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Shelley James

 Name: Shelley James


Age range:46

Research institution: Ceramics and Glass Department, Royal College of Art, London

Research career length: 6 years

Research Council: Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC)

Location: London, England

Salary: £22k

Brief summary of research: Perception of space in glass

Qualifications post-school:
First degree in textiles at École Nationale Supérieure des Arts Decoratifs, Paris
MA in Printmaking at the University of the West of England

Career path:
Graduate Trainee at company in Lille
Design manager at import/export company
Corporate Identity Consultant
Accounts Director
Research Fellowship at University of the West of England
Residency at the University of the Creative Arts, Farnham
MPhil/PhD at the Royal College of Art

We use vision to observe the world around us, yet the visual system creates a version of our surroundings and does not necessarily represent what is actually there. As an artist, Shelley James, combines technical expertise, creativity and knowledge about the brain, to understand and represent how we perceive space.

I use the particular optical qualities of glass to create spaces that help us discover new ways of understanding how we perceive our world. My research involves making new artworks, which means developing expertise in various glassmaking techniques, and drawing on the latest thinking in brain research. I meet leading scientists to help me understand what happens when we see the world; I’ve even made a few scans of my own brain to help with this.

“Research allows me to learn new things which I can then share with others. It has also given me the freedom to pursue an idea and see where it leads creatively and technically”

I developed a fascination with glass during an MA in printmaking at the University of the West of England. I worked with the Bristol Eye Hospital to produce glass sculptures incorporating printed medical scans and other images, to help explain aspects of vision to patients and clinicians. At the end of my MA, I was offered a part-time research Fellowship to continue this work. After a 1-year residency at the University of Creative Arts in Farnham, I was accepted on the MPhil programme at the Royal College of Art, subsequently applying for an upgrade onto a PhD .

I was not considered talented enough to take art A-level at school, but was accepted to study journalism at York. During my gap year, I planned a tour of Europe, starting in Paris. While there, I started to work as an illustrator and decided to apply to the French national art schools, though I failed the entrance exam. So I enrolled at a 'crammer' and spent a year preparing intensively for the exams, which I passed. At the end of the 5-year course, I was offered a place on a graduate trainee programme for an international textile company in Lille. I then worked for design and import/export companies, before becoming a corporate identity consultant on the redesign of the Visa logo in San Francisco. After two years, I returned to the UK, and after various roles with London design agencies, decided to pursue my own creative interests.

My father is an academic, which may have affected my choice to become a researcher, but my greatest influence has probably been a lifelong passion for making things, combined with an interest in perception. Having grown up in different countries, I realised that there were many different ways of seeing the world. The greatest encouragement has come from doctors at the eye hospital who felt that I could help them in their work, and the team at the National Glass Centre in Sunderland, who gave me time and space to learn about this difficult material.

Research in the arts is often solitary, but there are others doing similar things who can share ideas and offer support. There’s probably not the same international conference culture as in other research areas, though I have spent time in China, as part of a cultural exchange with a university in Beijing to explore how art and design can help improve quality of life for an ageing population. I am currently planning to go to the USA to take a course in carving and laminating glass.

Research is not for everyone. But for those who do have the determination and passion to pursue an idea to the edge of what is known and then take it just a bit further, it can be incredibly rewarding.

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