Student Art Prize 2020: through the eyes of a judge

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For artistically inclined students at Durham, it can often feel that the University is unconcerned with our efforts or interests. Although many colleges have art societies of some form, there is a distinct lack of central University support. 

The Student Art Prize, launched in October 2019, marks an attempt to change this. The Art Prize is Durham University’s first coordinated attempt at encouraging student participation in visual arts. If it is to be a success, it needs to become as embedded in the student calendar as the Durham Drama Festival, or any of the various charity fashion shows. 

By Gabriel Lewis

From its conception at the Vice Chancellor’s summer party last year, to the final prize-giving, the establishment of the Student Art Prize has been long. Nor is it over – with the current national lockdown requiring a new, digital approach to displaying the shortlisted works. 

In March 2020, I sat on a panel of judges to decide the shortlist – 23 entries to be exhibited, and from which the top three prize-winners will be chosen. Being included on this panel allowed me to find out more about how the Prize was organised and how it might be improved in the future. 

I also spoke Richard Roberts, who is sponsoring the Prize, about his personal motivations for raising the profile of visual arts in Durham. Richard is optimistic about the potential of the Student Art Prize. “We must have many talented student artists here in Durham,” he says. “It is time their talent and contribution to the life of the University was encouraged and recognised.” It is certainly promising to hear these words from someone in Mr Robert’s position. 

We were looking for artwork that was both high in quality, and relevant to the theme

The youngest person in the room by 20 years at least, and the only student, sitting on the panel I felt far removed from my usual University environment. There were seven others on the panel, six of them women. Departments represented were the University Library and Collections, Equality, Diversity and Inclusion, the Head-elect of Stephenson College and a local guest artist, Lynne Moore. Alix Collingwood-Swinburn, Curator (Western Art) of Durham University’s Art Collection, led the discussion. 

There were over 70 entries to work through. As panellists, we were looking for artwork that was both high in quality, and relevant to the theme: ‘diversity’. Accompanying each entry was a 100-word justification of its connection to the theme. 

Hands featured a number of times, representing the idea of relationship between different people (albeit in a somewhat clichéd manner). Portraits of friends and family members were much more common than landscapes, animals or buildings. Various interpretations of unconventionally beautiful human bodies appeared frequently. 

Subject matter was too often predictable, with a strong focus on black or ethnic minority portraits

A photograph of the Holi festival of colour taken at Durham’s Oriental Museum, caught my eye. Clouds of pink and yellow paint make a startling contrast to the image we normally associate with Durham: the river curving around the Cathedral, framed by green trees and grey skies. 

An interactive game – in which the viewer ‘plays’ the character of a persecuted Tibetan Monk, on a mission to save the community from military invasion – was both highly original and informative. The piece was submitted under a pseudonym, as the artist anticipated negative responses surrounding the contested political issue.

A delicate portrait of Jill, an elderly woman, reminded us of the increasing diversity of ages within our society. The artwork asked us to value age and wisdom as highly as physical beauty.

Some entrants used their work to comment on the absence of diversity in Durham. One statement I thought was especially astute acknowledged that while our student body is not ethnically diverse, our travels and experiences are.

Ultimately, when we look at art, we are captured by things which are unusual or new – things we have not seen before are more intriguing. Despite the large number of entries viewed and discussed, for many of them, consensus was reached within a minute. Subject matter was too often predictable, with a strong focus on black or other ethnic minority portraits. These were strange to see, coming from a student body well-known for its lack of such faces, and reflected narrow views on what constitutes diversity. 

By Alice Lefranq Frojd

One entrant wrote, as if in reply to my thoughts: “diversity isn’t surface deep; it comes from within.” They had entered a close-up watercolour painting of elephants, which won my vote, but few others. We spent some time debating this piece. The more I looked at it, the more I believed it fit a subversive, less conventional idea of diversity – animals, to us, all look the same, but do indeed have varied and individual personalities within. 

While the subjects chosen to illustrate ‘diversity’ were at times unimaginative, this did not always exclude them from the shortlist. I remember clearly a highly stylised line drawing of a human body which had been made during one of Durham University Art Society’s life drawing sessions. The fact that it was the product of a student-led event run by a student-led society made the work highly relevant to the Student Art Prize. The bigger shame was having to turn down work which displayed exceptional artistic skill, but which did not have a clear connection to the theme.

Some of the panellists said that they expected the theme to be explored further by the entries. Personally, I was less surprised. I find the word ‘diversity’ to be trite and overused. 

However, Ms Collingwood-Swinburn and Mr Roberts were more supportive of the theme, feeling that its breadth allowed for greater artistic possibility. Mr Roberts said the aim was “to provoke the student body to think about so many aspects of current university life; and then the diversity of juxtaposing  buildings in Durham, and the juxtaposition of a World Top 100 University in an area which values and remembers its mining heritage with events like the Miners Gala.” Perhaps I have been overly critical; more than 70 entries, invariably of a high artistic standard, is a great accomplishment for the initial run of the competition. 

When we look at art, we are captured by things which are unusual or new

When discussing how the Prize might be improved for next year with student artist Eden Szymura, she mentioned that discussion groups might be held at the launch of the next Prize. These would allow entrants to explore, understand and challenge the theme, and might result in a wider range of approaches. It would also enable student interaction, helping knowledge of the Student Art Prize to spread further through word of mouth. 

Furthermore, a focus group with this year’s entrants might give insight into the marketing strategies that worked or did not work well. A problem encountered this year was a lack of communication between students and staff, especially as many of the staff members involved in the Art Prize do not teach. The graphics for many student events are polished and professional; enlisting students to help with the marketing of future Prizes might help to bridge this gap. A well-known guest judge might also increase interest. 

Before concluding, Richard Roberts highlighted the importance of art to mental health. “Creating artwork is a very good way of taking stress out of the hectic and pressured student life. Student mental health is another real concern of mine. Finding space to be calm, be creative, to let our imagination wander is part of keeping a better mental health balance.” Bearing in mind that mental health problems are of increasing concern within the student body, emphasising the link between mental health and the Student Art Prize is a clever way to advance the profile of visual arts. 

By sponsoring the Student Art Prize, Mr Roberts aimed “to encourage students away from the Billy B, and have creative fun which might help de-stress and have a reward at the end.” 

I think it is fair to say that this has been achieved. We should be proud of the result of the first Student Art Prize, the roles we have had in its realisation – submitting entries, spreading the word, facilitating others to create art – and the platform that has been set up from which to advance student art in the future.

Image: Tommy Hämäläinen

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