Caroline Walker – Windows – KM21, The Hague

Four years ago I visited an exhibition in London of photographs by Gregory Crewdson.  It was an interesting body of work of often lonely figures, framed by windows, glass and reflections also playing a part.  Before visiting the Caroline Walker exhibition in KM21 I wondered whether I might find some parallels.

Gregory Crewdson at the Photographers’ Gallery, London

Superficially there were some connections the framing devices and a certain voyeuristic peep into the domestic life of others.  There were links too to Edward Hopper.  But the bleak desolation of Crewdson and the melancholic loneliness present in so much of Hopper’s work were significantly absent in my experience of Walkers large and beautifully painted canvases.

Even when the themes of the paintings were the maids and cafe waitresses these images seemed to be presenting and observing simple moments in time.  It doesn’t feel like the artist is passing judgement.  It is more an observation of time and space.  We the viewer are left to contemplate and reflect on the situation.  They are paintings of our time, with the face masks being worn by the ladies in the bread shop.

In some of the compositions there was more than a little Vermeer to be found. Quiet domesticity, but above all-in a carefully constructed composition that had numerous grids, dividing lines and boundaries worked into the structure of the paintings, bringing more abstract qualities to the layout.  Bars of colour along an edge seemed to often provide an illusionistic bridge between the pictorial spaces of William’s interiors and the interiors that we occupy when viewing the work.  At one moment I found myself struck by the connection of the artists mother viewed through the kitchen window and the museum guard standing just a few feet away staring out of the gallery window.

These are paintings with simply a great deal to see and a great deal to enjoy.  I loved the fluency and liquid qualities of the brushwork, but above all I loved the contrast that the careful division and sub-division of the painting into areas and zones.  Windows, doorframes, edges of walls and windowsills are all put to work to bring a geometric order to the domesticity that has been depicted.

Cooperative and collaborative learning – lessons from the artroom

Arguing, discussing, instructing, squabbling…..call it what you will, it is all communication.  And communication is a crucial and live part of any classroom and in particular the bilingual classroom.  Here we are encouraging the pupils to practice and use the second language (English in my case) as they participate in my art lessons.

A well-constructed group/collaborative project forces communication, discussion, and consideration with others.  I often find myself saying to the Dutch teenagers I teach how much I love when I hear them arguing in English, it underlines how far that they have come in their mastery of a new language.

A well-constructed collaborative project may have relatively modest artistic aims but could have a very significant goal in the use of clear and concise communication within the group.

A class reworking of Guernica using collage of war related images and text

Such projects are a work-form that I have made a lot of use of over the years, I found myself hanging one up on the walls in school only last week.  But beyond the communication issue there are several other educationally sound reasons to be making use of such projects.

  • The result is ‘greater than the sum of the parts’ argument and a chance to produce something big with a wow effect!

There are many reasons why in art lessons we often find ourselves working on a relatively small scale.  Storage limitations, costs of materials, time pressures, large classes, the necessity for pupils being able to take work home with them, they all play a part.  A group project allows the pupils to see something different.  A large-scale project spreads across the classroom floor at the end of each lesson, slowly taking form and seeing how their own section of it contributes to the big visual statement that is developing.

  • It seems to force the underperformed in the group to up their game

Every class has them, the pupils who are content to do just enough in their work to gain a (just) sufficient grade.  It continues to surprise me how working within a group project, where their contribution is visually so obvious, the result is often that these very pupils feel the pressure to up their game.  There is, it seems, nowhere to hide, rather different perhaps than with a written group project. 

  • It shows pupils that often very complex and ambitious work is possible if it is broken down into smaller parts…..rather than feeling overwhelmed by the challenges ahead

This is perhaps most a benefit to those who are the more interested in art and want to produce the best possible results in their own visual work.  They suddenly realize that given time, and perhaps a slightly more systemic approach than they might usually use, could lead them too towards making more impressive and resolved individual work.

Tim Rollins and KOS

And on a personal note, it allows me to borrow from an important art educational influence, one who is responsible in part for me making the step into working with young people, Tim Rollins and KOS.

