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Positive Space: The Importance of the Shared Studio in Illustration Practice

Linocut by Melanie Grandidge (@melaniegrandidge)

There is no doubt that the location of some of my happiest moments from the last four years of my studies can be pinpointed on Google Maps: an unassuming grey square slightly south of Edinburgh Castle— Evolution House. Behind a set of revolving doors and up four floors in a shuddering lift, you’ll find the ECA Illustration Studio. Rows upon rows of illustrated mess and bad postures, with post-its, postcards and prints of every colour under the sun masking the once-bland walls of the office block with a royal view. As the name suggests, the evolution of my practice can be attributed to my time spent at these very co-ordinates, as I’m sure can the practice of many others.

To hear that, due to the pandemic, this space might be taken away from the students that remain, is hugely disheartening. The studio is not just a work space but a community— a place to ask if anyone has a sharpener, some ibuprofen or any hot goss. A place to ask for honest opinions, fresh eyes, to comfort and console after a particularly nasty crit. A place where daily routines are maintained, friendships can form and grow simply by offering tea and a biscuit. To be able to walk amongst your peers at work and see the beginnings of a new and exciting project or the messy in-progress prototypes of something very-nearly-almost complete is a joy and a privilege. It is a privilege that should be guaranteed under the very conditions of undertaking a degree at the university.

The uncertain nature of hot-desking would be unthinkable to my friends whose workspaces slowly mutated over the year into the unique habitats in which their practices alone could thrive surrounded by their books, materials, and resources that didn’t have to be lugged to and from halls every day, especially for those of us who lived further afield. One of the greatest challenges for us as a result of the pandemic was the loss of access to this physical space. Illustration is having a big digital moment, but many will agree that there is, as of yet, little that can replace the thrill of hand rendered work— a perfectly calculated screen print, the smell of pencil shavings, pigmented inks washed over the minute grooves of watercolour paper— all of which require space and resources to create. From the standpoint of practice alone, I count myself lucky that the majority of the work I have been making this year has been predominantly digital. The transformative canvas provided by the iPad and the versatility of the Apple Pencil has been a lifesaver for many of us, but it is by no means an acceptable, nor affordable, alternative.

On the other hand, Zoom may offer a means of communication and a virtual space to share works in progress, but connections can vary, physical work and familiar faces are flattened into a determined number of pixels and the context of the journey is lost. Once you click out of the chat, you are alone, and wherever you are has little significance. As many of us have realised, loss of facilities— including print rooms and digital suites— has potentially immense consequences to how we prosper as social beings, let alone students of Art and Design.

In the Illustration studio specifically, one of the best departmental traditions is working your way up to Fourth Year in order to get the coveted corner of the studio with the best castle views (not to mention the best lighting). Our spaces become not only artistic sanctuaries but badges of honour, endurance, expertise. I will always remember my time in these spaces fondly, and hope students may continue to do so- sharing biscuits, critiques and late night conversations.

Written by Kat Cassidy

Illustration by Rebecca Sheerin (@illusheerin)