Well-being and the arts (part two)

A couple of days ago I posted some thoughts on the significance of the arts and their general contribution towards our sense of well-being. I’ve had various pieces of feedback in response to it and I’d just like to share a couple that seem to connect so well.

blueart

Firstly, a quote from Brian Thorne, Emeritus Professor and Director of the Centre for Counselling Studies at the University of East Anglia in Norwich.

I count it essential that I visit the sea frequently, that I train my eye to observe the intricate design of trees and plants, and that I make friends with animals.  What is more, I am horrified if I discover I have let a whole week pass without having read a poem, listened to music, visited a beautiful building or feasted my eyes on a work of art.  I know that I need to do these if I am to cultivate a sense of deep connectedness to all that is, and, more importantly, if I am to retain a sense of awe and wonder at the marvels of creation, whether natural or human.

Secondly, a short film that relates more specifically to my work to encourage pupils to choose creative subjects to study whilst at school. The Tate Gallery in London has produced a film that addresses many of the points I try to make, plus a few more.

A couple of days ago I posted some thoughts on the significance of the arts and their general contribution towards our sense of well-being. I’ve had various pieces of feedback in response to it and I’d just like to share a couple that seem to connect so well.

Firstly, a quote from Brian Thorne, Emeritus Professor and Director of the Centre for Counselling Studies at the University of East Anglia in Norwich.

I count it essential that I visit the sea frequently, that I train my eye to observe the intricate design of trees and plants, and that I make friends with animals.  What is more, I am horrified if I discover I have let a whole week pass without having read a poem, listened to music, visited a beautiful building or feasted my eyes on a work of art.  I know that I need to do these if I am to cultivate a sense of deep connectedness to all that is, and, more importantly, if I am to retain a sense of awe and wonder at the marvels of creation, whether natural or human.

Secondly, a short film that relates more specifically to my work to encourage pupils to choose creative subjects to study whilst at school. The Tate Gallery in London has produced a film that addresses many of the points I try to make, plus a few more.

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Well-being and the arts

Around this time of the year, and every year, I am involved in an advertising campaign.  My third-year pupils (aged 14-15) are busy pondering their exam programme choices.  It is the point where pupils have to choose which subjects they will continue to study to exam level at the end of their Dutch secondary education.  Pupils in the Netherlands take a still very broad collection of subjects through to the age of 18, so you would think that there would be plenty of scope to choose an arts subject.  This is indeed the case, virtually every student could find the space for art in their timetable.  So why the need for an advertising campaign to push my subject forward and encourage it to be chosen?

Untitled

It is an effort to win hearts and minds of those in the classroom (the children themselves) and those beyond (parents and colleagues).  It is, broadly speaking, a two-pronged attack.  Firstly, and perhaps more obviously, there are the children would have particularly strong and well-developed abilities where just maybe the studying of an arts related subject may help them in their route into further education and ultimately a career.  In these cases, I don’t have to do too much, they enjoy the subject, they want to extend themselves and they want to see just how far that they can push themselves.

The second group however, potentially a much larger group, is a much harder sell.  They too may well have a high level of artistic ability and interest.  However, somewhere, even at the age of fifteen a decision has already been made that an arts subject is a wasted and unnecessary choice on the railroad to their future and prestigious career.  The idea that everything has to be in the service of their future university study and career is a deep-seated one.  It is a perspective that is undoubtedly pushed by over cautious parents wanting the ‘best’ for their children.  But it is also reinforced all too often by the general advice that is consciously or unconsciously given at school.  This is the playing-field for the art department’s advertising campaign.

To this group of pupils my message is normally pretty straight forward to deliver; it is perfectly acceptable to choose a subject to follow for three years simply because you like and enjoy it.It might give you a good feeling, it offers a different perspectives and activities to many other subjects on the timetable, it broadens you view of the world, it combines theory, practical, creativity, design, social issues, history and so much more.

Would I dare to add to this that it can increase your sense of well-being? Well maybe, and I wouldn’t be alone in doing this:

British Doctors May Soon Prescribe Art, Music, Dance, Singing Lessons

It is ironic that the views that are presented in this article (that I whole-heartedly support) run counter to the difficulties experienced in the arts, be that the pressures creative subjects are under within educational institutions or funding towards our broader arts organisations across society.