While I was still studying for my fine art degree, I watched a documentary about Tim Rollins and the Kids of Survival.  At the time I didn’t really have any plans to enter education, but the film gave me a glance into what might be possible.  I found it fascinating and inspiring.

About a decade later I was lucky enough, while doing my teacher training course in Utrecht, to observe a guest workshop given by Rollins to other students.  If there was ever anyone able to demonstrate the power of the group project it is Rollins, and a fantastic example of the “result is greater than the sum of the parts” argument I mentioned earlier.  Fantastic to see, and for a teacher in bilingual education, all the more inspiring for the way in which language, text and literature found its way into the work.

Tim Rollins and KOS on Artsy

Fifteen years on…….

Around fifteen years ago I made a series of drawings that were prompted by the increasing awareness of the storm clouds of climate change gathering on the horizon. Alongside this was the feeling that society and our leaders were showing little inclination for action. A human trait you might say, we prefer to sit on the edge of, or swim in, the comfort of our metaphorical swimming pool while the sky turns, grey, purple and black. 

We hide from the confrontation, preferring to seek the security of short-term comforts and pleasures.

My drawings weren’t complex, I’ve always thought that this was the strength of these particular pieces. The isolation of the apparently tranquil pools in the turbulent landscapes around them.  In other pieces figures stare into the pools that are in fact an Arcadian and idealized visions of the world, lifted from the history of art.

I spent Saturday on the streets of Amsterdam, along with 45000 other marchers, calling for greater action on the more and more pressing problems that climate change is bringing.  As I walked, I was thinking of these drawings in particular. I was also reflecting on whether I actually wanted to spend the day in over-crowded trains and walking with thousands on the streets with Covid cases again on the rise?  No, absolutely not. I would have preferred to have been at home, amusing myself in my studio perhaps. And there perhaps lies the problem, we all prefer to do those other things. We all prefer not to have to confront difficult or uncomfortable challenges. We can all do small things to contribute, but perhaps more than anything else we need to get our leaders to act and as a society we need to elect those who are prepared to act.

Today is the day to take my drawings out of the drawer and send them back out into the world, they are as relevant as ever.

Prussian Blue…..it can take over a bit

When I was at art school I made a number of drawings where I masked off with tape a geometric shape on a piece of paper.  I then took pure Prussian Blue pigment and rubbed it into the masked off area.  I pushed the colour in hard and the result was a razor sharp form (once the tape had been removed) with an inner area of the deepest, darkest quality that absorbed light fantastically and had an almost velvety surface.

Every since I have had a bit of a soft spot for Prussian Blue, I’ve used it from time to time, but as a colour it can have a bit of a tendency to take over. It’s intense qualities being on the one hand really attractive to use, but at the same time you find yourself trying to keep it in check.

Today was such an occasion.  When I travel around I often take one of my small drawing books with me.  These are mostly filled with rapidly made watercolour sketches of landscapes I encounter.  These in turn feed into my studio work, recently in an increasingly direct way.

I don’t pretend to be a great watercolour painter. Generally I only use the medium on a very small scale in my notebooks.  Today I found myself on the Dutch north coast on a somber day, with grey clouds racing across a heavy sky.  The paints and notebook came out of my bag.  It set to work on a series of rapid sea horizon sketches. I love making these sorts of images, fluid colours and flows, held in place by the taught horizon line across the double pages of the drawing book. 

Today though was different for one small detail.  Yesterday, my much preferred Ultramarine ran out.  In my small box of paints, just twelve colours, I was forced to dip into the rarely used Prussian Blue.  Cautiously at first I mixed.  The first painting reflected this caution.  In the second the depths of the blue started to become more apparent.  In the third it threatened to get completely out of control and had to be quickly neutralised with some Raw Umber. 

The results are a set of paintings that took perhaps twenty minutes to make, but are surprisingly different to those I have recently made. They are also paintings that I think may well end up being useful once back in the studio.  Today, necessity was the mother of invention and Prussian blue crept back into what I am doing.

A flash back to my place in the classroom as a teenager – creating a safe learning environment

Last week we had a teachers’ study day at school.  A day off for the pupils and a day to work together with colleagues without too many distractions.

