It’s already been about five months since I’ve graduated from my MA at Central Saint Martins, thrown into the life of a non-student for the first time since I was… five years old. Having gone straight from a BA to my MA in my arts education journey, this is the first time I’m really feeling those infamous post-graduation anxieties. Ending my studies has turned out to have both its perks and its drawbacks.
One thing I was looking forward to towards the end of my degree show in May, was the feeling of getting off the treadmill and having a rest, not rushing, and taking my time with my next moves. Reflection, contemplation, and all that peaceful, wise stuff. Even now, I’m writing this on a balcony overlooking wild trees and mountains in the south of Wales, and there’s something to it, you know, retreating to a secluded place in nature after the closing of a big chapter in your life (with hot running water, WiFi, and electricity within arm’s reach). I’m following my boyfriend around on his travels, he’s here to do an art project and meanwhile I am taking advantage of the auspicious aura of his family cottage in the Welsh countryside.
Being somewhat secretive, perhaps even conspiring, about my work and its little mechanics (my motivations, desires, insecurities and convictions) has, in the past, been for me a useful frame of mind when working. Being unaffiliated therefore, and no longer getting checked up on in tutorials and assessments is pretty conducive to that. I can be quiet in the way I like to be, spared from justifying my artistic decisions in advance of making them.
This sort of freedom is potentially a great resource, if for no other reason than its novelty.
The drawbacks of the post-graduation period are obvious and, as I gather, pretty ubiquitous. I am jobless with a precarious living situation in an expensive city; I am full of insecurities about whether my 5 year commitment to arts education was a clever undertaking, and am lacking clear direction as to what to do next. Nobody is around to tell me what that next step might be, although the range of advice and suggestions that I have collected are now floating about in my head, and as I ruminate over them all in turn, none of them provide anywhere near a guarantee of financial stability, or – more subtly – a promise of fulfilment and a sense of purpose. (For a more detailed account of how I worked around financial challenges as an art student, scroll to the last section below).
It feels risky being a Fine Art graduate because it is. I am still not sure about how I am supposed to make money in a relevant fashion, and often feel lost about my place in the world. I am no longer on a ‘course’, which, however superficially, offered at the time some sense of a path, a direction, a climb; even a promise of mastery.
But, as the painter Marlene Dumas once said somewhere: if you want to be an artist, prepare for a lifetime of doing something you’re not good at. The essence of art practice is in the unease of experimental probing.
The New State of Working
Despite financial pressures and a near-future that seems entirely indeterminate, I have found some sweet spot of freedom, space and time for which I am very grateful (as detailed in the section on finances below). There is something entirely enchanting about novelty, is there not? Yes, artists naturally seem to have their habits, their methods and regimes, but the smallest deviations from the norm seem rather enthralling.
I have moved in, for the first time, with my boyfriend, who is also trying to break through in the “creative life”. I have pierced my ears. We have found a cheap flat that I love and for which we had to do sweet hard work to make home. I am in Wales, alone in someone else’s cottage. I am no longer a student, I hold two degrees in art practice. I make just enough to live off my modest earnings as a theatre usher. I go to work and sell ice cream, I come home and write my novel (very slowly), or discuss our plant collection with my boyfriend (a series of cuttings in window sills). I went to Crete (with the boyfriend) and to Serbia (for a long, long stay) with my family. Yes, somehow I managed to afford the nice break with my modest savings throughout the year, by refunding the equipment I used in my degree show, and by working as an usher. I had a summer, which was so hot and sunny throughout Europe this year. The tempo has shifted dramatically, post-degree show, to a far slower pace. And that is of course also pretty unnerving; I found myself feeling very anxious several times sitting around in my new flat, or my grandparent’s house in Serbia. Wondering: where the hell is this going.
Some things I am working on, however shyly, and in however uncertain a manner, which some unknown fibres in my being seem to be saying are necessary, are wonderful, are good:
- Trying to obtain a scholarship to take up one of three PhD offers made to me for 2019
- Trying not to overlook my “old work” and get it seen, as most of it is still very little exhibited
- Developing my ideas and approaches to arts pedagogy, and practising the art of teaching itself (this art journal is itself one approach to that)
- Writing my novel
- Adapting my “one-woman empathy circus” for live performance and doing more live work, as well as making new videos occasionally
- Starting the curated story readings I planned for YouTube
- Studying Chinese (I started regularly studying Mandarin about four months ago)
- Saving up to eventually get a digital piano, which I think will help me de-stress (I am not formally trained, I just get a lot of pleasure and release out of improvising)
You see, although I am not officially a student anymore, I like to think of myself as a lifelong student. I think I was a student before I went to university, and hope to remain one (if and) when I become a teacher. It is two things: the discipline and the humbleness, that is encapsulated by the role of the student, and which I want to keep with me always.
