Op-ed: Natalie Voorhies on visual arts

 
 

Natalie Voorheis, UCD alumna and education intern at The National Gallery of Ireland writes on the importance of the visual arts within UCD

During my graduation ceremony in August I was struck by Hugh Brady’s speech in which he urged the graduates who sat before him to put one per cent of their first million back into UCD. I questioned if I would be prepared to do this and since then contemplation of my time in UCD has played at the back of my mind. Now, nearly half a year after finishing my final exam, with the distance of time and space between myself and UCD I am able to vocalise a set of ideals relating to the visual arts which, I feel, had they been in place during my time here, would have made the very good education I received and which I deeply value, a world class one. And for which, if put in place, Brady could have that infamous one per cent.

Throughout my degree, although inspired and motivated by some wonderful members of staff and happily involved in societies and student life, I felt the niggling sensation that a certain something was missing from my experience. I remained unsure of what this was until, as my interest in the visual arts was nurtured by the Art History Department, I felt my eyes opening. In opening my mind to the world of art and aesthetic concerns the UCD Art History Department opened by eyes to the environment around me, the built interior of the many buildings of the Clonskeagh campus, and, most specifically, the Newman Building. What I saw was a collection of spaces and walls within the Arts Block which were inconsistently hung with small amounts of art in areas of bad lighting, with no identifiable or consistent labelling system and dirty, grey, unpainted walls.

Wall colour is one of those things that the majority of students will never notice during their time at UCD. However, it is something that the brain is, in every moment and with every change of environment as one walks through UCD, processing and creating an emotional response to. I believe that the students and the media, who have named the UCD campus a ‘concrete jungle’ are responding to the emotional response our interior environment has on us and expressing their desire for one which is conducive to their needs as students.

Every year, underneath the James Joyce Library, students crowd around the folios of posters during poster sales. These sales are successful year after year, a fact which demonstrates, on a most basic level, students’ desires to transform their digs and study spaces by creating visually interesting walls. Even a student on the tightest of budgets will stretch their funds for a poster. You wouldn’t leave the walls of your home unpainted, revealing monotone and dirty grey slabs, so why should we allow UCD to force this visual desert on us? Remember, according to Brady, they are giving us an education that provides us with the ability to go on to be, not just successful, but millionaires. That would imply that we as students are taking the most we can from the education on offer. But how can we do this when the interior environment of this institution is, in so many instances, not conducive to positive mental health, a sense of belonging, optimism and supportive of learning and creativity.

One must question, for example, the thoughts of UCD authorities who have recently chosen to paint the wall directly opposite the entry gates to the James Joyce library an aggressive and oppressive red colour. This place has traditionally been used by students to sit with friends and unwind between periods of study. The UCD authorities should have you, the student, at the heart of every choice that is made about your built and interior environment. Creating an un-restful space in an area used by students, even in an unofficial capacity to rest, is simply unacceptable. By way of comparison it is useful to note that walking into the Arts library in TCD the student passes a large artwork by famed Irish artist Robert Ballagh.

Colour theory relating to the educational environment is a large area of discussion and research. Papers such as ‘Color in an Optimum Learning Environment’, published in 2008 by the International Centre for Leadership in Education have been concerned with advising institutions on how best to create a positive interior environment for students. Papers such as this state clearly that the colour red should not be used in a study environment and that a hallway area, such as the one outside the James Joyce Library, performs the function of refreshing the student as they pass through and that colour choice should reflect this.

It would be an unbalanced view not to highlight the positive uses of space and art within UCD which have begun to emerge. The architecture school, for example, recently made a powerful statement by implementing a change to the fabric of their building. Knitted together on the ceiling of a rectangular lecture room are the names of past graduates engraved on coloured blocks. These blocks are sympathetic to the colour scheme of a tiled floor pattern in another room of the school. The ceiling is a powerful statement of togetherness and inclusion. Above the heads of the students as their creative sparks are lit by their education, the names of those who went before them float. This screams one central point to architecture students from their school’s authorities. They, past graduates, matter to us and so do you. This is an excellent example of the positive and transformative nature of art in the educational environment.

The recent ‘Euro Barometer Aggregate Report 2011’on wellbeing ranks culture as number eight out of nine factors that contribute to wellbeing alongside the economy, civic life and our environment. With this in mind let us focus on our own UCD SU Welfare position. Rachel Breslin, who, with her strong CV, professionalism, good interpersonal skills, and the achievements of introduction of some innovative projects within the Welfare umbrella under her belt is well placed to take such EU findings and use them in her role as Welfare Officer. Breslin, in a position which has been focused on mental health for some time could develop this by petitioning to the UCD authorities and championing a focus on our interior environment as transformative for students’ well being. Giving the grey interiors of buildings like the Arts Block a facelift and ensuring that relaxation spaces such as outside the James Joyce library remain in place are ways in which the visual arts within an institution such as UCD can have transformative and positive effects.

The inconsistent nature of UCD authorities dealings with the interiors of much of our campus is reflected in student pride in those environments and then in their institution as a whole. Brady, if you want one per cent of my first million, you need to create a sense of pride for students in their environment and thus in what they are learning within this environment. Lectures and tutors come and go and schools undergo change. If I could be sure that no matter what, a continuity of pride could be created within the student body’s future generations, in their institution and their education, you would have earned my money.

Grainne Millar, founder of Culture Night, and current Irish representative on the EU Expert Group on Cultural and Creative Industries, made a strong case for the importance of the visual arts in the development and economic success of Ireland in a recent article entitled Building Ireland’s Creative Economy with Help from Europe, which appeared in the Winter/Spring edition of ‘Heritage Outlook’. She singled out Finland as a positive example of achievement in this field. Successive governments of Finland, which is number one on the EU Ranking on Active Cultural Participation and number two on the EU Innovation Scoreboard, have consistently understood that together with science and education, culture, heritage and the arts create the intellectual foundation of a society. The arts are not a surplus indulgence of the boom years but are seen by European leaders as a stimulus for our economies and integral to the make-up of an engaged and educated society. So committed to this train of thought are the EU that between now and the end of 2013 the European Commission will be investing over seventy billion euro in developing the creative economy across Europe – the world of arts culture, heritage and the creative industries.

The student body of UCD, made up of 22,000 people, are a community within Irish society actively engaged in education. In accordance with current EU thinking on education and on the framework of a successful society, providing access to the visual arts and a learning environment which is informed by a sense of the visual is not just important but crucial.

One of the most important remits of your Students’ Union is to look after your mental well being and if your environment is not conducive to productivity of study or restful periods between study then you must highlight this and ask them to strive for change and for a more conscious attention to the interiors of UCD.

I can’t advise as to what colours or pieces of art should be painted and hung on every wall within UCD in the confines of this article but what I can do is make you, the student, aware that the power of colour and of the visual arts. UCD, in facilitating your education, must pay heed to colour choice throughout the institution and the art that should surround you on these walls.

Let not the defining colour and mood of our university be grey, but let it be diverse, a representation of the people who walk through the halls. A celebration of your first Freud class, your determination to complete your Masters thesis or the innovation you have demonstrated in the construction of your PhD. Let it support and inspire you throughout your journey and foster a sense of pride in your college. We are the educated of our society. We are not grey. Why should we live that way? The interior spaces of our university are the homes of learning and should support us as such.

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