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Student stories: Nuala Mahon - The Open College of the Arts

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Student stories: Nuala Mahon

I have arrived at the finishing line of the long adventure that is (or was) the OCA degree process. I started my journey in November 2015 and submitted for my final assessment in January 2023 and to my great surprise I am now the holder of a BA(Hons) in photography. My family reckons that I am “getting there” by degrees since I already hold a BSc in Chemistry and an MSc in Biochemistry.

When I started my degree, I had no idea how my previous academic pathways would weave into my photographic practice. My first tutor was Andy Hughes and I was Andy’s first OCA student. As well as being newbies we soon discovered a shared commitment to the ocean pollution problem that continues to this day. We had a great working relationship and I was delighted to be able to work with him again for BOW and SYP.  

I live on a small island, five kilometres by three, off the south west coast of Ireland. In recent years the quantity of plastic being washed up on our beaches is increasing year on year. The changing climate means that we have more frequent and more violent storms which churn up the sea and spew out the plastic debris on to the shoreline. 

During COVID I was confined on the island and took daily walks down to the sea shore. I became more and more alarmed by the debris and decided I wanted to highlight this problem for my final BOW. I researched and sought advice from photographers working on this topic. Most were producing either beautiful or dramatic images of this destructive material. Neither of these directions appealed to me. I wanted to create something different.

Andy’s continual mantra was: “Don’t preach”. The exponential growth of plastic pollution is not our fault but, as artists, we can try to contribute to the solution. I decided I would create my images as sustainably as possible. I made pinhole cameras from cardboard boxes and tin cans. 

With these basic cameras, I made images of the washed-up plastic on the beaches. Using my chemical experience, I developed the images in my darkroom using a homemade solution of seaweed from our beaches. The images were fixed in a sea salt solution. The results were variable but always intriguing. 

Throughout this process I sought advice and critique from my fellow students. This is one of the most important aspects of life as a distance learner. 

What was equally important for me was the many tutor led sessions organised by a fellow student Helen Rosemier. These Keeping up the Momentum sessions work around a theme suggested by the facilitator. Many involved working in groups to provide a piece of work for the following session. This took me out of my photographic comfort zone as well as providing contact with students from other art genres. It would be really positive to see this idea developed as part of future degree programmes. 

I decided to present my work for SYP as an exhibition. I sought and obtained great advice from a number of curators as well as from Les Monaghan, an OCA tutor. Most professional curators cautioned me about presenting my work, in the open, on a beach. Both Andy and Les encouraged me to follow my heart which I did. With the help of a PR friend my exhibition was widely publicised online and in the local and national news media. I was also interviewed by national radio. The whole process was a steep learning curve but with the help of my family I managed to organise my exhibition. This is a tough route to take for the final SYP project but it is great preparation for sustaining your practice. 

I continue to apply to Open Calls and my work is being exhibited at BeauPhoto in Vancouver, Canada until the end of April. It will be part of the World Pinhole day in Vancouver. I was part of a collaboration for ClimateLab 2022 at the Open Eye Gallery, Liverpool. I will also be included in a three-way group show, with another OCA graduate, at the Bluehouse Gallery, Schull, Co County Cork, (28th April – 17th May).  

I have many ideas for developing my pinhole work as well as highlighting more general plastic pollution problems in the future.  

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Posted by author: Nuala Mahon

30 thoughts on “Student stories: Nuala Mahon

  • Many congratulations Nuala. All your hard work, commitment and enthusiasm has been an inspiration for me and I’ve valued your support as I travel along my own path.

    • It was been great fun and often ‘inspirational’ meeting up once a month with our small group. I am really looking forward to meeting up in person in the not too distant future. Thank you for all your support

  • Well done Nuala. I don’t understand why you are surprised at attaining your degree. Surely, once you’d developed your practice, it was never in doubt? Your final show is an excellent example of methods, materials and presentation that are shaped by the message of your work: a holistic approach to the project

    • Thank you Derek. I am surprised because while I travelled along the OCA road the finishing line always seemed to be in the distant future. As a distance learner one does not have the physical assurance that is part of a ‘bricks and mortar’ study experience. This is why Helen’s continued dedication to organising “Keeping up the Momentum” sessions is SO important.

    • Thank you. I can become quite ‘boring’ on the subject f sustainability!!!!

      “You too can make a difference” (to quote Michael Moore) no matter what you ‘create’.

  • Well done Nuala, your final work was excellent. I really enjoyed the booklet very much and frequently flick through it to spur me on in m y own pathway. I’ve a long way to go yet but knowing you made it to the end will keep me going.

    • Our ‘story’ Di is one of the wonderful positives of Keeping up the Momentum.

      I love receiving your postcards from exhibitions visited and I think of you whenever I visit an exhibition.

  • Congratulations Nuala. I consider myself fortunate that I was able to meet and collaborate with you at the last Keeping up the Momentum workshop. It seems that you are indeed continue to keep that momentum going with a showing in at BeauPhoto Sneaky Light exhibition. Wishing you many successes ahead.

    • Thank you Mary and yes another wonderful experience resulting from a Keeping up the Momentum collaboration.

  • Congratulations, Nuala! It’s been a lot of fun seeing how your work has evolved over the years at OCA. And best wishes for the next step, whatever that might be.

    • Thank you Alan. And yes we have come a long way together!!! Now I am ‘invading’ your country with my work being part of World Pinhole Day in Vancouver.

  • Congratulations, Nuala! 🥂 Well done! I still remember working together in an OCA Europe workshop in 2020, where I‘ve responded three-dimensionally to one of your inspiring pinhole camera images.
    Good like for your future endeavors.

  • Congratulations Nuala. This work is testament to all the hard work you have put in on the journey. Wonderful experimentation and realisation in this work.

  • Congratulations Nuala, although we started at almost the same time, I am a little behind you, just commencing my level 3 and to know that your work has been recognised by others must be exciting for you! I thoroughly enjoyed watching your final project develop, and I can only hope to emulate your experimentation, vision and creativity.

    • WOW Hilary that is so kind of you. Can I take this opportunity to wish every success in your final years. I can tell you BOW and SYP are really enjoyable – I was not so thrilled with CS!! I failed to link consumerism with photography in history. It just did not seem relevant to me, I am a lot more interested in using my art to highlight the problems of consumerism.

  • Congratulations Nuala! Fab work and a great achievement. It has been really inspiring to witness your journey and to read about it here, I really enjoyed this work presented on the beach and great to hear you already talking about your next ideas! Warm wishes, Dan

    • Thank you Dan.
      It has been a roller coaster journey and I cannot say I am sorry to be finished and starting out in the real world.
      I have no idea if you have any control over the feedback we get throughout our degree journey but I am always disappointed. Everything seems to be great according to the written feedback but then the result does not reflect the report. There is very seldom advice given as to how the work could have been improved to obtain a better result.

  • Massive congrats Nuala! You have been such a great support and an inspiration for me these last few years – I honestly don’t know what I would have done without you and our little gang. And I am really glad that Keeping up Momentum was such a positive experience for you. I hope you will join future sessions (when I am properly back in the saddle) as an alumnus (?). See you soon X

  • Thank you Helen and can I return the compliment. ‘Our Gang” is a life line for me and I hope we never loose contact and can meet up soon.

  • Congratulations Nuala and well deserved indeed. Showing your work on the beach was just the right decision. Here’s wishing you loads of creativity along your way.

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