Are these the best paintings I’ve ever made?

Yes, I’ve thought that before.  In fact, almost always the most recent work feels like it’s the best.  You are most in tune with the newest creative processes and the ideas attached to them.  But having said all that, these recent pieces to feel like particularly good ones.

I seem to be finding potential of the ideas and approaches that started to take an initial form back in January.  They paintings are slow and labour intensive to make, but the results are good.  Bringing together visually interesting compositions, with landscape, seascape, weather, and the disrupted effect we are having on our environment.

The result……elements of beauty and elements of fragmentation.

Collaboration, social flow and a search for a school vision

This week, together with colleagues I spent a couple of hours brainstorming a way towards formulating a new school mission/vision plan.  Prior to the afternoon I’d already given the subject some thought.  I’ve been doing it quite a bit since the Covid interruptions that started back in 2020.  What sort of school environment do I want to work in, and what do I miss at the moment.

Exam results are a subject that often raise their head in such discussions.  They are a very tangible piece of evidence to the successes or failures in any school.  But an overly focussed attention on this the academic success of an institution often leads to a vicious circle of pressure.  Teachers need to perform better to squeeze the best out of their pupils, pupils need to work harder and focus more on the teachers’ message, and the teachers need to be more aware of the needs of their pupils when constructing their lessons, and the pupils need to make the best use of what the teachers offer them.  It all sounds obvious and sensible enough, but this upwards educational spiral can equally become a downward one where pupils point fingers and the shortcomings of their teachers and teachers lament the failures of their pupils.

Within this educational pressure-cooker the pressure builds on all involved, and in the end reaches into most corners of a school.

One of the things that came out of the productive discussion table I found myself sitting at during the mission statement discussions this week reached into this area.  It touched on areas of well-being and state of mind amongst staff and pupils at school, and how by addressing shortcomings in this area we might contribute positively to relationships between:

Staff and staff

Pupils and pupils

and

Pupils and staff

It’s a personal view, but in the classroom, I generally think that we have too much of a ‘them and us’ view when considering the educational process.  Staff and here to teach and pupils are here to learn.  Of course, this is true to a degree, we are in the process together, there should be more space for a sense of ‘we are doing this together’ as opposed to ‘you have to do this’.

We seem to escape this ‘them and us’ relationship on occasions in education, on a school trip, exchange or excursion, a snippet of doing things together, but get back to school and things seem to change back again.

Togetherness, contact and collaboration were, for me, the key words in our brainstorm session.  Steps towards a greater sense of positive wellbeing, where pupils and staff work together on a better flow of contact that stretches beyond the academic level.  Get this right and it will surely bring its own contribution to the academic performance.

Let me repost an earlier piece I wrote on the artist/educator whose work made me first take steps towards entering teaching.  Tim Rollins knew the importance of working together and the benefits it could bring.

Tim Rollins and collaborative educational processes

A treasure hunt, art history and language (CLIL assignment)

When you make an artwork, I’ve always felt that you need to create some sort of hook of fascination in the work that the viewer latches onto quickly and that will hold them long enough to take a proper, more considered view.  Good lesson material is similar, in that you need to catch the learner’s attention, once you have that you then take them to the content that you want them to encounter and understand.  Below is an example of such an approach.

Over the years I have written a large amount of lesson material, my OneDrive and the various websites that I have created are full of it.  One of the problems that arises with this is that you sometimes forget or overlook something that you made at some point that was good material and worked well.  I rediscovered this week exactly such an example.

With the twelve-year-olds that I teach I include a series of lessons that are centred around Renaissance and Northern Renaissance themes.  For our practical lessons we look at one-point perspective and we make a clay monster inspired by Hieronymus Bosch.  The “forgotten” lesson material though was a little art history lesson based around the Tower of Babel by Pieter Bruegel the Elder from 1563.  I´m not required to teach anything about this particular painting, it certainly isn’t in a fixed curriculum.  This is simply about encouraging pupils to look and to think carefully about pieces of art, trying to show them that art history doesn’t have to be a dry and stuffy place.

The Tower of Babel is great for this.  It has a simple story that is not difficult to understand, it is painted in a very realistic way, but above all, it is packed full of action and detail.  It is this level of detail that is the vehicle for this simple language and art history assignment.

Basically, my aim is threefold:

  • Get the pupils to look carefully and in detail at the artwork
  • Ask them to create language output inspired by the discoveries they make in the artwork
  • Create a fun and playful way of learning that has a gentle form of competition to it using a sort of scavenger-hunt principle

The whole lesson is hung up around the availability of extremely high-resolution photographs of artworks that can be found at various online locations.

Tower of Babel high/resolution image

I ask the pupils to get this image open on their laptop screen and first have a good look round the picture, zooming in and zooming out, taking a good look at everything that is going on.

