How FE took this student on an emotional journey

30th October 2015 at 00:00
Design course encouraged him to turn heated tweets into art

Every year, thousands of people attend further education colleges to train as bricklayers. But Stephen Fitzpatrick took a different approach: after working as a bricklayer, he attended college to become an artist.

Now his unique work has won him an award and opened the door to a career in the creative industries.

The 27-year-old used data gathered from 35 million Twitter posts to create artworks depicting emotions ranging from anger to anticipation. He completed the work for his final-year project on an art and design BA at Forth Valley College.

Mr Fitzpatrick, from Denny near Falkirk, returned to FE after leaving school at 16 for a career in the construction industry. Having never felt settled in his job, he decided to go to college to take an Access to the Creative Industries course.

He then moved on to Forth Valley’s BA programme and graduated with flying colours earlier this month – thanks in part to the success of his final project.

The college has named Mr Fitzpatrick “most promising student in a creative industry”. His work has also attracted the interest of major broadcasters, who are considering using his techniques to illustrate how large groups feel about issues.

Mr Fitzpatrick’s success comes as FE colleges in Scotland are providing an increasing amount of higher education. According to figures published by the Scottish Funding Council, there were 31,827 enrolments on full-time HE courses at colleges in 2013-14, compared with 25,938 in 2008-09.

Mr Fitzpatrick told TESS: “I really loved computing and art in school, and if you bring those two together you get graphic design. I decided to go back to college, and as time went on I really fell in love with it.

“My time at Forth Valley College was some of the best years of my life. While I was there, we moved into new facilities, so everything was state of the art.

“The people at Forth Valley were very supportive, and really tried to get the best out of you.”

Joining the dots

Mr Fitzpatrick worked with emotional data analysis company Elumini to create the artwork. The Stirling-based firm uses complex algorithms to categorise tweets according to their emotional content.

Choosing eight main emotions, Mr Fitzpatrick turned the complex graphs derived from the data into art made up of dots representing events, people or specific words, with lines connecting them. These were then superimposed on to coloured backgrounds intended to evoke different emotions.

Mr Fitzpatrick explained that his designs, based on tweets collected around the time of the general election earlier this year, showed that the art form could be “very topical and tap into the emotions of millions of people around one issue”.

“In particular, tweets about Labour were scoring very highly in every emotion because they took a bit of a hammering,” he said. “This evoked lots of negative emotions such as anger and disgust, but also prompted positive ones such as trust.”

The data analysis tools Mr Fitzpatrick used allowed him to connect the patterns and networks that were being created with what people were saying and how they were feeling.

Colin McGeoch, curriculum manager in creative industries at Forth Valley, told TESS that Mr Fitzpatrick was “an exceptionally capable artist who has a promising future ahead of him”.

Mr Fitzpatrick had made “significant progress” since starting at the college, Mr McGeoch said, adding: “He is a dedicated student who took steps to change his life through education. Stephen was a modest student who took criticism on board and used it to continuously improve his practice.”

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