Like many families around the world, the physical contact with all but my immediate family has been greatly interrupted by the pandemic. I see my wife every day and my studying children regularly. But contact with my own English extended family has had to move online. We have regular family get togethers with up to fourteen of us at a time, aged between teenager and 80+ and spread around the world in various places in the UK, the Netherlands, Prague and Kuala Lumper in Malaysia.
The Zoom meetings have been very fun to do and surprisingly satisfying in terms of them being a replacement for the family meals together in any normal year. We also have family app groups and sub-groups, all-in all, contact remains very good.
But after fourteen months apart I felt that it was time for something else. We are, by most standards, a very creative family. Visual artists, musicians/sound remixer, graphic designers and writers. With many of use taking these interests well beyond a hobby having gained degrees in related areas and gone on to work in these fields.
With this background it was time to stage an online exhibition where we share and take a closer look at each other’s creative output. Added to this is also of course the possibility open the work to a broader public.
Use the link below to visit our digital exhibition space and enjoy the work of:
Five visual artists
One film and soundscape artist
One graphic designer
Be patient…..the exhibition can take a moment or two to load!
(The software works best on a laptop or desktop computer, on mobile devices some elements may work less well)
Most schools in the Netherlands have open days during the mid-winter. Many schools have something of a pitched battle against nearby rival schools in the effort to attract a good number of new pupils for the forthcoming school year. The school where I teach is no different, we must be seen to compete!
Such open days are all well and good, if a little exhausting and long at the end of the teaching week. But with the current lockdowns and need for extreme social distancing the normal packed school with hundreds of children and their parents simply is not an option. As a result, things are moving online. Most schools are frantically putting together a new online presence/digital open day. Films are being shot, interviews recorded, and websites constructed.
As far as the art department is concerned, in my school we were looking for a way to present a collection of pupils’ work. Collections of photographs or films of pieces of work were of course possible but we wanted something a bit more immersive and interactive, and amongst all the other films that were being made, we simply wanted something that stood out as being a bit different.
The need of the situation, as with many other things in education in the last year, has forced me and a colleague to explore the possibilities more than we perhaps have done up until now. The online exhibition possibilities offered my artsteps.com where something that I have known about for a while but have never fully explored up until now because I simply have not fully felt the need to. But now was the time, was this going to be what we needed?
Well, the short answer to that is a resounding yes, absolutely. A week later I have built three online, three dimensional exhibitions of pupils’ work that are going to serve our purposes fantastically well. The links below will take you there and allow you to pass through and view the work.
Of course, it is not as good as walking around an art room in a school taking a closer look for yourself but given the circumstances it really isn’t a bad substitute for our 10- and 11-year-old visitors and their parents.
Having put it all together, what would I say are the pros and cons on offer here?
The learning curve for using the software really is not too step. Invest a little time and you should find your way.
Creating a stylish and well-ordered look to the exhibition is both possible and straight forward.
It is free and everything is online (apart from the photos and films you want to upload) with no software having to be downloaded or installed.
Videos can also be part of your exhibition.
You can design your own rooms.
But above all is just fun to create and fun to visit!
Three-dimensional work is difficult to include. 3D printer designs can be unloaded and included, but documentation of a tradition sculpture can only be done using a film of the object or photographs of it.
I do not seem to be able to get the films to work on mobile devices. Although walking around the spaces to look at the pictures on my iPad works perfectly.
Visiting the exhibitions on a mobile phone is, it seems, possible on some phones and not on others.
The ease with which the software works leaves me thinking of the future possibilities. I see opportunities for asking a group to curate their own exhibitions on selected themes. They could visit the websites museums of the museums of the world gathering the artworks that they need. I have done this before and set poster design assignments as a part of the project, but now I see the additional installation of a 3-dimensional digital exhibition as a fantastic extension of the project.
It is strange how necessity can be the mother of invention, forcing you to explore new possibilities. This has certainly been the case in the past few weeks.
For several years I have been working on refining an art project that involves a number of distinct phases.
