Student artists honour heroism

Last month saw the launch of the 2020-21 Durham University Student Arts Prize Exhibition. Indigo Visual Arts caught up with some of the Prize’s competing artists to talk about their work, the practice of balancing art and student life, and the challenge of capturing heroism on canvas. The works of these artists and other competitors are exhibited outside the Billy B.


Art has always been one of my greatest passions, but there are ups and downs to being a student artist. Time and space restrictions can be especially frustrating. Clay is one of my favourite art materials at the moment, but it is not the most practical when you only have a small desk to work on—and when you should be using that desk to study!

life at university encourages my artistic practise in unexpected ways

On the other hand, life at university always encourages my artistic practice in unexpected ways. In addition to art societies, competitions, and other opportunities, the books I am reading as an English student often inspire me to create artwork that I wouldn’t otherwise have thought of—including my sculpture of Icarus, inspired by Ovid’s Metamorphoses.

My submission to the Durham University Student Art Prize is a piece called ‘Upwards Gazing’, an embroidery piece based on a photo of the underside of tree here in Durham. I thought I’d take an abstract approach so this was my take on Heroism as trees are unsung heroes that don’t receive the recognition they deserve. The embroidery piece itself took me over 2 months to complete and consists of thousands of tiny French knots.

I taught myself embroidery at the start of the first lockdown, back in April 2020, after watching some YouTube videos. After practising (a lot!) I decided to document my progress on Instagram, where I met so many lovely people from the embroidery community who inspired me to try new techniques. I initially started making and selling ‘boob-roideries’ to fundraise, with 25% of the profits going to Cancer Research UK, which got a great response. I then started experimenting by recreating photos through embroidery, mainly landscapes, and began to sell custom pieces, working from photos sent to me. From there I decided to challenge myself and attempt to depict this beautiful tree using a needle and thread.

Ellen Fasham

I painted this portrait of Steve specifically for the competition. I knew I wanted to take an alternative approach to the theme of heroism within the pandemic, and Steve was an obvious choice. He has been hailed as a hero within the community and even been featured on The One Show. For me, he really represents how important community has been during this pandemic and how there are so many silent heroes working tirelessly to keep society moving. 

there was just enough space in my room at St Aidan’s to set up my easel

I am so glad I’ve been able to get involved with the student art scene in Durham. Art has always been a huge part of my life and I was worried about how I would be to keep up without the studio space. However, I found that there was just enough space in my room at St Aidan’s to set up my easel and it’s been lovely to have my friends watch the painting progress.

I feel like I’ve proven to myself now that practicing art alongside my degree is very achievable and, even though it is extremely time consuming, I will definitely keep it up because it’s a big part of who I am. 

I studied art up until university and loved having a creative outlet alongside my academic studies. It’s definitely been harder to find the time at Durham and I miss having an art space to physically cross the boundary into a creative mind-set. However, I’ve enjoyed new opportunities to create illustrations for various university groups and have started to find my own style and aesthetic.

For the Art Prize, I originally struggled with determining my response to ‘heroism’: I think having the wide scope of possible interpretations caused me to pressure on pinpointing a specific person or role that was heroic. Then after coming across a quote from Maya Angelou, I understood that I wanted to portray a more universal version of being heroic.

Thinking about the current climate and the amount of humanity people have given during this time, I was inspired to create the two abstract figures in a balanced pose of being helped up a cliff. I depicted such a simple act of service as a metaphor showing the importance of ordinary heroes in our society and with an understanding that anyone can fit these roles in many wide-ranging capacities.

Emilia Zeslawska

”You will never walk alone” was born in March 2021. At the time, women and other people in Poland had been caught up in a continuous fight against the government regarding the nearly complete abortion ban. I could not join them – I have not visited my country once since the start of the pandemic; instead, I painted a public response, a personal reaction, and a love letter to my people and their ever-unbreakable spirit.

While my work is chiefly a study of heroism inside a community, it is also about bravery and cowardice. I was thinking about how cowardly it is to pass cruel and divisive laws on the sly while strict lockdown rules are in place to prevent large gatherings, and to sweep any signs of resistance under the rug. But in the soil tainted by injustice, the seeds of heroism yield action and change. 

The three faceless women on my painting represent the kind of anonymity that is focused on serving the community without the need for being recognised for it. ‘You Will Never Walk Alone’ were the words written on a sign carried by one of the protesters in one hand, the other hand busy holding his daughter up against his chest in a viral photograph.

These words have since become one of the main mottos of the protest, often accompanied by visual signs, such as the red lightning bolt symbol and the black umbrellas brought to the gatherings. These symbols can be found in the crowd on my painting, too. 

While these references directly identify the crowd and their cause, it is my hope that this work will speak to women affected by callousness and brutality of changing legislations anywhere in the world.

Ewan Jones

The visual arts scene at Durham can be hard to find . . . but it does exist

This is my second year entering the Student Art Prize, and my first time getting shortlisted, so I’m very happy. The visual arts scene at Durham can be hard to find when compared to theatre and sport, but it does exist and you can get involved in some great activities – I’m a part of Cuth’s Art Society and have enjoyed some of the sessions held by DU ArtSoc last year. The Student Art Prize definitely goes a long way towards raising the profile of visual art at Durham, and I’m proud to be a part of it this year.

My artwork for the competition centres on Dr Li Wenliang – one of the first heroes of the Covid-19 pandemic. Whilst working in a Wuhan hospital, Li noticed cases of a SARS-like disease, which he attempted to make public on Chinese social media. Local authorities promptly took him to the police station, requesting that he stop ‘spreading disturbing rumours’. Li submitted and continued his life-saving work in the hospital, however. After he became infected by the disease himself, the authorities apologised and announced Li a hero.

Even bedridden with Covid-19, Li demonstrated heroism as he continued to post on social media, informing the world about the coming catastrophe, shown in my artwork by the newspaper background. Following his death, China has marked Li as a martyr, and he is still remembered as a coronavirus hero in China and around the world today.

Image Credits: @fallonmichaeltx via unsplash, Fran Beal, Ellen Fasham, and Emilia Zeslawska.

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