But she’s got no clothes on!

It was an unexpected and entertaining end to a Thursday afternoon with my first years (12 year olds). I’d asked one of them to give a one minute presentation on Matisse’s painting The Dance. As soon as I put the painting on the screen at the front of the class I could feel a twitchy unrest spreading round the class, particularly amongst the boys. The reason was the nudity of Matisse’s five figures dancing in a ring.

300px-Matissedance

You can’t teach art and support the practical work with a bit of art history without occasionally showing an unclothed body, I’ve done it often enough, normally with nothing more than an odd snigger. I’m still not sure what caused this particular class to find it all, well, so exciting! Not being one to shy away from a discussion I decided to try and contextualize the place of the nude in the history of art. The more I explained, the more interested they were becoming. It was kind of a mixture of twelve year old fascination mixed with a kind of perplexed disbelief.

Then finally came the inevitable question, “Sir, have you ever painted a lady with no clothes on?”

I wondered for a moment whether to carefully move the attention onto other things, but decided instead to explain that in art schools students are often given the chance to draw from the model, and that I too had done that in the past. In fact when I had first started I had produced one painting that had taken six weeks and the model, Jenny, had sat in the same pose every day. At this point you could almost see the minds of the class ticking over as they worked out some of the practicalities for themselves. A whole series of questions followed.

“How many hours a day did she sit?”

“How did she know she was sitting in the right way?”

“Did she take breaks?”

“Wasn’t it cold for her?”

“Did she get paid for just sitting there doing nothing?”

“Isn’t it a bit of a funny thing to do?”

“Did she wear shoes?”

But perhaps the funniest part of the discussion was as the pupils pictured the model’s breaks,

“Did you talk to the model during the breaks?”

“Did you get to know her a bit?”

And then…..

“Wasn’t it a bit funny talking…..er……to someone…..er….with no clothes on?”

….er no, she put her clothes on during the breaks I replied. You could almost see all the little pictures being drawn in their minds!

Like I said, it was a funny and quite entertaining way to end the day. There was an atmosphere of excited disbelief running around the class….especially amongst the boys. Only time will tell if it will increase the number who apply to go to art school in five years time!

The post aboveboard is a repost of a text from a few years ago. I was prompted to use it again having read it to my daughter who has been doing some figure drawing today. Next year she is likely to be taking the first step towards her own art school education. We were speculating as to whether life drawing would still have the place in the fine art courses that it had when I was studying. A second reason for reposting is simply that it really was a very funny classroom discussion!

 

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Art in odd places

I’ve got a lot of art at home. Some on the walls in the house, and a lot in my studio space upstairs. At least 95% of it is my own work, possibly more. I like living with my own work on the walls, it gives me a chance to look at it and to think about it.  However, that is not to say that I wouldn’t like to have the work of others in the space around me.

I posted a while back about a vague thought I have, to one day make a hugely accurate copy of an original artwork that I really like. How would that be to have around? A Matisse for company, that would be quite strange in my familiar (and fairly small) domestic space.

Famous art for at home

The context around an artwork has an impact on what we see and think.  The white cube type gallery space is an attempt to offer some sort of purity and isolation to the art as we view it. But as a context this sort of immaculate wall space brings a context of its own and a particular sort of serious art world baggage.

Numerous artists have played and experimented with artistic and environmental contexts.  It is the basic exhibition space for street artists and urban hackers and the likes of Alexy Kondakov have experimented with ripping high art subject matter from its usual location before depositing it in a new and contemporary environment.

Displacement of art and its subsequent relocation is certainly nothing new, Lord Elgin and the British Museum (plus countless others) have excellent examples.

But to return to the more domestic environment that I started with.  Another artist, responsible for a considerable output of manipulated photographs in this area is Paul Kremer, with his project Great Art in Ugly Rooms.  The images are packed with humour as the reverence that is normally given to these famous artworks is torn away as they are deposited in the trashiest, kitsch, chaotic or yes, just plain ugly spaces. What does it change in the artworks?  Well, quite a bit in many of the examples….we’re really not used to observing how the Rothko matches the curtains or how the huge gestural work or Franz Kline seems oddly to cope somewhat better against the back wall of a garage.

It is all entertaining stuff, but to can’t help thinking at the back of your mind about how many great works in private collections around the world must do battle with their own domestic interiors. How many are squeezed between a plant and over-sized lamp fitting, lost in a cluttered kitchen, or indeed become forgotten and left against a wall in the garage?

My colleague says she loves her job……

My colleague app’ed me the other day to say that she loved her job. I love my job too. We both work in the art department. This admission came in the context of a particular assignment that we are working together at the moment.

The project is part of a street art related theme and is centered in particular on the Little People Project by the British street artist Slinkachu.

Slinkachu’s own website

We were preparing the figures, similar to those used by Slinkachu to give our pupils the chance to work in a similar way when they visit The Hague for a day in a couple of weeks’ time. We were both doing the preparation work simultaneously on a Saturday afternoon apping photos of what we were doing to each other.

littlepeople

We’d sourced our own simple plastic figures and had them mailed from China. We wanted to deliver our fifteen year old pupils high quality painted figures with which to work and had decided to do the painting ourselves.

Why were we enjoying the preparation so much? Well, it was fun to do. Slinkachu’s art has a childish playfulness to it. Having presented the idea of the assignment to our pupils this week it is clear to see that they too recognize the element of childish play that is involved here.  Even fifteen year olds love the chance to play…..sometimes there almost seems to be a nostalgic view back to their own childhood activities! If I ask them to bring in the LEGO from in the box under their bed for an animation project, they love to do just that, and the excuse to play.

Picasso once said:

“Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.”

