As students we have all been part of the university environment for a couple of years at least. Have you ever asked yourself if you would like to work in one? If so have you thought about what kind of work might be available and how you might go about getting it? These questions are regularly floating around my head at the moment so when I saw  this conference coming up I got rather excited!

Initially  it wasn’t quite what I had expected – I had imagined that looking at how artists work in higher education related to artists in art colleges but this was not the case. Discussions throughout the day revealed how artists work within a range of faculties –  for example history and science – and how these connections enable them to work  with other artists, academics, university staff, librarians, curators and the public in exciting and imaginative ways.

The day was incredibly informative and here is a review, from a student perspective,  of  the conference held in Manchester  organised by Castlefields Gallery and a-n.

Under the canopy of the governments’ Connected Communities body  the conference looked at ways in which universities and artists currently work together, illustrated through a series of first hand- experiences shared by  academics and artists.

Kate Pahl and Steve Pool explained the role of Connected Communities as an ongoing programme of work and research funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council which is looking at working relationships between artists and universities and communities. Universities see engaging with their local communities as being very important .

Jeanie Scott  talked about the work of a-n and its research into the working patterns of artists. She made the point that 4,380 art and design students graduate from UK art colleges each year – what happens to them all ? What work do they find? This question is fuel to my already burning question – what do we do after graduation? – where and how do we start to make steps as artists? Jeannie showed a really interesting diagram commissioned for a-n  by Emily Speed called the Ecology of Visual Arts  which lays out in very visual terms the lay of the artists landscape currently. Full of interesting and surprising facts and figures I recommend you take a look at it. Here is the link:


With the background covered  we heard from academics and artists working together in a variety of ways – events, residencies, exhibitions and collaborations.

Professor Vanessa Toulmin talked about her role as organiser of Sheffield’s Festival of The Mind. Her talk was dynamic and exciting and she revealed many ways in which academics, artists and local communities came together in a range of events in the 10 day festival. Whilst there was plenty of evidence about community engagement – crucial for the universities – I was more interested in the imaginative ways that the creative activities were initiated and delivered. The ethos of the festival  is to take  an open-minded approach to activities which clearly gives artists autonomy and scope in their work. Some artists were paid and some volunteered and their involvement has in some cases led to further work. A quote from Vanessa “working with artists brings back the joy of discovery – the reason I became an academic (originally)” makes me think – this is what artists do – they inspire people and help to make and re-kindle connections.

Subsequent speaker James Oliver made this point in a slightly different way. James was talking about how researchers  work with ideas in a binary, parallel way and how working with artists disrupt these patterns creating new ways of seeing and interpreting.  Artists are shaking things up  – acting as catalysts for new perspectives and challenging the status quo.

Steve Swindles form Hudderfield University made a great analogy – artists are the’ foreign guest in the family home’. They bring with them new customs and unfamiliar habits that can unsettle the home. Ultimately though they lead to new ways of seeing things and an enrichment of everyday life.

So in working with universities artists perform the role of initiators of change – Steve Pool described artists as creating “spaces of opportunity” – just think how valuable these must be to large institutions and communities that may struggle with change.

Paul Evans, Leeds based artist talked about his residency at Cardiff University funded by the Leverhulme Trust in which he worked closely with zoologist Dr Jaqui Mulville. Paul approached the university himself motivated by his particular interest in the subject matter and the residency led to a popular blog and a major series of drawings.”It is important that you have a passionate shared interest with your academic partner.”

What Paul did was really interesting when thinking about the question how do artists get work? He initiated the project entirely.

I’ve talked about these examples because they show how artists can work with university faculties with science backgrounds  to bring new ideas and perspectives to research, find new subjects to explore and create new opportunities for making and exhibiting work; writing blogs and developing networks.

The day itself provided opportunities to network and I talked to several artists about their work . Its clear that these  city based artists (Manchester, Leeds and Sheffield) have many more opportunities for work  than an artist would in our rural Herefordshire. But whilst there are more opportunities there is also greater competition. I asked one mid career artist if the art ecology in the North was competitive – very competitive was his answer and I could sense from the manner in which he replied that was a very real experience. I remember meeting a London artists 18 months ago who has moved to our area and who made a comment about students at our college being very relaxed and not perhaps aware of the level of  competitiveness outside our happy little art school and county  bubbles. The comment made at the conference has focused my mind on this fact. So when we graduate I think we have to at least acknowledge that not only are we stepping out into the big wide world of work we will be swimming around the art ocean with many fish  more hungry for work than we are – by the nature of geography.

I met  curator and art writer Rachel Marsden and she expanded on this point –  she felt that you have to go to the work you want and not be limited by geography  – the work isn’t going to come to you. This is a really important point to bear in mind when thinking about life beyond graduation. We have to be proactive in finding work; of inventing work and inevitably be prepared to and be capable of promoting ourselves effectively (social media etc).

Some other useful advice given to me  for the time after college  – plan a strategy  – aims; networks; area of work to explore; finding a mentor; and think about building or linking to a peer group too.

So I have come away with a greater understanding of how artists work within universities on a range of projects and the importance of engaging with local communities within this creative work. It is very clear to me now that artists are seen and see themselves as many more things beyond being creators of work. Artists are and need to be communicators, catalysts, disrupting things around them and reflecting their unique vision of the world. In order to find work they need to have a strategy and focus; and have an ability to communicate and build relationships.

In answer to my initial question about working with universities I now know its possible and clearly rewarding  – will this be part of a postgraduate strategy for you?

Professor Kate Pahl is from the University of Sheffield and is principle investigator on the Connecting Communities project.

