Love and Mercy – the Brian Wilson bio-pic in class

Was I sure that this particular film, the Bill Pohlad bio-pic about Brian Wilson of The Beach Boys, was going to work with the twenty-eight fifteen year olds of class V4D? No, not at all. Both our lessons each week are right at the end of the day when pupils are tired and concentration less focused; no, I really wasn’t sure.

But I wanted to show the film because on the surface it ticked many of the boxes that I wanted to refer to in the short film studies course that I offer around this time each year.

Part of the reason for choosing it was that being a bio-pic, the film narrative sits nicely in the global theme that we were dealing with of fact and fiction in the cultural (and in this case in the film) world. But added to this, there were the interesting other issues of:

  • The popular culture of the past being introduced to my pupils
  • The extensive use of music in the film
  • Mental health perspectives being explored
  • The lengths that the filmmakers have gone to, to get the ‘look’ of the film and the actors right

All good reasons to show the film to my pupils and discuss with how the filmmakers involved had set about presenting the story of Brian Wilson to us.

 

Yet sitting in the classroom watching it together I still really wasn’t sure. It’s a fairly long film and we had to spread it over three lessons on three different days, not and ideal setup. If I’m honest, the first 30-40 minutes are a little slow and, for a younger audience perhaps a little confusing as the narrative jumps backwards and forwards between the nineteen sixties and late eighties. Time is spent setting the stage for the main body of the film. That first lesson the class watched with me, they were a little twitchy at times. Sometimes they seemed to be finding Wilson’s unpredictable behaviour funny rather than disturbing.

Were we going to make it to the end of the film, to start with I really wasn’t sure. But I wanted to persist. One of my big aims with the film studies course is to offer material that is outside of the pupils’ normal area of experience. I want to stretch and draw them into new areas, but without going so far that it switches them off.

We returned to the film the following lesson, and slowly, you could see them being drawn into the film. The room went quiet and they became more settled. By the end they were thoroughly engaged and wanting to see how the creeping tension that is built through the film is played out.

Now, two weeks later I am reading the 1000-1200 word essays that the pupils wrote about the movie. I was curious, I felt I really needed the proof, the confirmation that they had enjoyed it as much as I had secretly hoped.

It would seem that my uncertainty about the film was misplaced, almost without exception the reports have been both enthusiastic and well written. A couple of points stand out. The styling of the visual appearance of the film is greatly appreciated. Having shown them a few film clips of the real Beach Boys they see the parallels and the efforts that has been made to create the look of the past and the appearance of the main characters. The focus on the mental health issues experienced by Brian Wilson throughout his life hit home in the minds of the pupils. It made for fascinating reading. The appreciation of the huge difficulties and abuse that Wilson suffered made a very strong impression and undoubtedly broadened their understanding in this area.

 

The film continually jumps from the sixties to the eighties, with two different actors (Paul Dano and John Cusack) playing the role of Wilson. It was interesting to hear which section of the film engaged the pupils most. For me it was Dano and the younger version of the musician. This was partly for the performance, but mostly for the music and the look at the creative process that it gave. However for the bulk of my pupils it was the older phase of Wilson’s life that drew the attention. Why? Well two reasons I think, partly the love story that was being played out with Melinda Ledbetter. But more so for the sense of jeopardy that was being created, was Melinda going to be able to save the hugely vulnerable Brian Wilson from the manipulative clutches of Dr. Eugene Landy?

All-in all reason enough to use the film again next year? The answer is simple, yes certainly.

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Gregory Crewdson: Cathedral of the Pines

The silence is almost deafening. Crewdson’s frozen moments in time are peopled views of small town America on the fringes of the mysteries and secrets of the forest. They are immaculately constructed compositions with a huge amount of attention given to detail both in terms of their technical achievement but more significantly the way in which each of these large-scale photographs are packed with elements that seem to be so consciously placed. Where and who do those footprints in the snow lead to? Why are there so many apples in the grass when there is not a single apple on the tree and what, if anything, has just been said?

In this collection of work at The Photographer’s Gallery in London the human relationship with nature seems often to be present, but is not wild and beautiful nature, it is nature that seems always to disclose a human resonance, a production forest, remnants of a previous human industrial intervention or simply the detritus of daily life left discarded.

