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Graduate Mentoring Case Study #1: Jennie McCall and Annita McKee

Design-Nation’s Graduate Membership launched in 2018, to give specific tailored support to talented designer-makers at the onset of their careers. As part of this we identified a need for one-to-one guidance for some people:  placing them alongside more established designers who could act as mentors for a while, helping our rising stars to work out resolutions to issues and shape their future businesses.

With generous support from The Radcliffe Trust, in 2020 Design-Nation ran a pilot Graduate Mentoring Programme for five pairs of mentors and mentees. In the first of two interviews we asked ceramicist and mixed media maker Jennie McCall and porcelain sculptor Annita McKee how they got on. (Our second interview with Nina Moeller and Aidan Donovan is here.)

The Mentor: Jennie McCall, Leicestershire

Design-Nation: Please give us a brief outline of your practice; what you design or make; and what you like about this kind of work. How and where did you start as a designer/maker? Has your practice changed since you started?

Jennie McCall: I undertook a BA Hons Graphic Design and started my professional career as an illustrator after graduating in the early eighties, but I soon discovered that I am more of a ‘maker’. So I’ve spent many years discovering my artistic leanings through textiles and mixed media. I am very fortunate to have a studio situated in my garden where I can enjoy all the seasonal and daily changes in the environment around me. This has been a lifelong influence in my practice, as well as my interest in myth and folklore. I’m a storyteller using all my skills from drawing and journalling to the physical act of making the final piece in stitch or clay.

I thrive on the creative alchemy of processes and no more so than in ceramics. From sketch to sculpture I work through ideas and concepts with confidence in the knowledge I have acquired after years of trial and error but still with the excitement of happy accidents and the uncertainty which often comes particularly with the practice of ceramics. My work is mostly figurative but I also enjoy working on more abstract and often collaborative pieces with other artists often working in different media.

I am presently working with a Design-Nation furniture maker (Jonathan Rose) as part of the wonderful Buddy Scheme which started during 2020s’ spring Covid lockdown. This has been a unique and immensely valuable opportunity to engage and work with another designer; as total strangers ultimately developing a creative partnership through the vehicle of social media. The outcome of this relationship is a collaborative project, with our work having been selected by the Scottish Furniture Makers Association for an exciting exhibition with Visual Arts Scotland in the City Art Centre Edinburgh during Spring 2021.

DN: What attracted you to become a Graduate Programme mentor for Design-Nation?

JM: I felt that as a mid-career designer/maker I would be able to offer advice and support to a mentee at a pivotal time in their practice.

DN: What did you hope to get from being a mentor? Have you ever mentored anyone in the past?

JM: I was hoping to build an authentic relationship that I could help provide for the mentee a pathway to progress and develop ideas and ultimately a body of work to take forward with confidence. As a teacher of art and craft I consider mentoring as an intuitive part of my teaching practice.

The mentee: Annita McKee, County Down

Design-Nation: Please give us a brief outline of your practice; what you design or make; and what you like about this kind of work. How and where did you start as a designer/maker? Has your practice changed since you started?

Annita McKee: I make porcelain sculptures influenced by my research and experience with emotions and behaviour.  My childhood home on the Isle of Portland, scuba diving and love of the ocean heavily influences my work. I am drawn to the pure white, translucent nature of porcelain.  I use slip casting technique along with hand-built elements. I use found forms such as pebbles and rocks with interesting shapes, some with defined textures. These have been moulded by the ocean’s movements and storms yet survive, being resilient like human beings.

I introduced chairs to my work based on notions of a primary school one where we learn, we develop, we think and remember. My suggestion in pairing of chairs with sea is that in order to think, cleanse, change behaviors we need to set the right conditions to allow transition. The sea is well voiced as an environment for doing this. Splashes of sea coloured glaze and glass appear inside my work, producing reflections.

Each piece is made with a title from phrases I have heard in a counselling room or current situations such as the pandemic.  These are prompts for the viewer to consider, with white porcelain leaving a blank slate for it to be interpreted in their own narrative. I like how my work connects to people, I enjoy hearing their stories, why they bought it, what a piece means for them.  The idea that it thrives and takes on new meanings in a new environment appeals to me.  I often take my pieces underwater to interact with sea creatures.  This may sound weird but being free from any distractions I come up buzzing with ideas for future sculptures.  It also helps my marketing!

DN: How and where did you start as a designer/maker? Has your practice changed since you started?

AM: I started my artistic journey as a mature student whilst continuing to work part time as a counsellor. I did night classes in ceramics and textiles and loved transforming my experiences into art forms.  When I discovered porcelain that was me hooked! I graduated from Ulster University in 2019. My next step was setting up a studio in the garage and starting my professional practice as a full-time artist.  Then COVID hit: surprisingly lockdown opened new opportunities, enabling me to focus on learning new skills such as marketing with many resources going online.  I took time to time to establish goals and committed to the mentoring program.

My practice has changed. I now work in bodies of works producing a series. I had been purely focused on making but now spend time on my website and marketing.  Understanding that running a professional practice needs many skills so I plan my week more. I also have more confidence promoting myself.

DN: What were you hoping to get from the mentoring process?