The arts as a wide field of creativity offers so much to those directly involved as artistic practitioners, but infinitely more to the broader public.  Those of us involved at all levels of the cultural world shouldn’t be shy in pushing our agenda, it is a constructive and at fulfilling one. 

Two further articles exploring this area:

The arts and medicine

Medical schools and art classes

Abstraction for teenagers

When I was doing my teacher training, I distinctly remember one of my art history lecturers arguing that abstraction was simply not something worth exploring with teenagers in their early teenage years.  Figurative art was the way to go, being more accessible, more linked to a narrative and simply more of an open door to them.

I would certainly acknowledge that figurative work is a more straight forward route, but to leave abstraction out of the picture seems to me to be a neglection of rather too much of the art of the twentieth century!  Each year with my classes of 14-15 year olds I launch into a quite extensive series of lessons that explores abstraction from a number of different directions.

I can’t pretend that the first session is often greeted with some bewilderment, but as the lessons and assignments progress there is an increasing realization that there is serious work to be done and artistic decisions to be made.

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I normally start by drawing parallels with the world of instrumental music (lyrics being way too much of a distraction).  Music is closer to their world of experience and discussions around rhythm, expression and emotional tone are all easily possible.  Also matters of personal taste can be explored. I use various music fragments to set the ball rolling, challenging the pupils to react with line, shape and tone to pieces ranging from the most minimal of Brian Eno compositions to pastoral classical music and techno rhythms.  Each fragment produces its own distinctive results.  The door towards abstract compositions swings slowly open.

We explore directional flow around and towards focal points in abstract arrangements. Graphic qualities in design, chaos and order, both working on paper and in digital work.  We have also explored step by step processes of abstraction from a figurative starting point, moving slowly away from pictorial conventions. We have also worked with street maps as a starting point towards working towards a much-abstracted version that has often become essentially unrecognizable.

When working around these themes I often refer to the work of Frank Stella, and this year couldn’t resist the chance to dip into his work to explore the differences between illusionistic form (through the cones and pillars relief pieces) and the real three-dimensional space that these huge constructions have.

All-in all there seems so much to explore and experiment with and I have to say that often after a little initial scepticism there is an increasing focused engagement and they start to understand the considerable possibilities and freedom that these assignments offer.  Do they miss the narrative?  My impression is that they don’t really, they just focus on the choices and options that are on offer, and they are undoubtedly more knowledgeable and technically able at the end of the module.

 

Pupils and their accessories – the ‘coffee’ cup

Is it just me, or do the pupils at my school seem to have a new accessory in their hands in the corridors and outside the classrooms?  Is it a new status symbol, a sign of who you are?

A few years ago, this would doubtless have been their mobile phone, but now everyone has one of those.  No, it’s rather more lo-tech than that.  I am seeing twelve and thirteen-year olds standing around waiting to go into lessons holding a disposable drink beaker from the coffee machine.

coffee1

We’ve had such a machine at school for ages.  Pupils have often sat around in the breaks drinking a warm beverage.  But something a little different seems to be going on.  I can’t say I’ve ever noticed them nonchalantly standing outside the classroom still holding (an often seemingly empty beaker). It might be my imagination, but it does kind of feel like this is some sort of performance. Are they trying to emulate or simulate something than they have seen elsewhere?

On my way to school each morning I am used to seeing the commuters grasping their first coffee shot of the day.  But my pupils won’t have made the same observation on their bike ride to school. Could it be that they want to be like their (incredibly cool) teachers who are regularly seen walking the corridors with a tea or coffee on the way to the next lesson?  I have to say, that also seems rather unlikely!

coffee2

I can’t draw many other conclusions other than to think that it is a somehow linked to all those informal celebrity photos of this star or that star snapped walking down the street clasping their own personal favourite brew.  A flat white or a macchiato for our pupils? No, I know for sure that the machine doesn’t dish out anything so exotic.  In fact, I would go further and say that it is still the age old favourite sugar shot of hot chocolate that they are buying.

 

An ex-pupil, art history and medical observation

It is always nice to run into an ex-pupil. It doesn’t normally make much difference whether they were a model pupil in the classroom or not. It doesn’t take long for enough water to have gone under the bridge to allow a nostalgic reflection on school or even individual lessons to be easily shared.

