• Kat

Another brick in the wall: my art journey - part 1

Hello, thanks for joining me!

This week I wanted to give a brief history of my art journey so far. As always, I hope sharing my story helps others who are on a similar path. Today we are going way back in time to the pros and cons of my art education, circa 1999!

I hated school, and I knew my GSCE results were not going to be brilliant as I had recently discovered boys, molly and nightclubs where you paid £10 on the door and the alcohol was free all night (that really was a thing, kids!). Despite these significant distractions, I was absolutely laser focused on becoming a graphic designer. The school were supposed to put me forward for the local colleges and help me apply to them, but I felt like the teachers had already written me off and were not going to paint me in the best light. Bored and uninspired by school, I was in endless detentions and being told I was not going to amount to anything. They made us feel like our exams were going to determine our entire life path and I knew in my heart that it wasn't true.

So I contacted the local art college directly and got an interview myself instead of waiting for my school to do it for me. My effort paid off and I got a place on a National Diploma course! It was a massive relief to know that I had found a path forward and nothing the teachers said after that point could dim my shine. As a summer born child I was able to leave school at 15 and never looked back.

I started art college that September and quickly realised graphic design wasn't going to be my career path at all. Everything was about creating what the client wanted and it felt less free and more computer focused than drawing and painting. I completed my diploma with high grades and great feedback, and then moved on to a Fine Art HND.

I will write some more about my fine art course some time but it was truly wonderful. Those days spent drinking coffee with my best friend, sat at an easel just creating with a group of equally creative people was so fulfilling. It was a liberating time of my life where there was no pressure to create anything particular and I could find my own style and work out my own thoughts and feelings. If you get a chance at any age to go to art college, do it! It is a real gift and my tutors were all really inspiring.

All of my work used thick black lines and bright acrylic as I do now, but on top of paper collage from ripped up magazine adverts, with the appearance of a ripped billboard poster, it was pop art in style. I was heavily influenced by Lichtenstein, Warhol, Matisse, graphic novel artists like Frank Miller and street art in general. I remember my art teacher in secondary school telling me graffiti was not art and being really pissed off with her about it. They wouldn't let me do art projects on it and marked me down when I did it anyway. In contrast this was complete liberation.

At that point I didn't paint flowers, it was more abstract or figurative, inspired by life drawing. However I always adored Georgia O'Keeffe. If you are not familiar with her work she is so worth checking out. She painted close up florals, skulls and still life paintings inspired by her desert home. As I have got older and inherited my mothers passion for gardening, the street and city style has yielded to O'Keeffe's more gentle, nature inspired influence.

During that course I lived so 'in the moment' that I really had no idea what to do next and had no plan. My very kind and well meaning tutors encouraged me to apply for university and I trusted their recommendation. I went to the student finance place and they reassured me I would be eligible for grants to help me get there. I later found out they were loans not grants, and that they accrued interest from the day they are given.

University was not the experience I had hoped it would be. During that summer I had acquired a new love interest and so ended up travelling back every weekend to see him and never really got into the party scene up there. My small town was the place to be anyway, as they used to sell bags of dried mushrooms behind the counter at our local fancy dress shop without batting an eye.

The tutors were almost never there, they would give you a studio space and a theme to work on and then just disappear for up to a month. At college there was a lovely small community and on hand teaching, but at university there was no sense of that at all. They also hated everything I put out and I was marked down for being 'too literal', a stark contrast to the praise and Distinction marks I was attaining at college. Just like at school, your value was determined on whether they decided it was art or not, whether they liked it or not. I now realise how ridiculous it is to mark art of any kind, good or bad. It's just expression, and subjective. It isn't like passing a maths test in which you are dealing with absolutes.

I watched my peers tape a piece of string to the wall and get marked higher than the painting I had created over hours because they could come up with some elaborate story about it and I just hated that part of it. One of the other students admitted they were only doing it for a 'easy' degree. The bullshit statement where you have to explain what it all means really frustrated me. I just wanted to paint and that be an expression of joy.

The final straw came when we got invited to a lecture with one of the tutors and he explained that art is about accepting that you will be destitute for much of your life, that maybe one person in this room of 200 might make it as artists but even then its going to be a case of knowing the right people and blind luck. There is no money in art he said. This was when the internet was something that made screeching noises and took five minutes to 'dial up'. There was no social media to speak of. It was galleries or the streets. We were told stories of artists dying with nothing and only becoming famous after death (hashtag life goals). In my early twenties at this point, the idea of being broke for my whole life and paying this guy £9,000 a year to be told that was an absolute liberty. I hated the fact that I hadn't seen this teacher for a month and that this speech of his was supposed to be somehow helpful. I wondered how much he was earning. I walked out of that lecture, packed up my stuff and left for good.

While I was away, my parents had divorced and sold our house so I no longer had anywhere to live. My new digs were on my dad's sofa in his one bedroom flat, I had about £12k debt after just a year of uni, no job prospects and my dreams of being an artist where totally shattered. I stood in the dole office with a hangover, watching the local heroin addicts sitting in doorways waiting for their cheque and a fix. After four hours filling in a million forms, I got declined for an emergency loan and sat and cried on the concrete steps in the rain like everyone does in the harrowing bit of a bad movie. Suddenly painting seemed like a silly, self indulgent dream and the brutal reality of being an adult and facing up to my massive debt kicked in. It would be 16 years until I painted again.

Continued in part 2

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All the love,

Kat Xx