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Cementing Yorkshire as the home of sculpture


In the latest of our PhD student spotlight features, we met up with Julia McKinlay, an artist studying for a practice-based PhD alongside developing a new international sculpture festival for Yorkshire.

Julia McKinlay in her studio

Hi Julia, what is your PhD all about?

I started my PhD in February last year and it is a collaborative project with a new sculpture festival called Yorkshire Sculpture International (YSI). I’m doing a practice-based project, working across sculpture, drawing and print, and it’s developing alongside working in the team that’s producing the festival.

The festival runs from June 22 to September 29 this year. The full programme is due to be announced in February and the website is set to be launched in April. It’s going to be a really great way to cement Yorkshire as a place for sculpture – to view it and make it – and we’re hoping to get a big audience to the festival.

Why did you choose this PhD?

My PhD was an advertised position. I was looking for my next post and saw this, applied, and got it! It seemed like an incredible opportunity to gain an insight into the workings of an international sculpture festival, which is a pretty unique situation.

Julia McKinlay's work - Quarry
Quarry I, 2018. Woodblock print on paper. Image courtesy of the artist. 

Why Leeds Beckett?

YSI is made up of the four main art galleries in Leeds and Wakefield, working together: the Henry Moore Institute, Leeds Art Gallery, Yorkshire Sculpture Park and The Hepworth Wakefield. Leeds Beckett came on board very early as a partner to YSI and my PhD is part of this relationship.

We’re also inviting artists to come and speak to students at Leeds Beckett about their sculpture practices. I’m helping to organise a sculpture talk series at Leeds Art Gallery specifically aimed at Leeds Beckett fine art students, and a symposium for YSI which will be at the Rose Bowl in September, open to students and the general public. We will have international artists, curators and researchers speaking.

What’s the best thing about doing a PhD?

It feels very much like an extension of my studio practice at the moment so it’s brilliant to be able to work full-time on my own research. I was teaching before, and that was great, but the shift is now more on my own work again which I’m really enjoying. Through having supervision and tutorials as part of my PhD, my practice is really developing.

And what’s been the biggest challenge so far?

Because of the nature of this project, I’m based in an office three days a week, but the output of my PhD is mostly studio-based work. So, my biggest challenge is juggling my responsibilities for YSI while maintaining my studio work.

Julia McKinlay in her studio

What’s the most useful thing that you’ve learnt so far?

My project is still quite wide open and I’m researching a lot of different strands and it’s been great to learn from my supervisors that you can keep following lines of enquiry even if you don’t know where it’s going to go. It will have to narrow down quite soon but, coming into it, I thought everything would have to narrow down much quicker than it has. It’s been much more experimental and open and that’s been great.

What is your proudest achievement to date?

It was incredible to get this PhD and I can’t really beat that at the moment! I’ve had other brilliant highlights in my career though – I won the Boise Travel Scholarship in 2014, which allowed me to spend two months researching and working in Iceland. I was also awarded some funding to study mokuhanga- Japanese woodblock printing in Japan last summer, and that was an amazing experience.

Julia McKinlay's work - Quarry
Quarry II, 2018. Woodblock print on paper. Image courtesy of the artist. 

What is your top tip for new research students?

From my own experience in the last year, having two supervisors who I really get on well with - my director of studies is Dr Julia Kelly and supervisor is Dr Kiff Bamford - has made it so much easier and enjoyable and I really look forward to our conversations. So, I would recommend doing your research and finding people who you get on with and who are going to be really helpful to you in your PhD. You’re on your own a lot of the time so it’s great that I can talk so easily with Julia and Kiff. Though I didn’t choose them, it was good fortune and I’m so glad I’ve got them helping me do this.

What do you do to unwind?

I’m pretty dreadful at life-work balance but I like playing netball and badminton. I’m looking for clubs in Leeds at the moment because I’ve just moved here.

Where do you want your PhD to take you?

The reason I wanted to do this PhD was to push my practice forward as an artist and continue working and showing. It’s really broadened my network in the industry which is going to be really helpful. I was teaching before my PhD so I hope I can continue teaching in the future.

You can visit Julia’s website to discover more about her work.

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