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.

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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.

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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.

Finally after seven years an exhibition

I don’t write posts often about the adult groups that I teach. I’m not sure why, it’s certainly not because they’re not interesting enough, on the contrary, they often throw up the most unexpected things as the very first post I ever wrote for this blog points out:

When the cat’s away…

Over the last few years I’ve taught one particular group that has grown into a very productive and sociable Thursday evening session.  At the moment, it is a group of around fifteen, ranging in ages from early twenties to around eighty. Many of the group have been following the lessons for six or seven years and in that time, have been open to trying any sort of assignment that I throw to them.

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We talk about art a great deal, I help them with technical and content challenges, we laugh a lot, especially when I stumble badly enough in a Dutch sentence…. yes, even after twenty-five years here that does still happen!  There is also something of a running joke about how I, once every couple of weeks, come with a new assignment, they all listen carefully and then they all go and do something else.

All in all it’s become a group of friends who paint together once a week. Each summer I make a book of photographs of some of the work that has been produced the previous season as a kind of record of where the group are at that moment.  The one thing that we’ve never done though, is to have an exhibition of paintings in a public space. Until that is, this week. Today I spent the morning with Nynke, one of the group, installing an exhibition of nearly thirty-five paintings in the exhibition space of our local library.

The exhibition includes a variety of paintings including a large group painting that marks a number of the recognizable landmarks from our town of Wageningen in the Netherlands.

Swept along on a wave of enthusiasm

In education a lot is written about peer group pressure. Generally when it gets mentioned it is very much in a negative context. It’s linked to pupils under-performing because of the influence of others or children being led astray because they don’t want to stand out from the crowd.

These sorts of examples are recognizable to anyone who works in education.

However peer group pressure can have a sort of flip side. Let’s leave all the negative connotations behind and call the flip side The power of the crowd. A winning football or hockey team gets something of this quality, people are swept along on its success, individuals within the team are lifted up by their achievement and share in the achievements of others in the team. We see glimpses of these sorts of qualities in education from time to time, but for me is difficult to imagine anything to match the effects of the music, song, dance and drama project that we have visiting our school this week.

A group known as the Young Americans visit our school every two years. It is a group of about forty or so performing arts students, principally from the U.S. but also from a large number from other countries around the world. They visit for three days and work for that time with all our bilingual second and third classes (ages thirteen to fifteen), normally a total of around 180-200 pupils.

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During two and a half days of intensive workshops they put together with the Young Americans, a performance of music, dance and song that is presented to a packed makeshift theatre in our sports hall in the afternoon and evening of the third day. For the Young Americans it is a well-practiced and well-oiled format that allows them to integrate all of the pupils into the performance, often with all of them on or around the stage simultaneously.  It is for all the pupils an incredible experience.

I am used to having to motivate and engage a class of thirty pupils. Sometimes that’s easy, other days you have to work a lot harder. I am also all too aware that there are odd pupils in classes that in the normal run of things are simply quite difficult to ‘reach’ or quite difficult to motivate. So how is it that they are up there on the stage dancing, singing, smiling and enjoying it with the rest of them?

Well the answer to that lies in the power of the crowd. It starts with the overwhelming enthusiasm of the Young Americans. The pupils really don’t know what’s hit them to start with. They show them just how cool having a go can actually be. They support and encourage, they applaud and put an arm over the shoulder when it’s needed. Their enthusiasm is infectious. Their high fives and shouts of encouragement edge the nervous pupils forward.  And before you know what is happening the pupils are joining in, cheering their classmates on.  There is a growing belief in the group that they can make something special.  Pupils who are normally ‘background’ inhabitants are suddenly discovered, and they find themselves making the giant step from the background, literally into the limelight.

Come the performance in front of 600 parents, family and friends the tension and excitement rise. Suddenly that thirteen year old who has hardly said a word all year in class is on the stage singing a solo, maybe only two lines before someone else takes it over, but she has done it and in doing so performed to a theatre full of onlookers, an achievement she wouldn’t have dreamed of just two days earlier.

What has brought her to this point?  Well that is part the sheer enthusiasm of the Young American group, but it is also partly the subtle shift that has occurred in the peer group. They have been swept up in the enthusiasm, the excitement and plain thrill of performing.

