With COVID-19, virtually every facet of society has had to change and adapt, including students needing to attend classes and work from home. However this presented a major challenge for one group in particular: art students. Because they heavily rely on having a vast range of materials and studio space, art students needed to find creative solutions to continue to create. Especially those in their last year of their degree who were working towards a final degree show were severely affected. I interviewed Helena Greening, a student who just graduated from Oxford’s Ruskin School of Fine Art to find out how she personally dealt with these circumstances.
Tell me about yourself. What medium do work in? How would you define your style?
I normally work with paintings and I’m primarily a painter but I’m also an installation artist. So I would say my work is like expanded drawing. My work is quite intuitive so I work a lot with colour and I can make my own paints so I use pigmented medium and I mix them with transparent, opaque, thin, oil or acrylic bases and then they create different translucencies. I enjoy working with psychoanalytics and I am quite interested in the body so I have been making a lot of work around the illness of my mother for the past 3 years. Even though it’s quite sad, it has driven a lot of my work which tends to be psychologically intense and I use painting and the general art space as a way to explore that.
Tell me a bit about studying art at Oxford. How do you physically work on your pieces?
When you start at Oxford, you are basically just told to start working as an artist. So, you don’t get anything set for you around creating and you have complete freedom to be creating exactly what you want. There are people creating video, doing sculpture, printmaking and everything really. I don’t know how to explain how you go about creating but you just get to work and then see where it leads you. We have tutorials every week or 2 weeks and a tutor will come and comment on your work or you can talk around the topic and they can suggest ideas for you, but the way you create is you just do your research and experiment how you want. You also get a studio to work in and that is where all the workshops are. We have a wood workshop, steel welding, a print workshop, a big studio media lab, a workshop room which is a big project space and has a special film on the windows where you can project onto the outside of the window which is very cool, and many more facilities. The masters students are also there so we are all bundled together in a big group and it creates a nice family community.
At the onset of the pandemic, how did you adapt to the new circumstances?
The first thing we had to do was completely leave the building. I think a lot of people didn’t realise how long we were going to be gone for since it was very uncertain. Art is very different to other subjects where we need a lot of our materials and workshops in order to continue to keep making. I think everyone was quite scared thinking about how much we would be able to take home. I personally got my dad to come down and shove as much wood as we could in the car to make painting stretches whereas some people had to go home on planes. My friend, for instance, was going to New York and she could hardly take any materials with her since she only had hand luggage. There were basically loads of people in really compromised positions which was quite hard being artists but I think we all tried to manage the steps of lockdown. I think a lot of people were also not wanting to go home and needed to stay in Oxford so the first steps were basically what to do and how to act accordingly to prioritize safety.
What have the challenges been working from home?
I think the challenges in working from home are really different for everyone. In terms of my perspective, going home meant going home to my mum who is really ill. At Oxford I am able to detach myself quite a bit, and when you’ve got a mum who is quite ill with incurable cancer you don’t want to think about it all the time. But when you get back home, you are really there up close and it disrupts your work a bit. But it’s obviously also really nice to be there with your family to support you. But also, there are people going home to some compromising situations because you never know what someone’s home life is like which impacts the emotional side of things. On the physical side of things, there are also people who will not have any space. I was really lucky where my parents said that I could have a bit of the living room for my studies as long as I put some stuff down on the floor since it’s my final year. That was really good for me because it meant that I had a little studio. But so many people didn’t have that space and were working with very minimal space and not many art materials. Since I am a painter it was also hard because I had no place to put the paintings up. I had to work on the floor and prop them up against a wall and hope they looked good. Being a painter, though, I was in quite a lucky position whereas I think other people who needed print workshops or special media found it quite difficult.
As an artist, did you have to compromise your vision because you had to work from home?