Research an artwork from art history
Presenting the research about the artwork and artist involved in the form of an infographic
Writing a story aimed at primary school aged children where the researched artwork plays a central role
Illustrating the story using a variety of drawing and/or painting techniques, traditional or digital
Designing the layout of the pages of the book where images and text have to be combined
….and finally, the presenting a completed book
I will write about the use of infographics as an alternative to report writing on another occasion, but here I want to focus most of all on the story telling, the illustration and the designing of an online book. Due to the uncertainties of the way the school year was going to develop I decided early in this lengthy project that I was going to encourage the pupils to aim for a more digital based working process. In the end virtually the whole class chose to go virtually completely digital.
The story, once the research was completed, was hammered out on the iPads the pupils work with. Incidentally, I should mention that we are talking here of pupils aged 14 or 15 mostly, and as part of a bilingual education stream, the pupils are working in English, their second language rather than their native Dutch.
Digital illustrations were produced using a variety of drawing apps, before these were then uploaded into the Canva app (also a pc application) to work on the page layout and overall design. Even working on the relatively small iPad screen the pupils were able to produce some interesting and varied work.
When all the pages are complete a .pdf can be exported of the complete book.
The pièce de résistance comes in the form of the Yumpu.com website that allowed the pupils to upload the raw pages to the site to generate an online digital version with three dimensional pages that can be turned.
Click below to take a look at some of the possibilities the project offers from this year’s results:
Once we reach this point it is over to their teacher to grade the work on four criteria:
The interest, complexity, and engagement of their story writing
The use of English and grammar
The quality of the illustrations
The quality of the layout of the book
It is a lengthy project. But in a world where we are all (and in the art department) are having to lean heavily on digital means, it is a project that offers interesting online possibilities for classes that have a little digital know how.
Last year I started the year with a plan to draw more. I have drawn a lot in the last twelve months, but still have the feeling that I should do it more, if only to avoid later dead ends in paintings that haven’t been sufficiently planned out.
So this year we start again and above is the first drawing of 2021.
I coach a group of enthusiastic part-time painters. We have been meeting up one evening a week for years, except of course in 2020. In mid-March this year our painting sessions, like so many other things came to an abrupt halt. We were temporarily able to restart for a period of four weeks in the autumn, before once again having to stop again.
I’ve done what has been possible to keep the group active (at least for those who wish to carry on at home), and the group themselves have retained contact via our app group, sharing what they are up to in the area of creativity and artistic interests. It has, all-in all, worked well. The group does still feel like a group and the stream of creative output certainly hasn’t dried up.
In terms of “going online”, like my other area of work in mainstream education, it hasn’t been quite the same. The commitment to an online lesson at a specific time didn’t feel like the way to go. Instead, what seems to have worked best has been a series of group paintings/projects. Anyone who wanted to, could easily contribute, and I worked on grouping things together. Some have been very loose, and in a way, not much more than a collection of paintings and drawings around a theme, while others have been quite structured in their approach.
Looking back complete 2020 set, it is surprising just how productive the group has been, and how well this loose online approach has worked. We are all of course hoping for better things in 2021, but as a record of 2020 it certainly shouldn’t be a year best forgotten by the group as the results below show.
Since the restart of the school year back in August I have been working on a quite extensive art and language project with two of the third year groups (aged 14) that I teach. Essentially it is a design module that focuses on the fonts and typefaces but has involved:
A photography assignment
A black and white, graphic typeface design assignment
A painting assignment exploring more painterly approaches
A poetry assignment
Digital illustration assignment
A page design/layout assignment
Often with such a long drawn out assignment the challenge is to keep the energy going, but in this case, with the diversity of activities, I have never felt that to be a problem.
A brief summary of the art and design activities and a few of the results:
Typeface design made using found objects
Create a coherent font using objects that you find at home. Arrange at least five letters that clearly belong as a set and make use of the same types of objects. The most significant challenge here is to get the pupils beyond the stage of using five pencils lying on the table to spell out a set of easy to create letters. There are so many possibilities but it does require a kind of mental leap to bring the pupils to a point where they start to see the design possibilities.
Typeface design using only black ink
This is the most purely design related step and before we get as far as using the ink we go through a series of design steps that first involve sketch designs of three quite different design ideas. One of these is then chosen and a series of design refinements using different types of letter are made. Finally we arrive at the ink work where a series of five or six letters from there font are inked in using brush and pen work.
