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Degree Shows 2021: How lockdown and isolation inspired the artists of tomorrow

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Published on 09 July 2021

Degree Shows 2021
Degree Shows 2021

The past 16 months of isolation, lockdowns and Covid-life has helped provide inspiration for the University of Sunderland’s student artists.

Here we explore the final year Degree Show exhibitions which lay the foundations for the art superstars of tomorrow.

Professor Kevin Petrie, Head of the School of Art and Design at the University, said: "Each year we are so impressed with the creativity our students bring to solving problems, storytelling and making the world a better place through their art and design.”


Mental health is very much the central theme for Fine Art student Su Devine’s eye-catching work “Light at the end of the Tunnel”.

At 50-years-old, Su, from Whitley Bay, came to study her passion later in life, but her powerful installation work examines Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), showing suspended concrete coated dolls' clothes, and chandeliers.

Su said: “Light at the end of the Tunnel is a common phrase used when it comes to mental health.

“But that light can be very close, or very far away, depending on the individual’s journey.

“The clothing in the piece represents that frozen moment in time when a person suffers mental health issues; the colour grey is the individual being stripped of colour; while the chandeliers represent the light at the end.”

Su herself suffered PTSD during an incident in her former career and later decided to return to University to study her passion for art.

She added: “The University has been incredibly supportive of everything I’ve done and my ambition is to keep on making art and being inspired.”






For Fashion, Design and Promotion student Matty Gray, 25, sustainability has always been a passion.

The 25-year-old, from Newcastle, actually started studying Pharmacy at the University but switched to Fashion after his first year.

Now, Matty’s Degree Show portfolio reflects his environmental stance after he decided to dye his fabrics with fruits, vegetables and plants.

The colour palette in the designer’s final women’s wear designs – yellow and pink – comes from onion and avocado skins.

Matty said: “I wanted the whole process to be as sustainable as possible, I even used rainwater as part of the dyeing process on the fabrics.”



Kelly Dunlop’s Degree Show piece is a culmination of four years of hard work as part of the Fine Art programme.

At 41-years-old, Kelly came late to her studies, having raised a family and worked during her 20s and 30s.

The mum’s giant art installation is described as a constructivist geometric abstraction.

Kelly, whose son Nathan, 18, will also be starting at the University in September, said: “I’m inspired by the idea of illusion and experimenting with layers.

“During lockdown there was a lot of time when I wasn’t able to work so it gave me a chance to think about what I wanted to create.”




Josh Hudson’s piece “Found Touch/Found Warmth” is a reflective design, dealing with the loss of creativity during lockdown.

The 24-year-old Graphic Design student said: “Designers are often seen as problem-solvers, but we are still just people and are just as susceptible to mental health issues as any other person.

“I wanted to explore and highlight the experiences that creative people have had with their mental health in an attempt to humanise the person behind the design. I also explore how the pandemic and subsequent lockdowns has affected the mental health and creativity of designers and disconnected them from the physical world after a shift to all things digital.”

Josh, who is from Houghton-le-Spring, said holding the Degree Shows online is a great way for everyone to see all of his and his fellow students’ hard work after a tough year.

“I tried to completely immerse myself in my work,” he explained.

“I felt as though I had no other choice, otherwise I'd go mad. Not being able to see or talk to anyone in person definitely took a toll on my mental health.

“I found that keeping myself busy was the key to helping me cope during the pandemic and I found that when I was busy with work, creativity flowed.

“I think that it's a testament to our resilience and creativity to be able to hold a Degree Show digitally, despite the pandemic.”



Matthew Hewitson is hoping for a career in the Games industry after finishing his Animation and Games Art programme at the University.

The student, from Great Lumley, explored the full creative and technical process to develop characters for a popular game.

The central theme of Matthew’s work is based around Japanese culture and mythological creatures.

He said: “I created these three concept characters for the Games industry. I’ve been a big gamer since I was young.”



Robyn Jefferson, 21, from Newcastle, has been fulfilling her passion for creativity through an Illustration degree while working as a freelance illustrator.

Her talents in working with mixed media, combining her own hand-rendered work with digital skills allows her to push texture and negative space into work, getting across a story through sole imagery.

This way of showcasing her body of work is highlighted in her Degree Show 2021 entry – The Trail, which looks at story-telling and pushing the limits of narrative through imagery whilst restricting typography and colour. The story is told through bold and textured illustration, taking advantage of negative space and keeping the work universal, without words.

As well as her studies and freelance work, Robyn recently worked with North East charity Right Out, and also runs her own small clothing business MISHU.

After graduation, she hopes to get her work out in several sectors of the industry, including advertising, commercial, and narrative. She adds: “Maybe I'll even publish some of my own stories. The vast amount of opportunities in the illustration industry is what attracted me to study design.”



Colin Pickett, 49, is graduating with a degree in Photography, Video and Digital Imaging.

His project is entitled “Perilous Balance”.

“It relates to the situation we find ourselves in, with a society and planet teetering on the edge of collapse and denying the science that proves it,” Colin explained.

“I wanted to highlight some of the issues of the world using a combination of cold statistics and Vanitas-style images to create confusion and evoke emotion.

“The aim of all my personal work is to inspire positive change in the world, no matter how small it is.”

Colin is also involved with the University’s new Digital Incubator programme, which he says has been instrumental in kick-starting his own venture.

He said: “Digital Incubator is a superb project designed to help students start their own business in the digital realm.”

So, what does the future hold for Colin?

“I’ve been accepted on the Visual Practice Masters Programme at the University of Sunderland, which I’ll be undertaking part-time from October,” he said.



Claire Finlay, who is studying Artist Designer Maker: Glass and Ceramics, created sculptural wearable art pieces, representing the halting and capturing of natural beauty.

The 45-year-old has been working from home for the project, which is in response to the coronavirus pandemic and the effects of isolation.

“The lack of human contact has had a huge impact on our lives,” she said. 

“Lockdown had also thrown up some big challenges for our course as a lot of our work is practical.  Our lecturers and technical staff guided and supported us through those challenges.  I was lucky as I had equipment and materials at home to be able to continue my creative research.”

Claire, from South Shields, has made a big contribution to her local community as part of her ongoing business, which offers short courses to adults. She has been commissioned to establish a series of local art groups and foster them until they can operate independently.

Claire also used lockdown as an opportunity to apply for funding from The Cultural Spring to supply craft kits for isolating vulnerable people.  

After graduating, Claire will continue to run creative workshops from her small studio on South Tyneside and will return to the University in October to complete her MA Visual Practice in Ceramics.



Joe Woodhouse, Programme Leader Foundation Diploma Art and Design, could not be more proud of the work undertaken by his students.

He said: “Within the Foundation programme we coordinate a student-led publication every year.

“This gives students a chance to put their skills into practice with a real-world outcome in the form of a printed publication.

“This year, all students were initially involved in a day of experimental printmaking, remixing their work from the end of year exhibition.

“Following this, six students put themselves forward to design the publication, creating content, typography and layout before formatting and sending to a regional printmakers.”

 All the online exhibitions can be viewed at here