Professor Catherine Harper
Dean of Creative and Cultural Industries
"When I talk to other women, I hear a lot of them have shocks in their careers and that can be all kinds of things - personal, political, unanticipated things - but as long as someone has enough resilience, often it can be the thing that makes us."
By Katie Whitford
Interview from 2015
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A-levels: Art, History and English
University of Ulster
Degree: Constructed Textiles, 1st
University of Ulster
Postgraduate Diploma in Art and Design (Commendation)
University of Ulster
Research Assistant for Ford Motors / Engineering Composites Research Group
Goldsmiths’ College, University of London
PG Certificate in Learning + Teaching
Research Sabbatical, University of Brighton,University for the Creative Arts
Research Fellowship, Central Saint Martins College, London
Research Bursary, Goldsmiths’ College, London
Artist‐in‐Residence, Irish Museum of Modern Art, Dublin
Artist-in-Residence, Nordiskt Konstcentrum, Helsinki
Studio Residency, Central Saint Martins, London
Studio Residency, Florence Trust, London
Artist-in-Residence, Queen’s Hall, Hexham, England
Residency, Leighton Artists’ Colony, Banff Centre for the Arts, Canada
Artist-in-Residence, Orchard Gallery, Derry, Ireland
Studio Assistantship (Churchill Fellowship funded), Atelier Jagoda Buic, Provence, France
Residency (Churchill Fellowship funded), National Museum, Prague, Czechoslovakia
Residency, Cill Riallaig, Ireland
Residential Research, Tyrone Guthrie Centre, Ireland, annually since
Appointment Panel for Dean, University of Portsmouth
Appointment Panel for Dean, University of Huddersfield
External Advisor, Institutional Review of Ravensbourne, University of the Arts, London
External Advisor, Faculty Review, National College of Art and Design, Dublin
Subject Advisor, Revalidation of UG Textile Design, Chelsea, University of the Arts, London
I’m curious about your own university experience - obviously you are now running a faculty at university, but how was your own experience when you were at uni, were you part of any societies?
I was quite a shy student, in fact very, very shy, and I had to work very hard on myself to grow confidence and really make sure I spoke out. I remember early on working very hard to learn to be me and not trying to pretend to be a different person.
Clubs and societies were really helpful to me and I had a couple of very inspiring academics who gave me so much. One of them I keep in touch with still, and they transformed me - they helped me believe in myself, they really brought me along. So for me the uni experience was fantastic in that sense but really hard work.
The University of Ulster was very political which meant that I was able to become engaged in politics as a student and was able to speak my own language with confidence, my own truth, so between the academics and the student union, I was really developed as a student.
You spent some time working as an Artist in Residence - how did you find the determination to sell your artwork early on?
I was completely on my own when I left home and I was determined that I’d be completely independent, so I was very hungry to keep going.
I also thought to myself very early on that actually, everybody else gets paid so why would artists not get paid? Artists bring something to the table that other people just can’t do.
I used to refuse when people would say, "Oh, could you just run up a poster for such and such?". I would say, "Thank you, but can we talk about fees?" because it’s not just running up a poster. You wouldn’t say to a plumber, "Could you just come and plumb my house, thank you very much." Why would you do the same to an artist you know?
Too many artists are willing to do that, they’re willing to give away their sell-able skills for free. I couldn’t understand any other way and I knew that this was my living - it wasn’t a hobby, it was what paid my rent and put bread on my table.
If I decided there was something in the community that I wanted to do, that would be my choice, the same way if someone is working for me and decides to give a donation to a charity, that’s their choice. You have to think about self respect and pride in one’s own talent - if you don’t value that yourself then no one is to blame if people don’t value it.
There does still seem to be an attitude about viewing arts as, like you say, a hobby. Do you think that’s got something to do with the way our politicians look at art? For example, the way Michael Gove treated art in schools and how it’s taught from the very beginning, or do you think it’s more of a cultural problem?
I think Michael Gove is a whole other topic, his attitude to arts education and arts in general is really problematic for me. But I do think there is a problem closer to home which is that it’s easy to find reasons that art is undervalued, and by art I mean any creative subject.
Just this summer, I bought the work of a number of students at Portsmouth, but one student had put far too low a price on her own work. She had already sold a piece, so was already being exploited, and I said I would pay her the proper price for her work on the understanding that she would never underprice her work again.