The theme for the day was ‘Didactic coaching’, or put another way, improving the flow between pupil and teacher, clearer instruction, clearer feedback, and better understanding of the educational processes at work from both sides.

Photo: Wendy de Jong Thijssen

One particular aspect of the day has lodged in my mind in the intervening week.  It was related to the themes discussed I suppose, although didn´t get a specific time or place for debate.  It relates to the need for a `safe` classroom climate, a climate where all individuals feel secure in the knowledge that successes and failures are both part of the process.  Safe in feeling that getting a question wrong, or your work being used to illustrate a maybe less successful aspect than you may like, is acceptable, and as I said, all part of the group learning process.

Why did this point hit home for me last week?  Well, that has to do with the sensation I experienced when involved with a group discussion involving all 100 or so of my colleagues.  At this point our guest speaker was posing questions to us, his audience, and asking for us to reflect on and share our thoughts.  He was doing this in a perfectly reasonable way.

But here’s the thing, in such circumstances I find myself doubting, have I interpreted the question correctly?  Is my answer relevant?  I find myself wondering whether my mastery of the Dutch language (my second language) is going to let me down or has led me to misunderstand what is being asked (I should say that this is possible, but probably rather unlikely nowadays)?

With these doubts kicking around in my head I find myself sitting rather uncomfortably……just as I used to as a rather shy teenager in the classrooms of my secondary school.  It was quite a confronting flashback.

The experience has left me pondering how many of the pupils in my own classes might be experiencing something similar.  Are there children just waiting and hoping not to be chosen to join the discussion?  Or are the learning environments that I create more open and relaxed? 

I’ve asked small groups in my classes this week for their thoughts and views in this area.  The initial reactions are thankfully good.  But I’m only too aware that children often feel a pressure to give the socially acceptable answer and that, in effect, criticizing the teacher is probably as hard as it gets!  So, I’ll be probing again this week.  I like to think that everyone feels that I treat them equally and openly.  We spend time laughing together, sharing stories of what is going on inside and outside the classroom.  I think this all helps, but I’m not yet completely convinced and will be trying to speak some more to the quiet, shy ones this week.  The ones who I recognize parts of myself in!

Finally “Viva la Frida” opens!

Back at the start of 2020 I made a plan.  It was for the group of adult amateur painters that I coach and guide in their creative activities once a week.  As a group we also make an occasional trip out to see an art exhibition that I feel would be both interesting and in some way aligned with the group’s own painting activities. Last year we visited the David Hockney and Vincent van Gogh exhibition at the van Gogh museum in Amsterdam.

My plan, back at the beginning of 2020 was that, as a group we could make a trip to the Drendts Museum in the northern Dutch town of Assen, to see the planned Frida Kahlo exhibition, Viva la Frida!, due in the autumn of 2020.  Without telling the group, and as way of introducing them to my plan, I set them a small painting assignment. 

I used one of the iconic portrait photographs of Kahlo, enlarged it and cut it into vertical strips, each about 40 cm tall by 2 cm wide.  To accompany each strip there was a wooden panel, larger (about a metre tall), but of the same proportions.  The task in hand was simple, use the blurry strip of black and white photograph to make a comparable blurry monochrome painted strip on the wooden panel.

To make it a little more technical I asked the group to do this using oil paints but making no use of black when mixing the grey tints that we needed.  The purpose here was twofold, firstly to challenge the group to experiment broadly with the mixing of chromatic greys, but secondly to result in more variation across the panels when the final composition was assembled.  One would hopefully be a slightly bluey mix of greys, another with more red and another with perhaps a purple edge.

We made a start, and all was going well. 

But then along came Covid-19, lockdown and the weekly painting sessions were suspended.  The painting was half finished, my painters still didn’t actually know what it was they were painting, but at this stage I told them the whole story and what my plans for the autumn had been.  In the meantime the museum in Assen had also had to change their plans.  The Kahlo exhibition was cancelled, or rather suspended, and finally opens its doors, today 7 October 2021!