AM: I was hoping for guidance and reassurance as found I was lacking confidence.  Leaving uni and feeling stranded with a sense of “What now?” was quite a shock. My previous careers were structured with systems. I also wanted to connect to other professionals outside Northern Ireland.

DN: Were there particular challenges or issues that you wanted to explore through this professional relationship?

AM: I felt that I was stuck in a rut, isolated and needed to find a direction after uni. Motivation was never a problem. Discussing this with Jennie made me consider more what I was doing and why rather than producing willy nilly.

DN: How did you start off the mentoring process? What happened in your first session, and how did you agree to work together?

JM: We started off the mentoring process with a facetime call during the beginning of the Covid Lockdown in March 2020. Our initial session was simply getting to know each other and to place ourselves in each other’s lives at that pivotal time of the pandemic. It was impossible to ignore and I think created a unique opportunity to share the private dynamics of our unique family situations.  We agreed to have a facetime chat every couple of weeks to start off with and to chat on whatsapp whenever we felt like it.

AM: After our first facetime call we agreed another meeting.  Jennie set up a whatsapp link for contact in between. Our boundaries were naturally established. We discussed lockdown and how we were managing, which ended up being a good introduction. I was full of enthusiasm after our first session. Jennie was inspiring and totally got my work.  She responded to my worries, concerns and understood.  I felt that we quickly established a two-way relationship. I had consciously decided to be honest from the beginning which I felt was important.

DN: What did you focus on and how do you think this went throughout the mentoring process?

JM:  We focused on delving into what Annita’s work is about. At this stage in Annita’s creative development it seemed that honing her ideas and inspirations were vital to the future progression of working towards a cohesive body of work. Annita was also enjoying testing out new processes and techniques which take time and practice. She created some innovative and successful pieces that were very well researched and have great potential. I feel that this is now where her professional development should be focused if she feels ready.

AM: The focus was on my practice, how I research, how I approach sculptures and what my professional goals were. I felt that I was jumping from one thing to another.  Jennie helped me separate these. I realised that my research, experimenting and creating were not separate, but all contributed towards as a series of works. There is nothing wrong with having a couple of things going on in the studio, however I did need direction and to slow down. I realised that I didn’t need to do it all at once.  Throughout I was learning about the art world. Throughout the mentoring process Jennie helped me identify and develop a body of work.

DN: Did you encounter any issues in working together, and were you able to resolve them?

JM: I had no issues with the mentoring process working with Annita at any stage other than the frustration of not being able to have a ‘real’ studio session with her – something we both hope to have in the future. Because of the lockdown situation I feel we have both missed out on what may have contributed in a major way to the mentoring process.

AM: Our only issue was lockdown with our plan to meet up at Jennie’s studio. We resolved this with facetime calls and a plan to meet in the future.

DN: Now the pilot is over, what was the main benefit of taking part? Have you changed anything in the way that you work?

JM: I have thoroughly enjoyed working with Annita and the experience has also made me think and reflect on my own practice. I see mentoring as a two way relationship that we both grow and learn from. It is a wonderful experience at the point in my career to be engage with and enable the growth and development of talented creatives such as Annita at a pivotal moment in their artistic progression.

AM: I have enjoyed every aspect of this program. Meeting Jennie has been priceless.  She has been supportive, encouraging and helped guide me when I have been stuck and grounded me when needed. I have gained confidence as a professional artist. Our conversations naturally flowed and were much more than a teacher/student type.  They were collaborative. I have also learned many skills via DN resources and online zoom sessions.  A major outcome was adding a shop to my website. My work and focus have developed with clear goals established. I am confident that I can continue to make an affordable range alongside pieces for exhibition opportunities. Everyone has been approachable and supportive. When I reflect on the year, I can see many changes.  Developing a professional practice require many skills other than making. I no longer feel isolated.

DN: What are the next steps for you?

JM: I will continue to offer creative mentoring alongside my teaching practice.

AM: Jennie and I have stayed in touch so hopefully we will get to meet up in the future. I will continue to develop my professional practice using the knowledge and skills I have learned. My website needs regular updates. I am working towards becoming a full DN member, by researching getting professional images and how I write about my sculptures. My local DN cluster group (Scotland and Northern Ireland) is now well established with exciting plans towards an exhibition.

DN: Any final reflections on being in a mentoring relationship? Would you recommend it to others, and if so why?

JM: Creative mentoring is a huge responsibility and can only work successfully when both are comfortable and honest with each other. I feel that after the initial meeting it is important to establish that both understand the true nature of what is required at this particular stage of the mentees practice. I hope to continue my mentoring relationship with Annita for the foreseeable future. I see this as a beginning not an end to a very special friendship based on our shared experience of creative challenges.

AM: I would highly recommend it on several levels. When I first researched mentors, I immediately knew Jennie was a match for me. The introductory training set out guidelines, so boundaries were clear from the beginning. I prepared for the first couple of sessions with Jennie and felt at ease from the word ‘go’.  As we progressed our sessions flowed. I value our relationship and see it as a long lasting one.


Works by Annita McKee: Light at the End of the Tunnel Chair; selection of vessels; octopus exploring vessel.

Portrait of Annita McKee (in front of fireplace)

Portrait of Jennie Mccall (against white wall)

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Liz Cooper


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