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.

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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.

garbage-40357_960_720

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.

A tale of two sketchbooks continued…..

An exhibition visit last weekend and a previous post about sketchbooks have prompted me to write this short extension to the A tale of two sketchbooks post of a couple of weeks ago.

Last weekend I visited the Mondrian exhibition at the Gemeentemuseum in The Hague.  In the museum, as well as this blockbuster show there was a smaller exhibition of work by the Haagse School, a group of Dutch artists working in the Dutch capital at the end of the 19th century.  There was a good collection of interesting paintings but actually what caught my attention most were two walls in the exhibition that had been given over solely to displaying the sketchbooks of some of the artists involved.

These small, and very intimate glances into the working process of the likes of Breitner and Israels were quite captivating.  It is the sort of exhibition display that I would like to bring my pupils at school to see.  Direct, small scale and personal, these are visual documents that somehow bridge the gap between the artist and the finished work.  You see a visual connection with the finished paintings, but also, a much more apparent and obvious presence of the artist themselves.  These are after all books that lived in their pockets or bags, objects that travelled around with them and were a sort of personal forum for the development of ideas.

Sketchbooks are important, we can learn much from them.  In many ways, it is a shame that they are so rarely of display in our museum.  There are places online where examples can be found and pages turned through, such as here.

sketchbook

There are also places such as The Sketchbook Project where the drawing books of lesser known artists and creative people are receiving an online place where others can turn through the digital pages.  I’ll certainly be drawing the attention of my pupils to this source of documentation of the creative process.

Mondrian and his edges

As someone who has always been interested in abstraction in the visual arts Piet Mondrian has continually lurked in the background and often enough forced his way forward into my own work. When I think back to my time as a student in London, he was one of the reasons that a few friends and I made a visit to the Netherlands. We visited the Gemeentemuseum in The Hague to see firsthand the works of this influential Dutch master. To be honest I can’t quite remember which works we saw, but it certainly wasn’t as many are as currently on view at the museum. To mark the centenary of the setting up of De Stijl the Gemeentemuseum has dipped deep into its collection and pulled out pretty much everything in order to mount a hugely extensive exhibition that gives a great deal of context and background to the work that brought him to the abstract images with which we tend to immediately settle on when thinking about Mondrian.

This framing of context of Mondrian’s work is further extended by the presence of a second exhibition, Rumoer in de Stad (Tumult in the city), in the museum that focuses on the Dutch artistic world from 1880 onwards, and in particular around The Hague itself.  It features work by the likes of George Hendrik Breitner, Isaac Israëls and Willem Witsen. It creates a clear image of daily and cultural life in Dutch society at the end of the nineteenth century. The paintings and drawings displayed ooze a spontaneity and a pleasure in the materials that the artists were using. It’s easy to allow yourself to imagine the world that these artists moved in and were recording in their work.

It is very much this sort of context that Mondrian was building on when he moved to the city to begin his artistic career. The Gemeentemuseum documents extensively this early work. There are walls literally covered in landscape paintings. To start with they are often painted in a quite restrained way. But sure enough, as you pass through subsequent galleries we see the familiar process of reduction, abstraction and heightening of colour start to take place leading us to rooms of archetypal ‘Mondrians’ from the collection and ultimately to the museums pride and joy, Victory Boogie Woogie.

Anything but graphic

The abstract paintings of the 1920s and 30s have understandably been responsible for securing the Dutch man’s place in art history. The countless reproductions and reusing of the black verticals and horizontals with zones of primary colour have become the something of a trademark. But they have also become way more graphic in our minds than they are. I’ve always been aware of the painterly qualities of Mondrian’s work, it strikes you immediately when you see the original work.

But when seeing such a quantity of paintings as are currently on display you become more aware than ever how important edges between areas of colour were to the artist. There’s nothing graphic or in any way hard.in the early work the edges are soft and defused.  As the world Mondrian chose to represent became more reduced the edges became areas of paint seeminly pushing together to create an edge with very much a manmade tension to it. Whilst drawing tends to focus on line, painting challenges to artist to deal with edges, edges where two colours come together, Mondrian understood edges and how often details occurring on a very small scale can carry important consequences.

6Throughout the whole exhibition you are constantly aware of the hand of the artist, decisions and refinements constantly being considered and worked.  An approach that is perhaps nowhere more evident than in the room with nothing on the pristine white walls, except that is, for the engaging presence that is Victory Boogie Woogie.

 

 

A tale of two sketchbooks

Artists have always had notebooks, drawing books, sketch books, call them what you will, the place where ideas, impressions and notations are set down. The links below take you to records of my own favourites:

Georges Suerat         Richard Diebenkorn

Many artists value them more highly than the actual finished pieces of work, they form a chronological document of a creative life, record a working process, a document full with potential, waiting to be developed.

I can relate to much of that, I have a collection of hard back books of various sizes that go back to my teenage years. To call them a diary would be wrong and create a different sort of impression, however they are records on my creative life and when I open them up I see notations that carry me back to where I was in by creative activities, but often a whole lot more beside. A particular page may conjure up recollections of people I was with at the time, where the drawing was made and maybe particular circumstances that led me to take a particular approach.

However, during the last eight years or so there has been a development in my sketchbook use. I now have two quite distinctive sets of books. The first is a book of plans, doodles, experiments and thoughts that relate to my main studio practice. They contain notations and instructions to myself that will help carry me towards the type of work that is documented in the ‘My own paintings’ link at the top of the page.

Within these pages I am puzzling out ideas and arrangements, recording plans and trying to find my way in this section of my creative output. This is undoubtedly the most important part of my work as an artist. The pages of these books rarely have a very aesthetic appearance, that’s not the point, they are about recording, experimenting and hopefully avoiding dead ends and the pursuing bad ideas when studio time is precious.

Alongside this I have a second set of books. These are mostly a little smaller, A6 or A5 format. I call them my ‘recreational’ books. For that is what they are. The very first one in this series was made in 2009 during a month-long family trip to Orkney in northern Scotland. I decided it would be interesting to somehow record this family expedition. It felt like a big adventure, my wife and me travelling with our children aged 9 and 11 at the time, on trains, boats and buses, with two small tents in rucksacks on our backs.

The resulting A6 sketchbook became filled with forty or fifty drawings and watercolours of the expansive skies and glistening horizons that we encountered. Since this trip I have continued the practice, whenever we travel the latest book comes with me, also if it is just a day trip. I enjoy the process, and over the years I do seem to have got better at rapidly capturing, mostly the landscapes, that we pass through.

So, I have two seemingly quite distinct set of documents in these compact books on my shelves. I have often found myself wondering about other artists who might have similar split creative outlets. One that springs to mind is perhaps Ellsworth Kelly. On the surface, his elegant and deceptively simple line drawings of plants seem to have little connection with the large scale geometric abstractions. But look a little more carefully and the connections are there, lines and edges, intersections and an economy of information.

Like with Kelly’s work, I am starting to feel increasingly that these two streams of creativity do in some ways show tendencies to converge. Geometry in the landscape has always fascinated me. Where is this geometry ever stronger than in the hard edge of the horizon of the sea on a clear day….a scene that I have often enough recorded in the travel notebooks. And more recently trees as a motif are finding their way repeated into the studio work and I would certainly be inaccurate to say that my experiences of drawing trees in the landscape in my ‘recreational’ books hasn’t in some way been feeding through into what I consider to be the ‘real’ work.