Painting the pandemic

Student artists reflect on heroes, lockdown, and the importance of artistic practice.


This week the Visual Arts team caught up with the artists behind the entries of the 2019 Student Arts Prize to hear about their works, their experiences of balancing student life and artistic practise, and the influence of lockdown upon their work. Here’s what they had to say…


After contemplating the complex topic of diversity, I began painting my competition piece in January alongside my studies. My friend, Augustine Ihm, a Cranmer Hall alumnus, was the perfect subject for my painting: epitomising my experience of diversity in Durham, as a black, adopted, gay, religious, mature American student. I titled my acrylic painting ‘Papa Gus’: a nickname for Augustine, with Papa signifying his potential career as a vicar and him acting as a fatherly figure to St John’s College students.

I chose to place a black body at the centre of my artwork to unapologetically celebrate diversity and normalise art featuring black models as non-stereotyped characters. Despite being exposed to discrimination, Augustine spreads joy with his bright smile and big personality, which I hoped to capture in my painting.

This summer, I was delighted to be selected for the final five of the competition and I was truly astonished to receive the most public votes for my artwork, placing as the People’s Vote Winner.

I continue to enjoy painting alongside my studies, having recently set up my own small business creating personalised wood slice artwork. I look forward to thinking about what I might create for this year’s Student Art Prize.

I am Zihan, a second-year computer science undergraduate and the creator of the artwork ‘Kaleidoscop’ which discussing the issues of diversity. I started my first art lesson at three and eventually finished advanced sketching at the age of fifteen. I think the most valuable thing I gained from my artistic education, besides the skills, is a sense of imagination and the courage to be different. I have been interested in digital art for a long time because I believe it provides a broader, more comfortable, and more applicable creation workflow. I am particularly interested in digital designing, painting, photography and its recreation.

I don’t think the creation of art has to be deliberate; it is quite natural in our lives. Each moment we experience is compound of actions, ideas, feelings, sensations and experiences that only belong to us. The happiness of art comes from free and unique expression. There are always some moments we show the beauty of humanity. In these moments, we become elegant and unprecedented artworks ourselves. I do believe that art is natural, simple, inclusive, yet, powerful because it is the collection of the free and unique expression of every mind.


Coping with lockdown has been challenging for everyone and we have each had to find our own way to do so. For me, art was key. I have always liked painting portraits and I decided to paint people who inspire me. I started with my godfather who is a doctor and then branched out to Tom Croft’s ‘Portraits for NHS Heroes’ initiative. Under this scheme, artists reach out to individual key workers and paint their portraits from a photograph, sending it to them afterwards to thank them for their hard work in the fight against the pandemic. In total, I painted five portraits of NHS staff, both male and female, some in full PPE kit and others in more casual attire. I am currently working on a bigger piece highlighting NHS workers, to submit to next year’s Durham art competition whose theme is heroism.

Art gave me a sense of connectedness when we were all feeling isolated.

Not only is there connection between the painter and the canvas, but there was sense of community among artists participating in the initiative. For me, art is a go-to activity in times of stress. Whether the macro world is driven by a pandemic or whether my micro world is driven by exam and deadlines, the painting process remains the same. Art provides me with a sense of normality and control and gives me refuge when I need it. 


The Student Art Prize was a great opportunity to get involved with the artistic community at Durham. My piece was a portrait of Chloë: a wonderful and engaging young woman with Down’s Syndrome whom I have the privilege of knowing and have worked with in previous art projects. I hope to encourage the viewer to question our preconceived assumptions of beauty and art, and stress not only the importance of diversification but also of freedom and empowerment.

I have recently submitted a piece of work for the international HART Prize for Human Rights’ Creative Competition and I am proud to have been awarded third place. My piece, which is an etching of a photograph I took when I visited Al-Madina Souq in Aleppo in 2008, is very close to my heart. It represents a bustling hub of everyday activity and trade at the heart of the city, many parts of which were tragically destroyed in 2012. My contact with them was ephemeral however I hope that I have portrayed a glimpse of the lives of these innocent people, and of a culture which has been so catastrophically destroyed. I often use my art as an expression for a greater cause or to try and spark a conversation or personal thought. 

My work is a representation of the diverse perceptions of the body. Standardised forms of human bodies are deeply entrenched in our culture and society. We tend to paint or draw a picture of things that can be understood by the majority. However, if there are any scholarly matters that I so heavily cultivated during my time at Durham as an Anthropology student, it would be the knowledge that reality is not objective nor consistent and that our understanding of the world is always evolving. We construct pictures in our head based on how we socially premised our knowledge of objects, things and relationships. We learn from a young age how things should be ‘drawn’ and look like. Through arts these homogenised interpretations of the body can be challenged. 

My artwork was made during one of the Durham University Arts Society’s life drawing sessions. I remember wanting to interpret the model’s body through abstraction. So, rather than trying to draw the model’s body through my humanoid perception of it I tried to feel the model’s feelings instead. I communicated this through the colours I used and interpreted her poses through different shapes and forms. The drawing is spontaneous – I drew as I interpreted the model’s body and mood. The work ended up being a depiction of how the mind can go against the social currents and undergo instantaneous and diverse conceptualisation of the body.

I believe that we are all artists in our own different ways. We immerse ourselves in art on a daily basis, we instinctively become story tellers even in our most insignificant conversations. Painting happens to be my favourite way of sharing my interior interpretation of the world surrounding me with others. I feel touched by a song, a photograph, a conversation I happen to overhear on the bus, and I reconstruct the emotions borne of that “touch” with colours.

 I paint to reinvent, to intensify and to share

My work is naïve, raw and unpolished, I just smear the canvas with wild unbound figures without contorting them to fit a style creating a chaotic visualisation of tension. What I honestly enjoy more than painting is designing the characters; I usually paint without any reference to real life. It is gratifying, but also intimidating to capture a figment of imagination with pigments etched on the flesh of a canvas.

The most daunting thing about painting is sharing one’s work with others, it almost feels like denuding a part of your soul. In the end, it is all about transferring a sentiment and expanding that “touch” to invite others to see the world with your eyes and feel it through your heart.

Head to the Billy B entrance to see more works from the Student Arts Prize 2019-20.

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