Our group reconvened back in September 2020.  Meeting as two smaller groups, strict social distancing in place and returned to the business of painting, and getting our Frida Kahlo painting finished. 

Can’t see the trees for the drawings – the start of the school year

All the work was actually done at the end of the previous school year.  In fact, a significant part was put in place during the tail end of the last lockdown that we had in schools here in the Netherlands back in the spring as this previous post documents:

Preparatory tree project work

But once back in school, with whole classes back together, what started as a walk in the countryside and photographic assignment, could take on a more ambitious drawing and painting character.

The idea was relatively simple. I wanted, after months of disruption and children following my lessons on their laptops and iPads at home to do a fairly loose group project that would deliver a result that was significantly bigger than the individual parts.  It was also obliquely connected to the Surrealist’s Exquisite Corpse drawing game where elements of drawing connect vertically without one part actually being made with the intention that it should seamlessly connect.

Our ‘corpses’ weren’t to me figures, but trees. Linked together by a vertical trunk that ran through the drawing.  The pupils had spent time outside looking at trees and photographing them.  We had made small digital collages connecting various sections of diverse trees into an arrangement that hinted at where we were going.

But still, the greatest challenge was to get the pupils (14-15 years old) to loosen up a bit and dare to start on the relatively large-scale drawings I was asking them to make.  To help reach the point where we got quite high contrast drawings there was really only one material to use and that was charcoal.

After a few nervous minutes at the beginning the class soon got into it.  I kept hammering on about daring to draw and being a bit aggressive in their mark-making.  Also, I kept again and again repeating to make sure that they got different scales of mark in the drawings, from the thick and lumpy trunks to the lace-like finest twigs and everything in-between.  We used the photographs made earlier as a reference point to make sure that nobody slipped into the ways of drawing trees that they may have used when they were at primary school.

Charcoal delivers fast results, and it was very quickly clear that the drawings that were being made have qualities that were going to mean that my hopes to make a larger group display of them was likely to be a possibility. 

The speed of the drawing process meant that in subsequent lessons we moved onto similar work, but this time drawn out in paint.  The pupils were working with a freedom that I rarely see, not just from the ‘artists’ of the class, but pretty much right across the room.

The resulting work now hangs in the hall at the main entrance to the school, backlit from the light outside and against a backdrop of real trees.

A bilingual start to the year – art and language workshop

It has become a regular day out in September for me.  A trip to the Merlettcollege in Cuijk to spend a day with the new bilingual class giving them the full on immersion experience of a solid day of intensive English language use and practical activities.  It is a day that makes use of a whole variety of approaches designed to unlock the pupils prior knowledge in the areas of language and art and to stretch them into new areas.  My own use of English, and only English, is chosen to try and prevent the pupils slipping back into Dutch and by only slightly modifying my own use of vocabulary I hope to stretch the class into new areas that are perhaps just a small step beyond their current level.  This does mean that perhaps the pupils occasionally miss a small part of the instruction.  But then, we all miss pieces of instruction from time to time even when we fully understand the language used.   But it is in this way, where we struggle to make the very best use off our current knowledge, that the learning process is often at its most effective. This sort of ‘in at the deep end’ is at the basis of the bilingual classroom and where it really comes into its own. 

This year’s group in Cuijk was been a good one. A class of 30 twelve year olds who are just two weeks into their bilingual journey and receiving the main part of all their subjects at school in English for the first time.

It was rapidly clear from initial reactions from the class that it was a day where I would be able to work at a considerable pace.  I was making few extra adjustments in my teaching.  Many of the day’s activities had a game-like quality and the pupils were only too pleased to play along and show off their knowledge and ability in English.  We talked about art, we wrote poetry, we discussed journeys and travelling and we drew pictures, bouncing freely from one activity to the other.  The day seemed to fly past.

I have two personal favourite activities from those I used. Firstly, there is the Haiku poetry writing where I can stand back and watch the children searching through their own English vocabulary, whispering words to themselves and counting the syllables of each possible word on their fingers, looking for the perfect fit for their poem.  Then there is the picture drawing activity when someone else is describing what you have to draw. This second activity always brings a lot of laughter with it, whether it is me describing and the children drawing or the other way round.  Both variants involve pushing the language abilities into new more precise and descriptive areas and connect this with picture making….the ideal combination for the bilingual art teacher!

