“Oh….. he was my old art teacher!”

I was reminded this week of something one of my tutors at art school once said to me. It was nothing too profound, but for one reason or another it did lodge itself in my memory.  It went something like this, “I like being the artist in the village where I live because I can go down the pub, have a few drinks and on the way back home fall in the ditch and nobody thinks much of it”, thanks Mike for those words of wisdom!

I suppose one of the reasons the comment stuck in my mind was that I didn’t really fully understand what he was getting at. On reflection I see now that he was placing himself in a kind of slightly romantic context of the artist living on the edge of regular society, someone who is expected to do slightly odd things from time to time.

I’ve never really seen myself as being someone on the edge of society, but I do accept fully that as both an artist and art teacher you do sometimes find yourself doing slightly odd things.

plastic-bag-kite1The reason this all came back to me this week was that for the second year in succession I found myself doing a little preparation work for a school trip we make with our first years (12-13 year olds). It’s a trip to a science museum of the human body made in the context of a cross curricular project week about sport and physical activity. My part as art teacher is to make kites with the pupils so that we can have a mass kite flying session on the nearby beach.

It all sounds great so far, but as any parent who’s flown kites with children will be able to relate, kites that don’t fly, aren’t fun. So both this year and last, I’ve found myself on a windy afternoon during the school holiday week in February trying to build easy to make, cheap and flyable kites from a few sticks and plastic bags.

I don’t mind doing this too much, I quite like the challenge, but I do feel pretty self conscious doing it. Remember these are not glamorous ‘power kites’, no, these are small kites made from plastic shopping bags, which at times have struggled to fly. Flying kites when alone can look a bit of a lonely affair at the best of times, and when you’re an adult and it looks like you are flying a plastic bag on a string, as indeed you are, it looks well…….maybe a bit weird!

Last year, when I was doing this I chose the quietest corner of the university campus in the town where I live and set to work, kind of hoping no one much would see me. Eventually my shopping bag with its stylish tale of more shopping bags was fluttering in a rather unstable wind on about twenty meters of string, maybe I could start thinking of heading for home.

Just at that moment I noticed a young woman biking towards me on a bike with a second one perched on the back of the same bike. I continued to concentrate on my plastic bags, feeling slightly embarrassed, hoping that they wouldn’t pay me too much attention. They got closer and suddenly came the call,

“Hey! Mr Sansom!”

It was Laura, one of my old pupils from the secondary school (in another town) where I teach who was now studying at the University. The funny thing was, she didn’t stop to talk, just biked on by, but as she did I heard her say to the other girl on the back of the bike as they passed,

“Oh….. he was my old art teacher” as if to excuse or explain my behaviour to her companion. I think I might have imagined her offering a shrug of her shoulders and rolling her eyes too, but I certainly had a better grasp about what Mike had meant about falling in the ditch and people kind of expecting you to do it.

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Gender roles in the classroom

Sexual stereotyping, and a tendency to stay within the most expected of role models it would seem is alive and well in the classroom. Or at least it is amongst the fifteen and sixteen year olds that I teach.

For several weeks now I’ve been working with them on a module about architecture.  It has been largely theoretically based focussing on contemporary buildings in our locality and via the internet, around the world.  All ninety two of the pupils I teach have completed this part. To add further depth to the assignment I include practical assignment at the end of the project. This involves producing an architectural design, firstly for the interior layout of a building (done on paper) and then for the exterior (done on the computer using Google Sketchup). I’ve done this assignment a number of times and know from experience this somewhat technical challenge is not everyone’s thing. So I have started to offer an alternative assignment in the form of a fashion design assignment. An architecture/fashion choice is always going to split pupils along a bit of a boy/girl sort of axis I suppose, but this year it is particularly pronounced. In the overall group, which is probably pretty close to 46 boys and 46 girls, just one boy (well done for being up for it Daan!) has chosen to do the fashion assignment and the number of girls selecting the architecture assignment can be counted on the fingers of one hand. I can’t recall ever seeing such a uniform division of my groups.

gender

It is all pretty anecdotal evidence of sexual and cultural role models in the classroom, but does perhaps hint at greater and more significant imbalances. This particularly the case when you look at both the pupils who choose to study art and culture as an exam subject in the upper years of school, and (not insignificantly) the teachers doing the teaching in schools.

I work in an art department of eight members. It is a group of diverse ages from mid-twenties up to colleagues in their fifties. Within this group of eight, I am the only man.

I am also the national arts subject leader for bilingual education in the Netherlands. In this role I regularly chair meeting for groups of art teachers. At such meetings the female/male balance is often of the order of 80/20 at the very best. A further observation and confirmation of the ‘female heavy’ nature of the sector was made clear to me last year when we were interviewing for a new department member. As I sorted through the pile of application letters and CVs I was desperately hoping that after thirteen years working in an art department of only women I might actually be able to turn up a male colleague at last. But there simply weren’t any such candidates to be found.