The photographs draw a variety of parallels from the simple domesticity of a woman at a sink in front of a window, that has more than a little Vermeer about it, to the visual connections with Edward Hopper’s often equally silent interiors. But it’s more than compositional parallels, the rather dark sense of mystery that hangs around these carefully positioned individuals brings more than just a little connection with my memories of watching David Lynch’s Twin Peaks all those years ago.

But for me, viewing them from a perspective that includes twentieth century Dutch art history I am reminded also of the work of Carel Wellink, with their seemingly film set like sense of reality, a disquieting sharp focus where you struggle to feel comfortable with the view that you have stumbled on.

Crewdson’s work is, for me at least, a fascinating discovery and offer some food for thought for future education based projects.

Jasper Johns at the Royal Academy, London

Jasper Johns’ work has always been an enigmatic presence at the back of my interest in painting. At the art school I attended (Wimbledon School of Art in south west London) he was a figure who regularly enough was referred to. But at the time he was also an artist who always seemed difficult to categorize and place in an art historical context. His early work was a reaction to and a moving on from, the abstract expressionists, taking painting into new areas. Yet in the art world of the sixties and seventies his work never falls easily into any of the dominant directions of the time. There are relationships to aspects of minimalism, conceptualism and pop art, but there are as many differences as similarities.

The retrospective show at the Royal Academy in London only underlines the slightly divergent route that Johns has taken throughout as he has built his own reference library of motifs and symbols that he draws on again and again in his work. Seen as a whole the work feels extremely autobiographical in the end, as he ends up almost coming full circle chasing his own personal and art historical story.

The title of the exhibition is “Something Resembling Truth“. In the early work it’s easy to see an observer at work, and one that questions the visual world around us. He asks us to reconsider the visual truths that we perhaps take for granted but are actually rather more layered and offer multiple interpretations, as in the early flag, targets and text work.

As you progress through the show that is arranged in a roughly chronological order you become increasingly aware that the visual symbolism and references that Johns makes use of are becoming increasingly personal. This might be in the form of being objects and items found around his studio, the trappings of his artistic practice as in the painted bronze that shows us a representation of his brushes. Or it could be the ‘devices’ that play a physical part in the manufacture of the image. Later it might be reference to his friend Merce Cunningham or is fascination with favourite artistic connections, be those Munch, Duchamp or Newman. The artist builds up a visual library that he continues to add to but he gets older increasingly dips back into, to reference himself.

In a sense it is the luxury of an artist of an older generation. Is there a continuing sense of visual exploration and discovery in the work? Perhaps not, or at least not as there once was. Previously the visual content had been refined to create full resolved and engaging pieces. Resulting in pieces, such as Between the Clock and the Bed, one of my own personal favorites, from the series featuring the crosshatching motif.

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However what there is to see in the later work are paintings and prints that reference the artist’s own history, his own visual language and what it is to be an artist with such an extensive personal back catalogue. In that sense the exhibition is certainly offering something resembling truth.

From a personal perspective I do like the way Johns repeatedly explores a recurring motif for an extended period. It’s something I recognize in my own work and something I was encouraged to do back at art school in Wimbledon as a student by the then head of the painting school, John Mitchell…..John was, incidentally, another big Jasper Johns admirer.

Mail art…….a nostalgic return

When I was an art student back in the late eighties and early nineties artists’ journals and magazines used to be full of mail art projects. The need to connect was clearly there long before we all got online. Some of the projects were initiated by large and recognized arts institutions, others were very much smaller in ambition being the work of individuals.Looking back I can’t actually remember taking part in any of it, although I did find the idea of linking up with others in some artistic way quite attractive. I think the problem I had though was that it was all rather invisible and seeing and experiencing the results was always rather a weak link in the process.

Mail art rather faded away with the arrival of the internet. All sorts of online forums offered so many possibilities to share, collaborate and exhibit. This blog itself is of course a good example of this sort of development.

Yet here I am, many years later, in our digital world, enjoying being a participant in a mail art project with a group of creative people spread round the globe. The project involves a black hardback drawing book making a journey from one artist to another. Each in turn fills a series of pages with a documentation of a single day, in whatever way they choose before sending the package on to the next participant in the series.


I received the book earlier in the week with it already having passed through Australia, Vietnam, Poland and Sweden. When I’m finished I’ll be sending it on to the next participant in Canada. Today I’m traveling from my home in the Netherlands to visit my parents who live just north of Cambridge in the U.K. It provides an interesting day to document as I make the trip using buses, trains and the boat across the North Sea.

