When you’re not happy with your job, deciding to make a career change may seem more straightforward. However, when things are going well, do you keep riding the wave or make the leap and try something new?
In episode 97 of the Career Relaunch® podcast, Aisling Drennan, a Riverdance Irish dancer turned artist shares her thoughts on shifting from an international stage to an art studio. We’ll discuss the deeply personal choice of when to walk away from an established career, the inevitable challenges of starting anything new, and the importance of championing your own work. I also share some thoughts on when you can tell the time has come to move on during the Mental Fuel® segment.
Key Career Change Insights
- You can’t know everything from the start. You have to figure it out along the way. It’s about giving yourself time and accepting the inevitable mistakes along the way
- You can’t be the champion of everything, but you have to be your own champion of your own work and ambition.
If making a career change was easy, everyone would be doing it. You have to constantly ask yourself, is this what I want to do? If yes, you must find a way to make this work.
- Deciding exactly when to leave your job behind is a very personal choice. On the one hand, you could leave on a high note, knowing you may still have left to give and gain. On the other, you could leave after you feel like you’ve given everything you can, although it can result in dissatisfaction, burnout, and even resentment.
- Expect the early days to be tough. Starting is often the hardest phase when you’re embarking on a new career path. However, if you know you’re doing what you want to do, with enough hard work and tenacity, you’ll turn a corner.
- 00:00:00 – Overview
- 00:01:07 – Introduction
- 00:03:05 – Discussion with Aisling Drennan
- 00:45:54 – Mental Fuel
- 00:51:10 – Listener Challenge
- 00:51:43 – Wrap Up
During this episode’s Mental Fuel® segment, I discussed how to decide whether the time has come to pursue another path in your career.
Consider whether you have: A) anything else to gain, B) more you could give, C) more you actually want to give.
The choice is ultimately yours. I just encourage you to not overextend yourself too much and to walk away once you feel that deep down, the time is right to move on.
About Aisling Drennan, Abstract Expressionist Painter
Aisling Drennan used to be a former professional Irish dancer with Riverdance, performing internationally for almost a decade with her sketchbook and paint box in her suitcase. Originally from County Clare, Ireland, she dedicated the earlier parts of her life touring around the world, and dancing professionally.
However, she eventually began a gradual, steady career transition into the world of art. She’s now a full-time, abstract expressionist painter, balancing her artistic endeavors with motherhood after the birth of her son in early 2022. Based in London, she now creates her artwork at Delta House Studios, where you can check out her paintings along with work from several other artists.
Most recently Aisling Drennan’s work was selected for The Royal Cambrian Academy of Art’s annual exhibition (2023) & Gordan Ramsay’s new restaurant in the Savoy Hotel, London (2021). Drennan was an artist in residence at Cill Rialaig Artists Centre (2019), and her work has been shortlisted for the John Moore’s painting prize (2018). She was Fujitsu’s featured artist for a global media campaign (2017) and has received the Freyer Award for excellence in contemporary painting from the Royal Dublin Society of Arts (2011). Drennan has been noted by State magazine as “one to watch”
Aisling will be exhibiting her art at The Other Art Fair in London, June 29 – July 2. To meet her and check out her paintings, stop by to see her there at Stand 92.
Also, if you’ve never seen Riverdance which recently celebrated its 25th anniversary of touring, this clip gives you a little taste of the show!
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Interview Segment Music Credits
- Bio Unit – Ground Effect
- Leimoti – Leave a Mark
- Owen Meyers – Horisont
- Cora Zea – Velvet Uniform
- Podington Bear – Sepia
- Scott Holmes Music – Shimmer
- Bio Unit – Fairground
- Howard Harper-Barnes – The Promising
Episode Interview Transcript
Joseph: Good morning, Aisling. Welcome to the Career Relaunch Podcast. It’s great to have you on the show. I’m really excited to talk with you about your time both as a dancer and also now as an artist.
Aisling: [03:17] Good morning, Joseph. I am very pleased to be here chatting with you. It’s always such a pleasure when people have an interest in what I do, so thank you.
Joseph: Well, let’s jump into it. Let’s talk, first of all, about what you have been focused on right now in your career and your life. What has been keeping you busy both personally and also professionally?
Aisling: [03:37] I’ve just finished a new series of paintings. They were just shown last weekend because I’ve got a studio at Delta House Studios in Cyprus, London. We do open studio events twice a year. One in June, one in October, where everybody can come along, meet the maker, see where the work is made. So, it’s finishing new work for that. It’s been pretty busy. And then, I have a couple of things coming up, career-wise. I’m doing the other art fair at the end of the month. I’ve got a couple of shows lined up for the winter, and a few fun things in between.
