What an unusual time to be in university, unable to meet your peers, sitting at home or alone in student halls, while attending lectures virtually. Many students this year may feel as though this is not the experience they paid for and certainly not the one that they expected. These young people working towards their future are doing so without the guarantee of a prosperous world when they leave. They are graduating into a time when the future is uncertain, the economy has shrunk and opportunities are fewer. Following the closures and restrictions within hospitality, entertainment and the arts, the concern is doubly so for those who have decided on a creative path.

Photo © Courtesy of Anna Woodward

To gain insight into the art graduate experience, View of the Arts caught up with Anna Woodward, who graduated from the City & Guilds of London Art School with a BA in Fine Art earlier this year. Together we discuss her experience of adjusting to student life when the UK entered its first nationwide lockdown back in March, and how the pandemic affected the experience of those graduating this year. However, we also look at the opportunities and find out more about Woodward’s achievements over the last few months, exploring the development within her own art practice and the growth of ‘The Artists Contemporary’, an Instagram account created to support emerging contemporary artists. 

Photo © Courtesy of Anna Woodward

Despite the turbulence of this year you have continued to excel. Within the last 6 months you have exhibited work at Unit 1 Gallery| Workshop in London, been shortlisted for the Freelands Painting Prize and launched a podcast to accompany ‘The Artists Contemporary’. However, you also graduated with a BA in Fine Art whilst in the midst of a pandemic. Can you tell us more about what those last few months of University were like for you and your classmates? 

Last September (2019) when I started my third year I thought, “right this is the year!” Everyone going into their third year thinks that this is when they really need to hit the ground running, and that’s one of the reasons why I set up ‘The Artists Contemporary’. But then to get half way through the year and realise that this wasn’t how it was going to be was challenging. I remember being in my studio in February when the first cases of Coronavirus in the UK were announced and I thought, “it’s fine”, we were still going to have our degree show and I didn’t really think that it was going to affect us. 

Woodward was in Cornwall when she received notification from her University about the forthcoming studio closures on the 16th March. These announcements were then closely followed by messages from classmates asking if she can bring back loo roll, as London’s supermarkets slipped into chaos. She describes a sense of panic as students worried about sourcing materials and finding the space that they needed to complete their work. 

When we moved out of the studios and began working from home I thought that it was just going to be for a couple of weeks. I decided that I would make some smaller works, which would have been good to have in my series, thinking that when I get back into my studio I’ll continue making works for my degree show, but obviously that didn’t happen…There is always that thing of nobody ever thinking that it will affect them, but little did we know that it would affect everyone in different ways. It was a massive change. I think for a long time I didn’t feel as though I had graduated, or that I’d even finished my third year and had that incredible experience which I had seen so many of my friends have in previous years. I just sat at home painting under the stairs, which was great as I was fortunate enough to have the space to make large paintings, but when they were finished I would take them out to my garden to where there is a white wall and photograph them, and that was that. 

It was an anticlimactic end for this year’s art graduates. These simple photographs, taken against the garden wall, symbolised the end of 3 years work for Woodward. Alongside many other universities, the City & Guilds degree shows were postponed and graduation ceremonies cancelled. “It felt like a lonely graduation”, accounts Woodward when handing in her work for the final and last time. To maintain social distance the university had a three week long hand-in period instead of the usual hand-in day, which meant everyone finished the degree at different times. Woodward explains, “I had finished, whereas other people in my year hadn’t”, making this a tricky time to congratulate or celebrate with your peers despite the Covid-19 restrictions. 

We celebrated more once we had our results, which was a long wait. Normally, you’d get your results at your grad show, whereas we got ours mid August.

Photo © Courtesy of Anna Woodward

Without the degree show opportunities, there has been ongoing debate and concern about whether they will happen in future. What impact will this lack of opportunity have on students?

