North East Connected

‘Fairytale’ first class finish for artist

Kathryn GraduationFar from being a barrier, Kathryn Barnett now believes her age, debilitating disease and being a stay-at-home mam have proven to be an advantage when it comes to drawing on life experiences for her art.

Yet six years ago the married 45-year-old had little confidence in herself or ability, whilst living with rheumatoid arthritis and raising her two children.

But life changed forever after attending day classes run by an artists’ group at the local community centre. She discovered a new-found passion for art and was accepted onto a Fine Art degree course at the University of Sunderland.

Last week she graduated with a First Class Degree and her proud family alongside her, and says: “This is a fairytale for me, I’d been a stay-at-home mam since leaving work 20 years ago and art was just a hobby I did now and again, with no aspirations. I would never have dreamt of calling myself a proper artist, as I do now.

“I actually thought I’d come out of this painting watercolours for people! But, I have grown in knowledge and confidence; so much so, I hardly recognise myself and have developed new skills in everything from print-making techniques to digital art. Certainly what started as a pastime has actually become a viable job opportunity.”

Not only has Kathryn successfully submitted work for independent exhibitions over the course of her degree, but she recently received national attention when her final year project work was celebrated in national art magazine A-N last month (June), promoting UK Universities’ annual degree shows, which features the work of final year art and design students.

Her degree exhibition, reflected the burden of serious illness on close family members – a subject close to her heart and featured large scale pieces, including a bold digital print and spherical structure, suspended in a sling to be viewed from all sides.

Kathryn, from Bearpark, County Durham, explained: “Drawing on my own experiences with rheumatoid arthritis, as well as three family members affected by cancer, my work was a reaction to all the illness we faced as a family and the issues associated with a diagnosis.

“The subject is chronic illness and disability, people tend to steer away from this subject, but I want to ensure art about disability becomes more mainstream. My work is all about raising questions, I’m proud of what I’ve created, and confident to talk about my subject matter.

“I’m glad I did the degree part-time over six years, with rheumatoid arthritis you get very tired, and I’d work around the times I had the energy, which could be at 4am! As the bones in my wrists are fused and I can’t straighten my elbows, for my large-scale artwork I also enlisted the help of my husband, who is now my carer. He has been very supportive, and has helped me to put some of my pieces together.”

However, Kathryn admits the journey to succeed has been a struggle both physically, as she dealt with the pain of her illness, and mentally as she faced her detractors in the early days.

She added: “In 2010, I was at a hospital appointment and started telling the specialist practice nurse about my newly found passion for art. At that time, I had been going to day classes in the local community centre to learn how to better paint and draw whilst my kids were at school.

“I mentioned I was thinking about pursuing my interest at university. I thought the nurse would be positive and supportive, but instead looked utterly horrified. She suggested I should set myself a more realistic daily challenge, such as ‘going out to the garden to sniff a flower or something’. This made me more determined and when I was first offered an interview for the course, it gave me a sense of my own value, I actually cried and thought ‘someone wants me, I do have a worth’.

“I have no doubt that the nurse had my best interests at heart, not to overly exert myself and suffer the disappointment of failure. She wasn’t the only person to say so but I think it’s far better to try something than to forever wonder, “what if…?”

Kathryn now plans to continue her studies with a Masters, followed by a PhD.

Kathryn received her Fine Art degree this month at the Stadium of Light, during the summer graduation ceremonies, where thousands of students received their degrees from Chancellor Steve Cram.

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