Then I start my PowerPoint up at the front of the class.  Each slide shows a very zoomed in piece of detail from the painting, along with an arrow pointing above, below or to a side of the detail.  There is also a word, maybe `climbing` for example.  The idea is simply to±

  1. Find the detail in Bruegel´s original work
  2. Look just beyond the detail in the direction of the arrow
  3. Describe or explain what is going on in this `beyond` area, but the sentence that you form MUST include the given word in exactly the form it is given

Returning to this assignment for the first time in a few years it was great to see the pleasure that was had by this particular group of twelve-year-olds, They were searching around a nearly 500 year old painting, laughing at some of the more quirky discoveries they made.  They were enjoying looking at and exploring for themselves a jewel from art history.  Added to this they were also constructing often quite complex English sentences in what is their second language.

I´ll be doing my best not to overlook this half hour activity again next year!

For anyone interested in trying the assignment, my PowerPoint can be found below.

Studio day

Linoprint and watercolour collage

There was actually rather more got done than just this lino-collage. But this one did get finished. An experiment to try and speed up the process development and testing of ideas that can run alongside the current rather labour intensive paintings. This one being a step further on a previous painting.

Faces, names and memories

The 75th anniversary of the school where I work has been celebrated this year.  Reason enough for a whole series of events and activities to mark the occasion.  Without doubt though, this weekend was the big one.  An afternoon and evening filling reunion that in the end was attended by close to two thousand ex-pupils and staff as well as many of those currently teaching.

I’ve taught at the school for over twenty years and so have been looking forward to the event.  I’ve done my part in the preparation work designing posters, display boards documenting the history of the school and coordinating the production of a celebratory artwork. 

But I must admit to not being quite sure how I would experience such a mass event of ex-pupils ranging in age from their early twenties, up to a much more select group over the age of seventy.

After my twenty plus years of teaching at the school, I was trying this week, to puzzle out just how many different children I have taught over the years. I’m not completely sure, but I think the total probably lies somewhere between 2500 and 3000.  Obviously, they weren’t all going to show up, but a reasonably number could be expected.  How would that be?  How many would I recognize and how many names would I be able to drag up from the area of memory where pupils’ names seem to pile up in what feels like an incredibly unsorted fashion?

Looking back on the evening I don’t think that I did too badly. I got some names and failed with others!  I recognized so many of the pupils I’ve taught even with well over a decade having passed in many cases.

Was it a good experience?  Yes absolutely, although at times quite overwhelming.  It did me good to be talking with ex-pupils and hear them recount a small detail of something you said during a lesson back in 2010 that they still remember and has caused them to ponder and think about it on numerous occasions since.  That is what you are in education for, those seeds you can sow and experiences you can give!  One thought I often share with pupils is that teaching art and culture at secondary school level is about giving a little baggage that they will be able to make use of for a lifetime.  One ex-pupil at the reunion said he remembered me saying it and admitted to being a little sceptical as a fifteen-year-old at the time.  But his summer on a visit to Rome and walking through a museum there, he returned in his mind to the lessons.  He found he had a little perspective, a little knowledge that allowed him to find his way into a particular artwork.

Another reminisced about the group artwork we made based of Goya’s third of May painting, another recounted a project that focussed on the Dutch coast.  These are the nuggets of knowledge, experience and enjoyment that get carried away.  The art lessons are in so many educational contexts the ‘odd-ball’ lessons.  They’re different of virtually all the other subjects on the pupils’ timetables.  But that ‘otherness’ is the very reason why they should be there and be taken seriously in every school context.  They offer pupils a different way to work, to think and to experience the world.

Grabbing your opportunities and pushing the profile of the art department

This year is the 75th anniversary of the school where I work.  Reason enough for a large-scale reunion and a series of other events.  Suddenly there are budgets available for things that weren’t previously possible.  And for the art department that meant financing was available for a large-scale artwork to celebrate the occasion. 

Within our department we spent an afternoon pondering what and how we might do this in such a way as to involve the pupils, somehow combine that activity within our existing lesson structure and most importantly of all, make a bit of a large-scale statement!

The result for us was to move the series of lessons we teach about all forms of street art that to the classes of 15- and 16-year-olds, from the end of the school year to the beginning and to get started with the practical part of the project as quickly as possible.

Different teachers approached the practical part in their own preferred way, but the basic idea was to allow each pupil to produce a street art/graffiti inspired artwork and then to combine the elements of many of the designs digitally to produce one combination work for each class involved in the project.  In the end we finished with nine such digital works, on for each class that was involved.

It was at this point the extra ‘reunion budget’ came to help.  We were able to print each design commercially or plastic sheeting measuring 1.5 x 2 metres, making a total artwork that was 18 metres long.  If you’ve never tried such large-scale printing it is worth looking into, it’s not as expensive as you might think.

Once hung up, some inside for the reunion and some outside the ‘big statement’ was made, and the pride of the pupils whose work was included was clear to see.  And of course, we now have a series of bright, largescale works that can be used in many ways and many occasions around the school in the future.

“What did you do to the children?”

…said the British customs team as we left the British passport control in Dunkirk. As the last of our group of seventy twelve-year-olds disappeared through the door, all five members of the customs inspectors burst out laughing.  “You could have heard a pin drop as you brought your children through, we have never seen, or heard such a well-behaved school group, it so quiet” she said between her laughs.

