February has been grey. It’s had wind, a lot of wind and rain. I find myself looking out of the window. I don’t mind the view of leafless trees, it has been a recurring motif in my paintings and drawings for a while. My drawing book is close to hand, but encouraged by my daughters increasingly digitally manipulated creatI’ve work I find myself reaching for my iPad. It’s early days but my attention has been awakened.
I don’t teach any nineteen year olds. Mostly the oldest young people who end up in my classroom are sixteen and occasionally seventeen. I like most teachers try to encourage my pupils to try their hardest and to be ambitious in what they are trying to achieve. My role as a teacher is to help them see what might be possible and to aid them in reaching those goals.
Today I have visited the Bernini and Caravaggio exhibition at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. I hadn’t anticipated leaving the exhibition reflecting on what teenagers can achieve. But it was a sculpture of Saint Sebastian that in many ways caught my attention the most. It presents the problem of how a sculptor, carving into marble, has to deal with the technical challenge of including the necessary arrows piercing the young man’s body and that of course on top of representing the human figure.
The sculpture was perhaps about 80 cm tall, in terms of ambition and spectacle very modest in comparison to the large scale sculptures by Bernini that can be found in Italy.
So why did this particular cause me to pause and reflect, you may have guessed the reason already. The sculpture was created when Bernini was just nineteen years old. It was of course a different time. The young Bernini would have already had a several years experience of learning the technical strategies and techniques needed to create such an image.
Sculptors like to point out that the sculpture is simply in the block, be that marble, wood or sandstone. Seeing that and subsequently being able to find and reveal it is a tremendous challenge of insight, technical ability and spatial awareness, and in this case all realised by the hands of a nineteen year old. I may show the image to the pupils I teach. Will I dwell on the fact that it was made by such a young man? To be honest, I’m not sure yet!
Below are further images from the exhibition by Bernini, Caravaggio and others.
Sayings and proverbs are one of the last areas that you seem to get to when learning a language. My own experience in this area certainly confirms this. I’ve been learning Dutch for over twenty-five years and I still rarely feel confident enough to casually throw a Dutch proverb into things I’m saying. Having a full and complete understanding of both the phrase itself and when it is appropriate to use it isn’t easy.
Some proverbs are sometimes a little familiar when you come from an English background or are relatively simple to work out the meaning of them. Phrases such as “Er schuilt een addertje onder het gras“, translates easily as “there is an adder hiding in the grass”, something that you should obviously watch out for and avoid the danger if you can. However, others are confusing or just plainly weird! Maybe they do have a logical history somewhere in the past, but for me, they just feel like a language obstacle waiting to trip me up. A couple of examples of this category could be “Zo gek als een deur zijn” (as mad as a door) and “ik schrik me een hoedje” (actually means, it scared the wits out of me, but literally translates as “you scared me a hat”).
I’m certainly no beginner with the Dutch language anymore, but still, this area of language does feel a bit like a communication minefield that I enter at my peril!
With this in mind, and as a sort of language orientated art teacher I have recently reused for the first time in a while a creative project that gets my pupils to think a bit more about the extensive collection of proverbs that there is in the English language. Many of these are every bit as odd as the Dutch examples I’ve mentioned. But to make my creative activity a bit more fun I combine it with an idea based on artist/designer Graham Rawle’s Guardian column from a while back, “The Lost Consonant”. In it Rawle took a sentence and removed a single consonant from one of the words that resulted in the meaning of the sentence being stood on its head and gaining an often ridiculous or plain silly alternative. This new version of the sentence was then accompanied by an equally silly collage that illustrated the new, twisted version.
My assignment, that I use with the (14-15 year old) pupils works in a similar way. Except I ask them to choose an existing proverb or saying from the English language and make use of that as a starting point. We make use of the many websites that there are that list plenty of possibilities together with their meanings.
Then the challenge is two-fold. Firstly, find one where the removal of a single consonant can stand the meaning on its head. In this way “Barking up the wrong tree” can become “Baking up the wrong tree” or “Caught between two stools” becomes “Caught between two tools”. Whilst doing this it is equally important to keep in mind that an entertaining collage also needs to be made that illustrates the new version. We do this using photo-manipulation software on an iPad, but it could equally be done on a desktop computer or with scissors and glue.
