This was written a while ago, in 2014, but I thought I’d repost it here because I’ve had a couple of BA students contact me, who were interested in studying at Konstfack in Stockholm.
I left England in 2008 because I didn’t like who I was or what I was doing with illustration. I had graduated three years previously and was still trying to find my illustration style while struggling to find enough work. I was with my second agent and work only ever trickled in. Working from home meant that I didn’t leave the house much and I couldn’t discipline myself to do personal work even when I had the time for it. Unless there was a commission knocking on my shoulder I could be found doing anything but work. The internet provided a wealth of inspiration, but most of the time I didn’t know where to start. After discovering that it was free to study in Sweden and Finland I applied to the two big art schools in Helsinki and Stockholm. Both rejected me, although I had managed to make it through to the interview stage at Konstfack in Stockholm.
Knowing that I had to somehow leave London I headed over to Helsinki nevertheless. I had friends there and could rent a room cheaply along with a lot of desk space at a big, cheap warehouse studio in Kallio, the artists district of Helsinki. It was the first time that my home and work became separate places and it really did me a lot of good in the beginning. After a few months of the cold winter I gradually began to feel isolated and lost. I’d tried to learn Finnish for a while, but not with any real commitment. Finnish people are lovely, honest people, but if you can’t speak their language and you’re not particularly self-confident it can sometimes feel like a real battle to get them to talk without feeling like you’re being a nuisance.
Feeling a need to move on I applied to Konstfack in Stockholm again. I got another interview and this time actually went to the university. The previous year I’d had a telephone interview and was sure that was why I’d been rejected. Meeting the tutors and seeing the facilities and space was really inspiring. I felt like I could find more of a community here which is what I’d hoped to find in Helsinki. A couple of months later I was accepted and, after spending the summer in Berlin, I left for Stockholm to begin a masters in Storytelling.
The department of graphic design and illustration has a masters programme called Storytelling which is spread over two years. Each year has roughly 14 students. Although half were Swedish and half were international we quickly got to know each other and even had a big dinner together, which was organised by the Swedish students. We also got a lot of desk space because there aren’t 30 or 40 of you fighting for space as is the case in England. The conditions are great and you have 24 hour access to the studio which also includes a fully equipped kitchen.
Because the focus of the course is on “storytelling” rather than illustration specifically, it meant there wasn’t so much importance on developing a style. We were a mix of illustrators, graphic designers, photographers and one fashion designer/animator and although there was some competition it wasn’t the same as I remember from my bachelors. The courses and projects were really varied. At one point I took part in a writing course which showed me how important and complementary it could be for my drawing practise. The only thing that I was jealous of was how disciplined some of the other students were. They would arrive at 9 and almost always leave at 6. My daily rhythm was much less disciplined and meant that I spent most of my time in school, including some pretty late nights.
The course was very open which meant you could often do almost anything you wanted. As I was a pretty indecisive person at that point I ended up doing almost nothing until the deadline finally loomed. I wasn’t used to doing self-initiated work and it was a struggle to begin with, but I was back in school to have the time and freedom to find my own voice. I imagine many people go back and study because they want to develop a voice and share it with other people. Finding that voice can be quite painful, but it’s certainly a lot better than being frustrated by a lack of one.
One crucial part of finding a voice involved talking in front of people. I hadn’t done that for a while and I think many of us struggled with it. However we were all a pretty supportive group and I soon started to enjoy it as it became another way of sharing my work with my colleagues. Explaining my work meant that I had to have a clearer idea of why I had chosen to draw something or tell a particular story. Having a group to share my work with meant that questions were raised, which forced me to understand why I had made certain decisions. Somehow my work became deeper and had a meaning which extended past being simply a nice or pleasant drawing. Through finding a meaning I also worried less about how well I could execute or draw the final piece.
At the end of the two year course I had to give a 45 minute presentation followed by a 15 minute discussion with a moderator. This was all done in a lecture hall in front of maybe 50 people. At the beginning of the course I could never have imagined doing it, but when it came down to the crunch it really wasn’t so hard. I had had some preparation and was passionate about my project, Bonobo Press, so I genuinely enjoyed telling my story. I didn’t have the fear I had at the beginning of the course because I had begun to find a voice I was comfortable and confident with. Talking in front of people was no longer nerve racking. I cared more about my work and also the work of my fellow students. I was no longer in a small, introverted bubble and looking back I see how important and liberating that was for me.
Illustrators can be quite reclusive and introverted, but if you decide to do a masters at Konstfack it should be to break out of that. It’s not only about learning to draw or design better. It’s about sharing your work with a small community with whom you sometimes collaborate and other times just cook together. The students and teachers are the most important thing there followed closely by the amazing facilities and space. It was so big that I used to skateboard around late at night when I needed a break. Gliding down the huge, silent corridors was a great way to relax and forget about work for a while. Either that or I’d play a few games of table tennis in the main hall.
Returning to study again was always going to be about learning again. I wasn’t learning much at home and just drifted along from one commission to the next. At Konstfack I didn’t really learn much about drawing or the technical side of my work, but I did learn how to talk to people about their work while also receiving critique of my own work. I began to discover interests that would give my work more depth and meaning. Learning how to care more about work in general, whether mine or others, has since helped me a lot with teaching. Even if you don’t like a particular aesthetic style it is still very interesting to learn about why someone chose to create something which is something rarely discussed in the commercial world. Generally there isn’t the time for it. At Konstfack we were given that time and that was a great luxury which I would recommend to all.