Don’t get me wrong, I have no problem with female colleagues, I enjoy working with them. Where my problem lies is what image this sort of situation presents to the pupils. It cannot be unconnected with the classroom observations that I started with. We really seem to have our work cut out in trying to persuading teenage boys in particular that creativity and artistic flair is something they could aspire to wanting to be successful in. It’s a bit of a paradox really, within school male artistic role models are at something of a premium, outside of school in the art, music, film, photography, theatre, design and architectural worlds there is an abundance. You could even argue that the situation somehow reverses itself, a problem that has often enough been addressed by women artists in the past.

Self-Promotion

websiteSelf-promotion is not my strongest side. I prefer to just get on with things. But if you are active in the creative world it is difficult to get by without some sort of website. I mentioned a couple of weeks ago that I was busy giving my website a makeover.  Thinning it out here and there and hopefully making it a little easy to find things when looking for specific detail.  Well after a couple of weeks of work in odd moments the result is finished, well kind of, it is difficult to know when this sort of project is actually finished.  I’ll no doubt continue to find things that need attention.

What in particular has been changed, apart from the way it looks is the section for my own paintings (the ‘studiowork’ section). I’ve created a series of galleries for various themes in the work. Maybe the next step is to write statements to accompany these galleries.

Click on the image to visit

Getting closer to Mondriaan…..

I should start by saying that love was my main reason to move from England to the Netherlands back in the 1990s. But having said that, there were other reasons I was enthusiastic to travel over the North Sea and experience life here. Top of that list at the time was the affinity and fascination I had, and still have, for Dutch art. Top of my list was Vermeer, I’d grown to love his work from the four of his paintings that can be found in London at the National Gallery, the Queen’s collection and Kenwood House. But along with Vermeer there was Rembrandt, de Hooch, van Doesburg and Mondriaan to name but a handful. It is a very rich land when it comes to painting. Two decades later I am still discovering new things and perspectives on this particular piece of the history of art. Today being one such day of discovery. mill Two friends from England were over and staying near Amsterdam in a windmill on the eastern side of the city. Whilst looking up where exactly we had to get to in order to visit them I was coming across information that suggested that there was actually a Mondriaan connection. Having visited there today it was confirmed, this was a windmill that the artist painted in the days before he had settled into his more well-known abstract style of later in his career. In the early days though he was very much a painter of the flat Dutch landscape. mondriaan And so from close up I came by a little more insight into this little corner of Dutch history of art, it’s kind of a nice feeling to have lunched in a place that seems to have changed very little since the artist painted his work back in the first decade of the twentieth century. Did Mondriaan also lunch in the subject of his work…..? Probably not I guess, but the sense of place is nice to take with me, next time I visit the painting in the Rijksmuseum or one of the other museums who have other paintings he made of the same mill.

It kind of fits recent posts…..

einstein

I don’t normally just post pictures, but it does kind of fit with recent things I’ve written. If I could just add two words to Einstein’s quote I’d say imagination and creativity will take you everywhere.

It certainly feels like a quote that fits my own various fields of work.

Digital lessons…does anyone still build websites?

Alongside this blog I have my own website. I use it mostly for two main purposes, firstly to present my own work as an artist and also to provide a storage and presentation space for my educational work. I am at the moment in the process of overhauling the sight, clearing it up where it’s got a bit unnecessarily complex or overly full and giving it a restyle.

Although this is quite a long and drawn out activity I do quite like doing it. The structuring of the site is an interesting puzzle, you try to work out the most logical and easy to follow construction for potential users. This is then combined with designing the look of the pages, which is simply something I like doing. Hopefully, within a week or two I’ll be able to upload the site, a job well done.

webdesignWhile I’ve been doing this I’ve been pondering a little about websites in general and digitization in education. I remember ten or more years ago we offered pupils at the school where I work workshops for those interested in website building. A useful skill it was thought in this digital world we were heading into. Pupils did battle with the horrible Microsoft Front Page, a piece of software that thankfully seems to have disappeared.

As I was setting in place the umpteenth hyperlink on my own site I found myself wondering how many people actually still do this for themselves. Despite the presence of plenty of good software out there to help, has website design, become the dominion of the professional? A bit like the way modern car maintenance has got rather too technical of the home enthusiast. How many people actually go through the stresses and strains of building and designing their own site?

To be honest I have no idea what the answer is to my own question.  What I do know though, is that alongside the software to help build a website, there are so many other alternatives. Services where you just have to drop your information into an existing template or a template that you have tweaked at the edges to work it into a form more to your taste. Everyone can thus create their own digital place. In education terms I also suspect that the move towards iPads and other mobile devices this tendency is only going to grow.

I’ll be pressing on with the redesign work of my own site, like I said, I quite enjoy doing it. I do feel a little geeky doing it though, especially when the maintenance of this WordPress site for my blog is so easy. Obviously we do still need the digital technicians to help create WordPress like facilities, but are the enthusiastic amateur web designers going to slowly go the way of the floppy disk? And would the pupils I teach have the slightest idea where to start on such a project?