What I am reading at the moment:
Week 3 Struggles
I have not been coping well, the last few days, with my new predicament. Switching into completely different mindsets from day to day (from working a ten hour shift as an usher, to trying to continue my projects in my spare time) has been pretty stressful. I found that on days off, I’d get angry at myself for not being able to get into the right frame of mind for ‘being artistic’ and letting inspiration take me somewhere; I just felt impotent. On all the days I go to earn money, I am actually in a comparatively good mood – I lay aside the desire to grow as an independent artist and just do a very simple job around very pleasant people. But of course, the work is excruciatingly boring; as I’ve previously said, it requires only the art of switching off your brain and trundling with the lost hours in the darkness of the auditorium, only mildly aware of the sound of others’ entertainment. I’ve tried meditating, with partial success, during this time. But mostly I just lose my mind, rather than find it.
Yet it is really at home, on those sudden days off, when I start to panic. I wake up, at first feebly grateful for the gloriously sunny October days we’ve been having, and then anxiously wonder what to do with myself. It seems, at these moments, awfully important how I choose to spend my time; I already feel it slipping away. I panic, because nothing immediately comes to mind. What kind of artist am I, without passion for anything? I feel at these moments, that I ought to know straight away how to devote my time: a painter throws themselves into painting, surely? A writer into writing? I feel I have a great fidelity to my art practice, a great amount of energy to commit to doing something to nurture it, but am currently feeling very lost about what that activity is – what am I ‘jealous’ of, as I used to say? I feel sorry that I have developed such anxiety around ‘doing the right thing’ in terms of my practice. Ultimately, a creative practice is not something in the artist’s control. The anxiety comes from the fact that I have chosen to make it my career, and how can you not be in control of your career?
I had depressive episodes during my days off: even though the sun was shining outside and everything seemed alright, I thought I was failing myself by wasting away free time. And I haven’t felt properly depressed since the spring, something I was so relieved about since then. I can’t even blame the depressive resurgence on dreary October weather, because it is bright and stunning every day in London this autumn.
Yesterday I discovered something that changed my gears a bit, and it is founded on pure luck. Part of my anxiety (which is composed of so many worries ranging from the loss of creative desire, to feeling like I don’t have a chance at any public or financial success) is that years could go by with me trying to get a place and funding to do a PhD, and that it will never really happen. I just had no notion of the near future, what I was aiming for, and along with everything else, found this maddening; the limbo of being newly graduated.
I succeeded in getting offers for a couple of London unis, but this depended entirely on a scholarship. The chances of getting one are slim, of course. But yesterday I found out, that as of August this year, a governmental doctoral loan has become available. As I looked it over again and again, it seemed that there were no two ways about it – I would certainly be eligible for this loan, and it would make doing a PhD very feasible even without the scholarship.
So this very quietly announced new financial resource is a game changer for me, uncannily similar to a couple of years ago, when the postgraduate governmental loan became available the same year I started doing my MA – which again, I couldn’t have done without a loan. The PhD loan would be enough to cover my tuition fees at Goldsmiths (the RCA is, just like with the MA, too expensive to cover with the loan alone). It would also cover some of my living expenses, which I would need to top up with some part time work, but not too much.
As far as I can tell, as of today I am pretty certain I will be starting my PhD a year from now, because I already have a deferred place. I still have a shot at a scholarship, but even without one I can take the loan and do my PhD, putting me sooner in an employable position as an art tutor at uni, and giving me time to develop my ideas.
In that case I have a much clearer picture of the future; that I can in fact feasibly set out on my academic career, and that is thanks to the government for valuing high skilled labourers at this time, and not so much thanks to my poor nerves.
I’m going to try to prepare as best as I can for next year, in a variety of ways.
- I want to equip myself with research skills (finding relevant information is not so easy)
- I want to go out and source some relevant books, bring them home from a library or PDF, and have things to look at and read.
- Writing in the Sciences is a Coursera course I started taking which I want to complete. It is pretty straightforward, but is giving me insights into both writing and reading others’ work, as well as what it’s like to edit someone else’s paper or a student’s writing.
- I want to start looking deeper into my proposal and research question
- Can I find relevant information on the topics raised?
- Can I find online courses in the subjects I borrow from? (I do have a year to waste time being a dilettante)
- I want to change the way I think about my own practice (and not be so presumptuous about how I should work and what I should make)
- Identify what I really want to work on. It might even be nothing.
- I think I’m still interested in Anomaline.
- I feel I’m being forceful when I lament the fact I’m not drawing or performing. I don’t have to do these things if I don’t want to.
- I’m interested in studying, so I should study.
- I want to be a private tutor or teach (a better paying job for now and for when I am more busy as a PhD student)
- My boyfriend is a private tutor and can help me learn what I need to know to become one myself.
- Apply as an art teacher to local schools – especially the Steiner School.
Art Student and Graduate Finances: A Five Year Snapshot
Let’s talk about the practical stuff. I don’t think it’s talked about openly enough. Whenever a guest artist came in to university to give an artist talk and reflect on their journey, I was always puzzled by how they actually survived, and never had the guts to ask how much they earned doing what job and how much rent they paid living where during the time they were still completely unknown. So, at the very least, here are the facts and figures of my own finances during my studies and fledgling career.
