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Article: Lorna MacKay on SHIFTS

Richard, 2022 © Lorna MacKay
Posted on: 9 January 2023

Lorna MacKay reflects on developing her professional practice through the NEPN SHIFTS Professional Development Bursary Programme.

What I hoped to achieve

A key motivation which I outlined in my application was to gain greater autonomy and control of my work and the ways in which it is presented. I was open minded as to how this would take shape but wanted the programme to be a blend of practical skills, professional guidance and reflective learning.

What I did

Through the NEPN SHIFTS programme I received mentoring sessions with Fiona Crisp and Chloe Dewe Mathews, attended symposiums in emerging artist practice at Seventeen Nineteen, a participatory heritage site, and Aesthetica Symposium, with portfolio reviews. Training in dark room skills and colour printing was delivered throughout from Northern Centre of Photography, plus one-off workshops in zine design / making with Folium Publishing, Defining your Why with Mortal Fools and Effective Websites for Photographers with Zoe Whishaw. These ran alongside regular peer review meetings.

External to the bursary but running alongside it,  I have been developing my printmaking skills thanks to a Developing Your Creative Practice (DYCP) grant from Arts Council England, was shortlisted for an emerging artist prize with a large national organisation, had work published in The Guardian, The Times, Uncut Magazine and locally in The Journal, The Crack and Narc Magazine, exhibited in a group show in Detroit, was commissioned by historians for a social history project which culminated in a group exhibition at Newcastle Central Library and a public talk at the Literary & Philosophical Society, sold an NFT through British Journal of Photography and via Instagram a limited edition run of hand printed c-types made at the Northern Centre of Photography.

Dawn, c-type handprints, 2022 (Made at the Northern Centre of Photography) © Lorna MacKay

Dawn, c-type handprints, 2022 (Made at the Northern Centre of Photography) © Lorna MacKay

On what I learned and achieved

Being part of a cohort has been one of the most positive elements of the SHIFTS scheme. As a freelance artist you’re often functioning outside of institutions which can be isolating at times. It can sometimes feel like you’re a one-(wo)man band, carrying out a broad range of duties – simultaneously – and learning as you go. Having a support network of friends and peers who understand these complexities should never be undervalued.

Spending time with Simone and Will (two of the other SHIFTS Bursary holders) in the darkroom has been significant to my development. We have shared skills and ideas which have helped me refine certain practices (i.e. analogue processes and colour printing) while embracing the limitations they impose.

The Defining Your Why workshop with Mortal Fools, a theatre and educational charity was a highlight. The biggest takeaway from this was considering the value of opportunities: Will this job satisfy me creatively? Will it generate further opportunities? Will it pay the bills? If it doesn’t do at least one of these things, I have realised I need to consider whether I should be doing it at all. I will always be grateful for opportunities that come my way but have also learnt to trust my instinct and be mindful of managing my time and expectations.

The financial support from the SHIFTS scheme was very welcome, although I’d be lying if I said more money wouldn’t have been even better. This is as true now as it has ever been as an artist in an already underfunded sector.

On mentoring

Mentoring has been a hugely beneficial element of the professional development scheme. I chose Fiona and Chloe because I respect their work and they have both made significant achievements in their chosen fields (fields which have historically been dominated by men). It feels reductive to highlight one specific piece of advice I received from them but prioritising making the work you want to be recognised for resonated. Another issue that came up was in relation to multi-disciplinary practices. I discussed with Chloe the deliberate and considered use of a specific process, medium or presentation of work. The methodologies and processes we use are what make our work our own, but over-diversifying could also spoil and confuse it. What relevance does it have to the subject matter or theme of the work? If you can’t justify your approach, people viewing the work are going to find it hard to interpret too.

A broader talking point with both Fiona and Chloe was in relation to long-term goals and having a strategic overview of my career ambitions. There are times when life choices, not to mention circumstances outside of our control, will factor into our career decisions. It’s up to you to let your intuition guide you and decide what works best for you considering the advice you have been given. Their input has been incredibly helpful and I would advise anyone receiving mentoring, formal and informal, to remember they are there to offer you insights based on their own personal experiences, but also to hold a mirror up to you at times – the more considered your questions the more relevant the advice is to you.

Cuillin Hills © Lorna MacKay

Cuillin Hills © Lorna MacKay

A bit more on process

During the year I’ve been invited to do a couple of Instagram takeovers. What they all had in common was an emphasis on process – a key theme in my professional development this year. It can feel counterproductive to spend time looking at old work. Creativity is after all about making things and it can feel like a failure on some level if you’re not constantly generating new material. However, as an early career artist it has been important to review what has been more successful and why – what conditions was I working under and what did I do that gave certain projects a positive outcome?