So what has lead me to participate in the project? Well, Margot, the organizing strength behind the initiative asked me, and others, directly to participate….that certainly helped! But things have changed from the old days of mail art, because the digital world enables us to follow the project, chart its development and in the end to witness the results. A very informal chat group around the project has developed and Margot has set up Flickr pages for the depositing of imagery. All this has undoubtedly helped us all feel an engagement in the project.


Having said all this I was kind of surprised this week by the pleasure of having the book itself drop through the letterbox at home. To sit down with a cup of coffee an read and look at the work of the others in the group and to consider the journeys that these pages, as a visual document, have already made.

I have been adding my experiences of a day as I have been traveling. It’s been interesting to participate, and who knows, maybe there will be some form of a follow up project. I have to admit to having one at the back of my mind.

Surreal sculpture and the challenge of being creative with language

Art teachers are interested in creativity. That’s no surprise really.  We’re interested in squeezing new things and creative approaches out of our pupils in their practical work. Well yes maybe, but even in the most creative of classrooms over-reliance on examples/predetermined models and the pupils’ sometimes insatiable wish to do things the ‘right’ way has to be fought. In this sense, my own classroom is no different.

Occasionally a lesson situation presents itself where the pupils are confronted with an almost infinite number of choices or variables on offer.  It calls for thought, reflection and a spark that might lead to the pupils coming up with something that is their ‘own’, something that is maybe a little more original or creative. It can be a struggle, and a surprisingly difficult situation to actually teach.

This has been the case in a recent assignment I have been working on with my third-year pupils (aged 15 years). It was an assignment that required some creativity in terms of practical activity when the class working with plywood. But actually, the creative core of the assignment was more one of creativity of thought.

The assignment was linked to a series of lessons about Surrealism and involved taking an existing object and combining it with a second plywood constructed object that interacted in some way with the qualities or characteristics of the first object to present a slightly surreal combination. The idea for the assignments stemmed from various artworks like those of Salvador Dali, Man Ray and Meret Oppenheim.

 

 

The idea of placing two objects together or combining them visually is not complex, and by and large the process of constructing the second object from plywood is not too technically difficult. However, the simple act of deciding what to do is surprisingly difficult. Analyzing the qualities of the first object, with a little encouragement generally works out reasonably well. If we take the example of a fork, the sort of which you might find in the kitchen drawer.

A fork is:

Metal, silvery, shiny, hard, pointy at one end, more curved at the other, the overall form is kind of wavy, it’s for eating, for spiking food, comes as part of a set called cutlery, four prongs, fits in the hand, etc, etc.

How then to choose a second object that in some way combines or contrasts with these existing characteristics? That was difficult. It requires something of a ‘eureka’ moment, just a single idea that was going to engage the viewer, like Man Ray’s nails under the iron. Here is the creative challenge. Often I found myself sitting round a table staring at an object with a pupil, waiting, coaxing, edging them towards some possibilities, but at the same time trying to hold back from offering solutions. Testing creativity of thought in this way can at times be something of a painful process to watch!

It the end, in most cases, an idea came. Some rather predictable, others surprising, smart or downright funny. In the case of the fork the pupil settled quite quickly on working with the wave-like form of the fork when seen side on.  He decided he simply wanted to make a ship with masts and sails that by inserting it between the prongs of the fork could ‘sail’ through the wave-like form.

wThe second creative challenge came in the form of dreaming up a suitable title, one that somehow locked in on the complexities of these combinations. Can you spend a whole lesson waiting and hoping that pupils come up with an engaging, perhaps two-word title? Will that flash of an idea come?

The language abilities of my pupils are good, even working as we are in English, their second language. But that is not to say that they are going succeed at this difficult challenge. This stretches their creativity and knowledge of often multiple meanings for words to the limit. In the end, the language component of this assignment is finding just a handful of words, but they are completely integrated with the practical content. It that sense it is a good CLIL (content and language integrated learning) lesson, although not an easy one.

For more of this sort of language assignment read this:

The most difficult assignment of the year?

Second language communication problems in class

Sometimes all you can do is laugh when you are starting to teach a bilingual class using a CLIL (content and language integrated learning) approach. I have a class of Dutch twelve year olds that I have been teaching my art lessons to, essentially in English, for three weeks now. It’s going OK, but obviously there is still a long way to go and a lot to learn. This learning situation does occasionally throw up funny moments….

toilet door

A boy comes up to me near the end of the lesson, pauses, and then carefully asks in his most considered English:

“Mr. Sansom, can I go to the toilet?”

