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I’ve recently written a guest post for EngLangBlog, a blog for A’ Level English Language students. The post is titled Graphic Language and it’s available to read here.

Thanks to Dan for asking and proof reading.

Caravan

Last week The Cabinet of Curiosities caravan pulled up outside University Campus Suffolk to coincide with an exhibition of the same project in UCS’s Waterfront Gallery.

This visit and exhibition is the culmination of a year long project by UCS Fine Art Senior Lecturer Jane Watt. Jane and her bright blue caravan have visited various locations, and in particular many around Cambridge throughout the Autumn of 2014, providing an opportunity for people to come and document curiosities via cyanotypes. “At each location my assistant Amy Sage and I went through the same ritual: paper ready, aprons on, lights on,” says Jane. “The blue door is opened, the sign put outside inviting people to ‘Bring in your curious object’. Each venue brought many new visitors with unexpected objects and related unique tales.”

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Claire’s claw

Claire and I went to pay Jane a visit and take our curiosities. I took what I believe to be a one-off metal cycle handle-bar spirit level for measuring hill gradients, (I suspect it is from the 1950s and the like of which I haven’t seen anywhere else), and Claire took along a claw. Delicate objects were processed inside the caravan under a lamp on coated paper, (see above), while more robust objects were left in the sun before being fixed.

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Our curiosities being fixed

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Jane Watt inside her blue caravan

The caravan itself is a traveling exhibition as selected cyanotypes are hung up on clothes pegs or stored away in draws for visitors to inspect. Each print is numbered and a information recorded on a card in, naturally, written in blue ink.

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I find this project fascinating for many reasons. What seem like randomly chosen objects to a casual observer at first glance reveal on reading the accompanying card that these items mean something to their owners. In some respects this aspect reminded me of the Museum of Water that I visited when it was at Somerset House last year—art that relies on audience participation and records an aspect of their lives will forever be intriguing to me. There is a democratisation at work here; but at the same time the hand of the artist controls the visual output ensuring a considered rather than chaotic display. The artist’s vision is supported by those that choose to take part and ‘buy into’ the concept, and sates in them a need to document what they feel is important in their lives. In a nutshell, projects such as Jane’s have a real sense of humanity at their core and art blurs into anthropology.

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A (very) small section of the exhibition in the UCS Waterfront Gallery

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The exhibition in UCS is a mass of cyanotypes that Jane has recorded in the past year. Don’t expect to see the exhibition in 5 minutes, as a visit can drag you in to looking at all the objects recorded and trying to work out what many of them are, resulting in the need to read their accompanying cards. In many respects the cards are as fascinating as the objects.

From a design perspective what I also really like about The Cabinet of Curiosities is its overarching branding and the attention to detail that Jane and those that she has worked with have gone to. Badges, postcard packs, a hardback book and accompanying website have been thoroughly thought through by the design team she worked with: LMNOP.

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The accompanying hardback book, designed by LMNOP

Despite the caravan only being outside UCS for one day last Saturday, you can still see the results of much of Jane’s work as the exhibition continues in the UCS Waterfront Gallery, Ipswich, until 4 September. It is well worth a visit.

 

When walking the Victorian stroller pier in Swanage, as Claire and I did a week ago on our Dorset holiday, you could be forgiven for staring at the glorious sea-scapes out towards the Isle of Wight.

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The view from Swanage Pier out to the English Channel

But if you can tear yourself away from this beautiful vista for just a second and glance down at the planks you are walking on, you will discover thousands of memorial plaques.

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Wrought-iron railings and memorial plaques

Set out in rows they are each very personal memorials, dedications or simply private jokes that are helping to pay for the maintenance of this delightful Victorian structure.

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The dedications are in the most part very personal and sometimes very touching. Other’s are comical or even just celebratory. The fact the pier is no longer used for its historical commercial function, (to load paddle steamers with Purbeck stone), and now is predominantly used purely for the pleasure of taking in sea-views and fresh air, makes the stories even more pertinent in my mind. This is neither a pier of candy-floss and arcade games nor one for busy tourist boat trippers, but one that is much more sedate for simple pleasures with loved ones or in solitude.

