Creative Lives — We talk good vibes and making art with Lord Whitney set builder, Rufus Newell

Posted 14 June 2018 Interview by Marianne Hanoun

You’ll likely find Rufus Newell in the Lord Whitney workshop, surrounded by tools, paint and an awful lot of sawdust. As the team’s part-time set builder, he’s responsible for keeping supplies and tools up to date, and of course, for building a range of fantastical creations for projects. But apart from that? “I also like to bring good vibes where possible.” While the role is a very hands-on one, he can’t do without his phone; emails are just as important as drills when it comes to putting a set together. A fine art graduate from Leeds College of Art, when he’s not in the workshop, Rufus is in his studio, focusing on his own art practice. Here, he talks mistakes, misconceptions and making art in Leeds. 

Rufus Newell

Job Title

Part-time Set Builder, Lord Whitney (2016–present)

Based

Leeds

Previous Employment

Gallery invigilator at the Hepworth Wakefield (2014–2016) 

Education

BA Fine Art, Leeds College of Art (2010–2013 )

Website
Social Media

Rufus at work

Day-to-Day

How would you describe your job? 
As a set builder and workshop organiser I look after the workshop, making sure we have enough tools and supplies. I’ll often help to pack an art kit that comprises of everything we might need to build props and sets for a job. Once packed, I help load and unload the vans. I also like to bring good vibes where possible.   

What does a typical working day look like?
The work can be pretty varied from day-to-day, often starting at 10 and finishing at 6pm. I live a couple of miles from the studio, which is great as I can cycle to work. Starting the day with a cuppa and breakfast is a must. 

What do you like about working in Leeds?
Living and working in Leeds is great and pretty affordable if you live in the right parts. I try and live as cheaply as I can, trying to avoid full-time work as much as possible! Leeds and the north in general has a really strong DIY creative scene, which is great for me as an artist trying to do my own work. I would definitely recommend it.   

Inside the studio

How did you land your current job? 
I first saw an Instagram post from Lord Whitney advertising the position of set-build assistant. I was looking for a bit of a change from my previous work and knew I’d be able to make stuff. I had an interview where I was asked if I like Wotsits – which I loved! Also, the fact that I said yes to everything and acted like I knew what I was doing helped. 

Where does the majority of your work take place?
Most of my work takes place in the workshop, sorting through things, putting tools away, making and painting things, cutting and sanding wood, hoovering up sawdust. The studio itself is a really inspiring place to work; we are all friends, which also adds a great deal to the ethos. I hardly ever spend any time in front of a computer, which I count as a blessing, although I am constantly on my phone through the day.      

How collaborative is your role? 
Very, I would not be able to do anything without the input of someone from the team, it really is a group effort. 

What are the most and least enjoyable aspects of your job? 
The best part is seeing everyone’s hard work being rewarded when a job is successful and looks great. Also, getting all meals paid for on a job still feels like a total luxury! The least fun would be working late into the night when you're knackered

“Leeds has a really strong DIY creative scene, which is great for me as an artist trying to do my own work.”

Inside the studio

What has been the most exciting project of the last twelve months?
The pop-up Netflix event in Manchester probably tops the list. On a personal level, it was great to work within a larger team of experienced set builders, and the end result looked great, with silver birch trees and old-school American bikes. 

What skills are essential to your job?
Being adaptable, solving problems and building quickly, carrying large objects without destroying anything, knowing how to pack a van. 

Do you run any self-initiated projects alongside your job?
Alongside working for Lord Whitney I am an artist based in a brilliant but freezing studio called Assembly house in Leeds. Making art is my priority, and to be honest, the main reason I’m in Leeds. I can afford a studio and time to push my own stuff. My work-life balance is constantly changing, but I am getting better at putting my art first.    

What tools do you use most for your work?
A drill, screws and tape measures are never too far away, a nail gun, the guided rail saw and chop saw, also need to be close at hand. I also couldn't do without masking tape, paint, rollers, Stanley knives and staplers. Emails as well, can't forget emails.  

Work for a Netflix Stranger Things event, 2017

Work for a Netflix Stranger Things event, 2017

Work for a Netflix Stranger Things event, 2017

Work for a Netflix Stranger Things event, 2017

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Work for a Netflix Stranger Things event, 2017

How I Got Here

What did you want to be growing up?
Me and my brother's bedroom was covered with posters of our favourite football players, and I can remember really wanting to play for Porto FC because I liked their kit. My Nan told me recently that when I was younger I told her I wanted to be a chef. I don’t remember that, but it sounds about right as my first job was in a bakery, and after that I worked in a string of kitchens. 

What influence has your upbringing had on your work?
I was really lucky that my Mum and Dad didn't push me to go down a certain route, I was always encouraged to pursue what I liked, and the idea for doing something creative always seemed like a possibility.

How (if at all) is the subject you studied useful to your current role?
Over time, I have realised that studying art is as useful as you want it to be. The best thing it taught me was how to think independently and imagine how something might look before it's actually made. Being comfortable around paint and tools is essential to my job at Lord Whitney and that relationship was probably cemented whilst studying art.  

“I had an interview where I was asked if I like Wotsits – which I loved!”

Rufus and the team

What were your first jobs? 
As a fourteen year old, working in a bakery was great up until the point I had to start at 3am. The longer I worked there, the earlier the start time got! Nightmare! My first proper creative job was working at the Hepworth Wakefield art Gallery in Wakefield which I did for a couple of years after university.  

What in particular helped you the most at the start of your career? 
I had a really good teacher on my foundation course in Hastings who really helped me understand and imagine myself as someone who could be creative.  

Was there a particular project you worked on that helped your development?
The Netflix job was one of the larger jobs I had worked on and it gave me a good appreciation of just how much work goes into realising a project.  

“Over time, I have realised that studying art is as useful as you want it to be.”

What skills have you learnt along the way?
Loads of practical skills, which is great personally and professionally. Once you have a good basic understanding of how to make things, you can work your way around a problem. I am pretty certain a robot could do my job way better and more productively than me so I am just waiting till then to adapt. 

What’s been your biggest challenge? 
Probably coping with the pressures of being on a busy set and trying to make and move things quickly. Feeling pushed for time and space in any aspect of life is stressful so feeling like that on someone else's time can be challenging. I have made loads of mistakes like making things the wrong size or forgetting to bring certain key things to a job. I like to think I have learnt from all these mistakes…

Is your job what you thought it would be?
To be honest I wasn't really sure what I was getting myself into. My biggest misconception was believing I knew the trade when in fact I was relatively inexperienced. The idea of jumping into the deep end has definitely played off as I am starting to buy my own tools. I had this idea that all the jobs would be great fun, colourful and instantly rewarding which, on the whole, they have been, but not always.

Inside the studio

Thinking Ahead

What would you like to do next? 
I would like to keep on learning and progressing, I would love to get a van and I owe it to myself to try and live in a hot country one day. 

What do you feel is the natural career progression for someone in your current position?
In terms of a career in the trade, the progression is really to get quicker and more skilled. The more experience I get with building sets and props the more I want to make more complicated things. 

Inside the studio

Words of Wisdom

What advice would you give to a young creative wanting to do the same kind of work?
Put yourself out there and try to get as much experience as possible. I have learnt loads from asking questions and have found that most people are pretty open to sharing knowledge. Get some knee pads and lip balm – sets and workshops can be really dry and dusty! 

Posted 14 June 2018 Interview by Marianne Hanoun
Photography: Sophie Stafford
Collection: Creative Lives
Disciplines: Set Design, Event Design
Mentions: Rufus Newell, Lord Whitney
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