Moray School of Art Degree Show 2019

The evolution of work coming out of Moray School of Art (Moray College, University of the Highlands and Islands) can be described as a cultural Madagascar: isolated and without interference from the invasive influences of national art institutions. Once upon a time, when I was a student there, I felt that the lack of access to contemporary art was a hindrance. Now, coming back as graduate, alumni, and artist in my own right, I can see the remoteness from the rest of the Scottish art scene creates a purity and sincerity which makes the work emerging from Moray School of Art unique. 

Dominating the centre space of the beautiful building, with its parquet floors and decorative exposed oak beams, hangs a friesian cow giving birth to a unicorn. The authenticity of Shaun Pearson’s work is tangible. This is someone who has not one care about what art is meant to be. The walls, top to bottom, are covered with paper plates decorated with gauche portrayals of crisp packets, watermelons, frog faces… the kitsch, the tacky, and the low brow. It’s as if he employed a hoard of primary school kids to go crazy in the arts and crafts corner of their classroom. The work would be perfectly at home in a John Walter exhibition and I really hope that comes to fruition one day. 

Shaun Pearson  (Image: Moray School of Art)

Shaun Pearson (Image: Moray School of Art)

Sadie Stoddart  (Image: Moray School of Art)

Sadie Stoddart (Image: Moray School of Art)

The usual tropes we see in graduate shows are almost non-existent here. There is a genuineness, and a playfulness, which radiates from many of the works, which is not to say that they don’t hold a strong social message. Sadie Stoddart’s papier mache installation consists of a constructed greenhouse with planters adorned with colourful mono-printed slogans. The work calls out a message of collectivity: the artist is nurturing the seeds of revolution literally and figuratively. The apparent message of activism resonates with the current zeitgeist of protest where the adhoc aesthetic of low-cost materials and simple making processes screams of recent leftist movements. This is a work of the people which is rare in Moray, where the culture is less of rebellion and more of ‘let’s write an angry letter to the local paper.’ 

In contrast to the day-glo rainbow of Pearson and Stoddart, the restrained colour palette of Madeline Daly’s work investigates the binary tension between all things. Clean structural lines cut into patterns reminiscent of the natural colours of the north; dark blues, grey-whites and sea greens. The multitude of concrete cast objects arranged on the table are both unique and uniform with each holding its own individuality. The work proves to be an exploration within colour with texture and shape being almost incidental. 

Madeline Daly  (Image: Moray School of Art)

Madeline Daly (Image: Moray School of Art)

Muriel Hughes’ continues the theme of social and cultural commentary as she dedicates her space to Ruth – the personification of ‘The Female’ in narrative. The installation fills the space with stylised depictions of a depersonalised woman in various forms of nakedness and exposure. The prominent cut outs are echoed with reflections of their own negative space. The subject beautifully relates the social narrative of the contemporary female to the literal interpretation of womanhood. 

Muriel Hughes  (Image: Moray School of Art)

Muriel Hughes (Image: Moray School of Art)

Muriel Hughes  (Image: Lynne Hague)

Muriel Hughes (Image: Lynne Hague)

Muriel Hughes  (Image: Lynne Hague)

Muriel Hughes (Image: Lynne Hague)

Muriel Hughes  (Image: Lynne Hague)

Muriel Hughes (Image: Lynne Hague)

Forging a creative career in the northern hinterlands is not the easiest task. The challenge for the graduate artists will be not only in cementing a place for themselves within the local cultural activity but also to find their niche within an already niche industry. The secret, which they will not discover until much later, is that their work already holds a uniqueness and honesty which is not easily matched by their peers from the big cities. In the near future, the graduates of Moray School of Art will contribute to the development of a distinct Northern style. One which should get the national recognition it deserves. 

Further information from: Moray School of Art (Moray College UHI)

Bridge House Art Comes of Age

In August 2018, Times Higher Education revealed a list of the best ‘small universities’ around the world, and reported on what students felt about attending a small college. According to the higher education sector paper, ‘for some, it was about smaller classes; for others, it was about closer relationships with teachers; and many said that a greater sense of community was the factor that clinched it for them.’ At the other end of the educational spectrum, Small Schools for children are frequently cited as the way forward for the very reasons stated by those students interviewed by Times Higher Education.