And then, personally, things are good. I have a one-year-old. It’s keeping me very busy. I suppose I’ve had a big life change of being pregnant and given birth, having a baby, coming back to work, and finding all that balance. It’s been a real roller coaster but in the best way and sort of finding my feet again. I guess you lose your identity a bit, and then you come back into it. I feel like I’ve just come back to finding my identity, getting back into painting, back into the studio, and getting everything moving again.
Joseph: Two questions on a couple of things you just mentioned there. First of all, you mentioned you’re a new mother. What have you found to be the biggest challenge around balancing parenting with your work as an artist?
Aisling: [04:56] I have my own business. So, if I’m not working on it, nobody else is doing it. I think it was very important to me to get back into the studio and keep things running while I was managing a newborn and everything that comes along with that so much. I think I was probably a wee bit optimistic because I came back to work when my son, Caolàn, was four months old. I thought, “It’d be fine! I’ll do it. It’s grand.” It didn’t really work out like that.
I guess that’s one of the things I’ve learned that your time is no longer just your time. Your time has to be shared and prioritize with him. As we, my husband and I, have moved along, because he has his own business as well, we’ve managed to juggle. Actually, that’s a real good thing about each of us having our own business. We’re not set to somebody else’s time. It’s purely our time so we can manage things around the baby, which is quite good.
That, and I think the identity thing, which I wasn’t prepared for because you step into a whole new pair of shoes being a mother and you get lost in that because you’re learning so much. And then, you come back into your work, which I love what I do. I’ve really worked hard to get to where I am. And then, you have to find it all again. You have to find yourself. It’s sort of an interesting new path. Like, I’m the same person but I’m different. I’m still finding my way around that.
Joseph: It is a challenge flipping back and forth between your identity as a mother, and also your identity as a professional. And, being able to go back and forth multiple times within the same day can be quite jarring.
Aisling: [06:37] Quite jarring. I think it’s all because this is like my studio, and my painting, my art practice is my — I don’t want to say my “other child,” that sounds the wrong thing. But, it’s not like I’m going to work for somebody else. This is very much mine. It’s all that more important to me. It keeps moving, and progressing, and developing. I think in the long term, that’s going to be such a good lesson for Caolàn as he grows up and he sees what me and his dad do. Because my husband’s an architect, so he has his own practice as well in his own studio. I think it’ll all be good but we’re just finding our way, which is exciting as well. I mean, look, this is the essence of life, isn’t it? You just figure it all out as you go.
Joseph: Well, I want to get back into also your professional life here. I know you mentioned you’re an artist. What kind of artist are you, and what do you enjoy doing as an artist?
Aisling: [07:26] I am an abstract expressionist painter. My work would be rooted in the materiality of paint. That would mean just literally getting stuck into the wonderful nuances of paint, and what you can do with it, and how you can play with it, and manipulate it. I won an Irish residency in 2019 that completely changed the direction of my work. All my work is now based on rock landscapes, extracting from those spaces. These are landscapes back in Ireland. Obviously, I’m from Ireland. You can tell from my accent. I go and sit on-site and make studies and bring them back into my studio here in London, and literally, abstract from them.
It’s a very processed way of working. Because I’ve just finished this new series of work, I’m still finding my feet with discussing it, which is a weird thing. Because you think of it all visually in your head, and then you have to vocalize that when you’re talking about it, so it’s an ongoing thing.
Joseph: I think art is probably one of the hardest things to describe in words to others. Just by definition, it is difficult to put into words.
Aisling: [08:34] Yeah. Well, that’s why like what I mentioned at the top of the conversation, something like open studios is great. Because you get people coming into your studio, and you see their reaction straight off, or they ask you questions that you may not have considered yourself. It’s a wonderful way to interact with the work and with people and build those relationships. If you’re selling through a gallery, you don’t get that same conversation or connection, let’s say. It was wonderful with this new series of work to have people come in and sort of look at it differently from how I’m looking at it.
Joseph: Well, I do want to come back to the commercial dynamics of being an artist. You mentioned gallery versus studio versus art show. I do want to get back into that toward the end of the conversation. Right now, what I’d be very interested in doing is going back in time. Because I know you haven’t always been an abstract expressionist painter. You were once a professional Irish dancer. Can you tell us a little bit about your life as a dancer? I suppose the best place to start here is to talk about where you grew up, and what are some of the things you remember about your childhood growing up in Ireland.
Aisling: [09:43] Oh, gosh! I had an amazing childhood in Ireland. I grew up in rural West Coast Ireland. County Clare, North County Clare. Right on the Atlantic Ocean. Just very free, very open, very fresh childhood. Typically, I don’t know if it’s the same now, but growing up in the ’80s Ireland, everyone who went to school there would be an Irish dancing teacher that would come into the school and teach the basics. It was sort of like your physical education in a sense. Both of my parents were dancers. So, they brought my sisters and I along to Irish dancing classes. That’s where it began really.
