writing. Each issue is unique with a foil-blocked pull-off bookmark and it’s so beautiful – I’m really proud!

How I got here

What was your journey like when you were first starting out? Did you find your feet quickly?
Starting out was tough! I was on Universal Credit for two years and working and volunteering a couple of days a week at local arts organisations (I wouldn’t recommend volunteering now – it contributes to a generally underpaid workforce which alienates anyone of low income from joining it!).

However, meeting people in the local area who worked in the arts – whether it was for crap pay or unpaid – did get me further paid work. In fact, 80% of jobs I’ve had since graduating, I got because I would speak to people and let them know I was available, go to people with ideas or stick my nose in. For example, a local arts and music festival that happened every year in Southend helped me to apply for my first Arts Council England [ACE] Grant to put on a feminist Grrrl Zine Fair festival stage after I asked constantly to be involved. I don’t think I would have learnt how to apply to ACE without them, and that work was a stepping stone for other jobs.

Soft Press Slow Press (2020)

How did you go about landing your first clients?
I worked for two weeks at a local arts festival, Estuary Festival, and basically bit the ears off one of the producers at Metal, an arts organisation in Southend, Peterborough and Liverpool. I hit it off with them, along with an artist who taught children the Arts Award – which I say is a bit like an art version of the Duke of Edinburgh’s Awards [typically done during secondary education in the UK].

I ended up volunteering at Metal each week to help with the Award, advising the young people, running workshops and sessions. Metal then gave me paid work in drips and drabs, as well as Focal Point Gallery, a contemporary art gallery in Southend who also taught Arts Award at the time. I ran some Saturday sessions and eventually worked as front of house and then as their Schools Programmer.

At the time, I was also running Grrrl Zine Fair gigs and fairs on a shoestring budget, but would talk about it with the people I worked with, so they knew I had connections with artists, zine makers and musicians and could make things happen. Metal eventually helped me write my first ever ACE application and I put on the first Grrrl Zine Festival as part of their arts festival Village Green. Focal Point Gallery were on the commissioning team for the large scale public art commission I’m currently undertaking (Although I’m no longer employed by them!)

Lu williams creativelivesinprogress unsolicited 2

Unsolicited (2020–2023), from Lu’s show, Just the Scraps

Lu williams creativelivesinprogress unsolicited 1

What would you say has been your biggest challenge along the way?
I would say that, being self-employed, promoting work and organising my time is always a bit of a challenge! Social media basically becomes a full-time job – along with applying for grants and commissions, running workshops or teaching ad hoc and sending invoices and writing contracts. Sometimes, the biggest challenge is actually sitting down and making work!

Me and my friend joke that, in most other jobs, you have a team around you, with each person a specialist of some kind in a specific area – whereas being an artist, you have to be all things: director, producer, programmer, curator, art technician, promoter, marketing team, social media manager, accountant, comms team, copywriter, grant writer, content creator… I could go on.

If you could pick three things that you’ve found useful to your work or career, what would they be and why?
1. Being open and honest with people in your industry and asking for work. As an autistic person, I find it a lot easier to be quite frank with people – others might find it cringey or impolite, but 90% of the work I’ve gotten is from letting people know I’m looking for work, ideas I have that I want to make happen, or directly asking to be involved in projects. The worst thing people can say is no, and even then, at least you’ve built that relationship somewhat and can pick up conversations at another point – whereas a no from an application is mostly a dead end.

2. Membership groups and subscriptions as a stand in for IRL supportive communities. Before I was at The Old Waterworks Studios, I was a member of Sapphire Bates’ The Coven. Not everyone there was an artist, but being in a group with other self employed people was helpful, and the group had a ton of resources, like cash flow templates, PR templates, contract advice and video workshops. I gave up membership last year when I established a good work support network at The Old Waterworks and made contacts who could answer nitty gritty questions about taxes – but being part of the online group was important because, early in my career, I didn’t have those connections.

3. Taking on teaching work. I run a lot of workshops, but taking an Education and Training Level 3 course really embedded learning into my work. This has benefited me massively – I teach on and off at my local adult college, but have also delivered workshops and lectures at universities all over the UK. It’s probably not surprising that most artists teach, either through workshops or as associate lecturers. Not only is it a helpful source of income, but I get to work with students and go back to art schools, where people are immersed in making and full of ideas. Tutorials with artists in education are very rewarding too; discussing contemporary art and giving research recommendations reminds me why I love art.

“Don’t wait for opportunities, make them yourself. Find your community too – and if you can’t find one – build one!”

Self Starter (2021)
Her ex took out a TV loan in her name (2023)

How important would you say social media and self-promotion are to your work?
Really important! Instagram is where the creative industry lives whether we like it or not! I find it’s helpful to keep my general studio practice and my larger projects separate: for example, all my zine workshops, events and publishing bits are on my Grrrl Zine Fair account, and my dog toy work is under my Dog Ear account.

