Stephen is currently engaged in doctoral research for a practice-led PhD at the University of Leeds. His areas of research interest are landscape, drawing, place and the contemporary sublime. He studied MA Drawing at Wimbledon School of Art where he won the Postgraduate Drawing Prize and was shortlisted for the Jerwood Drawing Prize in 2009.
What attracted you to Plymouth College of Art? And what did you know of the College and team before you got here?
The opportunity to develop a course like this had my name written all over it. I arrived at the college with a particular vision of a programme that I have wanted to deliver for a long time. I’ve spent a long time in the sector and taught on courses across the UK as a visiting lecturer. Before coming here I was at Leeds College of Art for 7 years, which is a very similar institution to Plymouth College of Art - a specialist art and design HE college.
How have you been preparing for and developing the new Painting, Drawing and Printing course?
We’ve taken care to be very distinctive and make sure there is clear blue water between the different programme areas, mainly for the benefit of students who are applying. If a student arrives here and asks ‘OK, what’s the difference between the BA in Fine Art and the BA in Painting and Printmaking?’ we will have an answer. They will know that these are distinctive courses going in very different directions. Fine Art has curatorial practice as a pathway within the programme; the pathway within the Painting, Drawing & Print-making programme is the delivery of core skills and the delivery of a discipline in painting, drawing or printmaking. When one leaves, they will be able to say ‘I am a painter’ and know everything about painting. Or say ‘‘I am a printmaker’ and know as much as possible about printmaking as undergraduate provision will allow. We’re going to make the course as rich as we can.
Isn’t it slightly worrying that so many students do come out of Fine Art courses and aren’t able to say that? That they don’t feel that they are specialists or highly skilled in anything by the time they come to graduate?
Students are given leave to do anything but leave feeling like they are able to do very little. That seems to be an enormous waste, but it’s not the fault of institutions, it’s an historical fact that there has been (theoretically speaking) a dematerialisation of the art object. We don’t make things anymore; we think and then we choose our medium afterwards - it’s a concept-led approach. If I have an idea for a giant floating apple I might explore painting, filming and drawing it. It’s a turn which happened around 30 years ago and we’re still finding ripples moving through art education. With this course, the college is saying ‘No. We don’t believe that this is where contemporary art is going.’ What we’re going to do is make the ‘thinking hand’ absolutely contemporary.
How will the course work from year to year?
Drawing is at the heart of the programme. Students will be taught drawing for three years and that is utterly revolutionary, I’m afraid to say. Drawing tends to fall off the agenda after a few months of the first year on some BA courses, and I’m going to make sure that doesn’t happen with this course.
In the first year, everyone will do everything. Then students will choose a leading discipline in their second year, because we’re very aware that painting, drawing and printmaking are very close bedfellows. If you go to an artist’s studio you’ll find they do all of those things as part of their practice. It’s a practical approach too, because this course is going to deliver a lot of specialist workshops in particular processes and techniques - that’s what it says on the tin. By choosing a leading discipline, each student will attend specific workshops related to their specialism, but that’s not to say there won’t be any cross over.
There will be new workshop studios specifically for the painting course. I’ve been spending a lot of time describing the space to people because it’s not here yet. How do you normally describe a space? With olympic swimming pools, football pitches and buses! How many double-decker buses will fit into the new space? 33. It represents 5500 square feet for the BA programme area; we’ll be sharing the open plan spaces with the BA Fine Art course, which will have another 2000 square feet of dedicated space. Students will be able to seamlessly navigate and explore the whole space without any walls being there and that’s very important because space is also a knowledge instrument and it has an immediate effect on teaching and learning possibilities.
The third strand of the programme, and the other thing that makes it distinctive is the explicit connection between learning core skills and entrepreneurism. Art and design students are inherently entrepreneurial; they hate the idea that they may be called that because it sounds like business. It’s seen to be about money and it’s a dirty word, but I define an entrepreneur as someone who notices opportunities, especially within their own practice. Certainly, if students have had a good grounding in observational and drawing practice then they will certainly start to notice opportunities in a particular kind of way. I think we need to reclaim that word back into the arts, because it has more to do with creativity than it does people starting coffee shops.
How will that work within the course?
In the second year there is a module that responds to emerging events in the city and the region. So if ten students come to me in the second year and say ‘We’ve got a building! We’re going to put on an exhibition and make a show happen’, I can facilitate that through the course area and give credits for that work. This module is designed to put practice and entrepreneurial skills together. It may take the form of competitions or placements, or one students may want to do a residency or an international placement - we can facilitate that.
We will also be looking at this idea of ‘expanded practice’. What is drawing and printmaking now? It could be painting for installation, it could be drawing that comes off the wall and becomes an object. These things start to cross boundaries. Ideas will come out of playing with the materials, and moving the processes and skills around and that’s very reactionary, and very prescient. This is where we think contemporary art practice is going.
Part of your research looks into the ‘contemporary sublime’. What kind of art appeals to you most?
I’m interested in a certain kind of work that resonates and almost buzzes at you. Work that exists beyond itself and in another time frame. Only a few works of art actually do that. I can remember each moment distinctly of seeing something that just does it. I went to Tate Liverpool about five years ago to see a group survey a show of painting. I saw a Gerhard Richter painting there and the damn thing just whacked me around the head. This thing was beyond it’s time; it existed outside of our own temporality. As I said, only a few pieces of work can do that. But you know when you seem them because you never forget them.
Have you seen any promising work from students at the college so far?
I have. I’ve been interviewing quite vigorously for the last month, so I’ve got to know the kind of students who want to apply to this programme. Interestingly, one sees people coming from Foundation and A Level with folders that are full of painting and drawing, partly because that’s what is delivered in compulsory education. As students come into further education, they develop interests in other mediums: time-based media, installation, site-specific. But the students who are painters, you can see that they are meant to be painting or printing. With this course we allow that to flower by making painting as contemporary as installation and time based media etc.
We hope you’re settling in well. What are your thoughts so far on the college?
The college is clearly a specialist institution. It’s also small and agile so it can respond very quickly to events and it’s clever to be making quite big statements for its size. This place on the corner of Drake’s Circus is an upstart arts school and I know this is a place that people are going to want to come to. The college is being led by someone with a strong vision and that vision filters from the top, down through to the courses. This place feels like it’s going somewhere and I think it’s tremendously exciting.