x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 18 October 2017

Money & Me: 'We took out a 100 per cent mortgage on our first property'

Artist Jessica Watson-Thorp says she and her husband secured the home loan at a time when banks were still willing to provide them - a move that has seen their London flat quadruple in value

Jessica Watson-Thorp became an artist after the birth of her first child. Photo: Jessica Watson-Thorp
Jessica Watson-Thorp became an artist after the birth of her first child. Photo: Jessica Watson-Thorp

Jessica Watson-Thorp is a fine artist based in Dubai. Hailing from a small farming community in south Australia, she has worked on vineyards and flower farms, as a ceramics tutor, schoolteacher for children with special needs and as an archaeologist. Her studio and home is in Al Wasl where she lives with her husband, daughters aged 12 and 15, and eight-year-old twin sons. The 42-year-old exhibits locally and beyond, as well as fulfilling bespoke orders.

How did your upbringing shape your attitude towards money?

I come from a very comfortable middle class background. As we were in a very conservative country environment, it was frowned upon to talk about money. I feel knowing more and talking openly about money would have helped my financial education. My dad was a country vet; he and my mother ran the business together. We certainly didn’t have luxuries, but had everything we needed and were able to afford annual holidays, which sparked my passion for travel.

What prompted you to become a full-time artist?

I became a full (ish) time artist with the birth of my first child. I’d been working for others until this point. It seemed like a good time for a change of lifestyle, to work hours I could manage around being a mother. Luckily I had savings and as a family we had enough to live on without a steady income from me. It is a big leap, but my passion for what I do far outweighs the risk; there was no way I could carry on without exploring this.

How did your sales fare at first?

We had just moved to Bahrain and I started selling paintings to new friends. There was a huge demand for original art at that time as artists were thin on the ground and there were only two formal galleries. I used to empty our villa twice a year and turn it into a gallery for a long weekend. These shows were almost all sellouts. Over time my little base of collectors slowly moved to other global destinations. They started coming back to me, ordering bespoke pieces.

How much were you paid in your first job?

My first job was serving customers in a roadhouse restaurant, taking orders, chatting to truckers and other travellers who passed through our little town. I got paid the equivalent of about Dh17 per hour.

How did you end up in the UAE?

I originally came to the Middle East following my husband’s job. This took us around the Gulf region and, five years ago, to Dubai. I ended up having twins in 2008, on top of already having two children, which meant I had to take a few years out of the creative scene. I kept painting, only for existing collectors based elsewhere. I re-entered just over two years ago with a fresh start and an enhanced perspective on life.

Are you a saver or a spender?

I am a saver, although I’m willing to take risks with money, especially in terms of investments. Becoming a mother added another level of responsibility. I ensure that my paid work comes before any requests from others to do charitable work. Although I take on one or two charitable projects per year, they must be strictly in line with my own CSR, and only done on top of what I need to earn.

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Where do you save?

Most of my savings are in property investments abroad. I set these up when I had a more regular salary, as a buffer, before I took creativity on as a career. I like to keep some money as cash; in the creative world sometimes opportunities come up that need a little cash. I was invited to exhibit in New York earlier this year and my work had to be shipped; this needed some capital investment.

What is your philosophy towards money?

Money is just another form of energy. It gives you a certain level of freedom but shouldn’t rule you. I don’t believe in worshipping money. I prefer to live and explore opportunities. If you keep your energy channels open opportunities will come to you and so will money.

What is your most cherished purchase?

Gifts or items that have family sentimental value rather than something I have purchased. In terms of purchases it would have to be my plane tickets. As an artist I love colour and culture. I started travelling when I was 17, in Africa. My minor at university was in the study of culture and, more specifically, archaeology. It’s experiences rather than items that I cherish.

Do you prefer paying in cash or by credit card?

As much as possible I pay by credit card to accumulate frequent flyer points, although this policy exists strictly with the knowledge that I pay the card off in full each month to avoid charges. I don’t believe in using credit for day-to-day purchases. The only things I will go into debt for are property purchases where there is real potential for long term return.

What has been your best investment?

The first flat my husband and I bought in central London, 2001. At that time we didn’t have enough savings for the stamp duty and had to borrow from a good friend. But, as we were both professionals, we were able to take out a 100 per cent mortgage - before the financial crisis when banks used to do that. This flat has quadrupled in value and allowed us to make further investments in property.

What prompted you to leave regular employment?

The prompt was definitely having my first child. It was something I had always wanted to do, but I had been clinging to the security of a regular salary. Now I juggle my days and nights around work and family commitments. It allows me flexibility to make it to sports matches and presentation nights, while pursuing my professional ambitions.

What do you regret spending money on?

We made one property purchase abroad to bail out a family member who had made an unrealistic commitment. After also attempting to give that family member the job of renovating the property as employment it went pear shaped and the place got trashed. Luckily, due to a buoyant market, we were able to eventually sell and break even. However, my lesson was learned: trying to help others by protecting them from the consequences of their financial decisions doesn’t help.

Do you plan for the future?

I’ll never go back to working for someone else. Now I sell paintings, I run workshops for women from my studio, and corporate wellness and team building. I also work at the odd event, exhibiting work and setting up a unique pop-up art experience for guests. If I had time I would spend every waking hour painting or on creative projects. I’m two years in on my second round and achieving far more than breaking even. I’m looking forward to seeing this grow into something more profitable.

What would you raid your savings for?

To attend some of the big, relatively new art fairs springing up in Africa. Like with other industries, in art Africa is an emerging market. I’m intrigued by this continent and fascinated by the politics of Southern Africa. I’ve seen a lot of change over the years on my travels there.