It does a disservice to yourself and it’s no wonder that people consider this as a hobby activity if you ask for pennies for the price of work which you’ve sweated over.
I would bring this much closer to home and say that as educators, we have an absolute moral obligation to ensure that those we educate are absolutely certain of how to make a living when they leave university. We need to get students to practise pitching and pricing their work, and about how to cope with somebody who tries to barter with them. Some people come in and say, ‘that’s far too expensive, I’ll pay you half of that.’ No - this was the price I’ve put on it, if you don’t like it, go and buy someone else’s work.
We as creatives have to take the power back to our own place because we can’t blame other people for dismissing us or disrespecting us if we don’t respect ourselves.
You had quite a hiatus between making your own work and then becoming a teacher - what make you want to become a dean of a university or was the academia path more of a surprise?
I actually haven’t planned my career ever, I’ve just allowed it to happen and followed my instincts very closely. I think that it is a lot to do with the self trust and self respect that opportunities came my way as they often do for people who work hard.
Sometimes I would make decisions that were intuitive or counterintuitive and I can’t say anything has ever gone horribly, catastrophically wrong, even when decisions have resulted in very tough times - I found them character building.
I’ve never been afraid to walk away as well. I really found when I was managing a course that I had a capability for managing and it also allowed me to make enough money to survive and keep a home.
But I was also able to find time to write, so that’s what I’ve been doing ever since - I continually write and publish. I have a real love of enabling through being a dean - this means I make things happen by giving extra money or hiring interesting staff and enthusing about great ideas, so it’s a real treat for me.
So aside from overcoming shyness, what challenges have you faced throughout your professional career?
One of the biggest things in my life was in the mid 90s. I was an artist in residence in the Irish Museum of Modern Art, so I was there for a year which I was paid a salary for.
This was a very prestigious residency and my plan at the end of that was to go back to Belfast - there had been a IRA ceasefire and that came to an end just as I was going back. I decided I couldn’t go through that pain again, having grown up in the troubles and then having lived a year in Dublin - I was devastated by the end of the ceasefire.
I ended up taking a big jump - I had £40 in my pocket and I got a night boat to Liverpool, before taking a bus down to London and I basically started all over again. That was very shaky time, a very frightening time.
I really lucked out and found a job at Central St Martins, after turning up with my CV the same day as someone had turned in their maternity notice - I was so lucky I couldn’t believe it.
Of course, it was also because I had a PhD at that point, and I was brave enough to have personally gone in and put my CV on the desk and said, "Can you give me any work?"
I did have to waitress and do a lot of work, and I was 30 at this stage with an artistic career in Ireland, which I had left behind. These rocky few years made me quite sympathetic to people who don’t have standard career trajectories and just have to survive as long as they can.
It’s interesting you should ask that because when I talk to other women, I hear a lot of them have shocks in their careers and that can be all kinds of things - personal, political, unanticipated things - but as long as someone has enough resilience, often it can be the thing that makes us.
What do you like to read?
Oh my goodness, here’s a revelation now: I like to read Scottish detective fiction, that’s my absolute holiday time reading. Being a detective, of course, is very different to my career choice so it’s a different world. Particularly Scottish fiction because I can recognise the authentic voice - it’s a bit like where I come from with its different culture to the English culture, as with Northern Ireland.
Do you consider yourself a feminist?
Absolutely. Yep, I don’t know if you know about the Women's Equality Party? Sandi Toksvig and a couple of her colleagues started it, so I’ve become a founding member of that. But yes, I am a feminist and have no problem being described as such.
Lastly, what’s one piece of advice you’ve picked up over your professional career that you’d like to pass on?
It's the piece of advice that I give to first year students when they come in and how I put it is: speak in your own language and your own accent, and by that I mean not just how you speak but it’s about being authentic and having your own signature style. Try to remain as close as you can to being you.
We live in very difficult times for authenticity; the media, film and social media tell us all kinds of ways to portray ourselves. The whole ‘selfie’ phenomenon is about photographing yourself in the best possible background from the best possible angle and we all have the selfie face with the cheek bones and so on and that’s fine.
But actually, ultimately, we need to be truthfully ourselves because that then lets us access our own strengths for when we need to and only we know how strong we can be.