After the graphic work of the previous assignment things become considerably looser in this coloured in and painting assignment as the pupils build on and further develop their design work.
To include a significant language element into the assignment I ask the pupils to chooses the names on at least two typeface names (and there are so many to choose from!). These names, be they Broadway, Cairo, Baskerville, Freestyle, etc. are the starting point for the creation for writing a short poem. The names of the letter types have to actually be a part of the poem’s text, and ultimately when the poem is presented for marking the typefaces referred to must be used.
During a slightly quiet moment at a conference in Brussels about a year ago, a colleague and I were reflecting on our working lives in education, and in particular on where we currently teach. I say currently teach, but that makes it sounds like we are always switching from one school to another. But that for us is definitely not the case. As it has turned out we have been in for the long haul.
Cathy Silk and I started work at the Maaslandcollege in Oss on the same day back in 2001 and have continued our parallel educational routes ever since, Cathy in the English department of our bilingual stream and me in the art department.
During our reflections last year we found ourselves recalling pupils that had passed through our classrooms, colleagues who have come and gone, and just how many lessons we must have taught. We also made the calculation of how many weeks of teaching we had given to our school. As it turned out, back then it was around 950 each. Yes, we were each nearing 1000 weeks of teaching in Oss. Further calculations and we knew that the milestone of 1000 weeks would occur in mid-November 2020. We could have a small party we thought, maybe a sort of reunion with some colleagues, ex-colleagues and pupils, nothing too official, just an occasion to mark a point in a journey that continues and to involve some people who have shared it with us.
So here we are in November 2020, 1000 weeks of teaching later, but no party. Like so many festive moments, plans have been disrupted. That is of course no big deal, there are more important things in play at the moment, and such an anniversary is just a moment in time. But it is worth reflecting on what has caused Cathy and I to have stuck around in the same school for so long. I think I can probably write for the both of us in saying that quite a few things play a part.
Firstly, being part of the bilingual educational project in the Netherlands and, at the Maaslandcollege in particular, has been both fascinating and rewarding. Our school was one of the first to begin this form of education back in the mid 1990s. A form that sees Dutch children taught in English in order to fast track their language learning abilities and ultimately brings them to levels that surprise me every year.
Our colleagues, both present and past have also been a reason to stay. An enthusiastic, social and knowledgeable group. In the occasional dip moments there have always been people around to remind you that it is a school that makes you want to be part of the team. One colleague, Lobke, should get a special mention, she was a twelve old pupil at the school, starting the very same week as we did. She is now an established member of our bilingual team as a biology teacher, a reminder for us both in the staffroom of the values of the bilingual program.
Educationally, both Cathy and I, have always been given considerable freedom to form and shape our own teaching programs. This is without a doubt one of the main reasons we have remained so steadfastly committed to our Maaslandcollege. By giving teachers space to explore and experiment in their work you keep them interested, enthusiastic and awake to new possibilities.
But then there is the school itself. On paper it is a fairly standard looking sort of school, 1500 or so pupils, quite comprehensive in terms of the educational streams that it offers. But apart from the staff, it is of course the pupils who make a school. It is difficult to calculate just how many Cathy and I must have taught over the years, other than to say that it is plenty! They arrive as, maybe rather uncertain of the themselves 12 year olds, you fight and joke with them through the middle years of their secondary schooling and finally they depart with their diploma and a sort of mutual respect as arrived in the relationship.
It’s nice to be able to follow many of my ex-pupils through Linked-in. The contact is low-key, but does let me see what some of them have moved onto do. I think also gives the pupils themselves a sort of contact route with something of their own formative teenage educational years. It’s a line of contact that is very definitely open (as far as I am concerned) to go further if the need presents itself. Before the summer I was able to help an ex-pupil with the development of a museum educational program she was working on, and next week I will be doing something similar with another who I last taught, I think, about six years ago. As a teacher, such moments are really greatly valued educational extras.
It is always nice to run into ex-pupils, on the train, at the station, in the supermarket. It reminds you just why you are in education. For both Cathy and me it is especially rewarding when these chance encounters involve a young (Dutch) adult launching into an enthusiastic conversation with us in English, fluent and without hesitation, reason enough to have stayed around to reach that 1000 weeks mark!