A while back I ran into Philippe, an ex-pupil from four or five years ago. Philippe always enjoyed being creative in the art lessons at school and indeed probably most other things that she did at school. After graduation she headed off to medical school.

As an art teacher you hope that you have given such a pupil some cultural baggage that will in the future be relevant or maybe even useful to a young person as they grow up. In the case of Philippe I don’t think I ever really doubted that. She was serious, curious and creative in class. Things would undoubtedly fall in place in the years ahead.

Even having said all that, when I ran into Philippe in the train a short time ago, I was still surprised and interested to hear a connection between our art and art history lessons at school, that we were reminiscing about, and her medical studies. She had been returning to looking at art as a part of her course. This might seem a little unexpected but there are precedents for it at Stanford medical school and others.

On her course, like at Stanford, art history was being used to hone and focus cognitive and observational abilities.

Sarah Naftalis, one of the art historians involved at Stanford outlines a few of the key points of this interdisciplinary overlap and how the “productive ambiguities of art,” as well as the benefit of engaged, close looking without “rushing to assign meaning to what we see.”

Topics of the course included narrative, body in motion, skin and tone, and death, with doctors from the fields of family medicine, orthopedics, dermatology, pathology and anesthesiology leading each session.

“Bringing medicine into the space of the museum was a great aspect of the course — simply allowing different bodies of knowledge to exist under one roof. The medical students would sometimes use clinical vocabulary or concepts to describe works in the gallery, making for an interesting range of language in our discussions.”

Contributes Yinshi Lerman-Ta, another art historian involved in the program.

One important takeaway for him from the course, was learning to observe without jumping to interpretation. “I was surprised at how strong the impulse was to interpret the work, before I had actually observed the entire piece,” he said. The exercises the instructors led us through, describing what we saw objectively without commentary, really forced me to slow down and really see what was in front of me, without jumping to conclusions or interpretation.”

Sam Cartmell, medical student.

Sections above from:

Stanford medical school article

These sorts of medical/cultural overlaps are further explored in this Artsy.net article (along with broader discussions related to other medical benefits an involvement with artistic and cultural practices bring:

Artsy.net article

As an educator, and in particular as an arts educator, you never quite know where the cultural foundations you are laying may take your pupils to and what future relevance may be found. Once in a while though, like with my discussion with Philippe, you catch a glimpse.

Patience and discovery…

When time is short, particularly studio time, it is difficult to remain patient.  The feeling that every second counts as you try to squeeze creative time in amongst other, mostly work related, activities is a challenge.  This is particularly the case when you are learning new skills, skills that you need before interesting results might roll out.  The question of whether you are investing time that in the end will prove fruitless always nagging at the back of your mind.

 

lino

This is very much the case when it comes to printmaking.  Whilst an art student I spent a little time in the print room learning the basics.  Since then though, well, nothing at all. Earlier in the year I bought myself a small lino press because I suspected that my current  work might offer some possibilities to produce some prints.  I’ve had a few sessions making some initial attempts, with limited success. Today I have been busy again, and for the first time I have looked at the results and thought that there are indeed possibilities to produce some interesting images.  I’m not there yet, but am on the way I feel.  More patience and more experimentation in the weeks ahead, maybe we’ll get there.

Remember this…the reverse perspective?

 

I’ve had a lot of interest in my previous post about reverse perspective. I’ve promised a number of people that I’d try and post some more detailed instructions, so here they are:

Firstly a few basic facts about how I worked……

  • I was working with classes of twelve year olds (of higher than average academic ability)
  • All in all it took about three hour long lessons to complete

Materials:

  • A4 paper, 120-160g drawing paper (it needs to be thick enough to hold its shape once folded, but at the same time not so thick that accurate folding of the paper becomes a problem)
  • Pencils, erasers, rulers
  • Coloured pencils…..as always, the better the quality, the better the colours and results!

reverse perspective diagram

Click on the link below to download this file as a .pdf that is suitable for printing

Reverse perspective diagram

I have included an A4 printout diagram here, I didn’t give my pupils anything that was printed out, I preferred to draw it all on the board at the front, step by step and explain as I went along.

The printable has all the lines that play a part in this assignment on it all at once, the PowerPoint that I have added shows a step by step series of photographs of the order that I carried out the various steps. Click on the link below for the PowerPoint.