Joseph: Were they professional dancers?
Aisling: [10:21] No. It’s the type of thing particularly I think, like where I’m from in Ireland. My parents are both from the west of Ireland as well. Culturally, it will be very normal that like somebody would dance, or somebody would sing, or play an instrument, or something like that. My parents had a hotel and a bar, so there was always music and dancing and something performative going on. You were just always expected to get up and do whatever you were able to do. My parents were both dancers, so there was always dancing in the bar. I just grew up with it very naturally, which is totally normal for that part of Ireland.
Then, I started going to Irish dancing classes and started competing. At the time, there was absolutely no sense of being professional. A professional Irish dancer, what is that? No! And then, of course, in 1994, Riverdance arrived on the scene at the Eurovision Song Contest. It just changed the landscape, massively. I was 12 I think when Riverdance was on the Eurovision. I remember watching it with my family because it was such a big thing in Ireland, the Eurovision. “I want to do that. What is it? I want to do it. I want to know more.” Riverdance obviously went international, and they started to audition people. I auditioned when I was 16, and I got in. I left school for a year to go on tour.
Joseph: For those not familiar with Riverdance, it’s this big theatrical show that features traditional Irish music and dance. It’s sort of like the quintessential Irish dance show. As I understand it and as you alluded to, it was originally this interval act at Eurovision. And then, it turned into this huge stage show production in the early ’90s. And now, it’s been seen by over something like 25 million people and is considered to be one of the most successful dance productions in the world. So, kind of a phenomenon. Could you just explain the audition process to get in there?
Aisling: [12:20] Thinking about the phenomenon of it, for just anyone who’s not aware of it, I think I performed in over 400 cities in 50 countries over all the continents. And that was over so many years. Just literally touring and touring and touring. So, it was big, big, big.
The audition process was, it’s something that I still think about now because I learned so much on that day. It was in Dublin. I got the train up with my mum from Limerick up to Dublin. The train broke down on the way up. Of course, I was really stressing because we were going to be late for the audition. My mom rang the dance director and said, “We’re so sorry. The train is broken down.” She said, “Don’t worry. There are other people on the same train. They’re coming, too.”
There was me, and I think three or four other girls. We were all late going into the audition because of the train. We walked into this massive dance studio, lined with mirrors, and everyone is dressed in black with their number after auditioning, and we were the last ones to come in. We have to audition in front of hundreds of other girls and boys. I just remember thinking, “Oh, gosh. This is so hard!” I think two of the girls that I auditioned with were champions. One was a champion in the year above me, going back to the competitive side. And, one was the champion of my age group, if I remember correctly. They didn’t both get in. I got in.
It was just something that I thought about sort of on reflection that like not everybody can always be the champion. You don’t always win everything. You just have to be your own champion, if that makes sense. It was something that I learned from that process. Because I remember feeling very intimidated going in with champion dancers. I had done quite well competitively, but I hadn’t won major titles or anything like that. I was late going into the audition. It was just like a complete, “Oh, gosh! This is the worst day of my life.” At 16, when everything is so dramatic.
Joseph: Of all days, yeah.
Aisling: [14:17] Yeah. So, we got in. What happened at the time was, you started doing workshops, which were, oh, my God, unbelievably hard. I remember coming out of them and just not being able to walk. My feet were full of blisters and my legs were killing me. It was just a whole different level of training from what I had had competitively like in my dancing school.
And then, what they do is at the time is different now. But, at the time, they would send you out on corporate gigs. I was 16 in school, and I was being flown here and there and everywhere to go and perform at all these very fancy events. And then, sitting back down on a Monday morning, “Well, Aisling, how was your weekend?” “Grand.” I was over dancing at that Golden Globe Awards, and they’re used to just meeting all these people. It was mad, but it was great fun.
Joseph: How did that work with school? Because you’re 16. I guess for a normal child who’s not performing, you’d be going to classes every day and do whatever you want on the weekend. How did that work with balancing school and being on tour with this huge company?
Aisling: [15:22] I didn’t know. I grew up in a very rural, very small part of Ireland. It’s not like there were a whole lot of other distractions. Do you know what I mean? I used to go to school, and then I would come home and have a snack. I would practice my dancing, and then I would do my homework. That was kind of my day-to-day. And then, I will be competing on the weekends. So now, it was just like, “Oh, I might be doing a gig. Like flying off somewhere to do a gig.” It was just, I don’t know, it just rolled into it. And, I was the youngest of three.
Joseph: You have two older sisters, right?
Aisling: [15:51] Yeah. I have two older sisters. And, one of my sisters ended up in “World of Dance,” which is like another art practice.
