I posted a week or so ago about returning to lino prints and the feeling that the medium was offering new possibilities. One week further and I’m feel more certain. There is still plenty to do, but progress is refreshingly fast.
When I was doing my teacher training, I distinctly remember one of my art history lecturers arguing that abstraction was simply not something worth exploring with teenagers in their early teenage years. Figurative art was the way to go, being more accessible, more linked to a narrative and simply more of an open door to them.
I would certainly acknowledge that figurative work is a more straight forward route, but to leave abstraction out of the picture seems to me to be a neglection of rather too much of the art of the twentieth century! Each year with my classes of 14-15 year olds I launch into a quite extensive series of lessons that explores abstraction from a number of different directions.
I can’t pretend that the first session is often greeted with some bewilderment, but as the lessons and assignments progress there is an increasing realization that there is serious work to be done and artistic decisions to be made.
I normally start by drawing parallels with the world of instrumental music (lyrics being way too much of a distraction). Music is closer to their world of experience and discussions around rhythm, expression and emotional tone are all easily possible. Also matters of personal taste can be explored. I use various music fragments to set the ball rolling, challenging the pupils to react with line, shape and tone to pieces ranging from the most minimal of Brian Eno compositions to pastoral classical music and techno rhythms. Each fragment produces its own distinctive results. The door towards abstract compositions swings slowly open.
We explore directional flow around and towards focal points in abstract arrangements. Graphic qualities in design, chaos and order, both working on paper and in digital work. We have also explored step by step processes of abstraction from a figurative starting point, moving slowly away from pictorial conventions. We have also worked with street maps as a starting point towards working towards a much-abstracted version that has often become essentially unrecognizable.
When working around these themes I often refer to the work of Frank Stella, and this year couldn’t resist the chance to dip into his work to explore the differences between illusionistic form (through the cones and pillars relief pieces) and the real three-dimensional space that these huge constructions have.
All-in all there seems so much to explore and experiment with and I have to say that often after a little initial scepticism there is an increasing focused engagement and they start to understand the considerable possibilities and freedom that these assignments offer. Do they miss the narrative? My impression is that they don’t really, they just focus on the choices and options that are on offer, and they are undoubtedly more knowledgeable and technically able at the end of the module.
Is it just me, or do the pupils at my school seem to have a new accessory in their hands in the corridors and outside the classrooms? Is it a new status symbol, a sign of who you are?
A few years ago, this would doubtless have been their mobile phone, but now everyone has one of those. No, it’s rather more lo-tech than that. I am seeing twelve and thirteen-year olds standing around waiting to go into lessons holding a disposable drink beaker from the coffee machine.
We’ve had such a machine at school for ages. Pupils have often sat around in the breaks drinking a warm beverage. But something a little different seems to be going on. I can’t say I’ve ever noticed them nonchalantly standing outside the classroom still holding (an often seemingly empty beaker). It might be my imagination, but it does kind of feel like this is some sort of performance. Are they trying to emulate or simulate something than they have seen elsewhere?
On my way to school each morning I am used to seeing the commuters grasping their first coffee shot of the day. But my pupils won’t have made the same observation on their bike ride to school. Could it be that they want to be like their (incredibly cool) teachers who are regularly seen walking the corridors with a tea or coffee on the way to the next lesson? I have to say, that also seems rather unlikely!
I can’t draw many other conclusions other than to think that it is a somehow linked to all those informal celebrity photos of this star or that star snapped walking down the street clasping their own personal favourite brew. A flat white or a macchiato for our pupils? No, I know for sure that the machine doesn’t dish out anything so exotic. In fact, I would go further and say that it is still the age old favourite sugar shot of hot chocolate that they are buying.
It is always nice to run into an ex-pupil. It doesn’t normally make much difference whether they were a model pupil in the classroom or not. It doesn’t take long for enough water to have gone under the bridge to allow a nostalgic reflection on school or even individual lessons to be easily shared.
A while back I ran into Philippe, an ex-pupil from four or five years ago. Philippe always enjoyed being creative in the art lessons at school and indeed probably most other things that she did at school. After graduation she headed off to medical school.
As an art teacher you hope that you have given such a pupil some cultural baggage that will in the future be relevant or maybe even useful to a young person as they grow up. In the case of Philippe I don’t think I ever really doubted that. She was serious, curious and creative in class. Things would undoubtedly fall in place in the years ahead.
Even having said all that, when I ran into Philippe in the train a short time ago, I was still surprised and interested to hear a connection between our art and art history lessons at school, that we were reminiscing about, and her medical studies. She had been returning to looking at art as a part of her course. This might seem a little unexpected but there are precedents for it at Stanford medical school and others.
On her course, like at Stanford, art history was being used to hone and focus cognitive and observational abilities.
Sarah Naftalis, one of the art historians involved at Stanford outlines a few of the key points of this interdisciplinary overlap and how the “productive ambiguities of art,” as well as the benefit of engaged, close looking without “rushing to assign meaning to what we see.”
Topics of the course included narrative, body in motion, skin and tone, and death, with doctors from the fields of family medicine, orthopedics, dermatology, pathology and anesthesiology leading each session.
“Bringing medicine into the space of the museum was a great aspect of the course — simply allowing different bodies of knowledge to exist under one roof. The medical students would sometimes use clinical vocabulary or concepts to describe works in the gallery, making for an interesting range of language in our discussions.”
Contributes Yinshi Lerman-Ta, another art historian involved in the program.
One important takeaway for him from the course, was learning to observe without jumping to interpretation. “I was surprised at how strong the impulse was to interpret the work, before I had actually observed the entire piece,” he said. The exercises the instructors led us through, describing what we saw objectively without commentary, really forced me to slow down and really see what was in front of me, without jumping to conclusions or interpretation.”
Sam Cartmell, medical student.
Sections above from:
Stanford medical school article
These sorts of medical/cultural overlaps are further explored in this Artsy.net article (along with broader discussions related to other medical benefits an involvement with artistic and cultural practices bring:
As an educator, and in particular as an arts educator, you never quite know where the cultural foundations you are laying may take your pupils to and what future relevance may be found. Once in a while though, like with my discussion with Philippe, you catch a glimpse.
When time is short, particularly studio time, it is difficult to remain patient. The feeling that every second counts as you try to squeeze creative time in amongst other, mostly work related, activities is a challenge. This is particularly the case when you are learning new skills, skills that you need before interesting results might roll out. The question of whether you are investing time that in the end will prove fruitless always nagging at the back of your mind.
This is very much the case when it comes to printmaking. Whilst an art student I spent a little time in the print room learning the basics. Since then though, well, nothing at all. Earlier in the year I bought myself a small lino press because I suspected that my current work might offer some possibilities to produce some prints. I’ve had a few sessions making some initial attempts, with limited success. Today I have been busy again, and for the first time I have looked at the results and thought that there are indeed possibilities to produce some interesting images. I’m not there yet, but am on the way I feel. More patience and more experimentation in the weeks ahead, maybe we’ll get there.