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Grandson and Granddad creating future memories

On the day we were there we saw one person cleaning his plaque, which with a sneak glance, revealed itself to be dedicated to his late dog. His current pet, whether a new addition to the family or one that shared his world with the dog named in the memorial sat patiently by his side. And after he had finished polishing the brass, he tearfully hugged his four-legged companion. Although in the first instance we though it a little strange behaviour to be cleaning a plaque when we saw him, once we added the narrative and realised how upset he was, we both felt this was a truly touching sight and our thoughts immediately went out to him, having lost so many pets ourselves over the years. While we might not choose to show our sentimental emotions so publicly, we certainly know the feelings this man must have been experiencing—that rawness of losing a loved one, whether human or animal, was bought home to us again in an instance.

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One man and his dog

I became fascinated with memorial benches a few years ago after I started to study them on a visit to Felixstowe, (see Flickr set here). I had previously not given these little brass rectangles much thought. But on this Felixstowe visit I saw a silver haired woman sitting on a bench staring out to see and the realisation hit me that she may have sat there many times before with her partner and I suddenly felt the sense of loss I assumed she was feeling as all she had left was to sit there alone, remembering their life together. Obviously this is an emotional narrative I laid on top of what I was witnessing, and this may not have been her personal situation at all. But whether it was the truth or not, I was hit by how important such memorials could be in helping to remember the past, to respect departed loved ones, or simply to spend some personal time reflecting on life. Since then I have always taken the time to read an inscription on a bench whenever I come across one, weaving in my own voyeuristic narrative onto someone else’s personal experience recorded in such a public way. Walking up Swanage Pier I found myself doing exactly the same.

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Birthdays, dogs and newly weds

On Swanage Pier though, it is amazing the amount of different stories that present themselves to you as you stare down at the woodwork. What makes them so poignant is that the stories are common to all of us—we can appreciate the emotions attached as we relate these messages to our own experiences. Marriages, deaths, anniversaries, birthdays, dogs, friends, family, football teams, and even private jokes that will remain lost to everyone but the individuals who bought the plaque—the sense of loss, celebration or the joy of a private joke creates an all embracing sense of humanity and that we aren’t all so different from each other.

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C’mon Matthew

There are even celebrities represented; this plaque from a BBC’s Britain At Risk programme made in 2011, (the B signifies the row, helping people to find their plaque), has John Craven and Jules Hudson leaving a dedication.

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Unfortunately I wasn’t able to find a video online of Britain at Risk to link here. However, I did find this fascinating documentary about the pier that features a 4 minute section purely about the plaques. It interviews the plaque warden and some of the people who have bought them talking about their stories, and is well worth a watch.

So if you find yourself in the Purbeck area of Dorset, do take time out to visit Swanage Pier and read some of the messages beneath your feet. Touching and amusing alike, collectively they are themselves a memorial to the human need for reflection and remembrance. And if Claire and I have decided what we want on the plaque we’re planning to buy by then, you can search out ours and tweet me a picture.

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Wall by the stairwell entrance to Hestercombe Gallery © Nigel Ball

Galleries that deal in driftwood ‘art’ and knick-knack souvenirs might be the predominating cultural experience you’d expect from a holiday to the beautiful Dorset coast. With this in mind, Claire and I were careful to make sure we investigated what cultural attractions were available to visit before travelling last week to a small hamlet just outside Bridport for our 2015 summer holiday. If washed-up sea craft ticks your art box then you won’t be disappointed from West Bay, Lime Regis and Charmouth et al, but if they don’t, we can highly recommend a couple of exhibitions.

We discovered before leaving that a colleague of mine, UCS senior lecturer and photographer Mark Edwards, was part of an exhibition at Hestercombe House & Gardens in Somerset. Being only about an hour’s drive from where we were staying we decided to pay it a visit. The show is titled Double Take: Photography and the Garden, and features two other contemporary artist photographers alongside Edwards; Sarah Jones and Helen Sear. It also showcases photographs by landscape gardener Gertrude Jekyll’s, who alongside Edwin Lutyens, designed the Formal Garden and Victorian Terrace at Hestercombe. It is an interesting exhibition in that each artist takes a very different approach in responding to the theme of the garden. Jekyll’s beautiful black and white shots from the early 1900s record garden vistas, plants, and most interesting to me, the gardeners working either horticulturally or on hard landscaping. Although none of these were of Hestercombe, they all come from a collection of photos Jekyll took of her own garden at Munster House near Godalming.

