What use is a degree in fine art? Four graduates answer the question

Four graduates tell Siobhan Howe how their fine art degree has influenced their approach to their working life.

What use is a degree in fine art? Four graduates answer the question

Four graduates tell Siobhan Howe how their fine art degree has influenced their approach to their working life.

What use is a degree in fine art? It's a discussion that Trish Brennan, head of Fine Art & Applied Art at CIT Crawford College of Art & Design in Cork, has had many times.

She has made it her mission to change how we perceive art students and graduates. Brennan sees first-hand the wide range of careers that graduates of Crawford end up in, and how they contribute to society.

She has had to work hard to convince some career guidance counsellors of the wide-ranging benefits of a degree in fine art, some of whom feel the need to offer alternatives to students who are considering it.

With only 5% of fine art graduates managing to make a living from working as a full-time artist, are those guidance counsellors correct?

“An education in the creative arts pushes students to be brave, to question and to be ambitious with their ideas,” says Brennan.

This belief that a primary degree is about gaining the skills to jumpstart a career echoes the government’s National Strategy for Higher Education to 2030, which called for a changed approach to education where primary degrees are flexible, gateway educations that teach transferable skills.

Brennan describes how students at Crawford are given the freedom to create and consider their art. This blank canvas or blank wall can be incredibly daunting, and represents a markedly different approach from a more conventional third level education.

Students are encouraged to get involved, to comment, to make things and to make things happen ⁠— this makes for graduates who are ambitious and do not wait for opportunities to present themselves; they will initiate projects that they are passionate about.

Below, four graduates from the Crawford discuss how their fine art degree has influenced their approach to their working life.

'Elevate the ordinary into the extraordinary'

Jack Hickey graduated in 2011 and has been a practising artist ever since.

Most artists find it very difficult to be financially self-sufficient through their artwork, but in 2017 Hickey won the Hennessy Portrait Prize (now the Zurich Portrait Prize), with the award of €15,000, and the subsequent commissions helping him to continue working as a full time artist.

The Cobh-born artist practically sold out his degree show and had his first solo show shortly afterwards. His portrait of state pathologist Marie Cassidy hangs in the National Gallery.

Hickey's style is photo-realism. From a technical perspective it looks perfect, but that’s not what draws you in. It is the subject, the concept and the focus of the piece that takes it from a painting to art. Being a photographer provides the raw material for his work.

“Other artists carry sketch pads but I document my life and travel through images,” he explains. He uses these images to create his artworks and “elevate the ordinary into the extraordinary”.

Hickey's incredible drive flies in the face of many people’s perceptions of the more easy-going approach to life of artists. He credits Crawford with instilling this work ethic and providing the facilities to hone his skills. He realises his career is just beginning but he can still take stock of his success to date. “No matter what happens and where my art career goes I have a painting in the National Gallery,” he says.

Jack and his portrait of state pathologist Marie Cassidy.
Jack and his portrait of state pathologist Marie Cassidy.

International success is the next step for Hickey, and his ambitions include having a painting in a gallery in London, Paris or New York. He is currently preparing work for an exhibition in New York in March, but his sights are set beyond that. As well as a residency abroad, he says he would love to represent Ireland at the Venice Biennale.

“As an artist you need to be on it all the time, while you’re not working 24/7 you are constantly thinking about your next project,” he says.

A curatorial route

2016 Crawford graduate Enid Conway originally thought she would become a film-maker, but soon found she was more interested in taking a curatorial route. On the back of her degree show she was awarded two exhibitions and two residencies – securing her position in the ‘one to watch’ category of graduates.

“It is an independent publication that discusses the work of emerging female artists based in Ireland,” she explains.

Bloomers recently launched its fourth edition, and Conway says the magazine is evolving as she gains greater understanding of what artists need from the publication and the collective it has created.

In fact, artists supporting artists is a regular theme that comes up in discussions with graduates of Crawford.

So what’s next for Conway?

I want to continue to develop Bloomers and keep a connection with the rich arts scene in Cork but I also want to learn how to interact with larger cultural organisations and understand how they work – this may involve working with them directly or in cultural consultancy capacity.

As to what advice she would give someone considering a career in creative arts she says: “Stimulate curiosity and follow your 3am rabbit holes that may bring you to 14 hours of experimental film; go to as many exhibitions as you can, and always have a self-initiated project on the go.”

'Learning how to be creative on my own terms'

Mike Hannon graduated in 2005 with an BA in Fine Art and completed a Masters in 2015. Even when he began in Crawford, Hannon knew he didn’t want to be a full-time artist, but what he did want was “the creative experience of coming up with my own ideas and learning how to be creative on my own terms”.

After graduation Hannon immediately took his new skills into the working world, as a graphic designer in an architect’s office. When that company ceased training in the recession Hannon was relatively unphased, and decided to go the freelance route.

“That spirit of independence that is fostered in art college really suits the freelance approach of working and coming up with your own rules of how to work,” he says.

In 2009 he set up his own freelance business, Mike Hannon Media. Freelancing felt like a much better fit for him. Hannon has been working as a freelance film-maker ever since.

He credits his education in Crawford with much of his success.

“You learn to think independently and rely on yourself as it’s a relatively unstructured academic environment in terms of your studio time... the rules are imposed by yourself; you decide the parameters around what you’re creating. You become self-reliant and trust your own judgement’.

Hannon keeps more than a foot in the door of creativity. He has made a number of short documentaries and in 2018, his cinematic documentary, The Cloud of Unknowing, was nominated for the Best British & Irish Short Film Award at the London Film Critics’ Circle Awards.

Art as an outlet

Ciara Wall has an BA and a Masters in Education from Crawford (2008), and she now works as the head of the Art Department in Midleton College, Co Cork. From a young age Wall says she used art as an outlet, and even now she finds expressions for her creativity in many areas.

We meet for coffee in Monty’s Cafe in Midleton, Co Cork, where Wall does the menu design and also created their murals.

She talks about how she initially struggled with the studio time at Crawford, but as she progressed she learned how to use it more effectively. Wall also believes her years in Crawford gave her great confidence.

After initially thinking she would work as a full-time artist, Wall made the decision to go into teaching.

She describes the importance of the art room in a school for giving students the space to create but also the space to experiment with art and make mistakes.

“You often learn more when things don’t work out,” says Wall who, as well as teaching, also keeps her hand in with her own artwork.

Currently on maternity leave, when she's in the classroom, she encourages her students to document the journey of their artwork.

Given that the motivation for creating art can be incredibly personal, it is often emotive for both the artist and the audience, and she strives to create an atmosphere where everyone will listen to each other in the room.

Wall also talks about the importance of linking into a creative community, and maintains a WhatsApp group for fellow Crawford graduates who are based in classrooms across the country.

More in this section