Marley Starskey Butler’s multidisciplinary arts practice and social work are inseparable
Whether it’s collecting old issues of photography magazines or threading together his art and social work practices, Marley Starskey Butler is driven by both the historical and personal elements of the arts. But it’s the technological intervention within his practice that has also helped it blossom. Having initially struggled with sharing his work on social media due to its personal and therapeutic nature, the West Midlands-based artist tells us about how he’s managed to maintain separation within this and other aspects of his life: from balancing his freelance practice with being a social worker, to maintaining his integrity in the face of high-profile work opportunities.
Marley Starskey Butler
Multidisciplinary Artist and Social Worker
City of Wolverhampton Council, New Town Culture, The Barber Institute of Fine Arts, Bertz Associates
Social Worker, City of Wolverhampton Council (2016-present)
Adoption Panel Member, Adoption @ Heart (2020-present)
Creative Mentor, New Town Culture (2021)
Artist in Residence, Beatfreeks (2019)
Residential Support Worker, TracsCare (2013-2016)
Place of Study
MA Social Work, University of Birmingham (2013-2015)
BA Cultural Studies with Music Production, University of Derby (2006-2009)
What I do
How would you describe what you do as a multidisciplinary artist?
I started out making music as a teenager and then, over the years, branched out to other mediums following my curiousity, interests, and needs. Currently the main things I do involve photography, music, and moving image. On a Sunday, I plan and organise projects for the upcoming week. It doesn’t always go as planned, but I like to have a plan and be flexible from that foundation.
Most of my time is spent working, creating things that are for myself and non-commissioned based. Freelance work is in addition to my creative life, which was established before commission opportunities came about. Having a social work practice alongside my art practice enables me to live independently and create with freedom, which I’m super thankful for as I love them both – they are not separate in my mind.
“Having a social work practice alongside my art practice enables me to live independently and create with freedom – in my mind, they aren’t separate.”
When not working on specific projects, I play piano and slowly write pieces of music over large periods of time with no outcome in mind, recording the sketches on my phone as voice notes. I’ll also generally listen to a lot of music, read, write, learn about art, see friends or do nothing. For me, everything that happens in life is part of me being an artist and preparing me to create, and also for my mind to be as open as possible, so I can be an extension of nature expressing itself.
What’s been your favourite project to work on, from the past year, and why?
A piece called Lemon Tree that was a collaboration with my friend, dance artist Kim Bormann. It was my favourite because of the undocumented aspects of the work: Kim read through some notes I made after going to psychotherapy and then based her movement off of them. Once home after the shoot, we peeled and juiced each lemon, dried out the seeds, bottled the juice and planted the seeds. In the following days I drank hot lemon and ginger until it ran out. It felt like a ritual, and those actions were as much a part of the piece as the piece itself.
The lemon pips that we planted after the shoot germinated and popped out the soil the day after I released the video for the piece. They grew, and became part of my next piece called Here. I really like the unplanned aspects of it and feeling like I was being directed by the work itself.
Would you say you need any specific training for what you do?
I do not have any formal art training beyond A-Levels, but my art teacher at that time was really important in planting seeds of creativity. When it comes to art making, I would say whatever your method of learning is, is a type of training. What is essential is falling in love with the process of what you do. You have to be in a position where you would do what you do even if nobody apart from yourself engaged with it.
When you love what you do I believe all the other essential skills and traits will follow. You will become skilled at your art form through practice and exploration. You will persevere. You will naturally develop a ‘do it yourself’ work ethic, because the act of you making things cannot be stopped by external forces as you HAVE to do it. You will make things within your means and see limitations as pathways to freedom and creativity.
“Fall in love with the process of what you do; be in a position where you’d do it even if nobody apart from yourself engaged with it.”
What are the main influences and inspirations behind your work?
Trying to be a better human being, mistakes, life experiences, relationships, love, opposites, connection, listening, reflection and processing. BMXing when I was younger taught me that your environment can be bent and twisted to what you desire. So much comes from that. If you BMX or skateboard, you see the street as your playground. As I developed into an artist, I took that element of play into everything I do.
If you could sum up your practice in a GIF, what would it be and why?
Honestly, I struggled to answer this question, then I saw this GIF (below) and laughed for a really long time. So, this must be the GIF to answer the question. If I attached it to my practice, it would say that I have to take the shoes off in my mind to express myself in the most honest ways and embrace discomfort, especially when there are stones in the road. That could be a stretch.
What’s your favourite thing in your workspace right now?
How I got here
What was your journey like when you were first starting out? Did you find your feet quickly?