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Hestercombe Gardens by Jekyll and Lutyens © Nigel Ball

Edwards photography is a much longer process than the ‘shots’ by Jekyll, as he finds locations and returns to them repeatedly before photographing them. He often captures gardens that are about to revert back to nature, on the cusp of becoming overgrown or are overlooked and as a result, despite the fact they can appear as everyday scenes that in the flesh you may not take a second glance at, but as large scale prints they have an underlying sense of tension between nature and nurture. Sear’s work is much more manipulated which can lead the viewer to question whether they are actually looking at photographs—some appear as if ceramic tiles and others potentially paintings or tapestry. Jones’ work has a more menacing tonality to it with very dark backgrounds that focus the viewer in on, for example, a woman lying on a large tree branch, or to pick out the detail of a rose bush and thus forcing you to pay equal attention to the thorns and branches as you do to the flowers.

The show is part of Hestercombe’s programme of showcasing art in reclaimed spaces, and much of the gallery attached to the house is in a poor state of repair, clearly having been reclaimed from going into ruin just in time. This adds a temporal air to the whole show which creates an atmosphere that contrasts appropriately to the very orderly gardens outside. It also helps to echo the fact that gardens that aren’t continually tended, much like buildings left unmaintained, soon destroy themselves, a feature that is not lost as you look at some of Edwards work in particular.

Apologies for not showing any images of the exhibition to accompany this post, but I was so engrossed in the work that I neglected to take any of the work on the walls, (and I didn’t want to scan in images from the catalogue for copyright reasons). The show runs until 18 October 2015, and the £10 admission price includes access to the exhibition, gardens and house.

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Claire and I had also planned to take a look at Bournemouth at sometime during the holiday, as I believed, (wrongly), that I had never been there. (As we drove part the Pavillion, I was reminded that I went to a conference there some 30 years ago!) Unfortunately we left this visit until our return journey back to Ipswich, so didn’t have time to mooch around the town as we wanted to take in the Alphonse Mucha exhibition at the Russell Coates House and Gallery before continuing our drive back to Suffolk.

The house itself is a visual overload—a clash of Victoriana and Art Nouveau—rammed as it is with paintings, furniture, garish carpets and ornate internal architectural mouldings. A feast for the eyes and a fascinating insight into the lives and tastes of yuppie hipsters of the day. As the Russell Coates websites states: “In 1901 Merton Russell-Cotes gave his wife Annie a dream house on a cliff-top, overlooking the sea. It was an extraordinary, extravagant birthday present – lavish, splendid, and with a touch of fantasy. They filled this exotic seaside villa with beautiful objects from their travels across the world, and lined the walls with a remarkable collection of British art, creating a unique atmosphere in a most dramatic setting.”

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In many ways it is the perfect location for a Mucha exhibition outside of Paris, and the museum has done a good job of framing the entrance to the Mucha show with paintings that were contemporary to his work, thus informing the visitor of just what Mucha may have been influenced by. Once in the actual exhibition, (which you have to walk through the entire house to get to), there is a sense of calm after the visual overload you are subjected to beforehand.

I know Mucha’s work well, but what is impressive about this exhibition is actually seeing the life-size posters rather than reproductions in design books. Getting to see the work at this scale bought home to me once again just how important he was to the development of not just poster art but to Graphic Design, (poster art being the precursor trade before the concept of the ‘graphic designer’ emerged). His typographic excellence is something to be truly admired, and both his use of graphic architecture within an artwork to frame the subject/steer the viewer as well as his incorporation of type into the actual image must have appeared revolutionary in its day.

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One thing that did strike me for the first time, seeing the work up close, was that in much of the early work he wasn’t particularly good at drawing facial features. In many pieces I felt there was a tentative hand at work when working in these areas whereas he displayed sheer confidence in figures, illustration, graphic patterns and typography. His execution improved as his techniques developed, but this difference was noticeable to me for the first time on looking at this early work at their intended size.

The exhibition isn’t large, it only occupies two rooms, but it does also include a video of his life, photography of some of his models which he would later draw from, and examples of packaging alongside preliminary sketches. All in all it is well worth a visit if you happen to be in the area and is on until 27 September 2015. The entrance fee is £5, (inclusive of house).