I mean you don’t really know where your art is going to go. So in that way a studio gives you a push and pull that will let you go whichever way you want and you can really experiment because you’re around so many people that will give you advice. In that way, you all grow from each other whereas when you’re by yourself in your own home you are potentially compromised because you’re not having the same conversations and growth you might have in a studio. My mum would sometimes knock on the door and ask “Are you going to put a bit of purple in that it would look really nice!” and stuff like that and while she never means any harm but it’s just that I’m not in that same art space and mindset. It’s very different to be creating because you don’t have access to people that are like-minded and feeling the same as you. So it’s difficult. But there’s also the thing where, do we necessarily need to have all these special things and spaces to be creating work? Do we have to have workshops and print rooms and should we need that? There’s a big debate going on in the art world at the moment about if COVID-19 is showing us that we don’t need to have as much to be able to work which is a really interesting debate.
Are there any upsides to working on your pieces outside of the studio?
It was definitely not all negative. For instance, I had time with my parents that I otherwise would not have had if lockdown hadn’t happened and I think that has been really important. Especially for me, since my mum was unfortunately re-diagnosed when I came home, it was amazing that I got to support my family. Sometimes Oxford is so busy and it makes your head twirl and I feel like going home and having the time that lockdown has given us has really reset my pattern. I have recently been taking life a bit more slowly and reconsidering things whereas in Oxford I just want to do everything and find myself running between debates and meetings. It’s a big whirlwind but the best whirlwind. In coming home for my final term ever, there’s obviously bits that I miss like being with my friends and the art community, living in college and doing all that we do. But slowing down actually had major benefits as it makes you consider things more and lets you work at a slower pace that is less stressful.
How will your work be evaluated?
Normally, the course is split up into history and theory of art which is examined in December, a dissertation due in Hillary term, and then in Michaelmas we submit a portfolio and have our final degree show. One of the negatives is that we didn’t get a degree show this year which was really sad because I think if you’re an art student you’re always waiting for that show which is the pinnacle that all your work builds to. You get the opportunity to put everything together and loads of people come to see it and it is a really nice thing which is why I am sad that we missed out on it because it also means we don’t get an ending and closure as a year. We’re such a close-knit group of people since there’s only 30 of us and not to have that at the end is really weird. For us, we ended up having to digitally submit a portfolio of PDFs of our work. It was on a platform called slideroom and all our work was just on different slides that the tutors flicked through in 20 minutes. It feels really heartbreaking that it takes 20 minutes to finish your degree but it’s what happened. But we did get the chance to do some other fun things. All of us split up into teams and worked on different projects. One of the teams was called The Project Space named after one of the rooms in the Ruskin School of Art and they did a live virtual exploratory space. It was on the Ruskin website and a lot of tutors even came so it was very nice. And then with a few of my friends I’m heading a publication which will be sold on the Ruskin website with 100% of profits going to a charity in Oxford called Art Nest. They’re working on providing emergency funds to vulnerable children in local schools which makes it a great place for the funds to go to. It’s been really fun working on it because everyone has a double-sided hand-sized postcard which is personalized. Mine has a painting on one side and a photograph on the other but some people have done writing and there have even been collaboration cards and tutors’ cards. It is basically a big shifting amalgamation of voices of the Ruskin which is nice because it is our entire community in one little book.
Where do you see yourself going in the future? What are your plans for life after Oxford?
I’m hoping to go into television which is a bit of a swing a different way. While I have been doing my degree, I have been doing a bit of interviewing and working with my college as an access officer who produces access videos. I really love interviewing people and working with people. Art is so individual and self-exploratory, especially for me, and I have realized that I would just really like to work with people. I would love to go into documentaries and cover things surrounding the climate. But, I definitely do want to keep my art up on the side and work in arts and access. I’m working on a cool project at the moment that hasn’t been launched that has to do with arts, accessibility and activism. I’ve dotted myself all over the place but I’m just going to see where this takes me and I am pretty open to what comes next.
This is the first of The Oxford Blue Culture team’s new ‘Meet the Creatives’, a series of interviews with the amazing members of Oxford’s creative community.