For me the assignment has several interesting elements:
- Developing familiarity with a difficult area of language acquisition
- Playing with language and looking for humourous possibilities
- Creative opportunities for communication through manipulated imagery in the form of collage combined with text
Although I am an art teacher, I certainly don’t see this as an assignment that should be limited to the art room.
For more of Graham Rawle’s work click here.
Earlier today I posted this picture. Several people have asked for instructions on how to make it. It’s not too complicated, and can also work well without the earth appearing to be in the hole.
It does need a large piece of paper, or several pieces joined together. I did the bulk of the practical work together with a class of fifteen year olds.
Click here, Hole in the ground instructions for full instructions.
A year ago I posted about a reverse perspective project that I had done with the twelve year olds that I teach. It is fair to say that the results of the three dimensional drawing assignment (based on the work of the British artist Patrick Hughes) seemed to trigger considerable interest, and I continue to experiment with other ideas in a conmparable direction.
I have always been interested in the geometric in art and the tensions between two dimensions and three dimensions, illusionism and perspective. These interests have regularly found their way into my own artistic practice.
The reverse perspective project of last year certainly played into this area, and other recent art projects have done so as well. The two examples here are certainly not approaches that are unique. One relies on a form of perspective correction that is often used in street art drawings, and the other has some small scale similarities that makes use of how we view photographic images.
The larger ‘hole in the ground’ work that I made together with one of the class of 14 and 15 year olds that I teach. I used it last week at our school open day to draw people into an exhibition space of other artworks made by the pupils.
I hadn’t anticipated the success of the idea, and had people queuing out the door, waiting to be able to come in and take their turn at being photographed on the edge of the artwork. A PR success for the school and hopefully the art department too.
A couple of weeks ago I wrote about wanting to tempt my pupils to think outside of the box a little when working on their fashion design project during the forthcoming weeks (click here for post).
I mentioned the work of Dutch designer Iris van Herpen. I’m familiar with her work from films and interviews, but had never seen any examples first-hand.
Last week I visited the Textile museum in Tilburg (in the southern Netherlands) for the first time. There was an exhibition of designs that made use of lace and related them to the history of lace in the fashion industry.
For me it was an Iris van Herpen design that stole the show, and if we are to be picky, it didn’t even make use of traditional lace. But it did make use of a digital, geometric latticework made on a laser cutter, using extremely thin skin plywood to create an amazing result.
As someone who has always liked a bit of geometry in their art and has an interest in digitalization in creative areas, there really was nothing not to like! Added to this was the way natural materials had been used in such a delicate combinations.
I left with a few ideas that potentially may one day find their way into my own drawings and paintings. I’ve been working a lot with web like masses of lines recently, van Herpen’s work has some interesting parallels to draw on.
The first of January, and a first drawing for a new year. Most years I start the year with the intention of drawing more. A kind of unofficial resolution to myself. Some years it is more successful than others. This year I can post the first drawing of the year on the first day…although to be honest it was started earlier and just finished today. However, a second variation is well underway.
It’s quite a somber image, quite fitting for the grey, misty chill outside this particular 1 January. Although it also has to be said that the bush fires that are burning in Australia at the moment and filling the news the silhouette tree motif that I have been using for a while now seems to be taking on an increasingly environmental charge.
I remember looking at Rob van Koningsbruggen’s work when I was an art student around 1990. He was held up as an example of a type of abstract painter who was much admired by teaching staff at the college where I was studying. He had taken on board in his work the lessons of American abstraction of the mid twentieth century without losing his European roots. Better still, he belonged to the Dutch lineage of abstraction.
I have regularly come across examples of his work in Dutch galleries and museums, but today, when visiting the Kunstmuseum (formerly known as the Gemeentemuseum) in The Hague I have seen a full-scale museum show of his paintings for the first time.
They were a succulent collection of canvases from the past decade of the now 71 year old painter. The paint and colour does quite literally on occasions ooze from the surface.
It was strange to walk around the rooms; I hadn’t expected it to feel quite such a visual reminder of the paintings I remember from the college studio spaces back in 1990. I just wish I had more photos from our work place back then. A very likeable exhibition, but at the same time strangely familiar.
As the titles moved up the screen, a silence held the cinema, nobody moved.
The film we had just watched was Ken Loach’s Sorry we missed you. Loach is well known for films with a social charge. His previous film I, Daniel Blake followed the struggles of and unemployed carpenter and a single mother through the UK’s social security system. In Sorry we missed you we follow the life of a delivery van driver, his wife who is a care worker and their family.