A few would I guess, but a great many wouldn’t. Teenagers are without doubt huge users of the digital world, but are they creatively engaged and involved in any way as they flit from one site or app to another? The success of games like Minecraft would seem to suggest that there is some sort of a creative energy to be found, others are creatively productive in the use of online mixing desks for producing digital music or are making imaginative and experimental films in quantities that have never before been possible. Most though, are simply users and consumers. Those who are genuinely creative will find their way to be so, whether within the digital world or beyond it.

February…..cultural and educational frustrations

artroom

Teenagers are to various degrees and depths interested and engaged with the cultural world around them. They love to watch movies, they listen to music, they follow extended TV series, they take photographs, they are interested in fashion and what they wear, the architecture and built environment around them, the design of stylish cars, many dance or play a musical instrument.  They have the beginnings of becoming adults who later will be culturally engaged, not necessarily as active participants, but at least as active receivers and users of the cultural world around them.  There is an inherent interest, and in some cases the ability to perhaps take one step further and become someone who might actually have a part to play in the broad and varied cultural environment.

Having said all this, February is for me, a culturally frustrating month. It is the month where the third year pupils (14-15 year olds) that I teach are making their so called profile choices, selecting the group of subjects that they wish to study in their last three years of secondary school. For those not familiar with the Dutch ways of education, this means choosing a selection of around nine or ten different subject areas, it is a broad choice. Some might say that it is the strength of the Dutch system that you can keep so many doors open in terms of future study and career choices. Compared to the British system where I studied, it allows for amazing diversity, I had to be satisfied with just three subjects (in my case maths, physics and art) for the last two years at school in the UK.

Yet despite the wide scope of choice on offer, I and my art department colleagues are confronted each year by the same problem of persuasion of pupils to consider choosing a two hours per week of art as an exam subject. For three years the same pupils will have bounced into the art rooms for their lessons, for so many one of the favourite lessons of the week. Many (although of course not all) will have shown great ability and interest in making surprising and imaginative work. So what is going on here when it comes to choosing to take the one cultural subject that the school offers?

The overriding feeling that I have is that decision making is driven by a sort of safety first career related perspective. Pupils, and I dare say parents too, are driven by a career/financial mind-set. It’s a kind of academic subject equals good, versus vocational subject equals risky, view of the world. But it is a view that throws probably more than one important baby out with the bath water.   If I’m honest, I don’t feel that the advice that pupils and parents are often given helps this situation, it tends to reinforce the ‘safety first’ careers perspective and fails to acknowledge just how many people work in the art and cultural sector.

But in away the career building view is not the central point here, remember, we are talking about the art subject being just one of ten subjects on the timetable a pupil will be following. Choosing the subject as a career choice isn’t for many the most important or relevant point.  What the arts offer is something longer term. It is about giving our young people baggage to take with them into adulthood. Not baggage that will weigh them down, it is baggage that will enrich their lives, help them understand the world around them, give them perspectives on the past.  It is about developing opinions and encouraging diversity and insight in the world around us.

Sir, …..were you a Punk?….and the fashion of offence

During my cultural education lessons with my fourth years (15-16 year olds) I spend a little time looking at some applied arts. And amongst these lessons what better applied art to make use of than fashion. Nice and close to the range of interests and experiences of the pupils you would think. You might also think that they would relish the idea of the more experimental and progressive work of modern designers.

I acknowledge that I don’t teach in one of the more cosmopolitan cities of Europe. I actually teach in a relatively small provincial town. But even so, I am still regularly taken aback by the conservativeness of my pupils. Are there rebels amongst them? Well, when it comes to clothing, probably not!

westwood2I watched a film with them today about Vivienne Westwood that spent a considerable part looking at the Punk related fashion she, in collaboration with Malcolm McLaren produced in the late seventies and early eighties. We saw the bondage trousers and the near pornographic t-shirts that were intended to stir things up and to shock. The film certainly caught the attention of the class, to say that the pupils were shocked, in the same way that the general public might have been shocked back in 1980, wouldn’t be true. No, they weren’t shocked, they were bemused.  They just didn’t seem to understand why someone would want to confront someone in that way through what they wear. They also wanted to know whether I had been a Punk back in the early eighties, but I had to admit to being just a shade too young for that!

I guess we are living in different times.  I can think of plenty of things that you could put on a t-shirt nowadays that would be shocking too. The perception of the world today is such that a provocative statement of offense to others might involve a risk to yourself. It would really seem that sensibilities have shifted. We are exposed to so much through modern media, but simultaneously there does seem to be a creeping restriction in freedom of expression that didn’t seem to be the case thirty years ago.

Could the rebels clothed by Westwood back in the late seventies and early eighties have a place in today’s society? What shocks and offends today is not the same as what shocked and offended then. The Punk fashion point of reference seemed to be the establishment and society that was immediately around them. The explicit content that featured on their t-shirts then would probably now result in little more than a shrug of the shoulders of passers-by.  The global village nature of the world in which we now live in means that frames of reference and potential offended audiences are spread over the entire globe.