My Life in Art Colleges

Worcester college of technology art college

I recently read an article in the Guardian about a project started by Matthew Cornford documenting art colleges in the UK, and how many had become derelict/ changed in use. I’m a bit gutted I missed the exhibition at the New Art Gallery Walsall about it, especially as it focussed on art colleges of the West Midlands, where I began my artistic education.

It made me think about my own experiences with art colleges, and how they have shaped my life. I have been to and worked in quite a few, although, as the article examines, many have either disappeared/ moved or joined larger institutions.

The fact I exist at all is thanks to an art college – Portsmouth to be exact. My mum studied Sculpture there back in the swinging sixties, she told me she picked Portsmouth because she wanted to meet a handsome sailor. I don’t know if she ever did meet any sailors, but she did meet my dad – an Irish carpenter who was living in the digs next door. My mum spent a lot of time in art colleges too, I think she did a post graduate in Art History (Manchester??) and a teaching qualification to teach art. She went to various evening/part time courses when I was growing up, I know she went to life drawing somewhere in London, and also pottery classes (and probably many more!). I quite often attended the pottery classes with her, if it was the school holidays, and she had nowhere else to take me to. I don’t know where these were though. We lived in Kilburn until I was 10, so probably somewhere around there.

In the mid eighties we moved to Kidderminster in the West Midlands, and although Kidderminster College  wasn’t just an art college, it had many art courses there. Again my mum attended pottery classes there, which I occasionally went along with her too (not sure you can do that today, just bring your children along?!). My mum also taught Life Drawing there for a couple of years. This was the only time I remember in my childhood money not being a struggle (I was allowed a yoghurt in my packed lunch!). I can’t remember why it came to an end after a couple of years, probably a restructure.

Kidderminster College as it was back then on Hoo road, before it moved to its current site in the town centre. Photo taken by Mike Smith, the only picture I could find of it back in the day, now demolished.

In my own art education I attended Worcester College of Technology (no longer exists, now part of Heart of Worcester college) to do my art foundation in 1994. I also considered Bournville in Birmingham or Stourbridge college, but I was not entitled to free travel to those, as they were outside of (then) Hereford and Worcester county, and although my mum was keen for me to go to the best possible, I knew we could not afford to pay for the travel for me.There was no financial help to study  art foundation – too old for child support but you didn’t qualify for student grants/loans. I also did not fancy Kidderminster college to do my foundation as I wasn’t keen on Kidderimster in general! Thankfully I was entitled to free train travel to Worcester, although I can’t remember why.

I had just finished my A levels at Worcester Sixth Form College, so Worcester was a natural progression, plus my best friend was attending too. I liked the atmosphere and the look of the college, which was purposely built as an art college in a lovely building. I had an amazing year there. I loved studying art full time, and had a brilliant social life. As a very shy and introverted teenager, it really helped me come out of my shell, I felt like finally I belonged somewhere, with other creatives and artists. The building has now turned into a retirement home – to be fair I would quite happily retire there!

one of the limited number of photos I took actually in the college building, the classrooms opened out into a central green square…where alot of smoking happned, as you can tell.

After that I went off to what was then Cardiff Institute, (then became University of Wales Institute Cardiff, now Cardiff Metropolitan University) to study Art and Aesthetics (Fine Art and Philosophy essentially) in 1995. I liked the mixture of practical and theory on offer, as I enjoyed writing as well, and the fact you didn’t need to specialise. I enjoyed everything – painting, printing, photography…  many courses you had to choose one or the other. Although I was moving to another country (Wales!), it wasn’t too far from my hometown, and easy enough to drive or get the train to. Oh, and they accepted me, unlike Bristol which was my first choice! 

My friend making use of the studio furniture in our first year!

Our first year was spent in a separate building to the rest of the art college, which we shared with the foundation year. It was on Penarth Road and a good half hour walk from the main building (which we visited often as it had the bar… and the library!). At the end of that year, there was a mysterious fire and a lot of the third years lost their final work. We also lost some, but as we were only first years, it was not so dramatic for us. We moved to the main building in Howard Gardens the following year, which I think had been on the cards anyway, but the fire just sped things up a bit. I don’t have many photos of the studios or my work strangely – just a lot of nights out! I wish I had documented it better, but it was film cameras in those days, so each photo was precious. 

My studio in the second and third year

Again I had an amazing 3 years, I had a brilliant group of friends and we partied hard. I also worked very hard and would be in my studio most days I could. I miss those days, such great memories. The institute turned into a university while I was there, and this seemed to mostly mean tighter restrictions – no more smoking in the studios alongside the turpentine (!); no more smoking other things in the bar. I remember my mum telling me that in her day the students were campaigning against turning art colleges into universities – they are different beasts really!

I believe the art college has now moved to another site in Cardiff, where the rest of the university is. Again it was on the cards when we were there, but it didn’t happen until over a decade after we left. I have not been back for years, but I think the site where the art college was was knocked down, and is now student halls. I don’t remember it being a particularly attractive building, but it was a fully functioning art college, and it was what went on inside that counted.

Towards the end of my third year my mum became very ill with a rare and serious heart condition, and she was unable to attend my final show, which she (and I) was devastated about. My dad, bless him, came to see it – it was definitely not his scene but he wanted to support me!

Me and my work in my final show 1998

I was gutted to be leaving Cardiff and my friends after three years. Myself and two of my friends made plans to return as soon as we could and get a house together. However, my mum got worse, and six months after I graduated she died, putting pay to any plans I had of returning. 