The film is captivating, but anything but an easy watch. There are small glimmers of hope to be found here and there. The resilience of family bonds even in the most demanding of circumstances for example. But overall, it is a grim and punishing indictment of the world we live in of zero-hours contracts, scant employment rights and impossible demands thrown down on employees who are left with few choices or opportunities to build a career or even a stable existence.
Loach offers an insight into what goes on behind our online orders, it is not a pretty sight. As it is presented in the film it is no understatement to say that it is an abusive system.
As my wife and I discussed the film on the way home, we both felt like the film had put us through a emotional mangle, where social compassion and responsibility had been all but squeezed out. We were struck by how Dickensian it all felt. This is a free market economy at its extreme where the workers at the end of the chain have few rights and protections.
It is a very British film, set in a clearly very British context. The EU does have its faults and difficulties, but it does take issues such as employment rights relatively seriously. Is a post Brexit UK is unlikely to see improvements in this area?
A film for school?
Whenever I watch a movie, be it at home or in the cinema, always at the back of my mind is whether the film could be one that finds its way into the film study course I do with the 15 year olds that teach. Sorry we missed you is no exception. And yes, part of me really wants to give my pupils a look at this one.
It would be a massive step outside of their normal film consumption of super-hero movies and rom-coms. But given the right framing up in the lesson material leading up to it I think it could be incredibly interesting.
The crucial question is always whether the film would engage them and capture the attention? Well, it portrays a world that would be recognizable in the sense that it is a family unit with teenage children, and does it using a narrative than progresses with considerable twists and turns.The social injustices of this particular strand of the working world would certainly be an interesting discussion to have. There is a lot on offer here, and we haven’t yet started to consider the aspects of filmmaking beyond the narrative and, in this case, the social points being made.
When teaching in the art room it is often surprising how hard you have to push pupils to get them to think creatively and challenge them to get them to go a step further than the familiar or their initial idea. There are of course various issues that contribute to their cautious approach. The pupils’ age, peer group pressure, the comfort and security provided by a familiar approach all play a part. The whole general structure of an educational system that encourages pupils to think that there is often only a single way to be ‘right’ and an ‘interesting failure’ isn’t valued in many other areas other than in the art room.
All these sorts of thoughts occur to me often enough when working with the children that I teach who are all aged between the ages of 12 and 16. But perhaps there is one assignment that I hand out once a year to the oldest groups that I teach that underlines the conservative artistic approaches more than most. It is a fashion design assignment. I should stress at the start that it is a ‘design’ assignment and not a ‘make’ assignment. We have neither the time or the facilities to actually attempt to make the outfits that the pupils dream up. In some ways this is a shame, but it does mean that the final assignment is only ever result in a drawing. This in turn means that the pupils can let their imagination run wild, their design is not ever going to be limited by their (or mine) abilities with a sewing machine!
I’ll be setting this assignment in motion again this week and I’ll be leaning heavily on the work of two designers who don’t necessarily let the practicalities of wearing of their creations be a limiting factor. Most of the pupils are aware, at least to a degree, of the catwalk shows from the various fashion week shows around the world. They may, from time to time, have seen images of one or two ‘over the top’ designs. However, asking them to push their imagination into these areas of creativity is very much the challenge.
The assignment that a colleague reworked last year to draw on the work of Dutch designer Iris van Herpen fits very much into these sorts of intentions and we will be making use of here creative process again. Added to this will be photographs that I have made this week whilst visiting the Kunsthal in Rotterdam to see the exhibition by Thierry Mugler. It was a very theatrical experience to visit the show. Video projections met you as you entered the space and each separate room was referred to as an ‘Act’. Some designs were stylish and elegant evening wear, but others were extraordinary for their exuberance strangely retro qualities. Bodices modelled on classic American automobile styling, sometimes complete with wing mirrors. A series of ‘fembot’ cladding with their roots seemingly in the sci-fi cinema of the 1920s and 30s. And finally, one outfit that was constructed with an array of exhaust pipes with clear motorcycle references.
I’m left with two thoughts. Are these the designs to tempt my teenage designers to push the creative boat out, and are Mugler and van Herpen’s designs the ones to tempt the boys away from choosing the parallel running architect design assignment instead?