Ex-teenage millionaire helps sketch the future for up-and-coming artists

A former teenage millionaire entrepreneur who now runs an art gallery is inspiring a new generation of artists.

At the age of just 14 and working from the bedroom of his home, Ralph Sanders set up his own business making bespoke luxury Christmas crackers for the likes of public relations gurus Saatchi and Saatchi and the Orient Express train company.

And just a few years later he had made his fortune.

In 2006 he bought and renovated the run-down Ffin Y Parc country house just outside Llanwrst, transforming it into a plush gallery specialising in 20th century and contemporary Welsh art.

It was Ralph’s lifelong love of art and desire to help regional artists make the most of their own  talents that prompted him to offer Ffin Y Parc as the venue for the latest of two art “surgeries” arranged by the North Wales Open Studios Network.

The surgeries have financial backing through the Rural Development Plan for Wales 2007-2013, which is funded by the Welsh Government and the European Agricultural Fund for Rural Development.

A group of 10 artists were invited along to spend 30 minutes each in advice sessions with Ralph and two other tutors, celebrated north Wales art professionals Emrys Williams and Iolo Williams.

Emrys is an artist in his own right and joint BA Fine Art Co-ordinator at Coleg Menai. He has also worked as a consultant and curator with galleries and educational organisations such as BayArt Cardiff and Oriel Mostyn.

Iolo is an artist/maker, administrator and arts development professional with over 25 years’ experience. Since 2000 he has been Arts Development Officer with the Arts Council of  Wales.

The three mentors offered the artists their unrivalled expertise in a variety of sectors including arts, business, marketing and funding and also offered bespoke advice specific to their own experience.

Ralph, now 42, was able to draw on his own fascinating career in business and the arts, which began when he was in his early teens.

He said: “I hope that my own story has helped inspire the artists we had at the surgeries by showing them that with the right sort of backing and advice they can succeed both artistically and commercially.

“My business life started very early when I was in a slow learners unit at a school in my home town of Hereford.

“At the age of 14 I had built up successful business manufacturing posh Christmas crackers.

“By the time I was 16 I employed quite a few people, making the crackers on piece-work and, by 18, I was selling the crackers to the likes of Saatchi and Saatchi, Mont Blanc pens, the Orient Express and Arsenal Football Club.

“I then decided I needed an education and obtained a BA Hons in drama from the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama in Cardiff.

“Later, I was an actor for a while then had a couple of other businesses in Cardiff.

“The art side of things came almost by accident as I collect art myself. My field is 20th century and contemporary Welsh art, and I am drawn more to painting than conceptual art.

“It was this that prompted me to buy Fin Y Parc and turn it into a gallery.

“There was quite a lot of work to do because it was in a dilapidated state and at various stages had been a council building and an old people’s home.”

Ralph added: “I was surprised and impressed by the quality of the artists who came along, so much so that I am thinking of taking some of them on.

“That means I’ll have their work on display in the gallery, help them and generally keep an eye on their professional development.”

Among the artists to benefit was 29-year-old Cathryn Griffith from Llangernyw who over the past decade has studied at the Glasgow School of Art, Coleg Menai in Bangor and the School of Art and Design in Cardiff.

She splits her time between her “day job” working as a project officer on an oral history project in Denbigh and producing finely detailed paintings and drawings of mainly architectural subjects such as the ornate old buildings of Cardiff and Glasgow and even the south of France.

Cathryn said: “I started out studying architecture and then gradually branched out into art.

“I work in oils, charcoal and collage and my work consists of building up several layers on the basic subject.

“I am thinking of perhaps becoming more of a professional artist but would like to split my time between that and continuing to do something like the oral history project.”

She added: “I found the surgery very useful and constructive. The tutors helped me to see more clearly what I am doing at the moment and where I want to go with my art.”

Also very impressed by what she learned during her session with the tutors was 61-year-old established artist Alison Englefield from Beaumaris, Anglesey.

Alison trained initially as a textile designer for large companies and worked many years in the industry, producing the motifs for children’s and adults’ clothing.

Later, had her own business running workshops for fellow artists, first in south Wales then in Cornwall before moving to north Wales.

In her small studio at home she produces an attractive and novel range of pictures which she creates by re-arranging and building colourfully upon old photographic portraits of couples and family groups.

Alison said: “My work is already selling quite well but I want to be more successful as a professional artist, which is why I applied to take part in the surgery.

“I found meeting with the tutors to be a very worthwhile experience. Being able to exchange ideas with other artists and a gallery owner and curator is not something you would normally have the chance of doing.”

Tutor Emrys Williams said: “Over the course of the day we were dealing with some very different individuals and I think they will all now think about what they can do with the advice we gave them.

“I think all the people we saw have the potential to grow as artists.”

Fellow tutor Iolo Williams agreed, saying: “I believe we were able to challenge the people we saw to think about what to do with their future as artists.

“From my point of view it was a very worthwhile experience. We saw people with a huge passion for particular areas of their work.”

Sabine Cockrill, of the North Wales Open Studios Network, said: “The idea for the surgeries came out of what we found was a lack of provision for one-to-one support for artists – somewhere they can actually come in and talk to people who can help them.

“We have had a fantastic response since announcing the surgeries and, in fact, they were over-subscribed.

“This is a way of offering help to artists at all the different stages of their career, and we are now hoping to organise more of them in the autumn and next year.”

“These surgeries have been a part of the professional development program we offer our artist members. Since first receiving the funding we have run over 26 sessions with a total of 490 participants taking part in training organised by the North Wales Open Studios Network. The scheme has been enormously successful and we have been able to offer artists much needed support and business development skills.”

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