Reverse Perspective 2

Two years ago I wrote a couple of posts about a drawing project that I had done with groups of 12 year olds using a technique where the rules of perspective are flipped around and the paper used is folded a little to produce surprising illusionistic results.  The original posts can be found here:

Reverse Perspective LINK 1

Reverse Perspective LINK 2

Since then two things have happened.  Firstly, the posts have gone all over the place, I discover then time and again online.  The idea certainly seemed to catch the attention of many involved in art and education.  And secondly I have been playing with the ideas for other variations using the techniques involved. 

Just under a year ago I finally had the new version ready to try in class, but during that very same week a lockdown arrived and I just couldn’t see how the complexities of the assignment could be made to work in an online/do it at home sort of a lesson.  As a result I moved on to other plans. 

During the early summer though, we were back at school and it was time to try again.  Like the first version the drawing makes use of essentially a form of one-point perspective drawing and a little paper folding.  The construction and drawing involved is perhaps just a little easier this time round and the results slightly different.

This PDF offers a short cut to the drawing that is needed and can be printed out or redrawn by pupils (my preferred way) during the lesson.  The two small dots are the vanishing points that need to be used for the drawing of objects on the opposite facing wall.  The areas shaded blue ultimately need to be cut away before the folding of the paper can be completed and the two tabs glued behind to create the three dimensional construction.

Like with the original version the best illusionistic effect of the results are achieved when making a film of the resulting work.  For a next time, (as always you learn things as you go along!) I’ll be offering more guidance on how to draw tiled floors so that they fit more convincingly into the illusion.  You live and learn!!

International educational opportunities in the time of Covid

I grew up in the UK and I didn’t cross borders into another country until I was fourteen, on a school trip to France.  Education has an important part to play in broadening the perspectives of young people.  Many schools (including where I work) promote themselves on their international activities and relationships.  Exchanges, trips and cross border projects and activities are all part of the packages that are offered.  Internationalization in education is as important as it has ever been to broaden understanding and appreciation between different cultures and traditions. 

Yet in this Covid influenced world (and in my own Anglo/Dutch Brexit influenced context) the challenge is just how to do this.  We have school trips from the Netherlands over to the UK lightly pencilled in again for this school year.  Whether these plans come to fruition remains to be seen.  I’ve just made my own first trip across the North Sea for twenty months.  The preparation and research of how to do the journey took me the best part of two days to finalize and has involved multiple forms and declarations and the booking of no fewer than three Covid tests for a four day visit. If things are still so complex when the time comes for our school trip, I can’t see how we will be able to organize things, not for the staff, and less still for the pupils. 

Logistically, international school trips have always been complicated, but what is now required is of a completely new order, the travel landscape has changed.  Where and how educational internationalization fits in to this, at a time when international cooperation and understanding is as important as it has ever been, is unclear and a massive challenge. 

How can we give our pupils real international experiences and firsthand relationships when it is such a struggle to do it for ourselves as adults?  The days of traveling with whole classes will surely return, but in the meantime can we afford to let the international component of our education slide amidst the rush to get our general education back up to speed after all the interruptions of the last 18 months? 

There’s no quick fix here, but surely there are possibilities.  Smaller, less ambition steps that, given time and the right structure, could develop real educational value.  A few years ago, I worked on a modest border crossing photographic project that linked my pupils with a group in Finland to produce some collaborative work.  I’m hoping to run a similar activity with others schools this year in a language/writing/painting and drawing project.  I’m also pondering other creative projects that might link pupils’ drawings together and result in an internationally touring (amongst the schools involved) art exhibition. 

These are in comparison with a full-blown week long exchange with a return visit later quite small gestures.  But with the right framing they aren’t meaningless or without consequence.  Our pupils need to see, understand and engage with the world beyond their own safe and familiar environments.  We must find ways or edging them beyond their own little worlds, even in these Covid restricted days.