Joseph: Oh, another big one, yeah.
Aisling: [15:59] For my parents, we were just always busy dancing. It was kind of just, you just do it, don’t you?
Joseph: Were you thinking that this is what you were going to do after you finished secondary school? Or, what was running through your head during the early years? We’ll get to the later years in a moment. But, just the early years as a child dancing, what were you thinking? How did you think this was going to go? How did you want it to go for you? Or, did you even think about that?
Aisling: [16:25] I’ve always been focused and just knew from a very early age what I wanted to do. I just knew I wanted to get into Riverdance, and then I wanted to go to art school, and that was it. I didn’t want to do anything else. Luckily, it’s worked out that way. Because I know a lot of people, it can take time to find what they want to do and find their place. I was just very focused and just started to put the points in place that I needed to make that happen.
Joseph: Was there a reason why you wanted to be dancing as part of the show instead of just going straight to art school if that was what you had wanted to do long term?
Aisling: [17:03] I knew there was a window for being a professional dancer. I knew I could go to art school at any time. Like on finishing school, I got my place at art school. I knew, “Okay I’ll just defer that for a couple of years, and I’ll go on tour.” I didn’t know how long I wanted to tour or anything. But, my God, it was just an unbelievable experience. In hindsight, it has fared so much into my art practice. Because I was traveling the world. I was getting paid for it. I was so young. I was on tour with great friends, and all the rest of it.
I always had my sketchbook in my suitcase and my boxer paints. I would always go and see the museums, or the galleries, or check out shows because I wanted to educate myself. And because I was in these places, for example, in Mexico City, I went to Frida Kahlo’s house, La Casa Azul. And then, to fast forward a couple of years when I was studying arts, and that coming up in the lecture, and I was like, “Oh, God! I was there.” I saw it. I knew it. I was very privileged to have all these experiences that have fed into my art career and that educated me. It was the starting point of my education as an artist.
Joseph: What was a typical month like for you as a dancer on this global tour that you were on?
Aisling: [18:25] It depends on what company you’re in. Because Riverdance had like — was it two or three full-time companies? There was one company that would tour America, sort of months and end. And then, there was another company that would do Europe. And then, there would be a company doing like Australia and Asia. It depends on which company you were put into.
And then, you might have like a month-long residency somewhere, or you might be moving every two weeks. Again, depending on which company you were in. Typically, it would be week by week. Before you would go out on tour, you would do all your rehearsals in Dublin, and then you would be flown out to where you go, and then there would be more rehearsals set up before the opening city, the opening night. And then, everything just goes to plan because you know everyone knows what they’re doing.
Joseph: What do you remember about life as a professional dancer? Let’s talk about both the highs and the lows.
Aisling: [19:16] The highs, I think, definitely, I’ll never forget the electricity of doing the final choreography to the — well, I think it was quite iconic, the music of Riverdance. The lights going up, and the audience standing up, and everyone cheering, and just feeling that electricity. It was just amazing. I used to think, “My God! I’m this girl from a very small part of Ireland, and look at me on Broadway,” or “Look at me! I’m in Tokyo,” wherever it was. Making all these people stand up, and feel happy and amazing, and bring them along this wonderful journey that was amazing. I thought that it still stays with me.
Lows, I don’t know. I guess, sometimes, it was hard because you were living out of a suitcase for months and months on end. You might miss family events, or the environment sometimes was a little bit tricky. Because you know you were all together all the time. You were working, eating, and socializing. And sometimes, it was a lot. But, I think it was a really good life lesson in managing friendships and learning how to deal with people. Because we were all quite young as well and finding our fate. But, overall, it was an absolute highlight absolutely.
Joseph: One of the things, Aisling, I have always wondered about, I suppose as somebody in the audience watching any show is these are you were up there every day every night after night, day after day, I’m assuming performing the same exact choreography pretty much for every show. Did that ever get repetitive? Or, this does not mean to be a leading question. I’ve always just genuinely wondered if it feels repetitive or not. Just because you’re just in the zone when you’re up there.
Aisling: [21:07] Yeah. Because I’ve often wondered about Britney Spears. Does she ever get sick of singing “Hit Me, Baby, One More Time”?
Joseph: Exactly. Can you really bring the same energy on day one and day 200?
Aisling: [21:17] I don’t know. Oh, I just loved it. I really loved it. I mean, if I was still doing it now, I think I’d feel fairly lethargic about doing the same choreography over and over. The music was always amazing. It was with my mates. I was in my 20s. For some people, it may become a little bit repetitive, but no. I love it. I still love it. I hope I will always dance. I don’t dance so much anymore, obviously. I’m a bit past it. The last time I probably danced was at our wedding, and that was amazing. Because I had all my friends from Riverdance there, and we all got up and did Riverdance.