He’s only a first year so we won’t have the “can I” or “may I go to the toilet” discussion, not just yet. I look at my watch, only two minutes to go until the end of the lesson. I reply slowly and clearly:

“There’s only two minutes to go until the end of the lesson, can you wait two minutes?”

He listens carefully to my answer, a serious look on his face, and then smiles and runs out of the door, down the corridor and disappears through the toilet door without saying a word.

The first weeks of bilingual education is full of this sort of misunderstanding, it requires patience as you laugh inwardly to yourself and think “didn’t I just say that?” or “haven’t you been listening”. The truth is that they probably have been listening, it’s just that joining up the gaps in their understanding is sometimes just that little bit too challenging. That will change though, and soon……..

Learning through not understanding? – CLIL (content and language integrated learning) art project

Sometimes you just don’t need to explain……

Yesterday I used a short film in my lessons that I had not used before, ‘Donkey’, from 2011 by Keri Burrows. I said virtually nothing to introduce the film to the two classes that saw it. It’s a quiet and stylish seven minutes in the form of a reflective monologue. Both times I watched a a hushed attention fell over the room. I watched as the class of often quite chatty pupils were drawn in and as the titles rolled at the end the silence hung in the room. There really was little I had to say, the movie’s message, and it does have a serious point to make, had reached them.

Watching this short film was a part of a brief film studies series of lessons for the classes of fifteen and sixteen year olds that I teach. It’s an introduction to basic filmmaking techniques and approaches. I usually begin with a series of short films that highlight various aspects of film craft such as the role of the speed of editing, sound and music, the positioning of camera and so on.

So why had this particular film carried its message so well to my audience? Well, yes it is a stylishly made and in a way quite elegant film. It’s performed in a form of low key realism that is very accessible. But most of all, and without giving too much away, in terms of content it takes the viewer into a world that is only too recognizable to pupils at a secondary school. For all these reasons it is a short film worth watching in class.

For further analysis of the film see the following link:

Donkey – film analysis

 

Surrealism, a sandwich and the start of the school year

One minute you’re in the deserted wilderness of northern Sweden, something of an ultimate of peace and quiet, the next you’re back amongst the heaving masses of pupils pouring into school for the first day of term.

Maybe the switch isn’t literally quite that quick, but still it is a fairly swift step from one to another and it does come as something of a shock to the system.  I move from the calm enjoyment of camping in a small tent in largely undisturbed nature to the rapid startup of a new school year. A moment for a deep intake of breath, head down and begin.

Naamloze afbeelding2

 

I’ve got a few new colleagues to get to know, but a whole lot more new pupils and class groups to familiarize myself with. New relationships have to be built and importantly groups have to be activated and switched on to my lessons, my subject and my style of teaching.  My third year groups (aged 14-15) normally require a little shaking to wake them up at the start of a new year.  I like to make that first lesson a little more memorable. A year ago I wrote about the educational reworking of a Robert Rauschenberg work that was aimed at doing this in the following post:

Grabbing the attention…..and making a point

It’s nice if you get the feeling that your art lesson has succeeded in being interesting and quirky enough to be talked about at the dinner table later that evening. In this case, first impressions are important and worth making that extra effort to grab the attention.

A series of lessons about Surrealism that I teach has offered a variety of contexts to do exactly this lately. I want my class, from the start, to start to understand something of what Surrealism is all about, an unexpected world where things can be rather different to how we might expect. I also want their full attention and I want discussion and engagement from the very start.

One way of doing this goes like this.

As the class are entering the room and sitting down I am busy putting a chair on a table. Without saying anything I climb up and sit down on the chair. The class at this point have often hardly registered that their teacher is sitting on a chair on a table and continue to talk. I reach into my bag and pull out my lunch box, open it and take out a sandwich. I inspect the sandwich carefully. The room starts to get quieter, pupils are nudging one another and starting to look my way. I reach back into my bag and take out a needle and reel of cotton. I carefully thread the needle without saying a word. The room gets quieter still. I then start to sew the two pieces of bread that make up my sandwich together. I continue as long as it takes for the first questions or statements come that I can use to pitch into my Surrealism theme.

The class have had a memorable and engaging start to the lesson, one that they will hopefully remember, but more importantly they are already starting to engage with the idea of what might be considered surreal, we are talking about it and the class are traveling with me into my lesson.

