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Home Improvements: Wondering People’s wonderful world of affordable art

Is it possible to have interesting things on your walls that don’t cost the earth? Yes, say the founders of Wondering People, a digital platform that sets out to challenge the exclusivity of the art world

Home Improvements: Wondering People’s wonderful world of affordable art

People often say that going into business with your buddies isn’t the best idea, but Sophie Merrell and Isabella Rothman, the duo behind the affordable-art venture Wondering People, make a convincing argument to the contrary. The two had been friends for a while before they ended up moving to Amsterdam. “We both had jobs in post-production,” explains Sophie. “And we both didn’t want jobs in post-production,” follows Isabella, deadpan. “We talked a lot about doing our own thing. And then one day, Sophie had her appendix out and… that was it!” It’s not necessarily the catalyst for a new business one might expect, but then Wondering People is full of the unexpected.

The internet platform they founded provides emerging artists with the opportunity to sell their work – originals mainly, with a few editions – without the debilitating fees often charged by conventional galleries. “We thought really hard about how we’d want to be treated if we were artists, which is why the commission isn’t obscene,” Isabella says. “It’s friendly,” adds Sophie. She knows about galleries, her teenage holiday job having been at her mother, Rosanna Wilson Stephen’s, WSJ Gallery. (Wondering People operates from Rosanna’s own home too.) The difference between hers and Isabella’s idea and those more traditional, bricks-and-mortar joints? Much of the art for sale at Wondering People costs less than £150 – hardly a king’s ransom, given the quality and originality of the pieces for sale. “We want it to be as accessible as possible,” Sophie says.

Post-pandemic, the pair are really enjoying being able to go to degree showcases to discover exciting up-and-coming talents, but they say, perhaps surprisingly, that Instagram is still one of the best ways to find artists despite the limitations of a screen. “It’s such a valuable resource,” says Sophie. “You’ve got a whole portfolio right in front of you, not just the odd painting.” “Plus,” continues Isabella, “it’s an amazing way to discover artists outside Britain.”

As their global directory grows, so too does their vision for the business. They’ve already had a successful postcard series and hosted a supper club. Both women are brimming with ideas for physical shows, seasonal events and a sketchbook series, effervescent with enthusiasm about what lies ahead. It makes you realise that they, Sophie and Isabella, are the real wondering people, as much as the artists they represent – inspired and awed by the brilliant things they find and show the world.

Wondering People’s ‘ones to watch’

Ed Burkes (b. 1994, Worcester)

Sophie: “A friend of ours told us about Ed, who’s based in Plymouth, when we were living in Amsterdam. We approached him when we were just starting out and now have quite a few of his gouaches, but he also paints huge canvases, for which he’s won some prestigious prizes, including the Jonathan Vickers Fine Art Award. While we don’t sell those, I feel really proud that we can offer people a chance to own something by someone who is a bit more established in a different medium.

“I just love his style – it’s graphic and dynamic but he also hones in on details, using lots of vibrant colour and text to make your eyes jump about. He’s really inspired by Rose Wylie, which I think you can tell. His works are somehow both childlike and mature – it’s a great balance.”

Hannah Ackroyd (b. 1996, West Yorkshire)

Isabella: “Hannah is an artist and photographer, but she’s also sold some ceramics through Wondering People. Again, she’s been with us since the start. It’s been such a privilege to watch how her style has changed in that time. This summer she was suffering from quite serious artist’s block and found she couldn’t create her usual collages, so she started taking more photos. She’s just given us a new series and they’re amazing – and really quite like her collages: graphic and full of juxtaposition.”

Sophie: “They’re very considered, which is really beautiful. Amazingly, even though we worked together for a while, we only met in real life this summer. The power of Instagram!”

Holly Mills (b. 1990, London)

Sophie: “Holly’s works are really quite different to lots of the things we have on Wondering People. Though many of them are prints, each one is unique, by which I mean there’s only one of each rather than a run of editions. It makes each one really quite special.

“Her work is quite dream-like, I find. The recurring symbols and figures in her work, often blurred as though they’re in movement, create a sort of ethereal visual language. They’re playful, but at the same time are heavy with emotion. Holly has been with us since the very beginning and we’ve loved seeing her work develop over the past year and a half.”

Victor Marqué (b. 1992, Trappes, France)

Isabella: “Victor’s French, but he’s based in Porto. We found him through Instagram via another artist. I love it when that happens! I think it was Hannah Ackroyd, in fact. They both follow each other and have a similar, sort of geometric look to their work. His first pieces for us were a group of amulets, which were exquisite and, because they weren’t very expensive, just flew off our shelves. Recently, he’s been mixing up his practice and started making tiles. There’s a lot of complex symbolism in what he does – his intricate mark-making evokes all sorts of things in my mind: Mayan architecture, ancient runes, Ron Hitchens (whose house in Hackney was recently opened up for show by design studio Atelier LK). I love the blueness of the tiles too – there’s definitely the influence of the Portuguese azulejos in there.”

Milo Kester (b. 1995, London)

Sophie: “Milo, who studied at Goldsmiths, is a sculptor who makes these hypnotic, totem-like towers that are taller than me. They’re incredibly intricate and quite unusual. He carves intricate details into wood, which he then burns and polishes, using steel to create their ‘feet’. He’s looking into using more metal in his work; we’re so excited to see where this takes him. We recently visited him in his studio, which is in Woolwich. Not only was it amazing to see all the processes that go into his work, but feeling the pieces that were in the making was extraordinary.”

Further reading

Wondering People

Wondering People on Instagram

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