Crawford Art Students: Graduating in a time of Covid-19

It’s been quite a feat for students and staff of the Crawford in Cork to sort and submit their final projects while in lockdown, writes Ellie O’Byrne

Crawford Art Students: Graduating in a time of Covid-19
Graduating students at the Crawford College of Art in the pre-Covid era.

For students at CIT Crawford College of Art and Design (CCAD), their degree show is the culmination of four years of hard work, learning and personal progression. It’s nerve-wracking, exciting and challenging in equal parts, a chance for emerging artists to show their work to the public, often for the first time.

But for this year’s crop of final year students in Fine Art and Contemporary Applied Art, there is no end of year show due to Covid-19 restrictions.

The college has worked with fourth year students on alternative ways to show their work, and has offered students a show during the coming academic year, but Trish Brennan, CCAD’s Head of Department of Fine Art and Applied Art, says the event and spectacle of the degree show will be missed.

“We’re creating a digital platform for students to have a presence, but it’s in no way comparable,” Brennan says. “There’s an industry night, there’s awards, there’s reviews, and on top of that, you have your friends and family coming to look: that’s really scary, but it’s also exciting.

“For the staff, it will really be missed too: there’s the highlights of the year, and then there are always these wonderful surprises, where someone didn’t maybe evidence their work in advance, but they pull off something absolutely amazing.”

When Leo Varadkar announced the closure of colleges and schools on the 12th of March, CIT responded by immediately announcing a reading week and surveying their staff and students on the potential for delivering all courses online for the rest of the academic year.

But for students of Fine Art and Applied Art, practical work often requires specialist equipment like kilns, looms and print-making facilities. Without college studio space to work in, Brennan says inequalities in students’ living arrangements were exacerbated.

“There’s nothing fair about the world anyway, but this has drawn people into immensely unfair scenarios,” Brennan says.

“Some students might have a spare room, maybe they managed to bring work home, and they might not have family care responsibilities, but other students in textiles and glass absolutely need space, or they have small children. We’ve worked with them on solutions.”

To try to minimise the impacts of these inequalities, the Crawford has offered students options to defer or repeat with no penalty. The degree show, as well as an exciting opportunity to present artists’ work, is also their academic assessment: each year of CIT Crawford’s four year degree is worth 60 credits, and in the final semester, the degree show is 30 credits.

Instead, 2020 final year students are now being assessed on an Advanced Research Statement and presentations on their work delivered online.

Perhaps more importantly for many, the degree show is where graduates are selected for the regular rounds of awards, residencies and purchase prizes that can launch their career in the art world.

“The stakeholders usually come in and wander around to see the students’ work,” Brennan says. “We’re still ironing out the details, and we’re in conversation with our purchase prize people. We’ve set up an online application process.” An online showcase of Crawford 2020 graduates’ work will go live at www.crawford.cit.ie on June 12.

Eve Russell 

Eve Russell is a glassworker who makes her work from recycled glass bottles from the bar trade. Her work is inspired by weeds, the sense of freedom they embody, and their “primitive fight to support life in a dangerous environment.” She is based in a shared house in Cork City.

Crawford Art Students: Graduating in a time of Covid-19
Eve Russell.

“I’ve been very nervous about the exhibition for the past four years. It was going to be my first ever exhibition. Only in the last two months was I really coming to terms with it and starting to see it as a big opportunity.

So I think my biggest disappointment was not being able to have that terrifying experience and really push myself out there.

“I took pictures of work that I made before the quarantine. I’m very lucky that in the house I’m living in there’s an office space. But without the space of a workshop, I wasn’t able to produce anything to the same standard. So I stuck to my laptop and learned graphic design software and did a lot of drawing. I also made some maquettes that I could have around the place for inspiration.

A piece by Eve Russell.
A piece by Eve Russell.

“It’s been difficult to envisage my future in art during the lockdown. I was feeling a little bit down about it, but then I read this really nice quote from New York artist Meredith Monk: she said, ‘art is an antidote.’ I’ve been seeing a lot of people using art for meditative purposes at home. Now, I’m not putting too much pressure on myself but I’m trying to envision myself as a different artist to how I saw myself before.” 

Blake Blakely

Blake Blakely combines printmaking and geometric forms in his studio practice to produce large 3D pieces concerned with universal communication, mathematics and learning. He hopes to do an MA in art therapy following his graduation.

Crawford Art Students: Graduating in a time of Covid-19
Blake Blakely.

When the Covid-19 restrictions were announced, Blakely move back to his family home in Old Parish outside Dungarvan, Co Waterford. He was given permission by his former primary school to use their school hall to construct his sculptures and photograph them for submission.

“How things happened, I had to develop and change my work but I kind of feel like it changed for the better. I’ve always enjoyed site-specific work; I was very lucky to get permission to use my old primary school hall, which was a big empty hall with a stage in it, so my work developed to be site-specific.

