Lipstick, powder and paint….and abstraction

I’ve been working on a project that focuses on abstraction with my third years (15 year olds). The direction of the various parts of the assignments touch on a number of issues such as design principles, dynamics in an image, colour and draws a parallel with the abstract nature of music.

Some years I have made three dimensional work during this project, but this time round I have chosen to focus on the two dimensional image and try and push the creativity of the pupils as far as I can using simply drawing materials. As we near the end of the project (and the school year), I am certainly not unhappy with the results and the pupils themselves seem to be feeling a sense of achievement, certainly when they see the work they have made grouped together.

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I’ve been also trying to encourage the class to mix up the materials, look for interesting combinations, get the class to ask themselves ‘what else can I use?’. For the most part I had in mind a little collage in combination with the more obvious pencil or pen work. But as the photo here shows this has extended to some of the girls reaching inside their bags and pulling out the make-up and working the pearlescent and metallic colours into the design. I’d been showing plenty of Frank Stella’s work in the build up to the project, that may have influenced some of their choices. I’m sure he would approve!

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Manipulated landscape

There can be few more manipulated landscapes in the world than the Dutch landscape.  There is constant construction and reconstruction, rearrangement and quite literal landscape creation as land is reclaimed from the sea. There is a constant tension between man and nature in this densely packed land.  My work as an artist has grown increasingly to focus on these tensions and what the natural world around us means to us and how we respond to it.

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Today we walked through a small section of the landscape of the central Netherlands. As I often do on such an excursion I made a small watercolour sketch, in this case of a the linear geometry of a recreated piece of nature, a pool for wading birds.  Further on we encountered a selection of other newly created pools of a various of forms for a variety of nature.  I was reminded of my own pools I created in my work a few years ago.  Manipulated nature of a slightly more extreme form.

So why do teachers want smaller classes?

Many of the classes I teach are groups of thirty pupils. Much is written in the media about the significance of large classes and the negative effect it has on the quality of education offered to pupils. My own personal opinion is that thirty is for most teachers in most situations simply too many.

As a teacher of a practical subject that involves an assortment of materials, setting up at the start of a lesson and clearing up at the end this is definitely the case. Add to this that fact that teachers are encouraged to offer lesson material that reflects varied abilities in a class, allowing individuals to play to their own strengths, resulting in even more one on one teaching being necessary and, well, I’m sure you get the picture.

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With this being the prevalent situation there is one particular type of assignment that often falls victim to this pressure of numbers. That assignment being the three dimensional assignment.  Whether you are working with clay, wood, papier-mâché or some other material, the sheer logistics of it is hard enough in a one hour lesson, let alone when you are trying to shepherd and guide thirty thirteen year olds…..and this is of course before we even get onto the potential safety issues that arise from such a group working with band saws, sanding disks, knives or other tools.

With all this in mind it can be incredibly refreshing when through a quirk in the timetable you unexpectedly end up with a radically small class, as is the case this year with my group of 14 year olds in 2hvq. It is a class of just sixteen children and has opened the door on a chance to try out a few things that in a larger class I might not have embarked on.

With a larger class the temptation is to often rely on assignments that the whole class can work through step by step together. This is all well and good but such an approach often places limitations on the creativity that pupils themselves bring to the project. My smaller 2hvq class has allowed me to put such limitations aside and we have worked on an insect building project that grown and developed through ideas that the group themselves have brought to the table. A large range of materials have been used, conventional and found materials. The resulting work has been surprising to watch develop and interesting to see just how engaged the class has been.

So why would I generally like smaller classes? It really is pretty simple, my pupils would be better served by it. In most lines of work you deal with one customer at a time, in teaching it is often thirty, it would be fine if they all wanted the same thing at the same time, but believe me this is not the case, and in the art room I wouldn’t want it to be either.

Teenage stage fright

I’m not a natural performer, I’m not particularly extrovert, in fact I would describe myself as an introvert in most situations. Teaching, as many teachers would say is something of an eight hour a day forced performance where you play the role that is needed at that particular moment.  That might be angry one moment and calm and considerate the next.  After years of teaching I’m comfortable with this role and can carry it off pretty well. Put me in an unfamiliar situation and the more introvert side of my character soon surfaces. With this in mind I do have a little sympathy with the nervously shy behaviour my fourth year (15-16 year old) pupils displayed this afternoon.

