I have been a student at Cardiff School of Art & Design for two years and 8 months. That’s approximately 8.3 million seconds.
I wonder – how many of those seconds were filled with real commitment, dedication and hard work? I can certainly vouch for the last 30,000 or so. Yesterday was, by some way, the most urgent of my life. I generally take things at a fairly measured pace, staying calm and thoughtful and watching all the other people get stressed and run around. But not yesterday. I had gone into this last week with the strange feeling that I hadn’t earned the right to cross the finish line; I hadn’t had that screaming panic, that feeling of dread, that pure exhaustion that you associate with the final year of university. Well, I still haven’t succumbed to the dread, and the panic has been more subdued and internal, but yesterday the exhaustion hit me like a train. As I dragged myself up to the studio at quarter to three to hastily prepare my desk after finishing the memory room, I felt like I could collapse.
But I didn’t, and neither did anyone else, and now here we are. There are still the Viva exams to come next week, but the actual work is done. My art school experience is all but over, and I don’t think I’m sure yet how that feels. As we sat in the courtyard of the Halfway yesterday evening, drinking and laughing with all of the tutors and technicians who watched us stagger over the line, I wondered what it was like for them. How did our year compare to the one before it, and the one before that? They’ve seen hundreds and hundreds of our little faces over the years, watching our expressions change from panic to mute determination to relief as that deadline comes and goes. I wonder how we rank against the masses of history, in all the various and trivial ways that you can rank a group of students? Of course, it is daft to think about making these kinds of comparisons, but I do anyway.
One thing that isn’t daft, however, is the effect that this final year has had on me. Ever since my A-Levels, my teachers and tutors (and myself) have told me the same thing: I’m an intelligent person with great potential, but I lack the motivation. I lack that little bit of me that really wants to succeed at whatever it is I’m doing, and I settle for second best because I can never quite be bothered. I’d much rather be at home playing Call of Duty.
Going into this year, I had all of this in mind. I knew that this was really the last opportunity I had to shake off my laziness and find some motivation, and finally vindicate all of the claims that I made to my mum that “when it really matters, I’ll do it”. Well, I did it! I think there were two main factors that contributed to my dramatic increase in engagement and enthusiasm this year, and the first was my decision to take it upon myself to organise an external show. I’ve talked about Within/Without at length in a previous post, but maybe what I haven’t mentioned is how the whole process has fundamentally changed the way I’ve approached the idea of university. Before, I was only working for my own benefit. It was my work, it was my grade, and it was my choice. But here, as I was responsible for organising an exhibition that included fifteen other students, all of whom I consider good friends, There was suddenly an added layer of necessity. These people were trusting me to achieve something on their behalf, and I think it was that trust that inspired me and motivated me to really make the most of the opportunity. It ended up being a great success, and the wave of positivity and togetherness that it created has helped carry us all the way to this final deadline week.
The second factor has been discovering a creative process that not only gives me great enjoyment and satisfaction, but also allows me to create work that successfully communicates with people and forms meaningful emotional connections. My method of papercut projection layering has enabled me to engage with a subject matter that comes directly from me and my own experience, and that has enriched my work in an aesthetic and philosophical way. The link between my academic research and my illustrative practice has become more and more clear as the year has progressed (a connection I touched upon during my appearance on Pitch/Illustration/Radio earlier this week – I will provide a link to the recording of this when it is uploaded). I have received feedback on my work from tutors as well as friends and complete strangers, telling me that my images remind them of moments in their own lives, even back to their childhood. The realisation that my work can actually connect with people is such an assurance that I’m doing something worthwhile, and it only makes me want to push it further. It’s taken a lot of stumbling and not quite getting it right to get to this point – and the stark contrast between my current work and the images I was creating at the start of the year is testament to that – but looking at it now I can see a clear progression, and also a clear underlying ideological link throughout. I’ve managed to coax out of myself what it is that truly matters to me with regards to the theme of memory, and I’ve settled on the two main considerations of layers and of human connection. For simplicity’s sake, I’ll paste here the artist statement I’ve written to accompany my work in the degree show. I think it just about sums it up:
Henri Bergson described memory as ‘the intersection of mind and matter’. It is the vital place in which our thoughts collide with the world around us, and our identities are born. Memory underpins every action we take and every judgement we make, and without it we would have nothing to anchor us to ourselves as we are bombarded from all sides by the endless influences of life.
I have become fascinated by this crucial role that memory plays in our construction of our sense of self, and fearful at the prospect of losing that identity. Just as our memories are built upon each other in layers in our mind, every one impacted by the one placed above it, so are my images constructed. There is a fragility to all human connection; an unparalleled level of depth and complexity to which memory is so intrinsic, and with layered projections I seek to create tones and textures in my work that possess at least a modicum of that beautiful, indefinable profundity.
Through my illustrations I visually explore my own memories, grappling with the elusive intangibility of nostalgia in an attempt to create imagery that carries emotional and sensorial resonance. Whilst the viewer cannot intimately know the memory, they may nevertheless see something in the atmosphere of the image that stirs a feeling in themselves; taking them back to a moment in their own lives that has been landmarked by a similar weight of emotion and allowing them to reflect upon it.
This newfound sense of enthusiasm and desire to be involved has resulted not only in an improvement in my own work, but also in my engagement with other aspects of the course and the creative industries in general. I was fortunate enough to attend two What’s Next? meetings at the Arts Council for Wales earlier this year; which proved a really insightful experience in terms of forming an understanding of how people within the various realms of creativity and culture engage in debate about the state of the arts. Not only that, but I was able to be part of this debate, and offer a student perspective that was otherwise absent.
I have also taken on the responsibility of designing the catalogue for the Illustration Degree Show; an experience I have found thoroughly enjoyable and rewarding. Its been the most joyful thing to see all of this amazing work that people have created come together in one context that shows off the best of all of us. People seem really happy with what I’ve been creating for them, and the gratitude only motivates me further. Things like this, and the show in Bristol, make me realise that what I value most about the whole world of art and illustration and creativity in general is just being a part of it. Yes, I have found things that I want to say, ideas that I want to share and ways I want to share them, but the most important thing is just being involved and seeing things succeed, knowing I’ve contributed to them. It has made me want to find some kind of work after uni that allows me to remain a part of these kinds of environments, where I can use my skills as a team-oriented, pragmatic thinker and good communicator to either succeed myself or facilitate the success of others. As long as I’m a part of it, I’ll be happy.
So I think that’ll do it. I might write a few more uni-related posts on here reflecting on the catalogue or the outcome of the degree show, but essentially the road is at an end. As Tom Lehrer once said:
Soon we’ll be out amid the cold world’s strife,
Soon we’ll be sliding down the razorblade of life.