Joseph: Oh, wow!
Aisling: [21:56] Yeah. I was the entertainment at my own wedding.
Joseph: It was a good wedding to go to, yeah.
Aisling: [22:02] Yeah. It was amazing for all the guests, obviously.
Joseph: I bet.
Aisling: [22:05] I loved that I had those friends. We literally grew up on the road together, and we’re still really good friends. We’re all having kids now, and we’re living in different parts of the world but, we’re still connected. I think that’s so special. I’ll have those relationships for the rest of my life. I have them only because of Riverdance. I owe so much to Riverdance. Really, I owe so much to my parents because they took me to Irish dancing classes, and took me to competitions, which then led me to audition for Riverdance. And then, Riverdance gave me this whole opportunity, which has fed into my art career now. Everything has this linked-up effect, the one thing is fed into the other. All creatively as well, which is lovely.
Joseph: It sounds like this was an amazing experience. Probably, one that was very coveted, and sought after. Many kids would probably really enjoy it in many ways. I guess if you’re going to be a dancer, then this is one of the shows to be in. At what point did you decide that you needed to or wanted to start exploring something else and maybe revisiting the idea of pursuing art?
Aisling: [23:21] I wanted to go to art school and study it. My mom was an artist, so I had grown up around that context. I do clearly remember, I was on an American tour, we had a residency in Boston for a month. And then, every morning in the hotel, they would drop the newspapers at my door. I used to take the paper and I bring it down to the dressing room before the show, sitting in the theatre, doing my hair and makeup. I’d be flicking through the paper, what’s going on in the world?
In their art section, there was a caption saying, “Leave the stage before the stage leaves you.” It just resounded with me straight away. It was an interview with a Prima Ballerina who was retiring. I just don’t know. Something just clicked. I loved Riverdance, and I didn’t want to lose that feeling and that respect for it. So, I wanted to leave the stage before the stage left me. I wanted to leave the stage on a high with all the love I have for it, rather than just staying there for like the lifestyle, or the money, or just because my friends were there. I wanted to leave there on a good positive note.
Because I had seen people who had stayed in the show too long, and they weren’t very happy, and they were a bit negative, and things like that. I just didn’t want that for me. So, that was the point. I knew that that would be my last tour, and that tour was eight months long. I was like, “Right, I can do this.” And then, “All right. I’m going to go back to the art school, and just say I’m going to come next September.” That was it.
Joseph: This is such a hard decision, right? On the one hand — I guess you could argue either way. You’re at your best and you’re at your high as a dancer or in any profession. Do you just keep going or do you leave while you’re ahead? I think that’s a real big challenge for a lot of people.
Aisling: [25:08] It is.
Joseph: Deciding when to leave.
Aisling: [25:09] Deciding when to leave. But, sometimes, things just fall into your lap. And sometimes, something will hit you and you just have to go with your gut. Something I’ve learned more and more, the older I get, like to trust your gut and instinct on things like this. I could have stayed there just touring and touring and touring. But then, I wouldn’t have been happy and I would have sort of got the fear of it about what I was going to do next and all that.
I feel quite lucky that I had the balls, essentially, to just go. I could have stayed. I was very happy there. They were happy with me. Contracts were coming in. It was all good. But, like made the decision, and just stuck with it, and went for it.
Joseph: As I understand it, you went back and did an undergraduate in Fine Arts. And then, you also eventually did a master’s degree in Fine Art, but you were still touring at the time. Is that right? Again, I guess going back to my original question, how did that work out?
Aisling: [26:03] I know. I had a really good relationship with Riverdance. When I said I was going to go to art school, they said, “Great!” And then, basically, they offered me work for every summer holiday, or Christmas holiday, or sporadic weeks here and there, where I will go back on tour, which was amazing for me because I was a student.
I was going back on tour, making money, coming back into uni, and doing what I needed to do. It just kept me going, basically. And, when I finished my undergrad, I took a year off between doing my master’s degree. I went back on tour for a year to make money, to do my master’s degree. So, thanks to Riverdance, I have no student debt, which is really great.
Joseph: It’s another benefit. I remember we were talking last time, while you’re a student, you did take up a few side jobs. If I remember it correctly. Waitressing, dog walking.
Aisling: [26:58] Everything. Initially, when I left Riverdance and I started my undergrad in Galway on the west coast of Ireland as well, in Riverdance, we had this amazing lifestyle. There would be opening parties, and closing parties, and champagne, and caviar, and all the rest of it. To being a student, where it was like beans on toast and cracked wine on a Wednesday night, or something like that. It was a massive change. It was really good fun and I was up for it and all the rest of it.
