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“You don’t have to follow the rules” - Karen Maley on returning to arts education

A brunette person leaning over their work. They are sat down and drawing.
  • Written byAnnika Loebig
  • Published date 30 August 2022
A brunette person leaning over their work. They are sat down and drawing.
Karen Maley, 2022 BA Illustration and Visual Media, London College of Communication, UAL | Photograph: Kat Smith

When Karen Maley asked her teacher in secondary school what it takes to have a career in the arts, they told her: “To be a successful artist, you have to die.”

This encounter would shape her perception of a possible career in the arts for years to come. “I come from a working-class family; my parents didn’t go to university, so I just didn’t see myself doing an art course if there weren’t any prospects of being an artist at the end of it,” she says.

Fast forward nearly 2 decades and Karen finds herself on the Illustration and Visual Media course at London College of Communication. The decision to go to university came after the Covid-19 lockdowns meant the loss of her job as a dog groomer, which she tells us was the closest she had been to making a living doing something creative.

But even before the pandemic triggered her pivot, she had already tried satisfying her love for the arts through hobby artwork like pet portraits.

“My narrative was always that I wished I had gone to arts school; going to UAL changed my life completely.”

3 drawings laid over each other - they are of various tree scenes.
Karen Maley, 2022 BA Illustration and Visual Media, London College of Communication, UAL | Photograph: Kat Smith

“I was really scared to be going back into education, because my experiences before put me off,” she tells us. “But I know UAL is a top university, so I put my faith in that, and I also have to think about the fact I’m in a different place now. I’m an adult and this is what I truly want.”

Coming to UAL allows her what she calls '3 years of playtime' - experimenting with different mediums and themes, even painting with sticks she found in the woods and dabbling in digital art, Karen is able to indulge in a wide range of art practices with the support of her lecturers – and she’s not looking to settle anytime soon.

“I find it quite easy to experiment with different themes. I feel like I’ve got a lot to say and people will hopefully listen.”

“The Illustration and Visual Media course is very broad: I can change up what I want to do. I can do linocut, I can do a sculpture, I can do photography, film, painting - you don’t have to follow the rules.”

Inspired by artists of the Net Art Movement such as creative duo Eva and Franco Mattes, her previously self-taught, realistic art has taken a turn into the impressionistic, which often seeks to incorporate her emotions and opinions on the effects of technology.

One such piece of artwork is a sculpture meant to communicate an anti-materialist philosophy. It showcases a teddy bear as a symbol of an object we’re given as children that’s supposed to bring us comfort, but is then embezzled with pieces of glass and nails to deter the viewer and encourage them to find comfort within themselves instead.

“I wanted something that people wouldn’t be able to touch, hence the pieces of glass, the mirror, the nails,” Karen says.

“The idea is that you should bring comfort to yourself. Everything that you need is already inside yourself; that's what the mirror reflects. I also added the pearls to make it look sickly and to exaggerate the bear’s lack of necessity.”

“My narrative was always that I wished I had gone to arts school; going to UAL changed my life completely.”

— Karen Maley

If there’s one message she will take with her on her arts journey thus far, it’s the realisation that everyone’s unique experiences and emotions shape the different types of art they create. When the validation of other people comes secondary, she explains that her focus is able to shift towards creating work that truly reflects her experiences and hopefully attracts an audience that can relate to it in return.

“I’m much more forgiving of myself, because I realise not everyone has had the same journey as me. So, not everyone will create the same work as me. I think that’s a really important point to make because before I started coming to UAL, I felt that people had to validate my work and agree with what I’m doing. But it’s not about that.”

“I’ve decided in my life I’m not going to hold back anymore – I've been doing that for 20 odd years now. I’m in my mid-30s now and in 10, 20 years’ time, I know I’ll be doing exactly what I want to be doing. I know I’ll be on the right path.”

Student profile: Karen Maley, London College of Communication, UAL