From reluctant participant to beaming performer….in just three days

My last lessons before the arrival of the 25 young people from Heart Global I was encouraging my pupils to be open and simply enjoy the three days of workshops that lay ahead.  There was also to be a performance at the end of the third day, but I’m not entirely sure how many of them realised that they ALL would be taking part. 

Despite my enthusiasm, (we’ve had the group in school several times before, but not for the last five years) I didn’t get the feeling that the pupils were convinced.  Complaints came from some that the start of the workshop days were too early and the finishes too late.  Many, possibly most, hadn’t taken part in a performance of any kind since they were at primary school.

Three day later, on the extensive stage of the floor of a nearby sports hall, 140+ of our pupils and the young performance coaches from around the world performed a one and a half hour show twice in one evening and afterwards were beaming about the experience and appeared rather reluctant to go home and bring this three-day cultural experience to an end.

The kids were happy, the parents were happy, and we the staff were also happy.  We had seen our often all too cautious pupils, reluctant to stand out from the crowd, brought to the point where many as well as participating in the large-scale group parts of the show, had also been persuaded to perform short singing or dancing solos.

How had it been achieved, well, I suppose it comes down to several things.  Firstly, the shear exuberance and enthusiasm of the Heart Global group, they simply sweep everyone along.  They support, they nurture and guide.  Pupils don’t feel alone, they feel supported and encouraged.  As one pupil put it, it was like it was peer pressure in reverse, refusing to participate became strangely ‘un-cool’, or put more positively it was cool to participate, and everyone did, even if, in the end, they found their favoured place to be towards the back.

What did they learn from the experience?  Certainly, that stepping outside of their comfort zone can in the end be exciting and give you a tremendous buzz.  Then there is the fun of working on part of a large group project can result in creating something impressive that is so much more than a collection of individual efforts.  Also working with other young people who are just so enthusiastic about what they do, this really is a beautiful aspect to see.  The pupils may not go on to become any sort of performer, but they will have learnt so much about themselves, about others, about passion and enthusiasm and what it is to stand on a stage.

So much of school life is classroom based and focused on academic performance.  Let us not forget the importance of formative experiences like this, they are hugely important…..even if the pupils at the start don’t think that they need the experience.

…..and that is why cultural activities in schools are so important.

“Just why does English have so many collective nouns?” – revisiting a collective noun drawing assignment

“Just why does English have so many collective nouns?”…….was the question from one of my 14 year old pupils.  I had to admit to not really knowing how to answer.  The pupils I teach are Dutch and in comparison, the Dutch language does seem to have very few.  Especially when it comes to groups of animals, it almost feels like one day a group of people just sat down and decided they would think up as many as they could.

We’ve all heard of schools of fish or flocks of sheep. But there are also some wonderfully imaginative and surprising ones like a murder of crowsa parliament of owls or a bench of bishops. There are various online sources where you can find lists of all the possibilities and believe me, there is a huge choice. Wikipedia is one such source with a very extensive list.

You can also find explanations that link the vast range of collective nouns back to hunting terminology of the 14th and 15th century.  I not sure that I can follow this connection in quite a lot of the examples, but to be honest that doesn’t alter my creative plan for this corner of the English language.

Turning the collective nouns into a creative assignment is a relatively simple process.  The idea is straightforward, provide the pupils with one of the extensive lists of collective nouns to choose from. Give them time to consider plenty of possibilities. The assignment is to produce an illustration of the collective noun and the accompanying text.

The language learning aspect of the activity is perhaps not excessively high. It does however highlight one of those areas of language that you tend to get to grips with last when you are a learner.

It does also result in material that could be put under the copy machine and used to decorate the language classroom.

A couple of language extensions of the assignment could be:

  1. Write a short story or poem that incorporates the collective noun that you have illustrated.
  2. Or maybe a little more playful…….consider and create collective nouns that don’t actually exits yet.  For example, what would you call a group of YouTubers, a group of talent show contestants or a collection of children on their first day at a new school?

Women with attitude – Jan Veth at the Dordrechts museum

It’s perhaps fair to say that the work of Jan Veth is not widely known outside of the Netherlands, and even within the Dutch art world the names of his contemporaries such as Isaac Israels and George Breitner are more often found in the museums.  All the more reason perhaps for a large scale gathering together of Veth’s work, which is exactly what can be currently found in the Dordrechts museum.

