In celebration of International Women’s Day this week, we wanted to present a piece highlighting what creative choices a woman from Generation X had when aspiring to be and finally becoming a creative in Yorkshire.
By Ruth Parker
I was always a creative kid. Sitting up a tree wearing my signature cowboy hat, I took endless photos with the camera my parents bought me, blowing my spending money on 35mm film and ice pops. At Christmas I asked for art and craft supplies and was told to ‘smile and be nice’ if anyone bought me a doll.
My dad was always interested in art and I remember him going out to paint beautiful landscapes in summer at 6am before he started his shift at the Gas Board, his creative career unfulfilled to be the providing father and husband he chose to be. There’s a lesson to be learned here. Previous generations had to accept a role.
My mum in turn became a housewife even after passing a difficult grammar school scholarship exam, as she was not awarded funding. She led an uncomplaining life but was unable to become the academic she wanted to be. It’s reassuring to know that this is not the way it has to be these days.
Although my parents aspirations were never fulfilled they passed on their dreams. Dad would take me out sketching on long walks around Haworth where I grew up, and tell me tales about his travels around the world with the army, thereby laying the foundation for my future plans. It was a wonderful Swallows and Amazons type childhood.
Art and English have always been my thing. I love playing with language and I like books as aesthetic objects that open up a world of knowledge on every subject imaginable.
Books took me to far away places and the visual was always significant to me. Even the design and copy on food packaging fascinated me. Pineapple chunks all the way from Africa and space age Vesta curry in packets.
Life for a kid in the 1970’s seemed to be on the cutting edge of technology. David Bowie and I would soon be going to the moon. How amazing would that be! I became fascinated with travel and where all the brightly coloured packaging came from. I read and wrote incessantly, scribbling poems, stories and disjointed prose, just writing for the sake of writing. I didn’t realise it at the time but all this was shaping a future in art, design and copy.
I left school with no real direction in mind. Careers advice was non-existent back then and as I didn’t want to be a secretary or a nurse I was regarded as a bit of an oddity. I wanted to be an artist, writer, philosopher … I was a dreamer, but I was handed leaflets on secretarial training.
These days creative aspirations would be nurtured. How times have changed. The attitude seemed to be that I would be married with kids soon, so why bother. At this stage I was questioning everything. I was interested in world religions and the Humanities. I told the careers officer this and was asked if I wanted to become a nun. I remember feeling very misunderstood and didn’t raise the question again. Looking back it really was the dark ages. The women who marched and protested for a more equal society in the 1960’s were still making their voices heard, and the Dagenham women went on strike for equal pay, but attitudes were slow to change.
When I left school I went to my local library and found a course in art and design running at a local technical college. I worked hard and passed the course, but it didn’t bring the career I expected when I left.
In the 1980’s all the guys were in trades and all the girls took office jobs with the Civil Service. I joined them and went to work for the Inland Revenue as an Administrator.
The turning point at work came when a colleague had a breakdown and threw a computer out of a fourth floor office window. It’s a miracle he didn’t kill anyone in the car park below, because as anyone who’s seen the ‘80’s series ‘Ashes to Ashes’ will know, computer hardware back in those days was big and heavy. Barry was coming up for retirement and obviously felt very unfulfilled. He was taken away for counselling before being quietly dismissed. How his flipping out and subsequent dismissal affected his pension I don’t know, but I do know that his conformity to the point of insanity was a working life wasted. Another colleague at the same time left to become a prostitute. It really was that boring.
Workers seemed to either accept the job as a temporary measure or it became a lifetime of security. I decided to move on before the urge to trash my workspace took control of me or it became too late to leave.
In 1986 I enrolled on a Foundation Studies course at Bradford College of Art & Design. Back in the day, students were funded with generous grants which, looking back, was an enormous privilege. The downside of funding was that places were fiercely competitive. In the days before students became ‘customers’, arguably the quality of work was much higher and the industry benefited.
We worked incredibly hard and Bradford College then produced exceptional candidates who went on to study at schools such as Goldsmiths, Central St Martins and the Slade. I decided to go down the sensible industry route and train to be a graphic designer. I was accepted at Cleveland College of Art & Design and set off for a career in this exciting new world. It would provide a sure fire job at the end of the course and the money (the course tutors assured me) would be very good too. Looking back…I’d advise anyone to question everything!