During 2020 in the Netherlands we had the lock down months, the return to a summer of reasonable (but stay at home) normality and then back into lock down again. I have been in an out of my studio quite a bit. Not for long periods of activity, it was mostly a quite fragmented working process as any number of other commitments seemed to continually get in the way.
Maybe it is this broken up character of a working process that have been to blame, but I do feel that 2020 has been in terms of my own practical work a period of a few interesting discoveries, but also a number of dead ends. I know that exploring dead ends is all part of the creative process, but these are generally parts that don’t actually leave you feeling that content or satisfied in what you are doing.
However, as we near the end of 2020, at last I feel these cul de sacs are starting to pay me back in the paintings I’m making. These steps have been supported by quite a bit of drawing and printmaking to find the way to where I am now. Finally there are a variety of possibilities to be explored, a view I haven’t had for a while as I have struggled through a number of creative processes that can best be described as interesting failures. And so the twisted, folded and manipulated nature as it is seen in the newest versions of the circular tree paintings can continue.
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 has subsequently been rescheduled for the autumn of 2021……..I’m sure as a group we’ll be going.
Our group reconvened back in September. Meeting as two smaller groups, strict social distancing in place and returned to the business of painting, and getting our Frida Kahlo painting finished.
We almost made it! Four weeks later, we are back in lockdown, hopefully not for as long as last time. We are returning to our sharing of creative work in the app group and working at home on some group projects that I assemble as we progress. Such projects help us all feel that we are still part of a group. Our Frida work is all but finished, we’re just missing a couple of panels from the outer most reaches of the composition, but the work as it currently stands is a satisfying result and good approach work for the exhibition visit next year.
We are not quite at the time of the year yet where I spend time encouraging pupils to consider choosing art as a final exam subject. It is often quite hard work opening pupils eyes to the possibilities, the personal development that such a choice might bring or, if they were to take it further, the range of opportunities on offer if they were to head in the direction of the creative industries when seen as a whole. There is often resistance to such a message from home, from colleagues and, it has to be said, from other influential places such as mainstream media and government.
A recent crass an ill thought out British government advertising campaign to recruit for the National Cyber Security Centre underlines the problem. The message to the ballerina seems to be to to go and get a proper job. There was a suitable reaction to the image from those who work in culture, and social media was suddenly full of reactionary memes and the government was forced into some embarrassed back-peddling, but it shows an underlining message.
These prejudices run deep. At the school where I teach we essentially give lessons in twelve subject areas. Eight of these are seen as being “before the line”. A cut-off line that defines the eight that are seen as weighing most heavily when monitoring a pupil’s achievement. The four subjects ‘after the line’? Well, those are art, music, philosophy and physical education. Mainstream education still has a way to go to understand and value the place of culture and creativity it would seem.
I trained in the arts, both my brothers did and my niece did. We all work, and are engaged fully in areas of work that we trained for. I have more art and creatively orientated work on my plate than I have time for. I teach teenagers to understand and appreciate the informative, communicative and enrichment that the arts can bring to our lives.
There is an irony here though, as I mentioned, I have plenty of work to do. And part of the reason for that is the extent to which the school at which I work can make use of my creative skills. Think of things such as:
Animation films, posters, folders and flyers for any number of in school and PR related reasons
Films documenting school activities and trips
Exhibiting of pupils work around school
Website building to make lesson material accessible for pupils
Playing an active role in school related social media work and the material that we place there
Giving workshops and developing lesson material in the area of digital media
These are skills that have their roots in deciding to chooses art as an exam subject, these were built on during my years at art school and further developed independently thanks to the creative, problem-solving attitude I developed whilst pursuing this study and indeed afterwards. What is this ‘behind the stripe’ nonsense? Art and creativity is work and it is truly all around us. One variation on the Fatima image takes this a step further.
I could go on, but those schooled in the creative industries are often multi-skilled and hugely useful in all areas of work. A school is no different, and with that in mind, I’m just off to brush of my Illustrator skills again and do the next bit of PR design work…..which will in due course benefit all my colleagues, in whatever subject area, in the long run.