I went to Leeds Metropolitan to do Fine Art in 2001 and had my own baking business for a while. I worked as an artist but never really found it satisfying – my work was too illustrative and I was more concerned with narrative.
I applied to the Royal College of Art for an MA in Visual Communication and got in in 2006. My dissertation was about how deceptions can work as illustrated narratives – I ended up working on a couple of books about deception and authenticity, one of which, Phantom Settlements, is based around conversations with three artists. Some of those conversations are real, some fictitious.
My plan wasn't to do a PhD straightaway but Al Rees and Dan Fern (now my supervisors) approached me to do research. It turned out I had a clear idea of what I wanted: a comprehensive survey of deception and how artists use it and whether or not it can work as fiction.
It started out huge but that’s not OK for a PhD – I needed to have a much narrower focus looking at fictional artists, poets and painters that were for a time believed to be real, exploring how the narrative, text, image and structure work together to make up a story. You have to be much more thorough with the advance of the internet, though it does bring its own narrative structures.
I’ve already written 35,000 words out of my 40,000-word thesis and will spend the rest of the year editing. And doing the practical work. This could be creating a hoax but I’m not interested in that. I don’t see what it could add. I’m more interested in using the strategies in the hoaxes and applying those to text I’m illustrating.
The first year of my PhD was incredibly tough. I’m not super academic and had to spend the first couple of years reading and writing and making close readings of difficult texts. When you start out doing a research degree, you have far less idea, but by the third year, this crystallises.
The commitment you make is scary. I mean, you could be six years studying. Where the supervisors have been great is that they’ve stopped me from getting too complicated or pointed out if I’m missing something philosophical or critical. The reading has been useful in teaching I do as well.
Funding-wise, I got a bursary for the first two years up to MPhil. Then last year, I was awarded a scholarship by the Queen Elizabeth Scholarship Trust. I wouldn’t have been able to carry on without it. I also got funding from the Yorkshire Ladies Council of Education, who support women in education. I knew that when the RCA bursary ran out, I would have to start looking at other funding bodies that support PhD students. I also teach on an MA course at Falmouth University and do two days there every three weeks, and in Norwich every week, teaching on the BA in Illustration.
You should be very clear about why you want to do a PhD. I did it because I really wanted to pursue research. It’s made me much more employable, especially when it comes to teaching.
"I came into illustration quite naively, not really thinking about it as an industry with concerns. From my PhD, I've been able to develop a more innovative practice – it has alerted me to key discussions and made me more thoughtful in my work."