What's it like to study... Fine art - Getting Into University - Student - The Independent

What's it like to study... Fine art

Saoirse Crean studied Fine Art at Lancaster University, and now works in art marketing

In the first week of lower sixth, my art class went on a field trip to the Lake District. A whole week of painting and drawing, undisturbed and being at one with nature. At the start of the trip my teacher said, "After this week you will never see the world in the same way again. Everything will be a potential photograph or painting. You will always see the world through an artists eyes."

Mr Power was right, and some years later I was studying Fine Art at Lancaster University.

I chose Lancaster for a number of reasons. The art department has 24-hour studio access which was a real selling point. Being a professional artist isn’t a 9-5 job, so if you wake from a crazy dream at 3am full of inspiration, then you could act on it. The lecturers would constantly emphasise the importance of 'studio culture', and the 24-hour access certainly helped with this. Students were able to work together outside of a formal structured learning situation which helped create a more professional environment.

Students are treated as professional artists from day one. This can be pretty daunting, as you are expected to be independent and self-motivated, but the lecturers were always there to guide us and provide weekly critiques.

This independence extended beyond 24-hour studio access to the field trips we took in the first and second year. A week in Berlin and New York respectively. The degree is what you make of it, and on the trips, we were trusted to structure the week to see the galleries we were most interested in. Both in Berlin and New York, my group chose the hardcore option of early rises and late finishes, packing in as many galleries as was humanly possible - with quite a bit of sightseeing and cocktail drinking in between. It all went fairly smoothly - although the photos of me looking confused at a map might suggest differently.

I think the hardest part of the degree was the workload. Juggling a full-time degree (studio practice and dissertation), a part-time job, relationships and the all-important volunteering and internships could prove to be quite taxing. But it also equipped me with excellent time management and organisational skills. The internships that I worked on were invaluable for my CV and finding a job after University. As one of my lecturers once said, 'network or die' - and this is certainly the case in the art world.

There is also a level of uncertainty with an art degree - it’s not like a mathematical equation where there is a right or a wrong answer. You could pour your heart and soul in to a piece of work for viewers to just not get it. This could be heartbreaking, but it definitely helps you build a thick skin!

At Lancaster there is a real emphasis on becoming a professional in the art world - whether that is as a practicing artist, working for a gallery, or going on to further academia. The whole course is structured to provide you with the skills to enable this to happen.

The first year is fairly structured as you spend time completing projects in each of the different disciplines: painting, drawing, sculpture and digital. There is also the opportunity to work on group projects and collaborations, which help to promote the studio culture.

Being able to explore the different disciplines proved invaluable for me. As with many fledgling artists, I began the degree thinking I would be a painter or drawer - but by the end of the first year I was specialising in digital and performance. In both the studio sessions and art theory lectures we would constantly analyse what was important to us as artists – what did we value in art? E.g. visualness, the process of making art, or the meaning behind the work? My work was about people and society, and I felt performance and digital media was the best way for me to express my message.

Lancaster was definitely the best place for me as a digital artist as the staff really are experts in their field. One dilemma I faced was whether my dissertation lecturer would be flattered, or would think I was looking for brownie points for quoting one of his books in my thesis! In studio practice we would also have regular practical tutorials, or 'tech methods'. For the digital group this would range from how to use an SLR to creating an animation. Our lecturer would tailor these sessions to meet the group’s needs.

The culmination of any art degree is your degree show. This is your opportunity to present yourself to the world as a professional artist. Students spend the year fund-raising, marketing, promoting themselves and putting together the exhibition catalogue. Organising the degree show equips students with skills that are transferable to the business world of art. I was responsible for the promoting of the show, which included social networking, inviting VIPs, applying for funding and gaining drinks sponsorship (It’s not a decent exhibition if there isn’t free booze). Through this I discovered my passion for arts marketing and went on to complete an internship in this area.

I now work for an arts marketing company in London, this is all thanks to the emphasis the Fine Art department gave me in the importance of networking, CV building and having a professional attitude. I can also thank Lancaster for allowing and encouraging me to be creative and expand my mind for three years. Understanding the history of art and the power that art can have - not just in reflecting what’s happening in our world, but shaping it as well - has helped me to see the world in a different way.

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