My parents found themselves in a pickle and were unemployed for the majority of my studies, rendering them incapable, however much they wanted to, to contribute any funds for my studies. My BA was funded by the governmental tuition fee and maintenance loans, which amounted to enough money to live off and study. I was also sharply looking out for any bursaries or hardship funds provided by my university, and probably got an extra £2100 from this over the 3 years of the BA. The student debt began to amass, but repaying it is fortunately not enforced until I am employed and earning over a certain amount, I think around £21,000 per annum. Still, some interest is added on each year the student debt remains unpaid.
As I awaited the results of my MA applications, I knew that whether I got a place to study or not, I would need to get some kind of job. So I started applying for all manner of unskilled service labour. These usually pay minimally, but better than any arts administration internship, which is usually unpaid. I just needed something paid, very soon.
I was lucky that the same year for which I applied to study for my MA, the postgraduate loan of £10,000 became available (this is spread out across the entire length of your study, for me this was 2 years). Without it I cannot see how I would have been able to afford to study for an MA. I was also lucky that my favourite MA offer of the three made to me was also the cheapest. Where an MA in Contemporary Art Practice at the Royal College of Art cost £9,000 per year for home students, Central Saint Martins tuition fees cost half as much. Not only that, but by applying early for a UAL bursary, I got a 50% waiver on those fees. That meant that my whole MA study cost about £4,500, where it would have cost £18,000 at the RCA. You can see that half of the postgraduate loan still went to my tuition fees, and I had to earn probably another £10,000 myself to sustain my 2 year study. Which I did, with my part time job as a theatre usher. The job, which I still do, pays me £9.30 per hour (and double this on Sundays), which is pretty reasonable compared with a lot of service jobs, but still not very much given the cost of living in London. Again, I kept my eyes peeled for any bursaries I was eligible for and topped up as much as I could.
My rent was pretty colossal at the time I graduated from my MA in London – £670 a month for a bedsit in Archway comprised of 7 occupants (this sort of squeezing-in of tenants is common practice in London, although it often breaches the legal minimum living space requirement per person. My own rental agency was constantly fighting legal battles with the local council). Alas, finding a place in this city can be hard, and I had already moved 3 times in that same year because of unsuitable living conditions. This instability is pretty disruptive and challenging for someone with only a short time to study, thanks to short academic term times, long holiday periods during which many university facilities are inaccessible, and having to work during the studies.
I could not sustain paying such rent without the buffer of a student loan once the MA was completed, and began considering leaving London (and with it, any connections I forged during my studies, as well as a link to the most contemporary art scenes). I also looked into moving into a pretty sorry guardian accommodation with my boyfriend to at least have a base in London – what was once a room in a now disused care home. Guardian accommodation is a cheap alternative to living in London, but is precarious and sometimes offers pretty dismal living conditions. Guardians temporarily occupy disused buildings until their time for demolition or renovation comes along, at which point the guardian must up and go within four weeks. Still, some guardian companies are very accommodating and do the best they can to relocate you to other guardian properties they have.
We were incredibly lucky. We were told that the license at the care home my boyfriend lived in was being terminated, and he had to move out – but consequently (on the very same day of his eviction) we came across the most wonderful spacious flat which was also part of a guardian scheme. With the water, gas/electricity and council tax bills, the rent amounts to about £550 per month for each of us. We took the flat, and so far, remarkably, it has been financially doable even with my casual job as an usher, working around 20 hours or so a week. The precarity still stands – we are not legally guaranteed to live there for more than four weeks at a time, and my job is a zero-hours contract. But with some research online, we feel pretty certain that our flat (in a ‘condemned’ building in a former council estate that is being gentrified before our eyes) is not scheduled to be demolished for at least a couple of years. So there is a chance that we can stay there and live affordably for some time, hoping that something in our careers will change by the time we are forced to move.
I have not made much money from my art. I sold a painting once, and got paid for a performance two or three times (between £30-£100). Otherwise, I came quite close to getting a PhD scholarship, and was shortlisted for an art prize this year (but didn’t get eithe).
Perhaps others are more savvy about this, and it may be true that I have been purposefully avoiding a commercial approach, not putting editions of video or drawing online for purchase, and having no direct ambition for gallery representation or a rapport with collectors. Instead, I have my heart set on academia, hoping for a career in teaching and art practice as a mutual endeavour. I hope in this way I can avoid commerce (what is for me a burdensome, perhaps for others an appealing, challenge). I hope to keep art-making a monkish occupation in this way, and become subsidised by the government as a contributor to education and culture. This is at least, my (probably naive) view of things. We will have to wait and see, but for now I have somewhere to live, I have basic sustenance in place thanks to a modest job and a Santander “postgraduate account” with interest-free overdraft. I have at least, some time and space.