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Eardrum Buzz is an irregular Dubdog feature looking at key pieces of music that have altered my perception of exactly what music can be. See Eardrum Buzz (intro) for further context. All comments are highly subjective.

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Title: African Dub, Chapter 3
Author: Joe Gibbs and The Professionals
Label: Lightning Records
UK Release Year: 1978

“What the fuck is this?” is not the exact phrase that would have been going through my 10 year old brain. The ‘fuck’ has been added by my 47 year-old self to emphasise the strength of reaction I had to hearing African Dub, Chapter 3 for the first time.

Opening with a heavy accented Jamaican voice declaring at volume, “They wan eya killa killa killa killa killa”. This echoes off into the sound of a deep bomb blast, immediately before impulsive snare rim-shots set the rhythm to follow; some opening to an album! Then a snare roll cuts through the heavy atmosphere, cavernous and tinny—how can something sound so thin and so loud?—before the powerful hook of THAT bassline underpins everything. All this within 15 seconds and we are truly on the way—the album has started.

Until this stage, my musical appreciation had been, in order: The Wombles, Sweet and The Beatles. Not exactly the musical diet that would have prepared me for such a heavy dub record, (not that I knew what ‘dub’ meant aged 10). “What the fuck is this?” indeed.

What followed is now so well known to me, but to my young ears this was difficult to comprehend as music. Questions abounded: Firstly, why were there virtually no human voices except for the odd call of ‘killa’ or ‘murder’ or ‘I wanna dub you’? Where was the verse/chorus set-up I’d become familiar with? Secondly, why the repetition? Apart from the odd fill-in, once a track had truly started, it was essentially the same thing repeated over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over again, (as I heard it back then). Thirdly, why did some instruments keep cutting in and out, as if lost, only to reappear some 20 seconds later? And lastly, what were all those sounds that echoed in and out all about? The doorbell; the science fiction type noises I’d heard on Blake’s 7; the snapshots of a horn section, gone in an instant; and the odd vocal addition.

All these questions confused and excited my young mind. But what drove through all of this strangeness was the high fast rhythms cut by the drums, and the low, low, low bass hooks.

The accompanying sleeve intrigued also—if the music was revolutionary and somewhat threatening to my ears, the sleeve created a heavy visual accompaniment. Those dark brooding guys on the front joined as one staring directly at me, the unfamiliar architecture in the background line illustration, the red, gold and green jagged shards blasting from the sky. And the title! Who was the band? Where they called African Dub, or Chapter Three? And what did All-mighty mean?, a phrase I’d only previously heard at dreaded Sunday school, (no pun intended).

The context to this musical mayhem I was experiencing: A family gathering—maybe Christmas, maybe Easter—packed into my Grandmother and Uncle’s council house in Carshalton, Surrey; the front room barely big enough for the congregated mass there-in.

This album, more than any other, has had a massive impact on me. Not just on my musical tastes, but also on my inquisitiveness for discovering new sounds. I wasn’t sure I liked African Dub Chapter 3 when I first heard it. I certainly didn’t understand it. But it did intrigue me.

In terms of bands/music I’ve liked over the years since first hearing this record that I can draw a clear linage to, then my immediate patronage of Two-Tone as ‘my music’ when it hit the charts a year later is an obvious association. The b-side of the 10” Black Market Clash, with the dub versions of Armagideon Time and Bankrobber, was at one stage pretty much glued to my turntable for weeks on end a few years later. It wouldn’t be until my late teens and early twenties thought that I’d discover the delights of other dub producers such as Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry, Niney The Observer, and obviously King Tubby. Later, World Domination Enterprises, Meat Beat Manifesto, Mark Stewart and The Maffia, Tackhead, The Bug, and Kode9 and the SpaceApe, amongst many others, would be opened to my ears because I could trace aspects back to this album.

I will leave the final words of this post to Woebot, writing for The Wire magazine’s The Inner Sleeve feature, (August 2010, issue 318, p79): “The music is analogous to the artwork: visionary, bold, visceral, but also conjured from the barest essentials. This record as [a] physical entity has always functioned as a desire-creating machine. In his epic reggae study, Bass Culture, Lloyd Bradley told how the demand for it was so strong that the first UK copies were stolen overnight from a London shop before they even hit the racks. The disc’s power [is] undiminished with the passing years”.