By the time I graduated with my HND, many other people had done so too. The market was saturated and jobs were scarce. The technology we were using at the time was basic but it was developing quickly, and six months out of the game meant you were no longer up to speed. The qualification counted for little and you were virtually unemployable.
I supplemented part time teaching with part time freelance art and design jobs, and started eventually to do more fine art work which I touted around the commercial galleries. From teaching business studies I moved on to teach graphics and worked with course leaders to write BTEC programmes.
In addition to work in education, which is invariably part time and on a short term contract basis, (but it has to be said, with an excellent hourly rate), I worked as a freelance artist and designer. Offshoot skills gained from this included marketing and project management. Work in the visual arts continually calls for a high level of lateral thinking. You have to be resourceful, tenacious and adaptable to maintain work in this industry, and sitting around waiting for inspiration is not an option.
Art has opened doors that would otherwise have remained closed, and the people I’ve met along the way have been fascinating. It has however been hard work and at times I’ve juggled with self funded studies and employment to achieve both my academic and professional qualifications.
I’ve survived by being good at networking and only a few of the jobs I’ve had have been found through formal application and interview. What was my initial career path has changed and evolved into something quite different over the years.
I always despair when art students say they’ve chosen this path ‘cuz it’s easy’. My immediate reaction is to think ‘well you’d better learn to ask the customer if they want fries with their order if you honestly believe that, because you’ll never be an artist’. Of course as a tutor I wasn’t allowed to say it, but I did try and change a few peoples way of thinking and redirect them to a less challenging career path.
A creative life takes nerves of steel. It’s uncertain, the pay can be low and sometimes there’s no pay at all. I’ve encountered many sharks in this business who regard artists as the lowest form of life to be exploited, and I’ve had to develop a thick skin not to take rejection as a personal insult. I still struggle with that one as to do anything well you have to invest both your time and passion. It’s more than a job. Artists tend to be sensitive souls and it can be difficult to maintain a hard, business like exterior and to see things objectively.
So how do we make it pay? Well that’s the million dollar question isn’t it! While I was at Bradford College David Hockney was always, and rightly so, held aloft as an icon in the art world. He made the grade, lived in LA and enjoyed world fame. Kudos to you Mr Hockney. It might also be worth mentioning that his work is typical of the house style at Bradford College of Art & Design. Take a look at his early work at Salts Mill in Saltaire. He’s talented but not by any means remarkable.
The difference between success and failure is that Hockney has been a great self publicist. He went to London and put himself in a situation where fame found him. He networked and networked well. With hindsight I’d do the same. I’ve done OK but not as well as David Hockney, so perhaps there’s a lesson to be learnt. It’s worth altering your mind set to get where you want to be. Raw talent is not always rewarded but strategic thinking is.
Moving from the visual arts into copywriting at this stage in life seems like a natural progression. Writing in its many forms has been ongoing throughout my life, it’s just one of the things I do, so to do it professionally seems logical. It’s not so much a career change in my fifties as a sideways step into another related field of work. On the plus side copywriting is a career that if we choose we don’t have to retire from.
It’s heartening that new technology has opened up a world of opportunity where we can all work online from anywhere, and for as long as our health permits if we choose to. Creativity is certainly more of a lifestyle than a job, and being a practitioner in any art-form is never purely about the money (although money undeniably helps, anyone who tells you not to stress about money is either a fool or has never been poor). Being a creative is about doing what we do because it’s who we are, and conversely, the job and the strength of character it demands shape our personality.
The ‘job for life’ of the last generation it seems is confined to the past, but the luxury of living in a free society, of being a generation who has not had to suffer the trauma of war, and who have been granted the opportunity to be who and what we want to be is remarkable.
New technology is to be embraced as it offers freedom and opportunities to people of all ages and in all situations. The core skills of good writing and good design are a constant, it’s just the tools that we use are evolving. Chameleon-like we have to adapt or be left behind. As ever it’s a challenge but to be challenged can be a good thing. To greet each working day with interest and enthusiasm is wonderful, and in addition to keeping afloat financially, surely that’s all that matters. The future looks promising. Bring it on!
‘Ruth Parker is an artist, designer and further education professional in the visual arts. With experience of writing content targeting a wide range of clients, she has worked both as an in-house and remote working contractor’. Ruth’s LinkedIn profile