By Lucie Whitmore |
I have been an art student in an academic world for two-and-a-bit years now, and while this has been hard at times I now feel comfortable(ish!) in the role I have assigned myself. In this post, I’d like to address some of the challenges, and small victories, that I have found along the way, and re-assure other art students that you won’t always feel lost in the academic galaxy, as long as you have your towel.
Growing up, taking my A-levels, applying to art school, I only ever wanted to make things. I never even contemplated university or an academic pathway beyond school, I had no desire to sit in lecture theatres or read textbooks. Which is why it came as a great surprise to myself when I found myself at the University of Glasgow in September 2013, starting a Masters course in Dress and Textile History. (Much like Arthur Dent when the Vogons blew up his planet, but I’ll stop using this analogy now.)
This leap came after four years of art school education, and two years working. I did an Art Foundation Diploma at Central St Martins and a degree in Textile Design at Edinburgh College of Art. Throughout my whole undergraduate career I had no idea what a university education looked like, beyond the multiple all-nighters pulled by my geographer flatmate. I was thrilled that instead of sitting through seminars I spent my mornings trialing dye recipes; instead of exams I submitted sketchbooks jam-packed with fabric samples and sketches, threads stitched through the pages. I didn’t have to read set texts, but I did have to flip through Vogue, Fibre Arts and Selvedge magazine for inspiration. You may be able to tell, I felt a little bit smug about all of this.
When I started my Masters after two years of working in design, fashion and retail I felt like a fish out of water. In introductory meetings other students would ask questions about referencing systems, journal access and reading lists. After initial panic, I soon discovered that I didn’t have to buy each article we were asked to read and realised that referencing was just another form of necessary standardisation, much like mounting a final project on the correct size of paper, and making sure you explain where all your original sources came from. I was paranoid that I would be ‘behind’ because of my non-academic background, but soon discovered that my course also contained a weaver, a costume designer and a textile design student straight out of her undergrad. I was not the only fish.
I started my PhD last year, focusing on women’s fashion from the First World War period. When I made this commitment, I promised myself that I would not bid farewell to my creative training and instincts. For a recent event I got the chance to trial something I had been planning for a while: the object history mood board. Using my designer’s eye I created mood boards – as we did for every project in art school – for four historical garments, trying to imagine what influences played a part in the design and creation of the garment, while simultaneously telling the object’s story to a museum audience. The boards were well received, and I will certainly be developing this concept of a visual presentation of my research.
In meetings, I often use my art school background as an excuse for doing things ‘differently’, but I am also proud of this, and am thrilled that I can make this work within my academic world. There are definitely things I feel behind on and I do miss making things every day, but I get to work with objects regularly and my understanding of textile techniques is a huge help. There are skills I learned in art school that I now realise to be a huge advantage, and I’m sure others do/will find the same. For one my Powerpoint presentations always look good, I am never behind on a deadline, and I collect diverse and meaningful visual sources for every project. It may take me longer to understand complex theories (or read Barthes), but I’ll get there in the end.
I will always be a maker but I’m thrilled to find that I can be a writer too, something I would never have believed even five years ago. I’ve found that academia can be a really rewarding and relevant development from a design focused career, and universities aren’t so scary after all. If I could make one complaint, I’d like to see more people knitting/sewing/sketching in lecture theatres, but we can work on that.
Lucie Whitmore is a second year PhD student at the University of Glasgow. Her PhD project is titled ‘Fashion in the Great War: Interpreting Women’s Experiences of Conflict, Through Costume’. She is interested in alternative methods of engaging with and understanding objects, and particularly the storytelling power of women’s clothing. As an antidote to all that academia, Lucie is currently learning to weave, and also gets distracted by her 11 month old puppy, Birdie. She is a 2015 Ambassador for the Costume Society. You can read more about her work on her blog or follow her on twitter @luciewhitmore.
(Cover image © www.wikimediacommons.org; Iamge 2, Sketchbook pages, 2011 © Lucie Whitmore; Image 2, War Frocks, Unlocked Event at the Museum of Edinburgh, November 2015 © Lucie Whitmore, Museum of Edinburgh)