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Review: University Centre St Helens: The Archive: BA Graphic Design Work-in-Progress Show

I got an email the other day, inviting me to a student show in St Helens. A demonstration of work in progress, serving as a functional trial before their end of year show, and a physical, reflective, evaluation of their work.

On paper, it’s never going to get crowds rushing through the studio doors to see it. But it should. Yes, the work was rough and ready, and no, it wasn’t finished (one screen was barely working, and two students were still moving installations around when I got there), but that was kind of glorious.

Every time we get invited to see student work, its for their final show, or a workshop. It’s rare to see it happening, and to have a chance to ask them why they did what they did, or in the way they did it, or what they hope it will achieve.

I should say, this was the final year group of BA Graphic Design at University College St Helens. Their studio, FYI, is stunning, with views across the town, and roof lights I would have killed for in my own uni days. So there’s a focus on visually communicating ideas for practical use.

One student, Luna Szentpetery (@Lunatickk2.0) created a whole series of zines as a result of art therapy sessions she led with psychology students. The zines were a mix of linoprint and collage, but showed a great understanding of  art therapy from a personal perspective, in a way that could clearly help future participants.

Abbie Yates (@a88ygraphics) created new work for The Archive exhibition, combining acetate slides with sketchy risograph prints in an interactive projection room. The accompanying audio work set the installation up as a test space for viewers, and promises to lead to future immersive animation work.

Similarly personal work by Cameron Hartley (@sleepyskulldesign) reflected on his own experiences with airsoft, relating them back to the visual language of live-streamed gaming. The first-person films and the prints alongside are designed mainly for friends, and teammates. So they’re loose, and personable.

I guess its reflective of the way we work at university, but everyone does tend to self-reflect. That’s a common theme in this exhibition, and in the ongoing work of the students in it.

Emily Manning’s (@emz_artstation_) hug Me When You’re Blue is a continuation of work for a brief they were set earlier in the year (focussed on the colour blue – a starting point for a few of these projects).

The characters, plushes, displayed in shop units, with barcoded leaflets to go with each of them was a perfect show of visual communication bleeding into project design, bleeding into art. The characters are all missing something – a leg, an arm, – but offer comfort, stress relief, or just a smile.

The course is designed to accommodate these varied practices, and it clearly works. Obviously there is support, and the briefs are developed alongside peers and teaching staff, but the foundational rule that every artist idea can run its course is clear.

For example, Antonia Green (@antoniasdesign) took the exact same brief, ‘Blue’ , and turned it into protest art. But protest art with an air of corporate streamlining. The ‘Defund The Police’ and ‘bigots in Blue’ posters use the visual language of the metropolitan police’s own corporate branding to shout about public attitudes to violence against Black Britons.

Antonia explained that “for me, Graphic Design is all about communicating important messages and creating work that speaks to communities.” And is if to directly demonstrate that, will continue working in participatory community practice on a project in Bold Place, Liverpool running a free zine-making workshop for women and AFAB people with Autism.

Zines are a recurring output in the exhibition, with varied shapes and scales, but Lucy Davies’ work (@lucydgraphicdesign_) lent right into the brief by producing zines entirely of cyanotype prints. They were built up of prints of flora for her own garden, but more importantly have led to new ways of working, including experimenting with the university’s riso printer.

And then, departing entirely from the ‘Blue’ brief is Tiffany Darwell (@tiffanylouisedesign) whose ongoing Instagram project, St Helens Re?Generation, charts the histories and current states of some of St Helens’ forgotten public buildings, from the old Bargain Buys to the little café outside their studio, which is struggling to get racist graffiti removed by the council. The day-to-day reality of regeneration is often very different to the press releases we typically get to see.

Using visual platforms like Instagram to engage wider communities in her work is a clear utilisation of media, and new kind of outcome from a graphic design course.  

You can find more of her work at @sthelensregeneration on Instagram, and keep up to date with the project as it develops.

The exhibition is open until 8th March by appointment at the Smith Kline Beecham Building, University Centre St Helens, WA10 1PP. Book with