Street art and birth control…..the connection

I do like a bit of good street art. You round a corner in an unfamiliar town or city to discover a permanent or temporary addition to the urban scene. Much of the temporary variety can be very sharp and engaging in its message, have a social or political point to make or simply be very funny. In comparison the permanent variety can often seem rather dull and unamusing, be it a statue of some local hero or oblique reference to the history of the area. Rarely does humour seem to have played a role in choosing the artwork to be displayed.

pill strip2The same can surely not do said of the newly unveiled public artwork in the Dutch town of Oss where I work. At least I assume that there must have been at least wry glint in the eyes of the commission who decided that this artwork should be placed between the railway station and the large chemical and pharmaceutical business on the other side. I had seen it being built for a week or two as I waited each day for my train to arrive. Initially I had assumed it was some sort of bicycle storage facility. But as the top section went on it became apparent that Oss too had made a piece of street art that celebrated a significant detail of local history.  But it was a rather unexpected reference, leaving me to suppress my laughter as I boarded my train.

The aforementioned pharmaceutical company used to be known as Organon and was a major producer of the contraceptive pill, and it was this part of local history that is being landmarked. What had been made was a fourteen by seven metre pill strip, complete with twenty one press out ‘bubbles’ for the tablets. It wasn’t until last week that I saw the piece in its full glory. For twenty one days the lights under one after the other of the bubbles is extinguished, thus counting the month away. Finally, after dark in the ‘fourth week’ all the lights burn red, subtle it certainly isn’t! The council had chosen for a giant, glow in the dark, animated pill strip!

pill strip

When seeing it all light up on a dark evening up you have to kind of admire the silliness of it. They can’t have been too serious about it…..can they?

Rather conveniently I am actually dealing with street art in all its forms in a series of lessons with some of my classes at the moment. We will undoubtedly be talking about the pill strip at some point. It ticks many street art boxes, sight specific, content and location connected, surprising, eye catching and funny….although I still have my doubts as to whether this was actually the intention.

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The power of the crowd

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 underperforming 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.

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 theatre on the 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.

Birds, birds and more birds in art

For a while now birds have featured in my own paintings as a kind of metaphor for nature and our relationship with the environment around us.  In fact I am in the process of scaling up a number of my bird compositions for a commission that I am currently working on.  The studio wall shows the early days of this process.

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matissebirdsMy birds are somewhat panicked flocks flying across empty landscapes filled with curving walls that carve up the space and flow from one canvas to another.  Whilst working on this project I have been coming across other birds in art, firstly Matisse’s paper cuts in the Stedelijk museum in Amsterdam, but then also the sound and video installation made by Marcus Coates at the Fabrica Gallery as part of the Brighton festival. The installation makes use of recordings of people imitating the sounds of the bird dawn chorus that have been greatly slowed down. The human recordings are then speeded up to produce a bird like sound.  All interesting stuff, but when combined with the video that has also been speeded up it really makes for a fascinating combination.

The film below documents the process and gives an impression of how it all fits together. It is well worth a look.

Language and art – Collective nouns

As a bit of a follow up to my CLIL ‘Word smuggling’ and ‘Homophones’ posts of a couple of weeks ago, here’s another art and language combination that dips into a quirky corner of the English language. In this case I’m referring to the interesting and unusual eccentricities of the collective nouns. Or put another way the special names we give to groups of things.

We’ve all heard of schools of fish or flocks of sheep. But there are also some wonderfully imaginative and surprising ones like a murder of crows, a parliament of owls or a bench of bishops. There are various online sources where you can find lists of all the possibilities and believe me, there is a huge choice. Wikipedia is one such source with a very extensive list.

collective nouns 1

Turning these lists into a creative assignment is a relatively simple process, simple enough to use as an assignment for a cover lesson when you (the art teacher!) aren’t around. I would normally explain it the lesson before, but for say a third year class (14-15 year olds) it all works generally very well.

The idea is straightforward, provide the pupils with one of the extensive lists of collective nouns to choose from. Give them time to consider plenty of possibilities. The assignment is to produce an illustration of the collective noun and the accompanying text, so encourage them to select one of the more imaginative ones, one that will provide an interesting image. Because I generally use this assignment as an activity for when I’m not present I like to keep the choice of materials relatively simple. My choice is for a very graphic illustration using fine liners and ink. Doing it that way I normally allow two lessons for a good result, obviously though there are plenty of other ways this assignment could be carried out.

The language learning aspect of the activity is perhaps not excessively high, it does however highlight one of those areas of language that you tend to get to grips with last. It does of course also result in material that could be put under the copy machine and used to decorate the language classroom.

collective nouns 2