And then, when I came to London to do my master’s degree, I really had to hustle. Because London is very expensive. I was a student. I was on my own. I didn’t really know anyone here. I was very determined though. I had got my place at Central St. Martins, which I was so happy about because it’s an art school that I had admired. I was thinking about this recently that there was a point my master’s degree was two years. In the second year of my master’s degree, I was nannying three children. I would get up at like 5 a.m., go to their house, get them off for school, get them fed, bring them to school.
Then, I would go down to my studio at Central St Martins for a couple of hours do my painting work. Then, I would go to the library, and do my thesis work. Then, I would come back, pick the kids up from school until like do their dinners, everything. Leave them at 7 p.m. Then, I would go to my waitressing job, and waitress to like 11, 12 o’clock. And then, I had to walk a dog because I was living in a house with a very good rent. But, the deal was I had to mind the dog. I was always walking — the morning walk and evening walk, and all the rest of it like so.
And now, I look back and I think, “Jesus Christ! How did I do that?” It was so much. But, I think it was just sheer tenacity. I was so determined to keep this going and to make it happen. At the time, in the first house with the dog that I lived with, there was also — it sounds like a joke. There was me, the artist, there was an actress, and a comedian. We used to all rotate around this dog because the man who owned the house was a BBC Rugby commentator. So, he was always going off on rugby tours, and we would mind the dog, and it was just really funny.
It was really good for me to be living with other creators. Because we were all struggling to find our way. I would miss out on an exhibition, and they would miss out on an audition, and we’d sit down and have a glass of wine, and have a moment about it with the dog and all that kind of thing. You hustle and you find your way to start off because it is hard. You can’t go in and start it off, especially in London.
Joseph: I also want to talk about your time as an abstract painter. Let’s talk about your journey. Because you finish up school, you decide you want to be an artist, what were the early days like for you? And, where were you doing your art? How did the logistics of all this work out as you’re starting off as an artist? What do you do?
Aisling: [29:55] I graduated in Central St. Martins in 2014. I came bouncing a lot of arts school and was, “Yay! This is great. I’ve got my master’s degree.” And then, went, “Oh, God. How am I going to make this work? Should I stay in London? Do I need to go back to Ireland? Where do I want to be?” I think in art school, it’s this amazing environment, and everyone’s on the same wavelength, and it’s just full of creativity. There’s so much going on between fine arts, and fashion, and creative writing because there are all these different departments and this buzz of creativity.
And then, you come out and you go, “Great. Where do I start?” Let’s just say there isn’t a whole lot of focus on professional practice in that sense. I took some time just to gather myself a bit. I was still living in the house with the dog, so that was great. I was still nannying, so I was able to keep myself tipping over. And then, I thought, “I’m going to stay in London. I’m going to give it a go and see what happens.” I started looking for an art studio, which was just impossible. I just wasn’t able to pay for rent on my living and pay for rent on the studio.
But then, one of the girls I had studied with was a waitress as well. Her boss had an old kebab shop that was no longer in use. So, he said we could have it for free. It was on Holloway Road, if we wanted it. We said, “Yeah. Let’s go for it.” And, my God! It was horrendous. It was freezing. It stank up like oil and chicken and it was dusty. But, it was a starting point. And then, this is the way it happens. Like, that was my first studio in London. It was free, starting points. And now, I got the best studio I’ve ever had and I love my studio now.
Joseph: How long were you at the kebab shop?
Aisling: [31:44] Maybe almost a year. I remember it had like a big glass front. People used to be walking up and down every morning, going to work. They started to get to know me. Because they’d see me in there at the wall, painting. They started waving at me. And, it would be freezing and I’d have all the layers of clothes on me and everything. But, I look back at it now and I think, “It was a starting point. I stuck it out. It was tough.” But, look now where I am. I got this amazing studio. I’ll probably stay here for quite a while. Because it’s very hard to get a studio in London. It’s a funny story now.
Joseph: Let’s just think, okay, around month 11 of being in the kebab shop, I think one of the things that people struggle with when they’re embarking on a new journey is the starting few months or years can be really tough, and not exactly how you imagine things to be. How did you reconcile that? Was it running through your head? Did it bother you at all? Or, were you just feeling like, “Hey, this is just part of the journey”?
Aisling: [32:42] I definitely had my moments. At that point as well, I was in my early 30s. I was just thinking, “This is tough. This is really tough.” But, at the same time, if it was easy, everyone would be doing it. So, you have to start to find that balance and you have to constantly come back to, “Is this what I want to do? Yes. This is definitely what I want to do. Right. How am I going to make this work? How can I make this a bit better?”