In this regard our assignment certainly seems to connect with Picasso’s thought.  But I think that it also relates strongly to why my colleague and I enjoy our work.  All creativity involves an element of play and experimentation.  An open minded involvement to our activity as art teachers has a free wheeling playfulness to it. When, as a teacher you are able to awaken this sense of playfulness in your pupils, the rest generally takes care of itself.

 

The power of the crowd (and small technical steps)

Many of my colleagues in school have something of a strained relationship with pupils working together in groups. It is probably also fair to say that many of the pupils themselves have an equally troubled experience with this educational approach. The main reason for this is the tendency for there to be children in almost any group who are just in there for the ride, benefitting from the efforts of others, without putting the effort in themselves.

I understand this problem and realize for many pupils and teachers that it is a thorny problem, but in the art department I have to admit to being a huge fan of group work. I certainly don’t continually pursue this route, but it is an approach that I regularly return to.

Maybe one of the biggest differences in the art department and a large-scale shared piece of work is everyone has to contribute, in a sense there is no place to hide! Failure to do your part is hugely visible and my experience is that very few pupils want to put themselves in that position.  It could be argued perhaps that working like this does put the less able pupils in a bit of a spot, the pressure is on, to perform to the level of the rest of the group.  My experience here though is that with careful teacher judgement and support even the most uncertain child gets the positive effect of having contributed to an in the end impressive whole.

But beyond that, there are several very positive reasons for my love of a group project:

  • It gives a chance to produce something really big, an artwork with a wow factor!
  • Pupils leave the project with a feeling of having played their part in producing something where the result often feels greater than the sum of the parts
  • It creates an energy and curiosity in the classroom, especially at the end of a lesson where the whole group are hungry to see the progress and how the total art is coming together
  • ‘Are our individual pieces going to be graded?’ is often a cry I hear after a while, ‘no’ I say, wondering the first time whether that would make a difference. My experience is that it certainly doesn’t, somewhat dispelling the thought that pupils only work when there is a grade in it for them.  The reward in this case clearly lies elsewhere, and not a grade that contributes to the next report.
  • Socially within the cohesion of the group involved there is undoubtedly a positive effect. On a small scale there are often discussions within the group about the connections with ‘neighbours’ in the group work.  These are often interesting to see as the contact takes an individual to all corners of the classroom group and not just their most familiar friends.  But beyond this and most importantly there is a total bond in the group, a completely shared activity to which they can all contribute, a true team performance.

With the case documented here, and its small scale individual sections, I have been given the chance to explore in a relatively controlled and defined way a small but important technical skill.  In this case it has all been about mixing colours and combining colours on the painted surface to get a more complex and interesting end result.  The twelve-year-olds with which the group was made are used to using colours direct from the pot, but a little less used to mixing colours and even less familiar with the idea of painting a single area with a multitude of different hues and shades. Certainly a very useful insight to give for future projects.

Click on the links below for related posts:

Larger than the sum of the parts

Tim Rollins and K.O.S.

Friday afternoons….

The last lesson of the week on a Friday afternoon.  Not the best moment to have to teach, but somebody has to, or are we to shut all schools on a Friday after lunchtime?  For me this year this has meant teaching H2P (13-14 year olds) as my final session of the week.  I’ve always had a last lesson of the week of course, but this one has felt a little different.  This has been the case for a couple of reasons:

  • Most of my classes I see twice a week, but for H2P I only see them once, so everything has to happen in the 60 minutes that we have together!
  • They are quite a jumpy bunch and come to my classroom shortly after having had their physical education lesson, making them a little extra tired, a bit more jumpy and a ever so slightly sweaty!
  • Before this school year I hadn’t taught any of them, meaning I had to get to know their own little ways and of course they had to get to know mine

It’s fair to say that they are a class that you have to learn how to handle.  My teaching style is not to dominate my pupils, I prefer to sweep them along with enthusiasm…yes, even on a Friday afternoon.  Having said all this though discovering how exactly to do this in our one hour a week has been a bit of a process of experimentation and discovery.

We’ve drawn, we’ve painted, done some collage and designed for the 3D printer.  It all went OK although it did take a while before I actually had the whole class traveling with me on our artistic journey.  Some of the boys seemed to be testing me out to see if it was acceptable to do, well the absolute bare minimum.  As the weeks went by even this group started to up their game.

 

The 3D printer idea was one that I thought would trigger the enthusiasm, it did for a few, but a significant number were blocked by the intellectual leap that is needed for working digitally in three dimensions.  To be honest I was surprised, but teenagers can really be as irritated by computer software as their grandparents!

 

The true watershed in the activity of this jumpy group of teenagers came in an intense drawing session, using charcoal that we had one afternoon.  In 45 minutes of drawing each child produced a series of six to eight drawings.  Which the following week I immediately rolled into the beginning of a lino-printing project.  Suddenly there was so much energy in the class, and all being channelled into the practical activity.

The last few weeks I have presented the necessary materials at the start of the lesson, the ink, the rollers, the paper and the lino, and then I have largely stood back and manned the drying rack making sure we start loading it up at the bottom and work our way upwards (why do teenagers always fail to work that out for themselves?).  The drying rack aside we have enjoyed a series of lessons where kids have been wandering with fully loaded inky rollers, others have been head down over their lino block, whilst others are frantically rubbing the backs of their paper trying to get the best possible prints.

Yes, we’ve had messy tables, messy children and occasionally messy floors. But we have also had children standing back at the end of the lesson, the end of the week, thinking wow, did we just do that.

The challenge for all teachers is of course to try and carry this energy into the next assignment…..I still have some thinking to do about how I’ll approach that!