I think because there wasn’t going to be a show and in some ways a loss of opportunity, it can be quite demotivating. Especially when you’ve worked for three years and seen the most amazing shows [from the graduates before you], but then it gets to your show and it’s cancelled. I’m lucky that our show has been postponed, otherwise it would be an online show where there is one picture of your work, which may not get seen. I think this generation has lost out.

Do you feel that the degree shows are still relevant, or is it more about the motivation and the opportunity to finalise and show your work? 

I think they are important, because in theory it is the first professional time you exhibit your work. I don’t think you’re going to get the same experience from looking at someone’s work in a virtual viewing room. You gain so much more from seeing work physically. All types of art are beyond a screen. It is also the small things that you learn from a degree show. Some people have never exhibited their work in an exhibition before or been invigilators [in a gallery] so they don’t know about how you need to be there all the time or how to talk to different people about your work. 

You had the opportunity to exhibit your work at Unit 1 Gallery | Workshop. What were the benefits that came from this experience? 

Exhibiting at Unit 1 Gallery | Workshop as part of the ‘Final Not Over’ series curated by Stacie McCormick was such a great opportunity. I was able to see everyone from my year again and we exhibited our work together and this became a kind of end point to the degree. It wasn’t the show that we were expecting to have, but it was a physical show within an amazing gallery, which we were so fortunate to have. 

Many London based universities have seen their graduates exhibited within spaces such as Unit 1 Gallery | Workshop, Saatchi Gallery and Kristin Hjellegjerde, while many virtual shows and Instagram platforms have been created to help support and promote this year’s cohort of graduates. Do you think the support of commercial galleries could be a continued trend or only appropriate to this year? 

I think that this year has been so individual. If next year the universities are able to put on their own degree shows then I think that would determine whether or not these commercial galleries feel the need to be that support system and put on exhibitions.

Photo © Courtesy of Anna Woodward

You yourself started ‘The Artists Contemporary’ back in February during your final year at City & Guilds. What was your reason for creating this platform and how has it supported emerging artists? 

I started the page because I saw people I knew, or knew of, having exhibitions and I wanted to create a page where I could post about those different exhibitions and events that were happening. Then in lockdown the purpose and function of the page changed and I started to develop a curation of artists’ work that I liked. I thought that however small or little power I have, if I can help by sharing others’ work, then I am supporting. I have since learnt that some people have had their work exhibited because a curator had seen their work on ‘The Artists Contemporary’. I think it is really great because this wasn’t something I aimed to set up and for it to become this thing that it has, but it has grown of its own accord. 

Woodward has since launched ‘The Artist Contemporary’ podcast, which utilises the vast network that she has built over the last 8 months. However, her ideas don’t stop there as there are imminent plans to launch a website in order to promote and sell artists work, followed by ambitions to run artist residencies and exhibitions in future. 

In the long run I want it to go beyond Instagram. To take it forward and continue supporting artists, turning the platform into a multi level art collective. 

Do you feel it is important for artists to be taking initiative in their careers, and what are the benefits of them doing that? 

You know, 20 years ago you’d have your degree show and hopefully get picked up by a gallery, but you didn’t have as much control. Now artists have a lot of control. You can sell your own work, you can do your own PR through Instagram and you can put together your own exhibitions. We have been given so much more control and I think with that there is a need to get out and do stuff. Things are so accessible now, but if you sit in your studio the whole time just making, you could be very talented as an artist, but if you don’t get involved or feature in that exhibition to meet that curator how are you going to find more opportunities? The more projects you do, the more people you’re going to meet, but if you don’t get out there, how will people know about you? 

Is it essential for artists to be continually building their network? 

Definitely, I think that has always been important for artists. Perhaps some people are becoming a bit lazier because of social media, since you can have a whole conversation with someone and a friendship without even meeting. I think it is so important to meet people in person. You know, perhaps if we hadn’t met this wouldn’t be happening.

Photo © Courtesy of Anna Woodward

You make a good point. What advice would you give to students and emerging artists wanting to become more actively involved in the art community? 