On learning through mistakes

It’s been a mixed year in terms of how I’ve approached things. I was lucky enough to be awarded DYCP funding from Arts Council England. The purpose of this wasn’t to create a specific project but to follow a sustained programme of learning skills which I can apply to future work. During this time I was also shortlisted for an emerging artist award for which I had to design and exhibit a proposal model of a site-specific art installation. This was an unfamiliar way of working for me and vastly different to the DYCP grant, which has placed priority on leaning into manual creative processes rather than proposing concepts without a guarantee of ever making them. There was also a strong emphasis placed on the competitive aspect of the award (it involved a public vote) and I was out of my comfort zone. I didn’t win but in taking part I’ve learnt that while it’s good to experiment and take risks occasionally, it’s sometimes better to keep things simple and stick to what you know. Especially if the fee is not substantial and you have to factor in your time as money, which in the instance of this award covered five months of development.

An inevitable part of being an artist is rejection. People rarely discuss this publicly, but it happens to everyone. It can be discouraging but in learning to reconcile with it, it can be an opportunity to develop rather than a barrier to growth. This is more than a platitude. It’s important to seek and apply for opportunities even if you think you won’t get them. Filling out application forms not only gets you in the habit of talking about your work but also helps you evaluate where you are and take stock of your achievements.

On moving forward

The NEPN Shifts scheme has given me time and freedom to reflect on past work, and with that consider which projects have been successful, which haven’t and understand why. Through developing alongside my peers and learning from established professionals I have been constantly reminded that everybody has a different definition of success, and you should define what it means to you on your own terms rather than measuring yourself against other people. Having a sustainable practice was a significant objective for me and this scheme has helped me explore what that means.

I have reached a stage where I want to do fewer things more thoroughly, which means establishing boundaries with others but perhaps more importantly with myself. This year has taught me that it’s important to work hard and apply yourself, but also find structured, healthy ways to spend time away from your work occasionally. Not only is this basic self-care, it frees up the mind to wander – as fundamental a part of the creative process as discipline and perseverance.

It is important to me that I enjoy what I do and am motivated to keep learning while being realistic and acknowledging that paid work will always involve a level of compromise. You’re delivering something for someone else – you just have to find a way to make work that aligns with your interests, values and long-term goals while honouring your commitments. This in time hopefully becomes ever more self-fulfilling.

Monetising my work was never an objective I prioritised, although that is of course a positive outcome. Bills don’t pay themselves. Residencies that play to my strengths are something I will continually seek to engage with. They offer unique opportunities to immerse yourself in an environment and explore subjects in depth, often providing access to institutions, resources, and people you might otherwise find hard to establish. Within them there can be potential for collaboration too. These are the learning frameworks that stimulate and inspire me the most.

I enjoy working with people and will keep portraiture as a facet of my practice. They’re useful photography skills to maintain which are likely to feed into future projects as well as generating some income.

Learning and participation work is also something I would like to incorporate into my practice. Having had a positive experience of higher education and latterly from this professional development scheme, this ties in with what I previously mentioned about the importance of maintaining ties to your community and sharing in the broadest sense. When people have been generous with their time, knowledge and skills you too have a duty to share that. The reality of being an artist is that part-time jobs external to your practice are sometimes needed to subsidise your income, something which applies to my situation. One year into freelancing I have continued my job in a craft bakery – a manual role with flexible hours in a creative environment – which sustained me during my studies and continues to do so for now.

The SHIFTS programme has bought me time to review my progress, helped me refine my practice and eliminate certain limiting beliefs and ways of working. Having regular progress reviews has given me the opportunity to put long term objectives in place and consider what actions I must take to get there. I began this scheme a few months after graduating from a masters degree and knew I wanted to have some distance from formal education. This scheme has given me the confidence to begin freelancing and see that there are plenty of opportunities to make work and get paid for it, but that being proactive rather than reactive is where the greatest potential for growth lies. This in turn is more likely to lead to the creation of work that is consistent thematically and enhances my existing personal projects. The reflective side of the SHIFTS scheme has reminded me how important research and writing are to my practice and I will continue to integrate them furthermore into my work. I’m looking forward to applying the knowledge and advice I have received this year to my practice and dedicating time to subjects that I am driven to learn about, while remaining open to the ambiguities of experience.

Cuillin Burn, 2022 © Lorna MacKay

Cuillin Burn, 2022 © Lorna MacKay

Lorna MacKay was one of four NE-based photographers selected following an open call for the SHIFTS Professional Development Bursary Programme, undertaken in 2022.
The programme offered a bursary, access to paid time of mentors (identified by photographers and NEPN), training budget, peer support discussions and access to the SHIFTS workshops programmed for all regional photographers throughout 2022.  Photographers were supported to develop their own Professional Development Plans, mentored by Amanda Ritson of NEPN and Independent Consultant Dr Susanne Burns.

Lorna is an artist based in Newcastle upon Tyne, UK, working across photography and printmaking. Interested in connections between people and place, her work focuses on themes of identity, language and our relationship with environment, exploring these subject matters through an interdisciplinary approach.

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