Marked by intense focus and mutual understanding, a conversation with artist Ian Breakwell yields a necessary breakthrough and sets the foundation for a creative path.

The university’s Faculty of Art and Design wasn’t known as the premier art school, and I certainly hadn’t intended to study there. But my first and second choice institutions had refused me, so north I sped, up the A1 to capture my final chance at a fine art degree.

I’d been a studious yet directionless artist, but just recently I’d begun to flirt with abstract painting, which I’d eventually practice with proficiency. Two weeks before my interview, I’d managed to produce three canvases successful enough to ensure my acceptance. I sailed through the inquisition and was offered a place immediately. The following autumn, I left home to study in the North East of England.

My problem at art school, alongside the fact that student hedonism had become for the most part much more important to me than education, was that I drew artistic inspiration from the landscape. The tutors considered this thread of the grand art narrative uncool, imbued with romanticism, and at odds with the trends of the time.

These tutors were an aloof and passionless bunch, clearly more interested in their own flatlining art careers than in molding forty or so dilettantes into worthy professionals. They taught me very little and were dubious and unsupportive of my line of inquiry. One once told me, “You do realize that you’ll never have an exhibition, don’t you?”

Illumination commonly came from the visiting lecturers, many of whom were truly successful in their fields, something I always felt the regular tutors resented. For me, these one-on-one meetings were a rare opportunity to sit with an inspirational figure and dreamily imagine how successful I myself could be in years to come.

One day, a world-renowned, widely respected artist walked into my studio space. At fifty-one years of age, gray and bearded, with a kind yet rugged face, he looked wise and thoughtful and made an instant impression on the twenty-one-year-old me.

This man was Ian Breakwell: diarist, painter, collagist, filmmaker, performer, broadcaster, and writer. He was in the North East fulfilling the prestigious role of artist-in-residence at Durham Cathedral. He was the most accomplished person I’d ever met.

Breakwell was born in Derbyshire, four miles across the county border from where I grew up in Nottinghamshire. He pulled up a chair and sat with me for half an hour, and I recall that we bonded over our similar accent and mild disregard for the insignificant small towns where we each grew up. He then asked me to talk about my work, specifically my direction and motivation.

Initially speaking only occasionally to encourage me, he listened intently, all the while making notes on a scrap of paper.

Breakwell understood that I wasn’t trying to create a romanticized view of the landscape and that my interest was more about journeys, geology, and what we learn about ourselves by immersion in the wilderness.

“What you’re doing is interesting,” he said, as I remember it. “And you should enjoy the fact that it’s at odds with what everyone else in this building is doing.”

This was a significant breakthrough for me. I listened intently as he began to throw more ideas and suggestions my way. Leaning forward as the feedback became increasingly focused, he proffered logical and enlightening suggestions for where I should take my work and how I could draw upon specific influences to better understand my own intentions.

At the end of our meeting, Breakwell passed me the handwritten notes he’d scribbled down. The result was a list of artists whose approaches continue to inspire me today, along with specific references to books and exhibition catalogs. This marked a turning point in my methods of inquiry and thought processes; I learned to narrow my research and to delve deeper into the minds of creative people in order to better understand their own motivations and ways of thinking.

Fast forward to 2003, and after several years of exhibitions and reasonable success, I’d all but abandoned making art as my web career began to flourish. Despite the change of discipline, the way I approach creative output still has its foundations in that meeting almost a decade earlier. In 2005, when I read that Breakwell had died, his passing affected me deeply.

I was, however, delighted to see him receive deserved acknowledgment in the broadsheets. In a thorough obituary for the Independent newspaper, Jeremy Lewison describes Breakwell as a man who “saw the extraordinary in the ordinary.” This was surely meant as a reflection on the artist’s own work, but I like to think this was also something Breakwell hoped to find in the people he encountered. That’s not to say that he considered me extraordinary, but in one short meeting this great man had looked beyond that which others saw and recognized value and potential in what I wanted to achieve.

When I think of such pivotal meetings, they are often serendipitous encounters that continue to resonate with me regardless of where life takes me. They give me guidance that I take everywhere, informing my values and subliminally shaping my choices. Without this collection of lessons, I’d probably be bereft of the motivation and purpose that I hope make me a worthwhile designer at this stage in my life.

Simon collison

Simon Collison is a UK-based web designer with over a decade of experience at the sharp end. He previously cofounded Erskine Design and organized the New Adventures conference. Now a partner at Fictive Kin, he is a writer and frequent speaker on the design process.

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Portrait by Ping Zhu