So then, I started like I did a load of service jobs so I could make more money. Then, I moved into a different studio. Then, I started to have some galleries come and visit the studio. My work started getting picked up for different shows, and competitions, and things like that. And then, you start to understand as well, you have to think about the long game. This is not just going to happen straight away. You really have to apply yourself and understand that this is a lifetime career. Like, I will still be painting in my 90s, whatever age I end up being. And, there are no quick fixes around it. As well, you need that time because you have to develop your work. Because the work I was making then is completely different to the work I’m making now. The ethos is the same, but the work is very different. Because I’ve matured, the work has matured.
Joseph: What has been the most difficult or challenging part of your journey as an artist?
Aisling: [34:05] I think fallibility, actually. Understanding that I will make mistakes and I will get it wrong and embracing that. Like, embracing them. When I was younger, I had a bit of a panic that was like, “I have to get this right,” and “I’m supposed to know everything.” But, you don’t know everything. You have to figure it out and you have to screw it up because that’s how you learn. Once I accepted that and understood that this was about making mistakes, getting it wrong, and it’s about time, then I was able to progress.
Again, it goes back to that when I was auditioning for Riverdance, you have to be your own champion. You can’t be the champion of everything, but you have to be your own champion for you so you can move forward. Does that make sense?
Joseph: That does make a lot of sense, yeah. Especially, as an artist, you’re going to get all sorts of subjective critique coming your way, and you’re not going to be able to please everybody as an artist. So, I guess you have to be that much more self-assured to believe in your work.
Aisling: [35:07] Yeah. You really have to. And, you have to understand that like — even I, as a mother, my son is in daycare this morning. So, you have this new added expense. But, you have to spend money to make money. I’m investing in my time by putting him into daycare, which means I can progress that I will do better. It’s always changing as well. I think that’s another thing that I’ve learned as well, that I have to be really flexible. Particularly, now, as a mother.
In terms of the work and my paintings’ development, I had a lecture in art school who used to always say to me, “Aisling, you need to decide where you’re going to place yourself as an artist.” I could never understand that. I could never get my head around it. But, I understand it now. Because I’m so much more confident in what I’m doing and the work. I know where to place myself, and I know which box let’s say, within the art world, I want to put myself into. But, it’s taken me years to sort of unravel that in my head.
Joseph: Can we also talk about the commercial side of being an artist for a moment? Because you did mention there’s a bit of a trade-off here. Obviously, you got to invest in the nursery, and you’ve got your bills to pay. There I think there is probably, at least an external perception out there that it’s pretty hard to make it successfully in the art world. In fact, there’s this term “starving artist.” Can you explain in your own words, what has it taken for you to make it as an artist?
Aisling: [36:36] When I was in arts school, so granted we’re going back a good 10 years now, there was always the hierarchy of the gallery. Whereas now, you can have so much more self-autonomy as an artist. You can have so much more control. I’m not saying that there isn’t room for everybody, of course, there is. But, with the rise in the online art markers, something like COVID as well, has reshaped how people buy and sell art. I think now, you can really just sell for you.
For example, the open studios. When people come and meet me, they see the work in the studio. I sell through my website. I sell through Instagram. And then, I do like art shows. And, I do show with galleries, but I’m not exclusive with a gallery. Because for now — I’m not saying I never will. But for now, I’m quite happy to build it on my own. I find that the more confident I become in my work, the more confident I become in my website development, or whatever it is. Because there are all these other little hats.
In art school, they don’t teach you professional things. It’s all this stuff that you have to learn when you come out: contracts, agreements, and tax, and all the grown-up stuff that you have to deal with. You go first, again, it’s the tenacity. I want to do this. I want to make it work. I want to be able to pay for this studio. I want to be able to pay my bills. How am I going to do that? Well, I have to get up and talk about my work and tell everyone how great it is. Because I do think it is great and I’m in this for the long game. I want to build relationships with collectors, which I am doing, which is lovely. Because they come back, and they buy again and again. They say, “Oh, Aisling, you’ve changed your palette,” or “You’re moving into a different area.” It’s wonderful to build that.
I think we’re living in an age where people want that experience as well of if someone buys my work, they love to be able to say, “Oh, gosh. This girl is from Ireland and she’s been with Riverdance, and now she’s an artist.” It’s this whole story, and Riverdance has influenced her work, and I’m really happy to share that with people.
Joseph: The last thing I want to talk about before we wrap up with an art fair that you’re going to be exhibiting at very soon here, is just some of the lessons you’ve learned along the way of your very interesting career change journey. What have you learned about yourself as you have made this pivot from being a professional dancer to now a professional artist?
Aisling: [38:56] I suppose I will go back again to the idea of tenacity. I didn’t realize, I always knew I had really good discipline, an application from being a dancer, that is just drawn into you. I’ve been able to carry that forward into my art career, which has been brilliant. I think learning that you can cross-pollinate from one creative area into another is a really wonderful thing. Learning to trust myself more, definitely.
