Travelling with a sketchbook

Two or three times a year I go either away on holiday or a short break. Mostly these trips involve a lot of outside time, often in quite remote places. About five or six years ago I started to take a sketchbook with me, on reflection I think this was because my own work as an artist had become increasingly related to the landscape and I think that I thought that by more careful observation of it I might actually learn something.

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That was six years ago and my work still very definitely has a landscape connection to it and I continue to take just a small black hardback book with me, either A5 or A6 and a small set of twelve watercolours, a pencil, a brush and a black fine liner pen.

What I do on these trips does in one way or another feed back into more carefully worked out ideas, but it has also become something in its own right. I have never thought of myself as a great technician, certainly not when it comes to a material such as watercolour, but I do enjoy the challenge and speed of it all, as I pause for a few minutes with my family most often as company.

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I have just come to the end of a two week break from teaching, the first week was spent in good weather in the landscapes and forests around where I live in the Netherlands, the second week over the border into the Eifel in Germany.

The resulting filled pages will  certainly never be exhibited, so a post on my blog certainly seems a good alternative.

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Why is Drawing Important?

The importance of drawing as a basis in art is often talked about. The Campaign for Drawing (http://www.campaignfordrawing.org) takes up this point and promotes its central place in a whole range of areas. This recently produced film stresses drawings place as a media of communication in various fields and is presented by one of its patrons, Andrew Marr.

Jeff Wall in the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam

There is so much to see in this exhibition.  Wall’s engages you in a different way somehow to the way so much other photography does.  The work that is presented in ‘light-box’ form especially seems to invite you to look at it in a different way.  It brings it closer to the language of film perhaps, we are less aware of the object, or at least the surface.  Instead we submerge ourselves in the world beyond the frame.  The normality of it all draws you in to a world that in other ways seems so different an almost palpable ‘otherness’.

Wall constructs and manipulates our vision on what he offers us. But often the complexity is such that you know that many of the conclusions and thoughts you find yourself considering are likely to be if not accidents, well, things that just happened.

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Walking round the exhibition with friends we found so much to pick up on and discuss.  The discussion felt in many ways like a discussion we might have had about an exhibition of figurative paintings from say, the seventeenth or eighteenth century.  The way everything has a place and a reason for placement.  Yet Wall acknowledges himself that his degree of control is different.  Few things arrive on a figurative painting of this type by accident, the painters hand is in everything.  Wall’s tableaus show likewise a large degree of control, but working through the lens of a camera throws up other layers of consideration.  These were the loops of discussion we found ourselves in. Reality and fiction, pure representation and theatre, control and unintentional occurrences.

Illegal Immigration and Art

Many years ago I gave a series of creative workshops to children of asylum seekers at an asylum seekers centre that is on the edge of the town where I live. I can’t remember a great deal about what I did with these groups of children in terms of activity. But there are a number of things I do remember about the experience.

I found it very difficult, they spoke many different languages, they were all very different ages and they weren’t (it seemed to me) used to someone coming to draw with them. All or these are very challenging factors to someone trying to give some kind of structured recreational/educative/creative activity. All the more so when, as was the case for me at the time, you have virtually no experience of teaching or group leadership.

But looking back these are not the things I remember most of the experience. What sticks in my mind years later is the feeling of “otherness” I had of the environment within the fences of the centre.

It wasn’t (and still isn’t) a closed fences centre, the people there are allowed out into the area and local town, I regularly see them still. But within the centre I felt that I was somehow in a sort of dislocated place. The building that these people lived in was unmemorable and grey, but it was set in the calm and tranquil beauty of woodland that stretches out beyond the centre for miles. This context was one that I felt very strongly, and it was coupled with an air of uncertainty in the future that you inevitably feel in such a place.

The experience as a whole was for me a relatively short one, lasting only a few weeks. But it was one that has stayed with me and has coloured and filled in my thoughts on the issues of asylum seekers and immigration.

Immigration is a theme that I have been working with in my art lessons during the last weeks, in combination with my social studies colleague who is dealing with the issue simultaneously in her lessons. It’s a major subject and one that is important to discuss.

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I do it using the excellent work by Dutch artists Carlijn Mens and Henk Wildschut. Both have produced work that deal with the subject of illegal immigration head on. The challenge for us as teachers is to try and open the eyes of our pupils to a subject that is so far from their world for virtually all of them as they make their daily bike ride through the countryside and town to school. Virtually all of the them, because I have also had young people from Iraq and Afghanistan who were still in the immigration process in my classes in the past.

To help bring the theme a little closer to home I am now sitting in a train, along with forty-three fifteen and sixteen year olds and three colleagues heading towards The Hague and the exhibition centre called the Humanity House. Here we will be participating in two activities aimed at engaging and confronting the visitor with the issues of refugees. The kids are excited about the day out it will be interesting to see their response to what we encounter.

 Six hours later

In the train again for the two hour ride back home with forty three generally very enthusiastic teenagers. Two activities completed, both engaging, informative and in their own ways entertaining in an enlightening sort of way.