I left Facebook a while ago, but my abiding memory of it meant this advert in today’s Guardian was ripe for a swift détournement.


What Facebook would like you to think it is:

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What Facebook actually is:

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I was tempted to write about this a few weeks ago when it first hit the news that Virgin were going to adorn their credit cards with Sex Pistols’ artwork. On top of my initial revulsion I then saw this advert and considering it so wrong on so many levels, I didn’t quite know where to start.

However, the original Sex Pistols’ designer, Jamie Reid, probably says it best in this letter which is a response to an article in The Guardian about the cards by Johnny Sharp.

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“Dear Johnny,
In response to your G2 piece FILTY LUCRE, I can only express my complete disgust at the use of my art work for the VIRGIN credit cards. It seems typical of the times we live in. Especially with the Tory (bankers) victory in the last election. It seems so removed from the original 1977 spirit of the Pistols but to be sure these times of questioning and change and alternatives will come again.
As the original artists I have no rights over its usage. Virgin have the rights to use it as they like.
If it was up to me I would never agree to such usage.
Yours Jamie Reid”

Reid has also responded with some new artwork on his website titled The Death of Money: Anarchy and Revolution 1977—Abhorrence and Revulsion 2015 

I couldn’t put it better myself. That said, it did amuse me to see that Reid doesn’t seem to have the same ‘disgust’ for collaborating with Fred Perry and adorning their shirts with some of his work. Fred Perry say of the collaboration: “Some 40 years on his work continues to inspire individuality and free-thinking…Jamie Reid’s three designs speak of both his wit and sense of rebellion”. ‘Sense of rebellion’ rather than actual rebellion would be about right, but then I suppose as Fred Perry aren’t bankers, turning rebellion into money, to quote Strummer, isn’t such a problem for Reid.

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I too look forward to seeing ‘times of questioning and change and alternatives’ come again Jamie.

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iPhone Music montage screengrab

This blog, Dubdog, carries the strap-line: On art, design and music—mostly.

However, on closer examination a reader may come to the conclusion that in truth it is actually ‘mostly’ about design in one form or another. The music bit generally gets sidelined to lists of what I’ve been listening to at the end of any particular year. But recent thoughts have led me to consider adding a semi-regular feature that will address this.

Let me explain… I’ve been thinking a lot about music recently, partly prompted by corridor conversations with work colleagues and discovering a joint love of a particular band; but also through meeting new people and finding they have cross-over tastes to mine, but who then reel off a huge amount of band names or artists I’ve never come across. This has led me to ponder on how I have arrived at my subjective musical ‘tastes’.

I’ve never been a fan of pigeonholing. As a teenager, like many others, I had a perceived need to belong to something and thus create an identity for myself, usually based on a particular youth culture that followed the fashions of a particular musical ‘tribe’. As I matured I rejected this need to identify myself by the music I listened to, just as most people do when they distance themselves from their teenage years. But even when I was pigeonholing myself to the outside world through dress codes, I felt at odds with assigning myself to just one particular style or genre of music. When I was wearing bondage trousers and spiking my hair I was listening to far more than just The Clash.

As I think back on my life’s musical journey, one important thing it has taught me is to be open-minded to new experiences. As an addition to this I learned not to define something as being ‘music’ or not, especially as I learnt about, for example, Industrial Music, experimental sound artists, and more recently, Free Jazz. As a result, the term ‘music’ suddenly seems as arcane as the concept of dressing in the same style as the people in the bands you like. As I have heard new sounds, whether that be through chance happenings or someone directing me towards a particular artist, I can pinpoint key moments in my life when I’ve heard something for the first time and it has fundamentally altered my mind about music. I’m not talking about just hearing a new band, I’m talking about moments that have made me question my preconceived opinions and have taken me on an exciting journey of discovery. To use the term ‘paradigm shift’ is not too strong a term to use here in relation to what I’m trying to express.