As a teacher involved in the arts and cultural education it is fantastic to see. Often I feel there is just a handful of us at school to defend and promote the importance and value that the arts in the curriculum have.  Watch one of these shows and a door is opened on the possibilities and crucial role culture, drama, music, art, dance, etc. can have for our young people.

The Young Americans will undoubtedly be returning to our school.

Photography, language and communication (a clil assignment)

A while back I wrote a couple of posts about an internationally orientated photography project that I was working on with my art teacher colleague Pasi in Finland. I have never really written a reflection on how the process went, although I think both Pasi and I already have a pretty good idea about the strengths and weaknesses of the setup we had.

The project placed its emphasis on several key points:

  • Learning about photography: using a camera in a considered way, appreciating what makes a good photograph, etc.
  • Writing in a descriptive way and a way that communicates ideas clearly
  • Creating a degree of collaboration and engagement between pupils at Pasi’s school in Finland and mine in the Netherlands.

There were several elements to the projects that we drew up, including the analysis of various forms of portrait photography that we encounter in our modern lives, from the selfie to the school photograph and the celebrity photograph to a wedding photograph. Pupils were also asked to look at images of power in a photographic sense and draw comparisons with how our politicians and leaders present themselves when looked at alongside painted portraits from the past.

But perhaps the most complex and engaging part of the project involved the Finnish pupils writing 200 word descriptions of photographic portraits made by contemporary Finnish photographers and my pupils doing likewise with Dutch examples.

We ended up with descriptions such as this:

The length of the photograph is a bit longer than the width. The background is completely black. The back of the person is touching the left side of the photograph. The person covers a little bit more than the left-half of the photograph. The head of the person is almost reaching the top and the body is cut off at the chest. We can only see the right side of the body and face. The female is looking down. She is wearing a black shirt with a v-neck so, we can see her right collar bone. The black shirt blends in with the background so we can’t really see the edges of the shirt. She is wearing earphones; the wire is underneath her middle finger and on top of the other fingers. Her hand is positioned relaxed in her chest. Under her left sleeve, we can see a little bit of her watch. She has dark-brown curly hair braided in a Dutch braid on top of her forehead, which becomes darker and blends in with the black background. She might be listening to classical music I think. She’s wearing an earring in her right ear. The light is coming from the bottom right corner, there’s shadow in her back and the rest of the left-top. The darkness is important in the picture, the picture is very dark and the face is very light. Her face is neutral and she isn’t smiling.

In this case written about this photograph by Dutch photographer Suzanne Jongmans.

The text was then sent off to Pasi’s school where a pupil then set about remaking the photograph without ever seeing the original and only having the short text about it to work with. The resulting pair of photographs looked like this with the Suzanne Jongmans photo on the left and the pupil’s work on the right:

It was a fascinating process not least for the big ‘reveal’ at the end where pupils get to see the original that they have been trying to reconstruct, and indeed the results that others had made based on the text that they had written.

In some cases, a number of photographs were made by different pupils using the same description, a process that showed further how language and interpretation played a significant role in the process.  The link below takes you to more extended documentation of the project:

project documentation(shortened)

For me, the most interesting part of this whole process is how it opens pupil’s eyes to the use of different forms of language in communication. The limitations of text and description often become quite visible and obvious to the pupils in this way. Their descriptive texts often aren’t nearly as absolute and concrete as they thought. Misinterpretation and misunderstanding is at times highlighted, which can certainly provide good learning experiences.

Alongside this is the more visual language of photography, the images we used were so much more that ‘just photos of people’. Each told its individual story, gave us a view into a real or maybe constructed world and highlighted the whole series of decisions that a photographer makes when setting up, framing, lighting and directing their subject before finally taking the photograph. This was of course a series of steps that the pupils could experience for themselves when making their new versions of the originals.

Feeling a bit like an artistic magician…..

It’s sometimes nice to make a big statement. To remind a school of the presence of the art department. It’s also nice when a relatively simple assignment catches the imagination of a whole class, both the ones at the artistic top of the class and the ones who generally find the creative lessons more challenging.