I don’t often go out of my way to see an exhibition that is almost entirely portraits.  But I did know enough about the artist’s work to know that it might be worth the trip and give a look into the faces and lives around the artist in the at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth century. 

This is of course a period of huge changes in the art that was being made in Europe. The waves made by the Impressionists, Post-Impressionists, Cubists and others were sweeping across the continent. Jan Veth though was ploughing a very different furrow.  Originally, he showed more interest in becoming a painter of the landscape, but became increasingly drawn towards portraiture making paintings, prints and drawings.

Walking around the exhibition there is an extensive collection of the artist’s work that the curators of the exhibition have brought together.  Many of the paintings are quite formal the in the poses chosen, particularly when the subject is a man, although the couple of examples I’ve included below are rather the exceptions to this rule! 

But it was the paintings of the women in the exhibition that I found myself returning to.  These seemed to offer something rather different.  Whether it was his three sisters posed sitting size by side, the stunning side on view of Maria Veldman against a swirling green background or the intensity of Davida Wilhelmina Hacke staring out at us the viewer, these are women and paintings with attitude.  They look at us or past us, but either way, it feels like they know that we are there, and I think this is the reason I enjoyed the confrontation with them, because it did feel like a confrontation, not just a one-way encounter.

Scaling it up……studio progress

The paintings I’ve been working on for a while now are starting to look like a series.  One leads onto the next.  I don’t experiment so much along the way.  Whilst working on one new ideas or variations arise that may subsequently become the basis for a future painting.

The current chain of work is following very much that pattern, but I have recently been working on a scaled-up variation of earlier pieces.  It takes a little longer to complete, but also adds the possibility for greater complexity and delicacy in the layout.  With a little more time on my hands this week I’ve been able to push it the 120cm wide painting to completion.

Essentially the work is three seascapes overlayed on each other.  A sea horizon cuts across, perfectly horizontal, a second corrupted/disturbed horizon seems to follow, but doesn’t follow, the apparent folds in the composition and on top of everything is a swirling, churning sky bringing its own unrest.

The templates are cut for the next in the series, which will no doubt in due course follow.

Art and student debt – Mart Veldhuis in Dordrecht

I have two children who are currently working their ways through their respective university/art school stages of their education.  They are having a good time but building up a student debt seems just as much part of student life as late night parties, early morning lectures and passing assessments and exams.  Fortunately, we have been able to offer reasonable financial support in order to keep a bit of a lid on the size of the debts that they will finally head off into the working world with as a kind of unwanted piece of academic baggage.

Sadly, though many of our young people reach their mid-twenties with large levels of debt.  With this situation in the background, it was interesting to take a look at a tapestry that is currently hanging in the Dordrechtsmuseum in the Netherlands.  It is made by the young Dutch artist Mart Veldhuis and is titled Eigen Schuld.  The title doesn’t translate well and literally means “Own fault”, but schuld doesn’t only mean “fault” in Dutch, but also “debt”, and it is the “Own debt” that is the crucial point here.  The artwork is for sale.  The price?  Well, that’s the exact level of the student debt that Veldhuis built up in his years at college…….€45.879,40 (that’s about 50000 US dollars.

The whole point of the artwork is to draw attention to the levels of debt that our young people have as they enter their post-study world.  The two large lions seen in the artwork are symbols for the Dutch state, the financers of the debts.  Spread between and around them are images and symbols of the student life Veldhuis experienced, the supermarket, the shortage of suitable housing, the costs of daily life and so on. 

The making/manufacture of the artwork itself was to a degree crowd-funded, presumably to limit the costs involved (and of course ultimately the cost of the artwork when it was finished!).  It is a stylish object; it catches your attention as you find your eye scanning the chaos of imagery. 

As yet the artwork hasn’t found a buyer, and so, Mart Veldhuis still has his debt.  Will it sell?  Only time will tell, but the artist has contributed significantly to the debate, and simultaneously created a stylish and memorable artwork.