“The context of my work was all about learning and how we adapt, and it was all supposed to be interactive, but I had this problem: how am I supposed to make interactive work for people who can’t actually interact with it? My pieces are about 4ft high and 4ft wide. I used stop-motion to make visual tours of the space, so it feels like you’re still interacting with the work.

I always look on the bright side. This has been one big challenge, but every challenge brings new opportunities for creation.

"In the art world, I think we’ll have to start thinking about ways of showing our work on different platforms. I don’t think this will stop artists creating new work, I think it will just create new ways for how we show it.” 

Darren Forde

Darren Forde paints large, figurative canvases in oils and charcoal and produces mixed media sculptures. His work contains themes derived from Irish mythology, exploring morality, human vulnerability and our capacity for love and violence.

Crawford Art Students: Graduating in a time of Covid-19
Darren Forde.

A mature student who lives in Cobh with his wife and two small children, Forde was juggling his day job in Social Care with his homelife and his degree before the Covid-19 restrictions came into force.

“It was pretty disappointing when the show was cancelled. My painting is on a large scale: I have a painting called Fir Bolg that’s 6.5ft by 11ft, and another, Tryptich, that is 4ft by 15ft. For my show, I wanted to make the experience of going into this space with these large objects. Now, I’ve presented one of my original photographs of a sculpture and photographs of my paintings.

I’m an advocate for experiencing paintings in person, so having to submit them digitally was not really what I was going for

“I was lucky to secure space near my home I could continue working in, but going from a studio space with your peers around you and your tutors dropping by, suddenly you’re painting in a bubble.

Crawford Art Students: Graduating in a time of Covid-19
A piece by Darren Forde.

“When lockdown happened, it was a matter of pushing through to get the work finished because it had been a big financial sacrifice to do the course.

"There was more pressure with the kids home from school, but that gives you a chance to reflect on your worklife balance.

"I’ve been lucky that my wife has worked from home so we’ve been able to balance childcare and I’ve been getting the paintings done in the evening.” 

Lily O’Shea 

Lily O’Shea shares a rented house in Cork city and had worked in CIT Crawford as an assistant while completing her degree. Her work utilises performance, sculpture and text and deals with themes relating to labour and specifically the vulnerability to markets experienced by those in precarious employment.

Crawford Art Students: Graduating in a time of Covid-19
Lily O'Shea. 

“I was planning on three elements: sculpture, a publication of texts, but also live performances. It was disappointing because I didn’t see my final year as compiling documentation for my artworks instead of having a show.

“The live performance element was pretty hard to communicate in a PDF; I didn't have any live footage of the performance we did before this happened. I had documentation and I had to just submit that. With social distancing and travel restrictions, the two girls I was working with on the performance had gone home, so we couldn’t really meet.

“I wrote everything in the beginning of March before all this happened, and it exists in a weird place now because it really resonates with the Covid-19 situation: precariousness for cultural workers in this time. I think a lot of people turned to the arts during this time and artists weren’t treated very well in Ireland.

There’s been a lot of pressure on people to be creative and productive in isolation, but I haven’t been. It was like a vicious circle where I wasn’t producing anything and I felt anxious, then when I was working I felt anxious too because there was so much uncertainty about things like assessment criteria. I spent the first month and a half just binging reality TV and feeling guilty all the time. I think a lot of people did.

Sandra Pyka

Sandra Pyka examines themes of migration, globalization and travel through her printmaking work, which features airport motifs printed onto vinyl wallpaper as well as sculptural elements.

Crawford Art Students: Graduating in a time of Covid-19
Sandra Pyka.

Born in Poland, Sandra came to live in Ireland at the age of nine. She moved back in with her parents in West Cork for the duration of the lockdown.

“The day before college closed and we went into lockdown, I had to travel to London for family reasons and I knew I also needed to get some airport photos for my work, so I kind of killed two birds with one stone. While I was taking photos, a lot of things were going through my head about what was going to happen next.

“Now, seeing everything that happened with the lockdown and how airports became almost like danger zones, it changed my work; my work is about migration and movement, using the airport to express that, so the whole thing has been a bit strange, I’m not going to lie.

It was such a shock as an emerging artist to be told, no, you can’t do anything, you have to just sit at home and do things online. It was unimaginable; it was crazy

“I’m a printmaker and you can’t really do print at home. When you’ve been working in a massive studio space, it was hard to adjust. It was very difficult to find motivation at home, with my family downstairs; going back to my bedroom was just not really doing it for me.

“I wanted to apply for a residency in Amsterdam, and another in Cork Printmakers. As a result of what happened, I’m not doing that anymore but I’ve applied for the Crawford’s own printmaking residency to get myself back on track and to ease myself back into creating.”

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