The humanity game involved letting teams of pupils divide aid resources across scenarios based on real disaster situations.Volcanic eruptions in Indonesia, flooding in Pakistan, chemical poisoning in Bhopal and an abnormally cold winter in Mongolia all played a part. It was all about judging priorities, gauging what is most needed. Simple enough but extremely engaging.

 In the skin of a refugee took you on a journey through the experiences of a person fleeing a place for whatever reason. You pass through a series of alienating spaces that simulate the feeling of having to rapidly depart your home, to flee into the unknown. Interrogation, confrontation, questions of trust and loyalty all played a part.  Parts of the experience left you feeling uncomfortable, possibly scared, but also, greatly informed in an extremely activating and stimulating way. 

In the context our project at school we couldn’t have asked for more. For myself as an art teacher there is the extra layer that I’ll be talking about in the lessons later in the week when I refer back to the work of Mens and Wildschut. Their work deals with a tremendously serious social issue, and in the case of Mens, one with tragic consequences. Showing pupils how art can be relevant and a carrier of information and opinions about the most up to date of issues is always so enlightening and valuable to show.

The loneliness (and rewards) of the long distance examiner

Around April and May each year I am reminded of a stressful few weeks I endured in my last year at school as a eighteen year old doing my final art exam. A three hour drawing paper and a twelve or fifteen hour painting paper that came on the back of two weeks preparation time if I remember correctly. The end result was C grade, it was OK, but it wasn’t the A or B that I hoped for.

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Now, quite some time later, I’m an examiner for the visual arts exam of the International Baccalaureate (IB) Diploma program. I’ve done it for years (and they don’t mind my C grade a-level!). It used to mean that each April I would go and visit a couple of schools, interview eight or ten pupils per school, be wined and dined at the school’s expense when necessary. Each pupil mounted an exhibition of their work, presented their work books and I would interview them for thirty to forty minutes. It was all very interesting and enjoyable, and also, it has to be said, quite an experience for the candidates.

All this changed two years ago when the IB switched to a fully digital examination system. Nowadays, for each exam candidate I am supplied (online) with the following:

· A fifteen minute interview or a 1000 word statement

· A 300 word statement about their work

· 30 pages of documentary photos from their research workbooks

· Up to eighteen photographs of studio work.

That’s quite a few documents for each candidate……and I have 69 candidates to work my way through, mark and write a short report about. That is quite a few hours staring at the computer screen. But on the positive side, working as I do in a secondary school in Western Europe, it is incredibly interesting to see work made by pupils from all corners of the world. This year for me it England, Norway, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, the US and China.

Although I don’t actually teach the IB Diploma course myself I am a pretty big fan of the possibilities it offers, in particular the way it interweaves the practical work of candidates with their art historical and contextual studies. It is interesting to see what the candidates have produced during the two years that the course takes, but it is almost as interesting to read a little between the lines and see how different teachers in a variety of countries approach the curriculum.

Yes there are definitely positives about doing this examine work, but it is something of a relief when you reach the end of your allotment of candidates, a point that I have just about reached.

 

 

 

Photographic frames of reference

Establishing clearly defined areas of creativity when working with young people is something I’ve posted about before, it is something that, as an art educator I feel quite strongly about. This week I’m being reminded about again through an assignment that I have set.

The assignment is part of a photography module that I am working on with my fourth year class (15-16 year olds in the Dutch system of education). We’ve spent time in the lessons looking at examples of good portrait photography, the pupils have compared photographs and written about them.

But ultimately the core of the whole project is getting the pupils to take their own photographs and trying to insure that the photographs are more that the bulk of the photographs these teenagers take in the average week.

This is a generation that take so many photographs. This is fantastic in so many ways, the freedom to experiment, the minimal cost involved and the ease with which they can share their creative discoveries. The big down side though is that they rarely stop to think about what it is that they are doing, everything is a snap shot, instantaneous and so often just for amusement purposes.

With this in the background, it is actually often quite difficult to get the sorts of photographic results that you might hope for. The assignment that I have been experimenting with is essentially a portrait assignment, not so much about ensuring that the portrait photograph discloses something about the subject, it is simply more about encouraging the pupils to look carefully and critically at there’s on that they are photographing, consider how they are framing them up and how that they are controlling light.

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The assignment is based on an idea that I came across on the www.booooooom.com website although I have also seen work by other photographer doing similar things, such as the Dutch photographer Hendrik Kerstens.

For the project I gave the pupils a selection of five Vermeer and five Rembrandt portraits to use as a basis. They simply had to create their own photographic versions of the portraits. It was not so much about dressing up or gathering attributes to fill the picture, but more about creating the ‘look’ of the painting, simulating the glance, creating a comparable composition.

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By allowing the pupils to play the role that the original offered seems to have removed a lot of the self-consciousness that might otherwise get in the way. They step in front of the camera knowing what they have to do. The endless possibilities that the camera normally offers is framed within some limitations, but these limitations allow the chance to focus on the issues I want them to focus on. This is the strength of the project I feel.