When it comes to small schools, colleges, and universities, in many ways I guess I have a bit of form on this. Having started teaching adults returning to education on Access to University courses run by the Workers' Educational Association in the 1980s (as well as stint teaching in one of London’s several prisons where classes were necessarily small for a number of reasons), I also taught small groups with disabilities, too. I’ve never questioned the value of ‘small education’, whether it be teaching mid-career returners to university, students with brain injuries or dementia, or repeat offenders serving long prison sentences. Whatever the context, small has always worked in ways that large simply didn’t.

Don’t make the mistake of thinking that I haven’t served my own time in large institutions as well, though. A somewhat accidental career trajectory eventually found me working in a series of ‘bums-on-seats’ universities that, despite their claims of ‘widening participation’ and the fight against ‘social exclusion in education’, actually did as much harms as good, often setting students up to fail for a myriad of reasons that are beyond the scope of what I’m wanting to address here. Having experienced small, I held out with the big for as long as I could, thinking that there was good work to be done, but nothing ever matched that close contact with students that is the dream job in teaching; whatever your discipline or subject area.

It’s therefore really pleasing (in that ‘warm glow’ kind of a way) whenever I hear of a small school or college doing really well, regardless of what age group might make up their diminutive cohort, or what subjects they deliver and for whom. How could I resist not wanting to write about one school that is this year celebrating its 21st anniversary running its unique flagship Portfolio Course on the West Coast of Scotland, therefore? Bridge House Art in Ullapool, Wester Ross, is the organisation that I’m referring to and, for sure, it merits a mention as it is doing precisely what has elsewhere been increasingly erased from the Access to University sector, or twisted to fit Further Education large cohort delivery.

Bridge House Art 2018-19:  Sheila Garden, Bob Kinnaird, Ciostal the dog, Rupachitta Robertson, Sally Weatherston, Kittie Jones (tutor), Luisa Stucchi, Aby Urquhart, Jenny Nicholls, Mairi Driver, Megan Vischer, Hebe Denny, Chloe Calder, Michaele Wynn-Jones, Eleanor White (tutor).

Bridge House Art 2018-19: Sheila Garden, Bob Kinnaird, Ciostal the dog, Rupachitta Robertson, Sally Weatherston, Kittie Jones (tutor), Luisa Stucchi, Aby Urquhart, Jenny Nicholls, Mairi Driver, Megan Vischer, Hebe Denny, Chloe Calder, Michaele Wynn-Jones, Eleanor White (tutor).

One of the smallest and most highly respected independent art schools in Scotland, Bridge House Art is a valuable educational resource for the Western Highlands with a growing international reputation, hosting students from as far afield as Lithuania, France, Switzerland, Spain and the USA, as well as a very healthy number of students from the more immediate vicinity. At the time of writing the School is celebrating its 21st anniversary with its annual exhibition of Portfolio Course work following an intensive training in the visual arts for just twelve students. As those behind Bridge House Art state, ‘coming from a range of ages and backgrounds, all the students have one thing in common: a shared desire to develop as artists.’

The sixteen week course that Bridge House Art runs covers a range of disciplines including painting, printmaking, textiles and sculpture, and each student spends their second term developing a body of work from their chosen area leading up to an end of course exhibition – an exhibition that this year is titled ‘RESONANCE’ and will be open daily from 10am to 5pm, from today (Sunday 24 February) until Sunday 3 March 2019 at An Talla Solais Gallery, West Argyle Street, Ullapool (Entry Free).

As Eleanor White, Founder and Principal tutor of Bridge House Art states, ‘The ethos behind all of our courses is to encourage everybody to learn to communicate visually and express a genuine response to the environment around us. I have been delighted with the way this year's students have responded to the challenge, and this promises to be an excellent exhibition.’ Kittie Jones, Senior tutor, adds, ‘I am always impressed by the dedication, hard work and motivation of the students on this course. Many of them have moved up here to be part of the course and the results speak for themselves. I am sure many will go on to develop diverse creative practices and I look forward to following their progress from here’.


