City Lit Blog

City Lit stories – Marsha Dunstan

Story added 8th Oct 2018

Marsha Dunstan photographing in Regents Park, London, April 2018, as part of her 'Pink Tree' series (Photo: Dominic Harris)


My City Lit – Marsha Dunstan

‘What would you really like to do?’ That was the question that went round the table one evening in 1997. “I think I’d like to draw,” I found myself saying. “Go to the City Lit,” suggested a woman called Rachel. I’d not met her before and to this day I’ve never seen again, which is a pity because I’ve never got to thank her for what turned out to be life-changing advice.

I enrolled in a six-week Saturday morning Introduction to Drawing, with no real expectations. The first five weeks were unexpectedly messy (my first encounter with charcoal) and technically interesting (perspective) but I still wasn’t too sure about it. Then, on the final day, a naked model strolled into the classroom and suddenly there was a real reason to pick up my stick of crayon. I got my first glimpse of how a life class can be just that: a class about life, a meditation on being human. I had unwittingly crossed the line from art consumer to maker. 

For the next three years, I took a life drawing or painting class one evening a week with Kate Wilson or Simon English, rushing from work in a newspaper office to the calm and concentration of the studio. It was a place to experiment and learn and to enjoy the companionship that grows out of working together with other students. The experience of learning and making was exciting – and incredibly satisfying. Things began to get serious when I took Simon’s Portfolio Drawing course. “What am I going to do next?” I asked at the end. “Go to art school,” replied Simon, writing a list of colleges on a torn-off corner of the Evening Standard. 

I’d dropped out of university as a restless 19-year-old. In my late 40s as a part-time student, art school was gripping, expanding and humbling. My thinking and what I learned to call my practice shifted. I wasn’t going to be the painter I’d hoped to be. Instead, I found that I could make some of what was in my head with the camera. So began a long, crab-wise learning process that has sent me back to City Lit repeatedly to learn many of the necessary practical skills and gain a broader understanding of what making lens-based work entails: advanced Photoshop, digital printing, Lightroom, video, sound and studio lighting. My tutors have included Matthew Ward, Pete Gomes, Lily Markiewicz, Kimmo Moykky and Michael Harding. Like all City Lit tutors I’ve encountered, they are expert, creative and patient, teaching ‘with’ you rather than ‘at’ you; but at the same time they are always exacting, nudging us students along to achieve our individual potential. When I finally left my full-time job because it interfered with art, I took an Excel for Beginners course so I could do my own bookkeeping as a freelancer.

All this has helped me adapt to the radical changes in journalism, my first profession, brought about by the decline of print and rise of digital and online media. Thanks to City Lit, I went on to gain a BA and MA in fine art. I now earn my living through a combination of writing and editing skills and art-based ones: building websites, providing editorial services and documentation for other artists, and exhibiting my own work.

I am hugely grateful to City Lit for giving me so many of the tools to change my life.  

Marsha Dunstan, 2018