If you’re a graduate taking your first steps towards a creative career this summer, you’ll no doubt look back on a time fraught with extraordinary challenges. Having grappled with isolation and been starved of access to the support networks that make arts education so enriching, those first steps into a world still in the grips of the Covid-19 pandemic will feel daunting, to say the least.
“Arts education is about discovery,” says Sachini Imbuldeniya, founder and managing director of Studio PI – an award-winning agency with a mission to promote equality and celebrate diversity across photography and illustration. “It’s where you find your creative voice, and for too many that’s been taken away. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see a whole generation bearing long-term scars from the past 18 months.”
But Imbuldeniya urges the class of 2021 to take heart and stay strong as green shoots of recovery are already emerging in an industry that – particularly in the case of photography – was dealt a hammer blow under lockdown conditions. “The volume of commissions is already increasing,” she observes. “We’re emerging into a fundamentally different world.”
Having launched Studio PI at the height of the pandemic in 2020, Imbuldeniya is a strong believer that great things can be achieved in the face of adversity. “We’ve all faced challenges – whether loneliness, managing childcare, anxiety or depression, struggling to make ends meet, or losing loved ones to Covid – and it can be hard to find a creative spark among all that,” she adds. “But our artists have been determined to succeed and have invested themselves into creating fresh and dynamic work.”
INSPIRING THE NEXT GENERATION
One such project is Rebirth, a collection designed to motivate the next wave of graduates to overcome circumstances tougher than any could have expected. “We want to make that brave step into a new and fulfilling career feel less daunting,” explains Imbuldeniya.
Five of the talented illustrators from Studio PI’s roster have contributed to the project: Alexis Tsegba, Janice Chang, Frieda Ruh, Ngadi Smart and Sneha Shanker.
It’s about having the ambition to pursue what our hearts truly desire, and having the courage to ask for what we want, push past fear and keep trying
“So many of us have had to rise, phoenix-like, from the ashes of the pandemic,” continues Imbuldeniya. “When something catastrophic happens some people start to fall apart, but there are others who embark on something new. This collection signifies the bravery, hope and potential of a new start, and underpins the mix of fear and courage it takes to begin again.”
Entitled Moon for Taking, Tsegba’s contribution expresses these essential qualities. “It’s about having the ambition to pursue what our hearts truly desire, and having the courage to ask for what we want, push past fear and keep trying, no matter how many times we fail,” she explains. “And it’s about having that steely, dogged determination to follow our dreams, no matter what others might think, or what hurdles are thrown at us.”
CHALLENGING THE STATUS QUO
A particular hurdle for new talent entering the industry has been that commissioners have been battling with plenty of their own concerns – from furloughed staff to reduced budgets, to the ever-present threat of the virus – making it harder than ever for them to be brave enough to take creative risks.
“Many chose to commission already established artists, so it can be even harder for new waves of artists to break in,” Imbuldeniya continues. “It has been an exceptionally tough time to get work, and creative industry culture is often biased towards people with the right networks and social connections.” This is exactly why Studio PI exists – to represent a talented crop of artists from only the four most underrepresented groups: women, people of colour, people living with disabilities, and those from working class backgrounds.
Sometimes life can be extremely tough, and in these times it’s always so tempting to give up on your dreams and switch to survival mode
“Our mission is to celebrate diversity and give unseen artists a chance to succeed in an industry that’s already heavily stacked against them,” she adds. “The industry is plagued with nepotism and elitism, which makes it tougher for certain groups to get a foot in the door. We’re making positive steps in the right direction, but there’s a long way to go.”
Make It Epic is Frieda Ruh’s contribution to the Rebirth project, exploring the need to stay resilient and strong for the journey ahead. “Sometimes life can be extremely tough, and in these times it’s always so tempting to give up on your dreams and switch to survival mode,” she says. “But we have the power to shape our future. Even if it’s a real struggle, the work you put in will pay off.”
RESTORING SUPPORT NETWORKS
For Rachel Gannon, who heads the Illustration and Animation department at Kingston University, one critical benefit lost for all those studying during the pandemic has been a robust peer support system – what she describes as the “studio culture” of the course.
While this includes sharing ideas and techniques and critiquing work, for Gannon the value of this environment runs deeper: “It’s about solidarity,” she explains. “Someone being there to pick you up after a bad crit, or if you don’t feel ‘creative’. These long-lasting creative relationships often take root at art college or university and nurture a creative career.”
Mireille Fauchon, course leader for the MA Illustration for Communication course at Ravensbourne, confirms how valuable this sense of community can be. “The most exciting creative practices are born when minds, skills and methods cross-fertilise, especially those who might not ordinarily meet,” she says. “Chance encounters, overheard conversations, catching a glimpse of someone’s work in the studio, sharing references – these have all been much harder to facilitate remotely.”
Janice Chang’s contribution to Rebirth – Nurture – evokes the mindset required to take those first steps into a creative career. “It’s all about a fresh start,” explains Chang. “With some nurturing care and growth, a brighter future seems more attainable.”
Despite the enormous stress and pressure, Gannon is “in awe” of how well her students have adapted and thrived. “The conditions have not been conducive to creativity, yet they’ve produced some innovative, experimental and playful work this year,” she enthuses. “Their resilience has been tested and they have shown themselves to be incredibly resourceful – such as adapting bedrooms into makeshift animation studios.”
“Our whole lives have been affected by this,” Fauchon points out. “It’s not been a matter of not being able to make your best work, but rather, ‘How do we work in these situations, and what work can be done? How do we adapt our methods?’ And if we can’t do this ourselves, who do we need to join forces with to make our presence and voices known?
“So many lives and livelihoods have been lost, but I do think that out of such situations comes true innovation, inventiveness and creativity, which is intrinsically linked to survival,” she adds. Studio PI’s Rebirth collection captures exactly that mentality: Sneha Shanker, for instance, describes her contribution – entitled Truth – as the “generational awakening” that’s needed to innovate through the crisis.
CHAMPIONING UNSEEN TALENT
Many people from the underrepresented backgrounds that Studio PI supports were disproportionately affected by the pandemic due to deep-rooted issues that were exacerbated by the crisis. “People who have financial security and a safe place to live, who are freer from extra responsibilities or caring duties, and who have literally uninterrupted time and space to engage with their studies, have a much better chance of success,” points out Fauchon. She has seen many of the systemic challenges first-hand, having achieved her PhD as a woman of colour, with no prior background in formal arts education.
“Until the student body represents what we want the professional body to look like, diversity in the workplace will always be an issue,” she adds. “Always being ‘the other’ is utterly exhausting. There are so many subtle forms emphasising difference, which many won’t recognise as prejudice. I think this stems from lack of experience, hence the need for more diverse cohorts earlier within education.”
Don’t try to fit in if it feels unnatural. Your difference is your strength. Approach from the sidelines and conquer. And when you’re in a position to champion others, do it
To help promote this much-needed diversity at a grass-roots level, Studio PI partners with likeminded organisations such as The Colour Balance, Agents for Change, and the Alice Made This Youth Programme.
There’s a long way to go, but future success starts with the kind of drive and determination that sits at the heart of the Rebirth collection.
Smart’s contribution is an optimism-fuelled piece called Visualising a Bright Future for All. “Don’t listen to the noise,” is her motivational advice, equally relevant to graduates from all backgrounds. “Listen to your own voice and keep going.”
“Don’t try to fit in if it feels unnatural,” agrees Fauchon, who provides some parting words of wisdom for unseen talent everywhere: “Your difference is your strength. Approach from the sidelines and conquer. And when you’re in a position to champion others, do it. Nothing worthwhile is ever achieved in isolation.”