Edward Hopper, stories and content and language integrated learning

The work of some artists just screams out for us to start speculating about what is going on, what is being said or thought, what is the backstory or what has just happened.  The work of the twentieth century American artist Edward Hopper is one such example.  His lonely scenes seem loaded with hidden narratives playing out between the characters pictured.

This fact has resulted in the excellent book In Sunlight or in Shadow: a collection of short stories inspired by Hopper’s paintings and edited by Lawrence Block.   It was also behind the 2013 film, Shirley: Visions of Reality directed by Gustav Deutsch. The film draws heavily on the Hopper style and atmosphere as well as framing up of specific images in the fictional narrative of the actress Shirley.

With these sorts of encouragement in the background there were plenty of reasons to turn my attention to Hopper’s work in my art lessons. I was curious to see if my groups of fifteen-year-olds would find the, not so hidden, narratives as accessible and intriguing as I do.

I needn’t have worried, as soon as I put the first image on the screen the discussions started.  We’d watched a short film about Hopper, his work, and his relationship with his wife beforehand to provide a little context.  But with that as a starting point, the class were only too happy to dive onto the internet and choose an image that they were going to focus on for this art, research, and story writing project.  The only restriction I placed on the work that they could choose was that it had to be a painting with either one or two people in it, I felt this would be most useful when we got to the writing stage.

With an image chosen by each individual pupil several steps followed, most of which were done in a purpose made “Hopper research/drawing book”.

  • A short Hopper biography was written
  • A portrait of the artist was drawn
  • The chosen painting was analysed for its compositional and artistic qualities
  • The atmosphere/mood was described, along with any dialogue that may have been being said, or thoughts that seemed to be being considered in the image
  • A small-scale pencil drawing of the painting was made
  • A large-scale ink drawing was also made
  • A photographic “restaging” of the composition was made

By the time all these steps had been completed it is fair to say that the pupils knew their own chosen image pretty well, and in many cases had produced an excellently filled research book.

But it was the last step that for me truly brought art and language together.  The assignment was simple, write a very short story that could accompany be Hopper painting that they had chosen.  The limit for the story was to be a mere 100 words as a maximum.  Very short and to the point! I gave them an example that I had written, based on this image.

Enough was enough.  It was time to leave.  Day after day, week after week, always the same story.

So many good intentions.  She just wanted the best for them.  But that arrangement didn’t seem to work in both directions.  She feels drained and empty.  The bus leaves in a matter of minutes.  Is she doubting her decision?  Yes, absolutely, it wasn’t meant to end this way.

Today pushed her over the edge.  Those angry words, the raised voices, a slammed door.  Her mind is made up, there is no going back, teaching isn’t going to be her future.

A couple from my pupils……

It’s always good to look back and reflect on your lesson material.  This was a first time run through of a new idea.  There are certainly aspects I want to work on a little for next year.  But generally, these are relatively small things that refer to the way I teach/introduce the various elements, the content was essentially good.

The story idea remains the central part for me, with it being so short I think (rather usually for me) I may be tempted to get them to hand in an initial draft version for a bit of feedback and the chance thereafter to refine and improve things before the final version is made.  It would seem only fair to try and iron out a few small language issues, as the pupils are writing in English and not in Dutch, their first language.

The luxury of a project week, but the balance has to be right!

The fragmented nature of the school week, with in my case lessons of 60 minutes, often rather dictates what’s possible and what’s not.  A chance to work on a project for a more extended time doesn’t come along so often.

A project week, without the regular timetable offers so many possibilities.  Things that perhaps simply aren’t possible in a series of shorter sessions, or a chance to press on more rapidly to carry a project or theme much further than you might normally do.  Yet, despite such potential opportunities, often the results of a project week don’t make the best of these chances.

When I first entered education, I was told, ‘get your lesson material right, and the rest will normally follow’, a project week is no exception to this rule.  Sometimes judging the amount of time needed by pupils to complete their tasks can be a challenge and with the quantity of tasks needed to fill a whole day of activities.  But above all what seems to be crucial is variety in work forms, along with a series of cut-off points where a new phase in the project begins.