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This particular lesson idea sets out to make a whole wall of art in the end. It is, if I’m honest, not the most creative assignment to offer a group of fifteen year olds. It kind of sets them on a line that of production with, for a part at least, a clear set of instructions to follow. But having said that, it does give opportunities to learn about a highly graphic way of working, layering and spatial relationships in drawing and the significance repetition can have in design. I was also able to add some Pop Art references and study and introduce the class to one of my favourite British artists in Michael Craig-Martin.

The work process involves filling an A4 with line drawings of a collection of the objects being taken as the theme of the work, importantly without any of them touching the edges of the paper. Then a careful cutting and reassembling of the pieces, before a little more drawing. Then it goes onto the glass of the copy machine and six (or many more!) copies are made before the copies are joined together in a completely repeating pattern. I promise you, the first time you show this to the class, you will feel like some sort of artistic magician!

This all sounds a bit complicated perhaps, watch this film and it will become a lot clearer!

Then a little colour work and very rapidly the wall filling work is complete. The front entrance of our school is currently being rebuilt, the wooden screens that have been put up offer that perfect location for the big statement.

5 May – Liberation day and an exhibition

In the Netherlands freedom and liberation are celebrated in the 5 May. On 4 May at 8pm a reflective two minutes of silence is held across the country to remember and reflect on those who died during the Second World War and conflicts since. Wageningen, the town in which I live, is in party mood today, the somber remembrance ceremony that I attended last night is followed up with a festival and processions that will draw tens of thousands to the town.

It is not an inappropriate day to be visiting an exhibition in the far north of the country though, before I too return to the Wageningen celebrations. In the Fries Museum in Leeuwarden in the north west of the country an exhibition entitled Burdened Landscape is on display until 5 June.

The exhibition explores how landscape can function as a sort of physical memory storage for history, and in particular, parts of history that while not being occasions that we should forget, are periods that don’t make for easy reflection. As the exhibition guide puts it:

“Violence, war and conflict leave their traces, even in the landscape. The past is visibly and invisibly gouged into the soil. Some places have become tangible monuments to history. However, more innocent-looking locations can also bear heavy burdens. Time and again, memories give the ‘crime scene’ its charge.”

It is an interesting and engaging collection of work, covering locations such as the landscape around Auschwitz (Oświęcim), Kuwait, Hanover, Ukraine, Armenia, Stalingrad and most recently, the Mediterranean Sea and its role in the suffering of migrants because of conflicts in North Africa.

Discovering works by Anselm Kiefer within such a context isn’t perhaps that surprising but there are plenty of less familiar works that open thoughtful windows on their own landscapes.

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Hans Citroen’s photographs show intimate corners of domestic landscapes, between vegetable gardens perhaps, yet there between the slightly overgrown fences are the remains of a railway line. The track lies, seemingly forgotten, in Oświęcim a short distance from the nearby Auschwitz. You are challenged, no, forced to reflect on those who passed through this space towards such a terrifying and uncertain future. Yet now, here it is, the line slowly being reclaimed physically by the landscape, but at the same time a landscape that is so heavily loaded by its history of seventy-five years ago.

The way landscape recovers and reclaims is also visible in the large-scale series of photographs by Sophie Ristelhueber. They show images of the Kuwaiti desert and the way it holds a physical record of the Gulf War (1990-91). In some images the relics, the evidence is slowly being covered over, fading from view.  In others though you can’t help feeling that these remnants will remain every bit a revealing in the distant future as Hadrian’s Wall is to us today.

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On a more recent note, but maybe more disturbing for it, the video work Liquid Traces the Left-to-Die Boat Case by Charles Heller and Lorenzo Pezzani tells of the tragic fourteen days adrift at sea experienced by a group of seventy-two refugees from Libya. The result of the two-week period without rescue, was that only nine of the seventy-two survived to recount their experience.

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The exhibition deals mostly with the traces that war and conflict leave on the landscape, but departs from this a little to end with the image of Frenk Windels, sitting next the place he, without the necessary permits, buried his wife after her death. The result is a small domestic landscape with a huge emotional charge.

Back home in Wageningen, the landscape that surrounds me is beautiful, green and for the most part peaceful.  But look at little more carefully and the same Burdened Landscape can be found. There was heavy fighting on the nearby Grebbeberg in 1940 and the parachute landing for operation Market Garden of A Bridge to Far fame occurred just north of the town. These and other periods during the 1939-45 conflict are still all too present and 4 and 5 May of all days are the days to reflect on this.