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A colleague had been able to organize the visit to school from a group of dancers and rappers from Rotterdam. The afternoon was divided into two halves, first a workshop in relatively small groups followed by a show given by our guests. Due to my lesson timetable I was unable to take a look at the workshop part, but I do know that the pupils were divided into small groups and were able to get some professional instruction in an area that they had chosen such as flamenco, hip hop, rap, theatre or sung performance. However I was able to watch the performance the visiting dancers themselves gave.

My own preparation for both workshops and show in my lessons had been limited, mostly due to the fact that I didn’t know too much about what to expect.  I had had the chance to show some fragments from the excellent Wim Wenders film Piña about the German choreographer Pina Bausch. I can’t pretend to be particularly knowledgeable in the area of contemporary dance, but do enjoy watching shows when I can, and on this occasion the choice of Piña as a warm up was certainly not inappropriate.

The show that was performed mixed music, voice and an assortment of dance styles. It was performed in extremely close proximity to the pupils, with the dancers on a number of occasions almost landing on the laps of the pupils sitting in the front row.

As a teacher in such circumstances I always find myself split in my attention, I what to watch the show, but I always find myself drawn to watching my pupils to observe their reactions to what they are seeing. This dance show was no different, how engaged are the teenage public? What are they going to take away from this experience?

Dance for a teenage audience is an interesting confrontation. Often it doesn’t have a particularly easy narrative line to follow and in its way it is quite abstract. But to balance that it does have physicality and great control, both factors that most young people are able to engage with and value. The performance my pupils saw today fitted these criteria well and I found myself watching across the lines of faces to see their response.

On the whole the response was good. Two flamenco dancers were an important part of the show and many sat transfixed by the control of the flicking wrist movements and sweeps of the skirts following the dancer. For many in the audience a completely new experience I suspect, sitting watching a dance being performed for them for perhaps the very first time. For some in the audience though, they seemed to find it a little difficult, they seemed a little unsettled by it, particularly one group of boys. I shall ask them when I see them next what their thoughts were. I do have my own ideas…for teenage boys, the ones who like generally to try an assert their place in the class with their ‘street wise’ masculinity, maybe watching young women dance in close proximity was all just a little too much. It was subsequently very interesting to watch the swing in their attention when two of the young male dancers took to the stage. Male role models making the difference perhaps? Maybe, a more familiar hip hop style of dance? There are perhaps a number of factors, certainly worth a classroom discussion.

At the end of the performance the pupils were invited a group at a time to join their workshop leader on the stage to show the rest of their peer group what they and been doing during the first hour. It was at this point that the often quiet mouthy fifteen year olds that I teach seemed to become shy little rabbits diving for cover. Why the timidity, when normally in the classroom there is so little timidity?  Another reason certainly for more classroom discussion, but also something to work on in the future. We all like our comfort zones, I can relate to that. I too would certainly be nervous about making such a public step in an area of unfamiliarity. But the thrill of pushing yourself over that line is also worth experiencing and something I’ll be looking for strategies to do just that in the coming months.

To reduce or not reduce? – Studio day

I haven’t posted a reflection on a day working on my own work for a while. Various reasons, the inevitable intrusion of other activities being the most significant of reasons. Still, the work goes on, even if it is not as speedy in its production as I would desire.

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Today I’ve been working on the two images shown here. Both are, essentially built of the same components; a sky, a bowing coloured wall in the foreground and distorted by perspective verticals that in the drawing on the left are trees and in the painting on the right have been reduced to single fine lines. Also in both cases there is an ambiguity in whether the ‘wall’ is standing in the landscape or whether the landscape is possibly a sort of theatrical backdrop that has been painted or pasted onto the wall and now appears to be becoming separated from the surface creating the illusion that it is bending in space. The way in which the verticals are, well not vertical, play into the visual uncertainty.

When starting these pieces I thought that the drawing with the four tree trunks was just an experiment for myself, to prove that I was going the way of the greatly reduced ‘trees’ in the curved painting with its red wall. But having worked on the drawing with the trees today I am less certain. I think there is still work to be done to strengthen the drawing, particularly in darkening it to make it heavier, but maybe there are still possibilities worth exploring here.