Written by Joanna Neary


The Unsolved Pencil Case: Strong foundation

The last instalment of Joanna Neary’s adventures with people in the arts and their associated materials sees her looking back at her art school days in Falmouth.

Illustration and sketchbook images by Joanna Neary.

For my last column, I’m taking a look at the course I did at Falmouth School Of Art and Design from 1988 to 1990. I’m not sure if it’s still going; the Foundation course is currently under threat of closure.

I was 16 when I got into Falmouth to do the two-year BTEC in Art and Design. I’d wanted to do Maths, English and Art at Redruth School Sixth Form, but they told me their curriculum couldn’t support a mixed science and art option and that I’d have to ditch maths.

Then I found out the coolest girl in the school, Lucinda, was going to Falmouth School of Art and I hadn’t even known it existed.*
*I loved maths too but I decided I could cope with setting myself sums in my spare time as a hobby. I did attempt to marry the two by trying to work out an equation to describe gingham but it was a waste of everyone’s time.

sketchbook page
So I copied Lucinda, applied to Falmouth and somehow got in.

Most of the 16-year-olds I’ve known that have gone to art school move to the inherently funkier art college town from the sticks.

We started off with fuzzy hair, inordinate amounts of woolly clothing and rosy cheeks with nothing harrowing or intriguing to make art about, because all we’d done so far in life is argue with our friends, go to school and maybe work at Locost on a Saturday. Cue the undergoing of a complete image overhaul.

Joanna's goth daysIt’s very entertaining to watch. My two best friends decided to streamline themselves with Pucci style violently coloured tight leggings. They left the shop in them and someone across the road immediately bellowed, “First years!”

I quickly became a goth up a tree, but I’m not featured on the website Goths Up Trees; not to my knowledge anyway.

Next, we needed to make art about something, preferably hard-hitting and powerful, however idyllic our lives on farms or in ex-mining villages had seemed so far.

Perhaps a self-portrait done entirely in Boots 17’s Twilight Teaser? Too pricey. I chose to hone in on the fact that I’m deaf in one ear, and tried to make my invisible defect visible in my art. Don’t judge me; I was 16 and desperate.

All the drawings were black on black and my dad’s friend couldn’t hide his extreme amusement when he asked to see my sketchbook. They didn’t correlate with the little 16 year-old sunbeam living happily at the bottom of pretty Carn Brea standing before him. My drawings were like a fragile old man’s traumatised response to the Gulag.

sketchbook page
One mature student did work about aging, probably in revolt to the amounts of rosy cheeks and puppy fat they were surrounded by; another tried to be Willem de Kooning by not holding the brush properly.

I decided quite quickly that I wanted to do performance art, and be in the work so I could see the audience reaction to it. I made myself a sort of musical instrument costume that made it hard for me to move the right side of my body, and did lots of life drawing with weird appendages added. It just looked like bondage, which I disapprove of, as I am a prude.

sketchbook excerpt
One series of artworks stemmed from my face reflected in a cup of tea, all about deformity, identity and an addiction to Typhoo.

It was the things in between, which I didn’t consider to be artwork at all, that I ended up using in my life. After our tutorials, I’d do impressions of the tutors, being perplexed by my sketchbooks, stroking the pages and saying faux intrigued things about texture. Years later I found out that they could all hear me, but at the time I didn’t realise my foghorn voice could carry. After all, I am deaf in one lughole.

I’d dance about in the print room singing rap songs about the time that the toilets flooded in Shades, the local nightclub, and we couldn’t all go dancing as usual that week, until all the poo was mopped up.

I didn’t want to do comedy then though. One time, we all went to Falmouth Working Men’s Club and I ended up dancing to a jive band with the local ancient sailor, Kenny. Kenny had three teeth and used to sell mackerel in a bucket opposite Rowe’s Pasties. The dancefloor cleared and we became the centre of attention.

Shirley from the Jolly Roger told me she’d never laughed so much in her life; a man said we should go to London together to seek our fortune. I ended crying in the toilets because all I wanted at that point in life was to be as beautiful as Lucinda.

twig sculptureI wanted to be an artist, not stupid. We all went on camp and I couldn’t draw the landscape; it seemed too magnificent to be trapped onto paper with a stick of charcoal. Instead I made a doll out of fir cones tied together with string and danced about the fire with it. Michael, one of the three mature students, knew I was upset about not being able to draw the view and told me, “You dancing with your doll. That’s your art, do that.”

One day, a group of four students, Mark, Elisa, Karen and Other Mark decided I was too ebullient with my improvised opera about Tesco on The Moor. They took me to one side to tell me I was 17 now, heading for Brighton Poly soon and that my annoying dancing and singing would not be tolerated; that I was in for a big fall and I’d better grow up.

Lucinda found out about it and gave them a good telling off.

Considering the leaping about, I was very shy really. Anyway, the singing wasn’t that incessant. But I did laugh too much.

I’m gutted that the course might be closing. I recently began to wonder why I’d not done artwork about growing up in Redruth and Pool; some parts of Cornwall are so poor that it’s below the EU poverty line. But when you’re in it, it doesn’t seem interesting, does it? And I didn’t know it was poor there. I just knew there were no jobs.

Going to Falmouth was an affordable taste of another life. Suddenly, you’d be mixing with degree students from Hull, Liverpool, Wales, Loughborough, all over the country, and moving away didn’t seem so weird after all.

I was poor enough to get a bus pass to travel to college, and after daily four-hour round trips and having to miss life drawing because the last bus was at 6pm, it wasn’t long before I was working three jobs in Falmouth so I could pay for a shared room in halls.

sketchbook page
Falmouth is such a wonderful town. It has the fishing, the docks – we went to parties on the ships when the Germans and Russians came to town. The Russians sold most of their uniform so they could afford a pasty, and many Falmouth residents walked about in Russian naval garb for a few weeks after that.

It has the beaches, the boat-building college; we were all so thrilled to be there, we sat about discussing art at lunchtime and if you weren’t painting every spare minute of the day, you were a waste of space.

The industries that made Falmouth great are still thriving, meaning that the town always has been and is still very vibrant. The fact that the little course might not be there any more for Cornish schoolkids to have a go at all the arts and find something that makes them rap and dance for joy is gutting. Although perhaps it’s a relief for those trying to concentrate on a monoprint.

One consolation, after recently working with some young people who are forging a creative path for themselves in Cornwall, is that making your art will find a way.

sketchbook page
I’ll end with a bit for anyone wanting comedy to be their art.

Keep a sketchbook, doodle or make a note of every idea you have. Run your own comedy night. You decide what sort of night it’s going to be; it can be as alternative and daft as you like. Let the audience into your world.

If something tickles you, but you’ve never seen anyone do anything like it, but you really want to try it, try it. Some comedy is universal, although it might not feel it when it’s coming from your heart.

I did eventually do an Edinburgh Fringe show about growing up in Cornwall. The audience members who knew what it was to grow up in a deprived area, really got it, while some of the more privileged ones thought the show was just about the 1980s. They couldn’t relate to it at all, but that’s understandable.

And lastly, save Falmouth Foundation, a wonderful place for young people in Cornwall to develop their skills. A petition is here.

Catch up on all of Joanna’s pencil case investigations here.


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Written by Joanna Neary

One of Standard Issue’s super-talented bunch of illustrators. www.joneary.com @MsJoNeary