People want to be able to find information about you and understand your story – as well as how they can work with you and clearly see what you do – within a few seconds. On my personal account, I can be more playful, post weird photos I find interesting, research I’ve been doing, and behind the scenes bits. But in terms of securing work, most of that comes from my other accounts, where it’s really clear what I do and how people can work with me.

My advice – if you want to keep posting dog pics and family photos – is to create a new art-only account, where people can see what kinds of things you make, link it to your website and contact you easily. For most of the shows I’ve put on, zines I’ve made and exhibitions or festivals I've curated, I found work on Instagram!

Magnet Paintings (2021)

What have been your greatest learnings with making money and supporting yourself as a creative?
I run workshops and teach occasionally to support my practice, but I’ve also started charging more and turning jobs down if they don't meet Artists’ Union rates. After years of taking on lots of little jobs – like £50 for a two-hour workshop, being part of an exhibition for free, or £30 for a pair of handmade earrings – and burning out, I realised I struggle to come up with ideas when I’m stressed and tired. Even if I technically have less work on now, the pay is the same – if not more – than lots of smaller jobs, and I have a lot more time to actually think, and make, and digest. It’s really important as an artist that you have that time, and it’s even more important you demonstrate artists’ value by paying yourself fairly.

I now charge a day rate factoring in the fact that I need a pension, National Insurance contributions, tax, something to cover any sick pay I might need if I’m unwell, enough to cover my studio assistant for two days a week, travel costs and to cover the replenishing of stock for workshops. I add in travel and materials costs where the organisation’s budget can support that.

Whims of Her Own (2019)
Soft Press Slow Press (2020), Installation at Beecroft Gallery

How do you find living in Southend-on-Sea compared to London?
I decided to leave London in 2019, moved my studio to Southend, and haven’t looked back. The art community here is much smaller, but I would say people are pretty invested in each other and keeping the scene interesting. Sometimes moving out of the city can give you a bit more headspace, an affordable studio (!) and in Southend’s case, lovely sea air.

“The art community [in Southend] is much smaller but I would say people are pretty invested in each other and keeping the scene interesting.”

Have there been any courses, programmes, initiatives or access schemes you have found helpful?
Look at alternative art schools – many are quite affordable and they’ll connect you to an artist community, give you critical feedback, gallery tours, artist visiting tutors and many other resources you’d expect from a £9,000 a year art degree, but for way less. A lot of them don’t require you to have done a BA or studied art before, just that you show initiative, and most happen on evenings or weekends to make room for full time jobs.

If that's too much, try an adult college course. As long as you surround yourself with other people that make things, you’ll stay inspired.

My advice

What’s the best career-related advice you’ve ever received?
A friend of mine who’s been working in public arts as an artist told me to actually read ACE guidance. Yes, I know the “How to Apply” document is 82 pages long, but pick the audio version and listen to it while cooking dinner. In fact, listen to it and repeat the phrases of their strategy back to them in your application – they love to hear their own ideas!

If you struggle with forms, you can actually hire an access worker to write it for you, and they can write their fee into the application. I didn’t know I could get a support worker for being neurodivergent and this same person who gave me ACE advice also recommended Access To Work, which has been a gamechanger!

What advice would you give someone looking to get into a similar role?
To get clients, I would say reach out to the people you want to work with, turn up at gallery openings, invite them to a panel talk you’ve organised, put on your own shows. Don’t wait for opportunities, make them yourself. Find your community, too, and if you can’t find one, build one! It’s not as daunting as it sounds; it’s basically making friends with people whose work you love anyway. If you apply for ACE funding, write your friends and collaborators into the bid, get everyone paid, and people will want to work with you again.

Don’t wait for someone to offer you an opportunity – start making things happen for yourself! If you haven't had a show, put some art up in your home and take nice pictures, or invite a group of artist friends to take over a small space and have a little show yourselves – and, importantly, document it!

In fact, documenting events is more important than whether anyone comes! Share it on Instagram, even if it's just your living room, say it's your first group show. If you haven't got a spare wall, put all your work in a zine and print them off after hours on your work photocopier. Once you start showing that you’re available for shows, you’re making work and you’re making stuff happen, people will gravitate towards you. :)

Some other tips I have are:

Ask for at least Artists’ Union rates for a job. Double that for a public institution, triple it for a brand or private company. If you feel funny about it, tell the client it’s Artist’s Union rates and link to their rate card.

Be pleasant to work with. You can always bitch about stuff when you get home! Through work in galleries, running festival stages and gigs and some ad hoc curation work, I’ve never worked again with artists who have been difficult. This doesn't mean sweeping anything under the rug if you or your colleagues are treated badly – definitely make a scene for that – but don’t be another artist who swans in and doesn't even greet the technician team who’ve just done overtime to install your art.

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Mention Lu Williams
Interview by Lyla Maeve