I think that on social media you need to be engaging and have a conversation with people, and if you can go to as many events as possible in person, then do! If you get nervous, then take a friend. Even I get nervous about going to private views. When at events, try to introduce yourself if you are feeling confident, otherwise share it on social media and message the artist when you get home so that people know you’ve made the effort to go. Instagram is great, but use it in the right way and don’t depend on it. Get off your phone…would be my advice.

You are due to start your MA at City & Guilds next year, how do you intend to develop your practice?

Over the past six months my work has become a lot more abstract and I’ve enjoyed painting in this style. Right now though, I am looking forward to having this time for making, knowing that next year I will be able to engage in critical thinking within a safe place, where I can really experiment and push these works and see what happens.

Woodward often draws inspiration from Renaissance paintings and Greek mythology. After compiling her reference images, she develops collages in Photoshop which abstract and layer the original images. These collages then become her new visual reference point, in which she identifies and expresses the colours and tonal qualities of the evolving formations through her gestural paintings. 

I’m not trying to retell the story and I’m not using super figurative painting. I think that they are becoming more about the application of paint and mark making, but the mythology to me I think is so important in creating my narrative while painting.

There is often a sinister element or darker narrative that is present within Greek mythology, yet as Woodward points out, the paintings she references have a beautiful, often delicate quality to them. Through the process of abstraction, the layers she builds within her own paintings symbolise the various meanings within the mythology and attempt to strike a balance between the narrative and their decorative representations. In earlier work, Woodward heavily applied floral motifs to her canvas, which sought to depict the figures and movement. However, after a conversation with her tutor earlier this year, she has begun to question what it means to be using this ‘pretty’ floral language as a female artist. 

You may never realise how other people perceive your work. I probably never would have put the two together, [this idea] that I was maybe making a comment about the preconceived perception of female painters. That because I am a female painter my paintings are seen as being quite pretty and soft colour wise, and that meant they were feminine paintings. I then became really interested in the idea of what would it mean if it were a man doing this?

Photo © Courtesy of Anna Woodward

This conversation provoked and opened her eyes, encouraging Woodward to continue investigating her own practice.

I have already started to make work without those floral forms and I think the MA is really going to help me question why I decided to stop using these forms, how has that changed my practice, why have they become more abstract and what is the importance of the palette I am using or of the mythology? They say that at City & Guilds the MA will completely strip down your practice and make you question everything that you are doing.

As Woodward continues to investigate her own practice and expand ‘The Artist Contemporary’ platform, she is also getting involved with innovative exhibition projects. Most recently collaborating with Bowes Parris Gallery and Harlesden High Street, where Cassandra Bowes and Woodward have co-curated ‘After Hours’. The group exhibition features over 20 artists within a vast empty retail space in Wandsworth, which was once home to Debenhams before it closed in January earlier this year. 

All of the artists’ work is so different and it has been so exciting to have such a great space to install so many different genres of art.

I am left wondering whether art offers an alternative solution to our soon-to-be empty high streets. However, we still have this lockdown to get through. How have the new lockdown restrictions impacted the launch of ‘After Hours’?

The exhibition was due to open at the beginning of November but due to the current lockdown it has been pushed back to December or until the lockdown ends. Cassandra and I are planning a range of virtual events to go alongside the exhibition during lockdown, which includes a Zoom panel with selected artists, Instagram Q&A’s and exhibitions tours. I can’t wait for the exhibition to be open to the public and for everyone to see all the amazing and super talented artists’ work. 

Woodward has provided us with an optimistic view of the opportunities available for young artists, even if it means creating them yourself. Her passion and drive for connecting and supporting her peers has led to exciting possibilities that wouldn’t have occurred without her first trying and putting herself out there. When we asked her where this self-starting attitude and energy comes from, she answered “I just think that nobody is ever going to ask you to do anything, so you might as well do it yourself.” Reflecting on this year, there is no doubt that students and graduates have been tested, however we may find that they grow to become a resourceful and resilient generation.

Written and interviewed by Georgina Saunders

Photo © Courtesy of Anna Woodward

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