Reverse perspective

I’ll be interested to hear how you get on if you give it a try.  Incidentally, the illusionistic effect works better with:

  • Strong colours in the drawing work
  • When multiple ‘rooms’ are lined up together

Good luck!

Peter

Reverse Perspective

Every year in my first year classes (12 year olds) I touch on the principles of perspective, at least in its one point form. We do a little art history, take a look at Masaccio and Mantegna. We make a drawing, or a painting that in one way or another makes use of one-point perspective. There are of course lots of ways in which this can be done.

Mostly for my own amusement I mix things up a bit on a yearly basis, and also a bit dependent on just how complex I dare to make it with a particular class (although it has to be said that with some classes the term vanishing point seems to refer more to an ability to follow instructions than a place on their drawing!).

This year I decided to tackle head on an approach I’ve pondered doing for a couple of years now. It makes use of the three-dimensional ‘reverse perspective’ that British artist Patrick Hughes employs. Like perspective itself, it is a bit of a visual trick, but one that invites us to look again and question our interpretation. Whether we are looking at the resulting artwork for real or on film, in summary everything seems to not be quite as you would expect.

The drawing assignment begins with an essentially quite straight forward piece of one point perspective of an interior space. The receding lines along the top and bottom of each wall converging at the vanishing point. The most important alteration in this familiar setup is the wedge in the gap between the wall and floor or ceiling (see link to a model below, where the light blue parts need to be cut away). By removing this wedge you are able to fold the paper so that a sort of pyramid form is made, one that has had its point cut off. This can be folded in such a way that the back wall of the drawn room is forced forward. In effect it sets up a conflict between the visual illusion of the drawing that places the back wall in the distance, and the physical reality of the three-dimensional form that has been created that places the same back wall actually closer by. It is this conflict that makes the illusion so intriguing.

reverse perspective2

The pupils this year followed the instructions carefully, added colour and folded. The results had something of a magical quality for the class. Judging by the number of views of the films that I made of the work and posted on the school’s Instagram account it had a fascination for many others too. Try it for yourself!

reverse perspective

Word of the day….”lethargic”

lethargic

“What does lethargic mean Mr Sansom?”.  An interesting question from my class of Dutch fifteen and sixteen year olds who have had three and a half years of being taught in English as part of their bilingual education.  Three and a half years of English and yet somehow they hadn’t yet come across the word ‘lethargic’.  It’s surprising really because it is undoubtedly a highly appropriate word to describe them as a class. I was teaching them during the first lesson of the day (8.20 am-9.20 am). As a class they are completely up to date with their homework, the quality of the written and creative assignments that they do are, whilst generally not being truly memorable, certainly acceptable.   

So why am I complaining?  Well, as I pointed out to them this morning, teaching the class whilst not being difficult in terms of general order, does feel a bit like having your fingernails pulled out or maybe dragging a dead weight up a hill.  It is painfully difficult to get an opinion out of them on anything, and as the subject I teach them is about unlocking opinions or art and cultural issues I find myself at a bit of a log jam. 

So what’s going on?  Well, a number of things probably: 

·         It is 8.20 in the morning 

·         This is a class of the more science related children, the culturally orientated ones are in a parallel class 

·         It is a class that is a mix of two classes from last year, a mix that somehow never seems to have come together 

But I think for me, in my lessons, the problem comes down to a maybe extreme case of a common problem amongst fifteen and sixteen year olds.  They simply spend a lot of time thinking and worrying about what their peer group thinks of them. 

They are only too happy to make a remark under their breath to friends sitting in the vicinity, but outing and opinion to the whole group, certainly if it about the lesson material, seems to be a bit of a no go area. 

I could just carry on, we’d get to the end of the year OK. But I like my classroom discussions, at least I do when I’m not having them by myself.  Discussion is also good for their English and brings extra insights to the themes we are dealing with.  The teaching challenge is there for the weeks ahead.  Having taught them the word ‘lethargic’ today it is time to move on to ‘engaged’ and ‘contributor’. 

I see the class twice a week for an hour, so there are opportunities enough to experiment with different approaches.  I fact, I’m seeing them again today.  However, by a strange twist in the roulette wheel that is a new timetable for the second half of the school year, I’ve ended up with the class on two successive days at 8.20 am. Sometimes the flow just seems to be against you!