Obviously context is everything. There are certain pieces of music that I’ve heard that if I’d come to them earlier in life I might not have been able to accept them—not having had preceding musical experiences I might need to get to that point of acceptance. A good example of this is the first time I heard Venus In Furs by The Velvet Underground. To my 14 year-old ears this blew my mind and I couldn’t stop playing the track on rotation for several days as I soaked up this incredible sound; a sound that I can’t recall having heard previously. Had I first heard this at age 10, my personal experience would likely be quite different. Equally, the situation I heard something in for the first time may also have bought a lot to the experience that outside of that situation it may not have had the same effect. Others who may already be familiar with a specific work which I signify as a paradigm shift in my conscious understanding of music may not consider that it the best example of that specific musical approach. This doesn’t matter as this is personal to my experience, and besides, if they are right, I will generally work that out for myself anyway as I explore further. And while I may come to the realisation that what I’ve heard is at the tame/lame end of its particular spectrum, the fact that it opened my world still holds a significance for me, and therefore I would still hold it in high regard, (albeit with accepted caveats).

As these considerations on music that I have been ruminating on recently have continued, I’ve started listing all the key works that have prompted a real paradigm shift in my musical appreciation. Over the coming months I will revisit some of these pieces and subsequently write about them here. Some will be very well known and discussed at length in other forums, but some will have slipped off the musical map and no end of searching online will uncover them being given any serious attention, (I can’t wait to write the post on Flux of Pink Indians’ The Fucking Cunts Treat Us Like Pricks, for example). They will all, obviously, be personal to me and my experiences. But equally, some readers may discover new music they haven’t previously experienced or re-evaluate something they had previously discarded. As an exercise I hope to find this personally enriching, but more than that, as I consider music in more depth and the phenomenon of the effect it can have on an individual, I hope to learn a little more about what music is, and the power it can wield over and above subjective appreciation.

As a sneak peak, first up will be a key album that has shaped much of my musical appreciation from a young age and that has aligned my tastes for many years to come, right up to the present day in fact. That album is Joe Gibbs and The Professionals—African Dub All Mighty: Chapter 3. Search it out on YouTube and give it a listen, I’ll be writing about it here soon. Until then, I’m now off to trawl the BBC Glastonbury website, while the festival goes on many miles away from my home town, in order to search out some new acts I’ve never heard of before. Who knows, I may be writing about them here in a few months time.

This series is titled Eardrum Buzz after the track of the same name by Wire.

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It’s that time of year again when Graphic Design and Graphic Illustration students at UCS start preparing for their End of Year Show. This year’s cohort have titled their show Blink, and are showcasing their work and advertising the show with the launch of a website and Twitter feed.

The UCS Arts and Humanities End of Year Show also features work from Photography, Film, Fine Art, Interior Architecture and Design, Computer Games Design, Dance, History and English degree courses, as well as some collaborative work between second year Graphic Design and English students. The Private View is on 4 June, 18:00–21:00, with the Graphic Design course taking pride of place for the first time in the Waterfront Gallery alongside Photography in the Waterfront Building lobby. The rest of the course shows are housed in the Arts Building. The public view runs from 5–14 June, including weekends.

Below is a piece I wrote for the UCS website:
The Graphic Design show at UCS has developed a reputation for showcasing exciting and professionally realised work, demonstrating students’ ability to progress into employment straight from their degree. This year will be no different and students are proud to be displaying their work in the Waterfront Gallery for the first time.

Exhibited work will include final projects alongside their professional portfolios which demonstrate the skills and creativity students have been honing over the duration of their course. As well as this, there will be a showcase of work created for placement projects with BBC Worldwide and Turner Classic Movies (TCM). Creative Directors from both organisations will be visiting UCS on the day of the Private View to look through the work and interview students before awarding placements. 

Course Leader Nigel Ball says: “On behalf of the course team, I can honestly say it has been a pleasure to work with this group of students over their time on the course. Every year it is highly rewarding to reflect on the individual and collective journeys of our students who are about to go out into the world and become the next wave of designers and illustrators shaping our visual environment. Year on year we see more of our graduates gaining employment within a very short period of time after finishing their degrees—the professionalism and creativity this year group have displayed throughout their time at UCS leads us to believe they will be no different. It was only 2 years ago as first year students that they designed the graphics for the End Of Year Show 2013, a very public arena for first year students to be working in. Now it is time for them to shine in their own exhibition. We wish them the greatest success for their futures.”

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