A life changing artistic journey

23 Jan 2023 | Written by By Sue Smith

The Joy Club member Sue Smith makes her debut on our blog with this inspiring piece about her journey of self-discovery as a mature student at art school…

‘Are you sure it’s not fraud!’ I heard a bemused voice stammering. I was so embarrassed that, as a retired English teacher, I was spluttering and stumbling over my words the entire interview with the Head of Creative Development. My stiffened body language and nervous over-talking bore witness to my being totally out of my comfort zone. I sat anxiously in a makeshift marquee, designed to safeguard students and staff following the pandemic’s enforced college closure of the previous two years. I felt like a goldfish in a plastic bubble.

I had procrastinated for months, equally fascinated and terrified by the prospect of re-visiting academia. Excitement and fear raced through my veins at the prospect of finally studying the art course I had been forbidden in my teens. Born into a conservative, calvinistic family, the horror of their only child studying art was abhorrent to my elders, and – dutifully – I had never questioned their truths.

Indeed, I had a wonderful career and life. I taught in both the UK and Europe; recently having returned from 10 years in the Far East as a voluntary service officer. Yet, that college enrolment day I knew was the  beginning of the biggest personal achievement of my life.

Aged over 19, a UK passport holder together with passion and commitment; I was assured that these were the only pre-requisites for entry into Blackpool and Fylde Art and Design College. The course fees, which had been prohibitive at almost £8000, would be funded by an Advanced Learner Loan – with repayment only required when I earned £26k+!

‘No it isn’t fraud I owe this to me!’

Despite being in my 68th year, this was further education at its most inclusive. Less than a month later I arrived on campus, with a new pencil case, packed lunch and a nervous smile. Making my way to the ground floor classroom, I was greeted by 25 equally apprehensive students. I was indeed the eldest, but never did age, gender, or experience become an issue. From the very first day, our group bonded. Ably assisted by the tutors, who guided us through simple introductory exercises exploring the range of disciplines to be covered in this foundation course, we shared a common goal: to enjoy and – indeed – survive this life changing year.

An eclectic mix of students had enrolled to further their careers in photography, ceramics, digital art, illustration & design, printing, textiles, sculpture, painting and drawing, to name a few. A full-time course, we were catapulted headlong into what seemed a rollercoaster of new ideas, technologies and concepts.

Everyone was a beginner in some areas but we each found ourselves with a skill we could support and share with the group. I had studied the history of art and written essays, albeit nearly 30 years ago, research was my comfort zone. 

Digital media and Photoshop were, however, new languages that plagued me for weeks. Many sleepless nights, with lots of support – namely from a wonderful husband (who spent hours at my side while perusing a Dummies Guide to Photoshop Elements) – and strong black coffee got me through this element of the course.

This being a full-time course, involving three days on campus with a packed timetable of tutorials, practical sessions and lectures and two study days at home, I admit – at times – I was afraid I’d taken on too much. However, I had also never felt so alive, driven and excited by the breadth and depth of this wondrous artistic adventure.

Naïvely, it appeared, I had enrolled to develop my painting skills; it wasn’t until halfway through the last term that I used a brush to glue collage, a brayer to ink up printing plates, and scalpels to chisel plaster! I was jettisoned, like Alice in Wonderland, into a beautiful world where we lived, breathed and discussed art in all its multifaceted forms. I loved exploring photography from its conception using basic pin-hole equipment, bookmaking, wire sculpture and surface design, but – most of all – the development of my own unique visual language.

Long hours, hard work and perseverance followed that first day, but the rewards were life changing. My confidence and self-esteem grew in abundance as each assignment opened up new avenues to explore or reawaken memories of ideas and goals lost in a packed lifetime of a career and putting others first.

Whilst I am proud of gaining a distinction at the end of the year, and of being invited to take my studies further with an unconditional place on the degree course, the main benefit was my newfound knowledge and belief in myself. I am an artist. I have a voice and will continue to pursue my artistic direction in new and exciting ways. College gave me a roadmap that had eluded me for years and, this year, as well as through the many years to come, I will explore the areas that particularly appeal to me.

I hope my story can reach as many people as possible, who have always wanted to explore the love of art and creativity but felt it was too late, too expensive – it isn’t. You are worth it.


If you have some of your own experiences which you’d like to share with us, please send them to submissions@thejoyclub.com for the chance to get paid and published on our blog. 

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