Yes, even seventy Dutch twelve-year-olds can be quiet and serious!

Travelling with large groups of school children has its moments.  The chaos, the noise and the feeling that you are heading a flock of sheep.  But occasionally something like this comes along.

As a teacher it does give you a good feeling to get such a compliment!  Was it our very serious (and possibly slightly over the top) instructions? Was it the uniforms of the serious looking customs men and women staring down from their desks? Was it a bit of both? 

Either way, we were happy, the customs people were happy and the kids were quiet…..what is there not to like?

My first post-Covid and post-Brexit international school trip

This really does seem a note-worthy moment to post. So much has happened in the last three years.  In the autumn of 2019 I travelled with 80 or so pupils and a team of colleagues for the last time, the journey being from the Netherlands to visit the U.K. for just under a week.  It was before the pandemic and before the Brexit deal was finalized.

Now three years later we have just repeated the visit for the first time. This time with two groups, one of 71 twelve year olds accompanied by seven teachers and a secon group of 60, mostly fourteen year olds and five teachers. On the program were various outside activities at the location were we stayed as well as a day trip to Oxford, and for the older children also a visit to London.

Reflecting now, from the comfort of having returned, what is there to say, what has remained the same and what has changed?

We’ll leave aside the fact that our travel agency, who organized the main logistics of the trip, let us down to a serious level,. Leaving us with many situations where we were forced to improvise, be creative or simply hang around in the cold waiting for a bus at five in the morning. But what about Brexit or Covid issues?

The main Brexit difference was that now, every single child is required to have a passport, and not just a EU Identity card.  The extra expense of this change was  born by parents and thankfully due to notifying them of it months in advance presented no unexpected problems.  We were also fortunate to have no pupils in our group with complex nationality issues.  Visa requirements have become significantly tighter since Brexit, this is doubtless a bridge that we will have to cross another time.

The Covid part of the story in the end worked out reasonably well, but did leave us a little on edge at times.  There are no real Covid restrictions to travel between the Netherlands and the UK at present.  However the idea of setting off on the trip with people in the bus who were testing positive was a concern.  We didn’t specifically ask pupils to test, I’m pretty sure that we are actually not allowed to do that.   It was the health issues amongst  the staff that was the main concern.  The days before we travelled, one of my colleagues had two family members at home who were testing positive, what if there were more cases amongst the teachers pop up at the last minute?  We needed the full team, and a fully fit team!  It really is an excursion that needs you to be at the top of your game in terms of health to cope with the 16-18 hour working days.

Right until the morning of our departure teachers were testing, thankfully in the end all with negative results.  Did we have pupils with us who might have tested positive?  Quite possibly yes, sitting amongst us in a crowed bus for hours on end.  Did we have an outbreak of pupils feeling under the weather and maybe ill?  Well, that’s a no, despite the tightly packed bedrooms that the pupils slept in. 

Some colleagues were at times definately a little effected by symptoms that could easily have been a relatively light case of Covid.  Did we test whilst in the U.K.? That’s a definite no.  There seemed little to be gained by knowing. We just ploughed on with the excursion.

All in all the trip as a whole felt remarkably similar to the trip of three years ago. There was a bit more hand washing go on before eating, but to be honest, that is about as far as the Covid measures went. But also about as far as the measures really could go in such crouded conditions. Hopefully we’ll be making the same trip again next year, and hopefully the Covid situation will have eased still further, the situation/rules at the border crossing, given the current state of British politics, is anyone’s guess!

A flying start – migrating into the new school year

It might not actually quite be the start of the school year anymore, but it is in its way a flying start. 

The end of school clear out inevitably means empty display spaces come the start of the new school.  This year I decided to make an immediate splash in the biggest space in the school with rapidly made charcoal drawings of birds made by the fourteen-year-olds I teach.

Now as we head into the autumn season of migration in the bird world, it seems appropriate to share the result online.  It’s not an easy display to photograph well, but in real life the transparency of the paper and the darkness of the images combine for ever changing results throughout the day as the light outside changes.

Good things come to those who wait….

It has been slow, but finally this relatively small painting is finished. Started earlier in the summer with a month-long trip that involved considerable staring out to the horizon on the north Atlantic seas around Orkney, and finished on our return.

Although the idea for the work was essentially in place before the journey north a number of combinations of ideas and occurrences are playing their part in this painting and the steps on to the subsequent pieces now being developed. The countless watercolours made of the Orcadian landscape and coast, the ever-present geometry of the horizon so present around the sea and a treeless landscape. Then there was the visit to an exhibition of Laura Drever’s work at the Pier Arts Centre in Stromness. Whilst her work is considerably less geometric than mine, we share landscape interests and a surprisingly similar way of layering imagery up.

For me the work hints and opens the door further on the series of pieces I’ve been developing since the start of the year. More subtle and sensitive that the brasher and brighter paintings from the spring. More to follow……