If that all sounds like the usual PR-speak that any institution (large or small) might issue to raise its profile, then slow down a bit and consider. It wasn’t until I looked into what Bridge House Art were about, and who some of their prior alumni were, that I realised that many of those professional artists that I frequently receive monthly newsletters or press releases from, were actually once students of Bridge House Art. True, not all their work is always to my taste, but the fact that I follow what they do indicates that that they do it to a high enough calibre for me to have not unsubscribed from their mail-shots yet, often remaining curious about how their work will progress and develop still further. Clearly, as time has go by, their confidence may grow, but from where were the early seeds of that confidence instilled in the first place? Bridge House Art, maybe? From my own experience teaching small, I know that such courses can change lives and set students on a path that has either previously eluded them or perhaps they thought was totally unavailable to them.

To widen this out further still, there is so much emphasis put upon ‘youth’, today, and I also want to mention this dimension, too. Just this week I’ve been in contact with two artists in particular who have described themselves as ‘mid-career emerging artists’. The term emerging artist has been much-overused over the past couple of decades, usually deployed to sell art via online start-ups that promise a lot to recent (young) graduates, but deliver little. Invariably there is an age limit set on what qualifies for one to be an ‘emerging artist’, and mature students are thus erased from view as the emphasis is placed upon media-savvy youth over real life experience.

This is another aspect that is of real value to students attending a small portfolio course such as that run by organisations such as Bridge House Art. While some students may want to use a portfolio course as a stepping stone to undergraduate study elsewhere, others are returning to art education at a point when they have more time to focus on what works for them, and when they maybe have more time to do that. I therefore applaud the work of Bridge House Art and those both running and attending their many courses. This is what Access to Art Education used to look like before Further Education colleges were encouraged to stack ‘em and rack ‘em, feeding ever greater numbers of students into the Higher Education sector in a never-ending numbers game that was based on how many successful applicants they could get into universities or art schools.

Not everything that is produced by students of Bridge House Art is going to be cutting edge art that will garner widespread attention, but that’s not what such courses were ever supposed to be about, anyway. What they are about is personal development, the building of confidence to put oneself out there, and the corollary to that, which is very often a much greater contribution to local and regional economies than we realise. Students attending small courses such as the one discussed here are far less likely to out-migrate to urban centres to make their mark, and far more likely to contribute to the community in which they studied in a variety of ways. That, I think, is commendable; not just in terms of the level of education they have received, but also the thinking behind it.

So often, the term Local Artist is used as a disparaging put-down, but that is not the way to go, in my view. If we want to build healthy communities and stimulate the economies of those communities (and I don’t just mean financially) we could do with a lot more small schools and colleges that invest their time in fostering a belief in oneself and one’s abilities. Aside from the fact that some who attend Bridge House Art travel great distances to benefit from the education they receive, those who are studying more closer to home should be judged on their work and their work alone, too. The exhibition that has opened today, thus offers an opportunity to do just that – to view the fruits of their labours and, whatever the outcome, for the reasons given above it is worthy of attention. Long may Bridge House Art continue providing this valuable resource, and long may students benefit from what their portfolio course offers. I wish them well.

RESONANCE | mac-talla

24 February – 3 March, 2019
10am – 5pm Daily

An Talla Solais Gallery
West Argyle Street
IV26 2UG

For further information contact:


Sara Jones: Push creativity at school...


Despite the UK Government’s focus on science, creative jobs are far less likely to be automated in the future, says Sara Jones in Design Week – so why are the arts being neglected in schools? Under the strapline 'Government policy is eroding creative education', she writes that "In recent years, [the government] has undermined the arts by excluding results in creative subjects from assessment criteria and league tables. Instead, it prioritises the core English Baccalaureate subjects, which are considered to be more academic."

I'm old enough to remember a time when Foundation level diplomas in Art & Design were reconfigured as what was then called the DATEC diploma, which required Fine Art departments in further education (with a knock-on for Higher Education too) to show that their students could, first and foremost, "meet the needs of British industry". The eventual result was a new breed of art student who went out into the world with a range of skills in marketing themselves with 'artists' statements' and 'savvy knowhow' about how to spin their work according to new 'professional criteria', but had spent far less time in the studio actually making 'the work'.

This issue has been with us for some time, but the corollary to that move in the 1980s with the reconfiguring of art education (the most major upheaval in arts education since the Coldstream Report in 1960), is now being felt across the entire educational sector.