Steve Pool is an artist and co-investigator.

Jeanie Scott is Executive Director of a-n.

Professor Vanessa Toulmin is Director of the National Fairground Archive and Head of Cultural Engagement at Sheffield University.

Steve Swindles is Professor in Creative Practice at Huddersfield University.

The conference was free, with travel bursaries available for artists and free refreshments throughout the day.


I was going to include an extract from my journal. I remembered writing in it just before Christmas and thinking that I had reached an important point in my  work and ideas. I had just had a group crit and a tutorial from a visiting artist which had given me new ideas and allowed for helpful discussions.

The journal writing I thought would express this succinctly and reflect the energy and focus I felt at the time –  might be interesting to others at the same point in their final year.

But actually on reading it through it wasn’t how I had remembered it. To be honest it sounds quite pretentious  – a flurry of creativeness darling! ( I am laughing at my sense of the dramatic  now!)  But it did serve its purpose at the time, however silly it might sound on reading it back, at the time it cryslaised my flow of thought and consolidated ideas for new work. I have taken those ideas forward and am working with them currently.

That’s the amazing thing about reflective writing – its a powerful and transformative process. Its  the writing down of ideas, events and responses as they happen that is so useful. The writing captures your thoughts at the point at which  your creativity is fully engaged. And you cant capture all your thoughts and the intensity of it all the next week or possibly not even the next day – being in the moment is literally just a moment and everything starts to fade soon afterward.

In this sense the journal is for me an active ongoing record and reference point that I need to always have at hand. Its not attractive in anyway – not an aesthetically pleasing object as some journals can be – it has a sense of spontaneity, even desperation about it. If it was a person you would say it had just rolled out of bed – scruffy round the edges after a long night’s sleep full of dreams !




We do this really useful (and seemingly simple) thing at college – our tutor asks us to sum up what  our practice comprises of in one word – that’s actually really tricky! We were having a group crit last week and we were all asked to find one word – why is it that when faced with this task  tens of words fall clumsily from my mouth? Eventually I found my word, after explaining that I felt I was in a muddy trench wading and wobbling about in ankle deep mud ( enjoyably!) – yes – I am  ‘unearthing’ things; coming across fragments of ideas  and picking them up and examining them;  reflecting on how I transform these ideas through work and then cataloging them for reference. Its’ pretty messy in my trench and rather chaotic but I  have unearthed  a rich seam of  finds and am examining them with scrutiny and anticipation.

Before this point, and for a few months, I struggled  with my subject matter; working autobiographically with objects is far harder than with objects relating to others. Its personal. It has been difficult to get beyond the confusion of emotions that rose to the surface as I worked with the figurine (an object of personal significance and the subject of all my current work). Reading Contemporary Art and Memory by Joan Gibbons (published by Tauris) is really helping me to get beyond my emotional blocks. The book examines a few artists at a time with regard to particular aspects of ‘memory work’. In the first chapter Gibbons looked at Frida Kahlo, Louise Bourgeois and Tracey Emin. Looking at how artists manifest their experiences and perceptions through practice has given me a freedom of expression. I am able to look at precisely how artists use physical elements of their past – furniture, clothing and personal imagery for example, to construct new re-worked versions of their experiences.

Its very useful to have these threads running through my mind when making work – they act as a source of ideas and reference and they also help me to detach from my emotional constraints. Its interesting how to fill your already busy mind with lots more ideas helps to solve problems and create clarity. So to my muddy trench I am adding a constantly flowing stream of water that cleans the fragments revealing their substance and value.

This sense of things working together to provide ideas and solutions is visible in my practice in another way too. I am  making drawings on one studio wall  whilst on the opposite wall I’m  simultaneously playing around with photographic experiments and three dimensional responses. It feels like an ambidextrous approach to working – rather like the feeling you get when patting your head and rubbing your tummy at the same time ( a childhood pass-time); its quite tricky but possible with concentration and  a little practice ( have just tried it and its still funny!). Perhaps this studio set up is my hypothetical trench realised in a physical space. I can go from one wall to another  – examining evidence, making adjustments, taking notes ; all the time unearthing more fragments, finding new responses and building up a body of work.



I have been reading the a-n end of year series How was it for you? with interest – learning about people new to me, their roles in the art world and the challenges they face in the name of art. An insightful series thank you a-n.

So I’m now feeling a little philosophical myself – pensive for the last 12 months, mindful for the forthcoming year. I have to say tho – trying to drum up words of interest is proving difficult – the Christmas break has taken the edge off my thinking – my power to communicate dulled with too much telly watching, chocolate eating and slurping of wine. (I suppose a word of gratitude for these excesses needs to come first  – I’m very fortunate to have had a long Christmas break with my family). A family Christmas is however  completely absorbing so no chance for doing any work or journal writing. I have been catching up with Sonia Boué’s blog https://www.a-n.co.uk/blogs/the-museum-for-object-research tho, which has anchored me back in the fascinating world of objects – thanks Sonia!

I’m missing my practice over the holiday period and this  makes me think how much I love it and need to continue once I have graduated. The need to talk and write about work is as important to me as making work  – and talking to artists via the blogging platform here is really exciting and rewarding.

Highlights of 2014 – researching (through my dissertation)  the very animate lives of objects; and making work around the figurine (see previous posts).

Hopes for 2015 – to make new artist friends and continue my conversations about work; and to find rewarding work within the arts. I can’t imagine finishing college without the continuance of my practice and involvement in the arts – it just doesn’t bear thinking about!

Here’s hoping we all find new challenges and rewards in our creative practice this year.