The secret life of a fine arts student

Art Art & Lit

Most Oxford students bustle about their daily business attending lectures, writing essays, slipping in some reading and working on problem sheets. There are also presentations that need doing, and notes that need copying up. When confronted with the idea of making artwork as part of their daily routine, most would look dumbfounded and maybe even ask the question, “Art? Can you study that at Oxford?”

The answer is yes. In fact it’s very own art school, The Ruskin, is the golden building next to the Exam Schools on the High Street. But what is it that Oxford art students really get up to? All jokes about colouring in and potato printing aside, I followed the first years on an average Wednesday to show you what they spend their days doing.

Buzzing into the art school at 9am, the two libraries lining the foyer are scattered with students flicking through exhibition catalogues. Down the stairs and into the studios, bubble wrap litters the floor, canvases are propped against walls and sketchbooks are piled up in corners. Toolboxes lay open, revealing scissors and brushes and palette knives, and pots of varnish and glue reside beneath the paint-stained sinks. Amid the chaos, people are already working on their practical projects; studio work takes up 75% of a Fine Artist’s final grade.

There is a first year weaving a large, abstracted textile sculpture, miscellaneous objects like door handles and tree branches scattered over her desk. Another is stripping a workspace free of old drawings, and a third year is building a canvas on the floor. As the morning proceeds, more students filter in, lugging sketchbooks and bags full of materials before dropping into their workspace, some starting to paint, others writing notes on their display walls, or asking with resignation about the whereabouts of the technician. The occasional person drops by in safety goggles to use the electric saw, the noise ripping through the quiet room, leaving a small cloud of sawdust behind them.

At eleven o’clock, it is time for the art history lecture. Abandoning their studio work the first years head next door to the Exam Schools for a presentation entitled Cubism: Early and Late. Taking rapid notes, all twenty-six students swap between watching the lecturer and turning to look at the indicated painting on the screen, listening in silence until question time. After one hour they are free to go, and join the flow of students leaving the building for lunch. Most grab a baguette from Olives, the French sandwich shop on the High Street always with a winding queue outside its door, and take the food back to the art school for another hour of studio work. People variously paint, draw, engrave into marble, fiddle on laptops or build models out of spare materials, chatting occasionally and sometimes flicking the channel on the radio.

As two oclock draws nearer, everyone heads to the department of Medical Science for the first anatomy lesson of term. “I’m quite nervous about it actually,” one student tells me as we walk through the automated doors, but there is not much time to dwell on it as we deposit our bags, don our white coats, wash our hands and walk through the door to the surgery.

Conscious of the medics in there, the art tutor keeps her voice down as she withdraws boxes of bones for her students to study, handle and sketch, reminding them gently of the material difference between the Ruskin’s plastic skeleton and the ones here. Then slowly people make their way around the cadavers, distinguishing between the biology learnt last term with textbooks and a skeleton, and learning to see it with the sensitivity required in the real surgery. Eventually people take out their sketchbooks to make drawings, diagrams and notes about the human body, to help with the anatomy exam in third term.
After a surprisingly exhausting two and half hours, the class is officially over, though some wish to continue drawing; the tutor stays with them whilst the rest collect their things, throwing their gloves away and stowing sketchbooks back into bags. Most students then decide to head back to the studio, or to the Sackler library for some art history reading, before beginning Thursday morning with a visiting artist’s talk.

As the day went on I learnt more and more about what it is that Ruskin students are here for. It’s not all pretty painting, or conceptual drivel. Art is the study of culture, a philosophical practise rooted within academia, allowing people to express their ideas in a visually original way, and The Ruskin itself is a remarkable institution. An intimate art school in the midst of a world-leading University, it proves that the historical subject of art can indeed be studied here, and is done so with the commitment and curiosity of every other student at Oxford.