Chrissie Gittins studied BA (Hons) Fine Art & Critical Practice, graduating in 1988 from Central Saint Martins. She has had a varied and successful career, writing poetry, short fiction and radio drama. Her latest collection of short stories, ‘Between Here and Knitwear’, is being released in November. Read more about her journey so far…
Were you always interested in art? What made you want to study at St Martins?
I enjoyed art very much at school, but because of the exam system then – which wasn’t continuous assessment, and which I took against – I decided not to take it for A level. I had the distinction of coming top in the mock O Level drawing exam, and bottom in the painting exam, because I changed my mind half way through about what to paint and painted over my original subject; they both merged. I didn’t understand why a whole year’s work didn’t count. It was a very academic school and the arts weren’t encouraged. Also my father said he wouldn’t pay my fees if I went to Art School. I was the first person in my family to qualify to go to university and that’s what he wanted me to do. So I did an academic degree at Newcastle University and then trained to teach so that I could always earn a living. Then I moved to London. The part-time 5-year BA Fine Art and Critical Studies course was just beginning at St Martins. I applied to join the first year and I was accepted. This time round my father offered to pay the fees.
Did you enjoy your time there? Favourite memories?
I enjoyed my time there very much, especially working in the communal studio on Charing Cross Road, sometimes late into the evening. Sadly Paul Eachus, who was one of our tutors, has just died. I learnt that it is very valuable to develop a body of work, and be able to see oneself as an artist. In the fourth year we undertook placements in the community. I fundraised to be Artist-in-Residence in Oxleas Wood in Greenwich – an area of ancient woodland which was under threat.
Have you stayed in touch with colleagues from the course?
I met one of my greatest friends on the first day of the course. She had a flask of coffee and I had a pile of sandwiches. We joined forces. Simon Pugh, who was also one of our tutors, will be coming to the launch of my new book, along with another couple of my fellow students from St Martins.
What have you been doing since graduating?
I was always torn at school between wanting to be an artist, and wanting to be a writer. After graduating from St Martins I went on several short creative writing courses, and attended classes at City Lit. I now write poetry, poetry for children, short fiction and radio drama. I’ve published two adult poetry collections and three adult pamphlet collections, four children’s poetry collections and a collection of short stories. Four of my plays have been broadcast on BBC Radio Four; they have starred Patricia Routledge, Sorcha Cusack and Jan Ravens. The actors Anne Reid, Stephanie Cole and Penelope Wilton have read my stories on BBC Radio Four, and I’ve read one too. I still do the occasional drawing, and several of my poems are inspired by art works.
Tell us more about the short story collection you are working on…
‘Between Here and Knitwear’ is my second short story collection and will be published by Unthank Books on 1 November. It’s going to be stocked by Foyles, which means it will live in the very building where I was an art student. This is the blurb on the back cover:
‘These twenty-two cleverly linked stories, written over two decades, trace a life from childhood to middle age. Beginning in Lancashire in the ‘60s and ‘70s, they follow a young girl as she becomes aware of what it means to be a daughter, a sister, a lover and a woman in a family where the relationships are constantly changing. From a disappeared clutch of curlew’s eggs to the last piece of furniture left standing in a home, these bleak and funny stories bolster what is lost into poignant narratives; told with lyricism, economy and wit, they are observed with the unflinching eye of an incisive witness.’
The drawing of a sun spot on the cover was done by my niece Esther Cooper-Gittins who has just graduated in Fine Art from Falmouth.
What advice do you have for UAL alumni who hope to get recognised and published?
First of all the work has to be good. More than good. Celebrate small achievements; they will accumulate into a reputation. Take criticism seriously from those you admire. Read your work publicly at every opportunity. Be pro-active – for the most part you will need to do the asking.