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I was pretty sure I didn’t belong in Art School

Last updated on Nov 17, 2022

Helen Maria Nugent

Helen Maria Nugent - Dean of Design

I grew up in a typical working class family in Kirkintilloch (which is very near Glasgow) in Scotland. My immediate family members worked as cleaners, welders, nurses, coal miners, and in various factory positions. They were doers and very supportive of my crazy artistic impulses.

I could draw in a very realistic style from an early age and would spend time with my grandfather, mum and aunt playing the game where one person draws a squiggle and the other person has to make it into something recognizable. I think they let me win a lot of the time but it did boost my confidence!

My mum and aunt would take me to early college classes at Glasgow School of Art, starting when I was around 7 years old – one year younger that the required age limit but they told a little white lie on my application! So, every Saturday morning we would head into Glasgow and walk up the steps of the incredible Glasgow School of Art building designed by Charles Rennie Macintosh. I was always a shorty so my mum or aunt would lift me onto the tall studio stool in front of an easel and I would draw/paint until they came back to pick me up. I experienced my first real ‘learn by failing’ when I took an early college sculpture class and tried for weeks to make a 3D tetradactyl in clay. When I would come back the next week the dry clay gigantic wings would have fallen off the body and I’d be gutted. A very kind and experienced teacher introduced me to the concept of building an interior support and that led to success!

I’m so grateful that my family, who knew nothing about art or design and had never been in a museum before I took them later in life, would try to figure out what might be a way to help me pursue the arts. When I’ve asked them about this, the answer was always – "we didn’t know what to do with you!"

I eventually went to this same school – Glasgow School of Art – and received both an UG and a Grad degree. I’m still surprised that I stayed after the first weeks of freshman class. These weeks were terrible. The first assignment sounds simple – visualize your name in a way that represents you. I took out a small sketchbook and tried to make a very elaborate signature of my name with pen. I turned around and other students were stapling large canvases on the wall and painting large scale, expressive abstract gestures. At this point I had never used oil paint or acrylics and had never painted anything larger than 24” x 36”. It was not a good feeling; in just that moment I realized how inexperienced I was and sure I’d made a massive mistake in trying to go to art school. Those first few months – the entire first semester actually – was pretty intimidating and I dreaded going to studio classes. What made me stay? The other students! I found folks that I could connect with even if they had much more experience than me. And actually, one faculty member who always checked in on me and made me feel like I could do it.

My advice for first generation students is to stay the course if you can. Once you are in school you are in the same learning experiences as everyone else and this is the start of your own personal journey. Make friends – even with those folks that seems more experienced – everyone is own their trajectory and has something to share and absolutely has something to learn.

The challenges of being a first-generation student are real: feeling like you don’t fit; feeling like you don’t have the required background/knowledge; feeling like you shouldn’t be here or worse, don’t deserve to be here; feeling like you can’t talk to your family about the new experiences you are having as they wouldn't understand. I personally had a lot of sadness that my earlier life-experiences didn’t prepare me for college. Even with my super supportive family, they themselves didn’t go to college so couldn’t prepare me for what that would be like. But, they supported me going to Art School, even when they had no idea what that could amount to and for that I am eternally grateful.

I’m constantly surprised by who at CCA is a ‘first-gen’ and excited to see the community of people doing all kinds of amazing things at CCA who started their journey as the first in their family.

Looking back now from my position as the Dean of the Design Division at CCA I want to send the message: you belong here and you can be successful!