I said this earlier as well, trusting my instinct on things. Again, that’s a confidence thing as you grow. Particularly, within the arts, because it is also subjective and there isn’t one clear path with it. But, knowing that you can just follow your own timeline and that’s the best way to do it.
I think there was a point where I felt like, “Oh, God. I shouldn’t be doing this because at this age.” And now, I’m kind of like, “Oh, no. Not at all. Do it all whatever way I want to do it.” I never stuck directly to the societal terms around how you should be doing things. I’ve always pretty much trusted my own gut. Even when I was 16 going, “I just want to get into Riverdance, and go to art school.” I’ve always had that attitude of, “Okay. Now, I’m just going to move to London and go to art school. And then, I’m going to make it as an artist. How am I going to do that? I don’t know. But, I’ll figure it out.” Like, an understanding you don’t know at all. You have to just wing it, and then everything happens for a reason and it will fall into place.
Joseph: Anything in particular surprise you about making a pivot at the point in your life when you did?
Aisling: [40:27] I think I’ve reframed a lot of thinking in my head about how to approach things. That’s been really good. I’ve been very conscious of surrounding myself with good people. Even in my studio, there are some amazing artists here. They’re also friends and they’re people that I can bounce ideas off. People that will help me grow is really good. That’s why it’s good to have good people around you.
My husband is, he’s super supportive. He loves what I do. He’ll come in and critique what I’m doing. His visual training is different from mine. Like, I said earlier, he’s an architect. His viewpoint is quite different, but we’ll have really good discussions about it. All these things add up and help me move along, win-win.
Joseph: If there’s somebody out there who is maybe in a job, or if they’re in a role where they’re not quite feeling like they should keep doing it, or maybe the time has come for them to move on as you were describing before, that they’re thinking about leaving the stage before the stage leaves them, but they haven’t done it yet, what would you say to that person?
Aisling: [41:34] Oh, it’s so funny, Joseph. I’ve met so many people at art fairs or who come to my studio. They’ll say, “Oh, I’d love to be doing something else. I really don’t like my work, but I love the security of it.” I will just like, “Life is too short. Do it. If it doesn’t work out, it’s okay. The world doesn’t end.”
I have a friend actually, who’s been saying to me for about five years, “I don’t want to be doing what I’m doing.” I went, “Do it now. Because you don’t want to be saying this to me in another five years. Because then 10 years have gone by.” I would say, “Do it. Life is for living. You want to do what you love.” It’s going to be difficult. Of course, it’s going to be difficult because nothing is easy. If it is easy, it’s boring, right? You want to have a bit of fun with it. Go do it first, that’s what I’d say.
Joseph: Now, we haven’t had a ton of artists on this show. A lot of the people who have been featured have either come from the corporate world or maybe they’re in more traditional white-collar office jobs. One of the things that you had talked to me about before we started recording was the idea that we need creativity in our lives. What did you mean by that?
Aisling: [42:41] Okay. A good example of that would be the pandemic. When everything’s shut down, you weren’t able to move, to get out, to do anything. I think so many people relied on music or art that was in their house; TV, movies, all that. All those areas of creativity. Actually, that’s when my sales really went off. Because people were starting to think, “I need something to allow escapism, let’s say, in my home because I’m here so much.” I think creativity is essential to society. I think we need it. I think it’s so important, and people always need to remember that. Because without us, can you imagine life without any color? I mean, color in the broader sense. What’s the point?
Joseph: I want to wrap up with something that I know you’ve got coming up right around the corner here. Can you tell me a little bit more about The Other Art Fair which is being held at King’s Cross in London from the 29th of June to the 2nd of July?
Aisling: [43:50] I’m participating in The Other Art Fair. It’s a wonderful fair that’s led by artists. You meet artists on their stand. I will be on Stand Number 92, and you will see my latest body of work. If you want more information on that, you can pop over onto my website, aislingdrennan.com. If you subscribe, I send sporadic emails with any updates like that where I’m doing the art fairs or art galleries, or open studios or anything like that. Make sure you come and tell me that you heard the podcast, and let me know what you think. I’d love to meet you.
Joseph: All right. Again, that’s Stand 92 at The Other Art Fair in King’s Cross. We’ll be sure to include a link in the show notes with more details about the art fair.
Thank you so much, Aisling, for taking the time to tell us about your former life as a professional dancer, and now as a professional artist, and the importance of deciding where you want to place yourself and just going for it, if you’re thinking about doing something in your career.
I hope the art fair this week goes well for you, and I wish you the best of luck with your art, and your business, and of course, balancing all of this with motherhood. Thanks so much for coming onto the show.
Aisling: [45:02] Thank you for having me.