I never planned to be a broadcaster or to end up as an artist. Nothing was planned; it just kind of happened.
In the final term of my geology degree at the University of St Andrews, I was interviewed by the mining company Anglo American. I’d found it hard just to reach the interview stage, as there was so much prejudice against women in those days, and I was determined to give this one my best chance.
I went dressed as a man, hammer in hand and haversack by my side. I grabbed the chair, turned it round, and sat astride it looking confident. (I’d learned these skills acting with Mermaids.) But Anglo American only seemed interested in whether I could type: “No, can’t type,” I lied. They did not offer me a job, funnily enough, and that was it. There was no future as an exploration geologist for me.
I went in a state of near despair to see the careers advisory officer. He was a lovely man, and he made the suggestion that turned my life around.
“Apply for the BBC,” he advised. “I know you’ve done a lot of other things in your spare time — drama, music, the arts — you tick all the boxes.”
He was absolutely right. I’d spent time in other departments, particularly art history. In fact, had I failed second year chemistry as I expected to, I would have switched to art history. But after passing second year chemistry, I continued with science.
In addition to taking art history courses, I had attended an extra-mural class in photography run by University photographer Peter Adamson. I’d also done a lot of vacation jobs in technical areas with an electronic engineering research company. So, I wrote all of this down on the application form.
As an employer, the BBC was clearly not that interested in the subject of my degree, just the evidence that I had reached a certain academic standard. What seemed to clinch the deal was the work experience I had accumulated in vacations and my range of outside interests and achievements. It was because of these things that I was accepted as a trainee studio manager.
I was a bit sad about giving up geology. I loved finding clues in the rocks that led to building up a picture of what had happened on Earth in the distant past. I loved the fresh air of the fieldwork and the aesthetic qualities of landscape, fossils, rock and minerals. What interested me most was the cultural side of geology, the interaction between a chunk of the crust and the people that lived on it and used its resources. Fortunately, it was possible to keep up this interest in my spare time. I met a man who shared my interest, and together we built up an impressive geological collection.
I worked on a vast range of programmes: news and current affairs, Woman’s Hour, The Food Programme, radio drama and music. But, as the years rolled on, my geology degree led more science projects my way. I moved from production and reporting to being a presenter and therefore more in the public eye. I started persuading commissioning editors that the epic story of the Earth was worth telling, both on radio and for TV. The many programmes I wrote and presented on the subject were successful and won me acclaim and awards. Apparently, I was the first woman to present a Natural World on BBC Two with a film called Postcards from the Past. I was back in geology and loving it. I even made a discovery in the course of my work: a mineral specimen with properties entirely new to science.
But there was a downside to this publicly visible success. Organisations such as the Geological Society and even the Research Councils had not moved on so far as gender was concerned. There was awful prejudice and no support for women from these organisations. I had to put up with some truly disgraceful behaviour at times. I got extremely fed up with it, and so did my family. I soon diversified and started making educational resources (books and short films), and I also landed a visiting academic post teaching media skills at Bath University.
Just a few years ago, I had one of those horrible health scares, and once it was over my GP suggested I try something completely different. I started various classes in fine and applied art, and in 2012 I enrolled at Art College to do a full time diploma course.
I have not looked back: in less than three years since finishing that course, I have had nine academy hangings, including the RA in London. My work is now in galleries, exhibitions and private collections.
The move from scientist to artist has not been so great a leap as you might imagine. Both require observational skills and the ability to record those observations and communicate them to others. You just do it differently and in more diverse ways with art. The materials used in art, including pigments and the clays for ceramics, are all things I had studied as a scientist.
Peter Adamson’s extra-mural photography course and my friendship with the art history department came to rich fruition at long last with my most successful body of work: recreating famous works of art as digital photographs. My clients and patrons enjoyed having their favourite old master and an original contemporary piece all at the same time. I suppose there is a slight journalistic edge to the way I’ve gone about this project, bringing in the odd social observation and comment.
So, would I have been better failing special chemistry and switching from geology to art history all those years ago? Probably not. I feel as if everything I have ever done in science, arts and broadcasting contributes to my practice as an artist. I am so lucky to have had a series of careers that have been so interesting and personally fulfilling. Trying to make a living from art at the outset might have been impossible anyway.
If I were a student at St Andrews today, I would probably take a similar approach to studying and grasp every opportunity for extracurricular enrichment and experience. I suspect vacation jobs would have to be internships these days, and much training on the job has been replaced with postgraduate training.
One needs to be extremely picky when choosing to spend money on one of these courses: look for plenty of industry skills and less theoretical fluff. Don’t walk past open doors, and be open to exploring unexpected career paths.
You can contact Ms Grayson at anna@ annagrayson.com.