 I’ll be posting again in the coming weeks about what Hywel Roberts in his book Oops! Helping children learn accidentally calls ‘the lure’, the approach of beginning a lesson with an element that draws your class in, turns them on and engages their attention.

 

 

A rarity in education

I have worked in mainstream education for 17 years and I have just participated in something of a unique experience, a three day, uninterrupted training course for the very first time. In fact, since qualifying to teach, I have never had any more than a single isolated day of training and more often than not, any specific extra input comes in the form of just an afternoon clamped on the end of a morning of teaching. The reasons for this restriction is either financial or, and this is more often the case where I work, the fact that lessons for our pupils are cancelled. I understand this reasoning up to a point.  However, really the question in the end is; is the hugely limited and disjointed scope of on the job training in education actually not a far bigger problem than that of a number of cancelled lessons?

As it happens I haven’t been on the receiving end of the training during the first three days of this week. I have been giving the course, together with Cathy, a colleague form New Zealand to a group of ten other teachers from our school who will be teaching in English as part of our bilingual team for the first time after the summer break. It’s been a fantastic three days.  Hard work for all of those involved, challenging for many, fun, engaging, thought provoking and certainly good for team building. The progress made by the group has been amazing to see, confidence has been built and there is a growing belief that they really can teach their classes of Dutch twelve year olds using a good level of English.

The space we have been given this time has allowed us to deliver information, to use numerous didactic approaches, allow discussions to take place, create space for actual lesson material to be developed and presented and above all work on the verbal presentation skills that are necessary for a teacher teaching in a second language. What you might call a ‘critical learning mass’ has been built up and will hopefully be carried forward into the next school year. Way more common in education are training sessions that are offered in an intensive two to three hour session that throw a series of ideas at participants that work as a flash in the pan creating momentary enthusiasm only for the input to largely disapate due to a lack of follow up as the teacher is once again left to their own devices to try and find a way of making use of the material.  I’m a pretty conscientious worker but I recognize this tendency for good input is simply lost because it is offered initially in such an isolated island of training. So what would I propose as an improvement on the current situation? Well, on the basis of the last three days I would definitely say that twice a year, a training session of  two or three days could be fantastic and actually have the chance of producing something truly effective. Yes, the pupils would miss five days of lessons, but if the quality of the education on offer was significantly improved might that ground not simply be made up in another way? Schools have significant pools of experts and examples of good practice, but if we are honest it is mostly only the pupils who happen to be in the right classes who are the beneficiaries. The spreading and sharing of ideas, material and teaching skills is something that all educational institutions probably have to work on.

To bin or not to bin

Am I being over sensitive? It is the end of the school year, maybe I’m a bit worn out by it all, but this is a returning feature of the weeks leading up to the summer holiday.

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The scenario goes like this. After a year of working with the various classes that I teach the chest of drawers and the shelves where I keep their work are getting rather full. The last week of term big clear up is just around the corner and so it is time to return the fruits of our art lessons back to the pupils. We normally do this in a frenzied fifteen minute session during the last lesson but one of the year. Pupils wander round the room with armfuls of drawings, paintings and collages, handing them out to classmates while I take care of the fragile three dimensional work. At the end of it all, each pupil has a small stack of their creative efforts of the past year on the table in front of them.

When I was new to the teaching business I just waited for the bell to go and the class got up and left. I’d then look round to discover a number of rejected ‘artworks’ deposited in the bin in the corner of the room. Like I said at the beginning, maybe I’m just being too sensitive and suffering from end of the year fragility. But after helping and coaxing, maybe less that talented pupils, to produce the best they could, I can’t help feeling strangely let down by the drawings in the bin…….they hadn’t even got through the door of the art room!

I kept all my artworks when I was at school, in fact I still have many of them even now! Although, I should be honest, I didn’t keep my maths, chemistry or biology books!

I can’t make my pupils keep their artistically rejected creations, I realize that. I do try to point out that maybe a mum or a dad back home may be interested in at least seeing them once. Most of the class do depart quite happily and voluntarily with their work, but for those who do plan to bin it instantly, I do have one fixed rule now, they are not allowed to leave in the bin in the art room it has to at the very least make it to the container outside our school. This way, their (perhaps overly sensitive teacher!) doesn’t have to scoop it out of one bin and then put it in another himself.