At this time I was living back in Kidderminster, and those were pretty dark days. Again art colleges helped me get through it. I was sporadically employed in temporary /part time jobs, with periods of unemployment too. This meant I was entitled to a lot of free courses, and I made the most of it. I was taking life drawing classes in Kidderminster college, and I also enrolled in an evening course at NEW college Redditch (also now part of Heart of Worcester College) to learn to use some computer software (I can’t even remember what it was called) that you could make multi media magazines in. I had very little in the way of computer skills in those days, but the creative aspect appealed to me, and I had a vague aspiration to be a graphic designer. I clearly remember attending a class a couple of weeks after my mum had died, and it being the only hour I did not cry or think about what had happened, and I  began to finally start feeling a bit more ‘normal’. Nobody there knew what had happened, and I was able to just lose myself in making my magazine. I was pretty happy with what I had created, some kind of early website making skills, but not that anyone would ever see, as the software became pretty redundant and I was never able to download it from my floppy disc onto another computer! Oh well, it remains in my head!

I stayed on to do another course in photoshop, and this was much more useful for my future artistic creations, and led me to pursue this line of creativity in my practice, particularly with photography and text based works. I was later awarded a bursary to get further help with my photoshop skills at Vivid (not sure it exists anymore, possibly a forerunner of Vivid projects) in Birmingham, and this again fuelled my creative juices with the possibilities I could see in using it.

I decided I wanted to do an MA, and I wanted to move to London, as I had friends there and it felt the right time to move on. I really wanted to pursue my creativity in photoshop, but I still wanted to do a fine art course, rather than graphics. I couldn’t see much evidence of this in most fine art courses, they all still seemed to focus on more traditional materials.

During this time I visited my mums cousin, who had taken me under her wing a bit after my mum died. She lived in East Dulwich in south London, and it seemed like the ends of the earth to me trying to get there via tube to Elephant & Castle then a number 12 bus, passing through Walworth road and Peckham. She told me about Camberwell Art College which was not too far from her, and when I investigated I discovered an MA in Book Arts. I had no idea what that was, but I went to visit the end of year shows and I felt it was the closest course to what I wanted to do, using image and text and developing my creative computer skills. I applied and was accepted, so I began my next chapter at an art college in September 2000.

My offer letter for the London Institute

My mums cousin put me up for the first couple of months while I found a part time job and a flat share in Peckham. She also partly  financially helped me out as I was not awarded a grant to cover my course fees or living costs. I paid my fees with all the savings I had made during my 2 years out of college in Kidderminster working many different jobs – at one time I had 5 jobs! I got a part time job in a local after school club, which was pretty challenging to say the least, and quite often interfered with my studies as it was everyday 3-5 pm. However it helped me complete my MA and got me well acquainted with life in South East London and astutely aware of the poverty surrounding the area, and my own fortunate and privileged position. As they say, there is always someone else worse off than you, be thankful for what you do have.

Sadly my mums cousin became very ill with pancreatic cancer and she also died when I was about half way through my MA. Another devastating loss, as she had been so instrumental in me coming to study at Camberwell, and supported me getting there. She was also an incredible and inspiring person, and when she died there was an obituary in the Guardian.

One of the few pictures I took inside Camberwell College while I was studying there!

Camberwell was a great college, again purpose built. I think it is the only college I have attended that is actually still there and functioning as an art college. It was part of the London Institute when I was there, now it has become a part of the behemoth that is University of the Arts, London. So far it has survived, unlike some of the other colleges swallowed up by UAL.

Book Arts was a pretty small course and we shared a floor and some equipment with the printmaking MA, and here I met my other half Chris, who was not only a really skilled screen printer, but was great with computers too, and often helped me fight the A3 inkjet printer our courses shared! 

A shot from MA Book Arts final show 2001 – my work is on the back wall, in front is work by Rozi Yunus.

We finished our MAs in September 2001, and we have remained living in either Camberwell or Peckham ever since. Chris and I, along with our friends Hannah and Laura (who had recently graduated from MAs at the RCA), formed a collective when Chris and I lived next door to them in Camberwell, called Garudio Studiage, which Chris and I still run to this day. The rest, they say, is history.

Camberwell College 2023 – not looking too different to 2001, other than the entrance was a floor above with stairs going up rather than down. There is also now a massive extension at the back.

But the art college connections are still not over. While I was studying, I used to think I would love to work in an art college library, this proved harder than I imagined to get my foot in the door. I worked in many gallery and children’s art activity positions over the years, but got a bit fed up with the unstable freelance life and bad pay in galleries (generally aimed at the privileged who could afford to work for free/ low pay). I managed to get a position in a public library, and this helped me then also get a position working in the library in the art college part of London Metropolitan University in 2007 (formerly known as the John Cass School of Art), where I have worked on a part time basis ever since.

Commercial Road site just before it closed in 2016

This is another art college that has been through the mills. When I joined it was mainly  housed in two buildings (Commercial Road and Central House) in Aldgate. Since then both these buildings have been sold off (along with many others), the art department shrunken and moved into the Calcutta House site, and at time of writing has more moves hanging over it.

I would happily go back to art college and spend the rest of my days there, it is the place I have alsways felt the happiest and accepted. Maybe I will be retiring to the old art college in Worcester one day….