I struggled to share my work in the beginning because it felt odd to share the outcome of work that was made for therapeutic reasons. Some really great people in my life pushed me to eventually share them. I also thought about where I would be if my favourite artists didn’t share their work.
“I struggled to share my work in the beginning because it was made for therapeutic reasons. Then I thought about where I’d be if my favourite artists didn’t share theirs.”
If you could pick three things that you’ve found useful or inspiring to your work or career, what would they be and why?
So many things I could include here, but to keep it to three I will concentrate on photography.
The Art of Photography YouTube Channel. This resource was invaluable to me when I added photography to my practice in 2018. It taught me about the basics of using a camera and composition. It also spoke about art, philosophy, and the history of making images which meant the most to me.
A subscription to the British Journal of Photography has given me an awareness of different aspects of contemporary photography. I also recently purchased years and years of back issues of the magazine super cheap from somebody local. Having this library of photo magazines at home is great as it’s useful to just walk up to it, pick a random month and see what was happening then. It also helps place my work in context: I’m very drawn to portrait photography and reading what has been said about it over the years is fascinating in terms of what themes stay the same and what has changed.
A Small Voice: Conversations with Photographers podcast. When I started out in photography, I came across this podcast, which was a great resource to hear the journeys of photographers mostly based in England. It also taught me that there is no specific way to approach photography – no right or wrong – as many photographers were very different in their approaches and despite that, were successful in achieving their visions. Also, that many artists and photographers have jobs alongside their art practice and would talk about it. I think it’s important that people are transparent about that, and it was nice to hear.
What would you say has been your biggest challenge along the way?
My biggest challenge was withdrawing myself from a commissioned project because the process and working relationship stopped aligning with my artistic value base. This was initially hard because I had to be really confident in my integrity in a situation that would have been considered a great opportunity if I looked at it through the lens of the art world. But no opportunity is greater than being honest with yourself and standing firm with your integrity.
Art has been really good to me my whole life and we have a deal to not mess around with or take our relationship for granted. A wonderful friend helped me do this so I couldn’t not mention them! Thanks friend, and thanks art.
“My biggest challenge was withdrawing from a commissioned project that didn’t align with my artistic value base. But no opportunity is greater than standing with your integrity.”
How important would you say social media and self-promotion are to your work? Do you have any advice or learnings to share?
It is key to remember that social media platforms have ever changing algorithms, a business model that does not always align with your style, or pace in which you can create. Most platforms require you to pay for more of your followers to see your work, so don’t imagine all people are seeing what you post. It’s important to share your work but do not let numbers direct what you do or how you feel about your art.
My biggest advice is to have your own personal website that people who see your social media can go to from there. It’s important to have your own little space on the internet that you can curate and have an easy way for people to contact you via email. Most freelance work and commissions I receive are from people and organisations who have interacted with my website. A bonus learning is to make an email address that is just for art enquires.
Has your work as a social worker informed your concepts or how you approach your practice?
Yes, I have always worked with people. Prior to social work, I had various roles working with children and adults with autism and mental health issues. This practice is naturally part of my art practice because it makes up so much of who I am as a human. Within social work, I spend a lot of time talking to people in great depth and analysing situations. I think this has influenced why I am so drawn to portrait photography; I am comfortable being in other people’s homes and spaces, with an openness to talk about anything. Listening, communication and curiosity are vital elements of social work that present themselves in my art practice.
“Listening, communication and curiosity are vital elements of social work that present themselves in my art practice.”
How did you go about landing your first commissions?
Firstly, I made a website that has my public-facing body of work on it. My first commissions were from people seeing my work on social media who were then able to see my website from there. I have learnt that people talk about your work, and word of mouth can really get your work out there. I just make what I make and share what I want, and people approach you if they think your work is good and that you can help them achieve their projects’ goals. I’m super grateful for those opportunities and that people connect with the work.
What’s the best career-related advice you’ve ever received?
Make a deal with yourself, know your limits, and stick to them. No work should be to the detriment of your emotional, mental and physical health. But be kind to yourself at times that this deal is broken, brush yourself off, take a break and go again.
What advice would you give someone looking to get into a similar role?
Everything starts with your own relationship to your work. When you make work that is truthful to you, it is that truthfulness that makes others connect to it. Spend lots of time consuming and learning about your art form including its history so you can place your work in context and gain inspiration. Do what you need to do to support yourself, if this means taking on a job outside of your art practice then do it. There is no rush.
PS: You do you. My journey is a very slow one and nobody’s journey represents a universal truth for all. Do what makes you feel good – follow your own thread.
Interview by N'Tanya Clarke
Mention Marley Starskey Butler