I have just designed and completed a project that ran for two four-hour sessions.  It had a series of inter-related, but distinctively different parts to it and focused on a number of themes and skills:

In a little more detail these steps ran roughly in this order:

By the end of the first day, all the manipulated photographs were presented in a signal digital artwork.  The second day offered a longer session focusing on two activities, but the pupils involved had to choose only the one they felt most drawn to:

The group I was working with was a class of 32, academically strong 13 and 14 year olds.

Looking back at the project and having discussed the way it ran with the pupils themselves, I see only very minor adjustments to be needed for a future rerunning of the assignments.

Below are the results of the project, the 3D design work, using as a design tool still have to be printed, but the documentation of the results shows how well the pupils picked this up.

Should you be interested in the specific lesson material I used for the project, don’t hesitate to get in touch, I’m happy to share it.

Slow, slow progress, but the results are good

Two weeks ago I visited the Vermeer exhibition in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. Just fantastic to see. The famous Dutchman is only too well known for his slow rate of production, but also his fine labour intensive way of working. I don´t want to draw parallels between Vermeer and myself, but it does make me feel a little better about how long it seems to take me to finish a painting. Today one reached completion, reason enough to share it.

The progress may be slow, but the results are good and do seem to be starting to form a quite rich and well-resolved series. There is undoubtedly more to be achieved in this area, so hopefully more will follow.

Vermeer in the Rijksmuseum

27 years after the last great Vermeer exhibition, on that occasion in the Mauritshuis in The Hague, it is now the Rijksmuseum with opportunity to draw an even bigger selection of the Dutch master’s work together.  This time twenty-eight paintings are assembled for this sell out show that runs through the late winter and spring in Amsterdam.

Even being incredibly familiar with Vermeer’s work, seeing it assembled and grouped like this throws up surprises.  The View of Delft held my attention in a different and perhaps better way than it does in its normal home in The Hague.  The lighting of the work was maybe better, and the overall luminosity of the painting just fantastic.

Having spent several years making work about the place that Vermeer’s work has gained in art history I try and see the artist’s work whenever the chance presents itself and booked my ticket early.  The museum has found itself trying to find the balance between wanting to give as many visitors the chance to see the work, without creating a situation where seeing the work once you’re inside is inhibited by the sheer size of the crowds.  I chose to visit in one of the later afternoon slots and as a result, heading towards closing time, often found myself alone I front of paintings, which if I think back to my visit to the Mauritshuis in 1996 was a huge improvement.

The Mistress and Maid painting from the Frick Collection in New York is a beautiful image.  Larger scale than most other similar works and a painting of contrasts, intense darkness and glowing light, crisp sharpness and soft focus, a whispered moment between the lady of the house and the servant.

Then there is the recently restored/altered Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window from Dresden.  Last time I saw this painting the cherub painting on the back wall was still hidden under a layer of paint that had been added later.  Compositionally it is a greatly altered image.  An unusual experience to have in front of such an icon from art history.

But yesterday, for me, there were three stand out paintings. A Woman holding a Balance, Woman with a Pearl Necklace and Lady Writing a Letter with her Maid.  All three share a delicacy that you find in most of Vermeer’s work but seem to just take it to a level further.  The extreme fineness of the rendering of the fingers, holding, writing, expressing, seems to be important here, at least to my experience of the work.  The exquisite restraint and stillness come to its absolute high point in the way the woman in the darkness of her interior delicately supports the barely visible balance above the luminosity of a row of pearls.  Just fantastic!

Night School – an online (and in school) exhibition of where I work

A few weeks ago, as a sort of trailer for this post, I published a single drawing I had made of the school where I work.  Now the full set……

Night School

I have worked at Maasland College in Oss, the Netherlands for more than twenty years. I teach, I paint in my own studio at home, I draw when I travel, and yet in all that time I have never made a drawing of my workplace. Time for a change! A few months ago I started with a first drawing. Happy with the result, I continued. It then became a series of nine drawings of different corners of the school, based on photographs I took early on winter mornings when it was dark outside and the corridors were empty, almost, you could say, a kind of Night School.

The school community will be able to see the exhibition firsthand, everyone else will hopefully enjoy the digital version here.

They are a little different to the images that I normally make, but certainly form a good set.  You can find these drawings and other series of my studio work at my recently renovated website: