The results of a stay at home Christmas

It was a rather static Christmas break. For the second year in succession no trip over to England. But the result was more studio time.

Over the last couple of years, I’ve regularly posted my experiments with lino-cutting. It’s been generally a fringe activity to the paintings I make, but for now at least the resulting work seems to be the leading factor and taking me towards the next round of paintings. Time will tell, but the prints and collages are offering interesting possibilities to explore.

As ever the themes relate to manipulated landscapes, geometry and the geometry that is found in the landscape itself……..and there is plenty of that in the Dutch landscape.

Traveling to the U.K. with school children – tales of isolationism

For years I have travelled regularly with pupils from the where I work in the Netherlands to the UK.  In recent times these have been groups of around 100 children and eight or so teachers for an intensive week of bonding this large party of twelve-year-olds as a group, immersion in the English language, building a sense independence (for many a first trip away from home) and a first taster for many of a culture different to their familiar Dutch background.  There is so much to win from this intensive five days away from home each autumn.

COVID has of course thrown many obstacles in the way these last two years.  Such trips simply haven’t been possible to organize.  But as a school we are waiting for our chance to come again, and surely with time, it will.  But through the thick mist of Corona, in the way of so many educational activities at the moment, we catch glimpses of how the post Brexit world has changed the familiar playing field of our school trips to the U.K. The view that we are getting is one of absurdly complex regulations and requirements. The Guardian article below expands on this, and how the flow that for as long as I can remember has become a thing of the past.

Guardian article end of December 2021

Whatever your opinions may have been about Brexit, education opportunities have turned out to be a serious loser in the new scenario. Whether like my school you are trying to take children to the U.K., or maybe you are a young British person longing to spread your wings and pursue educational opportunities in mainland Europe, or perhaps one traveling in the opposite direction looking to experience British perspectives. There are undoubtedly many other educational losers to be found here.  It is very difficult to see where exactly the educational winners are.

Like the Guardian article says,

Morag Anderson of ETSUK, another British homestay company, said the government’s stance was short-sighted. “Give me a child at 12 years old on a school trip to the UK,” Anderson said, “and I give you a future higher education student, employee, researcher, entrepreneur, tourist – with family and friends … And a future parent, encouraging a future child to travel, work and study in the UK. Once this cycle is interrupted, there is no going back.”

I was very definitely not in favour of Brexit. It felt like the work of political opportunists pushing forward arguments that suited their agendas, and failing to see the broader consequences, consequences that now a year on, are becoming only clearer in a range of sectors.

In education our job is to deliver understanding, insight, and awareness in a variety of fields. Experiencing other cultures, societies and people is part of this.  In this regard Brexit has brought increased and maybe, in our case, insurmountable bureaucracy.  How can the depriving our young people of the chance to broaden their educational experience and their perspectives on the world be a step in the right direction?

A new generation exhibition visit

I often write and reflect on exhibition visits I make.  Last weekend took me to such a visit, but one that had a small extra significance.  My daughter Nynke and five of her peers, from the art school where they are studying. were presenting work that they had made in the last year or so. 

Apart from obviously putting their creative output out into a public environment the purpose was very definitely meant as part of a learning process of familiarizing themselves with all the issues and detail that come with exhibiting their work in a gallery space.  Things like the pressures, particularly of the last week of preparation, are only aspects of exhibiting that you can learn about through the experience of going through it all for yourself!

Personally, it was great to see Nynke’s work first hand and close-up.  Inevitably we have seen rather too much the last couple of years only in photographic form.  And so, on Saturday afternoon we joined a considerable crowd at the opening afternoon at the Omstand gallery in Arnhem.

The exhibition looked good together and the diverse work combined well.  But as a parent your eyes are inevitably very much on the work of the family’s next generation and Nynke’s work looked good in the space. It showed ambition to create complex and technically well worked out large-scale statements.  A proud parent moment!!

How I have missed education days like this…..

Finally, after a two-year break, today was the day for an excursion with pupils to a museum. The destination the Kunstmuseum (formally the Gemeentemuseum) in the Hague in the morning, with an afternoon visit to the Mauritshuis. I’ve certainly missed these occasional cultural trips out, but our pupils too. The group with us today were all 15-17 year olds who have chosen art as a final exam subject.  The the Corona-forced suspension of days out have meant that many of these pupils have missed out on first-hand cultural experiences that in more normal times we all take very much for granted. Two years with no trips that have taken them out beyond the familiarity of the classroom. 

Once inside our first museum, taking a look at the extensive collection of Mondrian paintings it was kind of clear to see, the pupils were enthusiastically lapping it up.  So much of the extra-curricular activities have recently been lost to us all in education, it was both refreshing and encouraging to see the response.  No assignments were needed, they just wanted to look and to wander round for close to two hours, on what was for many, a first visit to one of the ‘cathedrals’ of Dutch art.

After a lunchbreak in the icy cold town centre it was off to the Mauritshouse and a chance to see Vermeer’s Girl with the Pearl Earring, View of Delft and then on to Rembrandt’s Anatomy Lesson.  Our young cultural sponges still seemed to be soaking it all up, this time with the help of a museum guide.

Such a day out, with three teachers and forty or so pupils is a necessary luxury.  It is this sort of day that the pupils will remember and will bring their art history textbooks to life.  Staring out Rembrandt in his last self-portrait or seeing Mondrian’s meticulous steps from figuration to abstraction.  It is often a revelation for our pupils, a discovery of just how interesting a museum can be, even on a Friday afternoon!

Oh, how I have missed these excursion days during the last two years!

Caroline Walker – Windows – KM21, The Hague

Four years ago I visited an exhibition in London of photographs by Gregory Crewdson.  It was an interesting body of work of often lonely figures, framed by windows, glass and reflections also playing a part.  Before visiting the Caroline Walker exhibition in KM21 I wondered whether I might find some parallels.

Gregory Crewdson at the Photographers’ Gallery, London

Superficially there were some connections the framing devices and a certain voyeuristic peep into the domestic life of others.  There were links too to Edward Hopper.  But the bleak desolation of Crewdson and the melancholic loneliness present in so much of Hopper’s work were significantly absent in my experience of Walkers large and beautifully painted canvases.

Even when the themes of the paintings were the maids and cafe waitresses these images seemed to be presenting and observing simple moments in time.  It doesn’t feel like the artist is passing judgement.  It is more an observation of time and space.  We the viewer are left to contemplate and reflect on the situation.  They are paintings of our time, with the face masks being worn by the ladies in the bread shop.

In some of the compositions there was more than a little Vermeer to be found. Quiet domesticity, but above all-in a carefully constructed composition that had numerous grids, dividing lines and boundaries worked into the structure of the paintings, bringing more abstract qualities to the layout.  Bars of colour along an edge seemed to often provide an illusionistic bridge between the pictorial spaces of William’s interiors and the interiors that we occupy when viewing the work.  At one moment I found myself struck by the connection of the artists mother viewed through the kitchen window and the museum guard standing just a few feet away staring out of the gallery window.

These are paintings with simply a great deal to see and a great deal to enjoy.  I loved the fluency and liquid qualities of the brushwork, but above all I loved the contrast that the careful division and sub-division of the painting into areas and zones.  Windows, doorframes, edges of walls and windowsills are all put to work to bring a geometric order to the domesticity that has been depicted.

Cooperative and collaborative learning – lessons from the artroom

Arguing, discussing, instructing, squabbling…..call it what you will, it is all communication.  And communication is a crucial and live part of any classroom and in particular the bilingual classroom.  Here we are encouraging the pupils to practice and use the second language (English in my case) as they participate in my art lessons.

A well-constructed group/collaborative project forces communication, discussion, and consideration with others.  I often find myself saying to the Dutch teenagers I teach how much I love when I hear them arguing in English, it underlines how far that they have come in their mastery of a new language.

A well-constructed collaborative project may have relatively modest artistic aims but could have a very significant goal in the use of clear and concise communication within the group.

A class reworking of Guernica using collage of war related images and text

Such projects are a work-form that I have made a lot of use of over the years, I found myself hanging one up on the walls in school only last week.  But beyond the communication issue there are several other educationally sound reasons to be making use of such projects.

  • The result is ‘greater than the sum of the parts’ argument and a chance to produce something big with a wow effect!

There are many reasons why in art lessons we often find ourselves working on a relatively small scale.  Storage limitations, costs of materials, time pressures, large classes, the necessity for pupils being able to take work home with them, they all play a part.  A group project allows the pupils to see something different.  A large-scale project spreads across the classroom floor at the end of each lesson, slowly taking form and seeing how their own section of it contributes to the big visual statement that is developing.

  • It seems to force the underperformed in the group to up their game

Every class has them, the pupils who are content to do just enough in their work to gain a (just) sufficient grade.  It continues to surprise me how working within a group project, where their contribution is visually so obvious, the result is often that these very pupils feel the pressure to up their game.  There is, it seems, nowhere to hide, rather different perhaps than with a written group project. 

  • It shows pupils that often very complex and ambitious work is possible if it is broken down into smaller parts…..rather than feeling overwhelmed by the challenges ahead

This is perhaps most a benefit to those who are the more interested in art and want to produce the best possible results in their own visual work.  They suddenly realize that given time, and perhaps a slightly more systemic approach than they might usually use, could lead them too towards making more impressive and resolved individual work.

Tim Rollins and KOS

And on a personal note, it allows me to borrow from an important art educational influence, one who is responsible in part for me making the step into working with young people, Tim Rollins and KOS.

While I was still studying for my fine art degree, I watched a documentary about Tim Rollins and the Kids of Survival.  At the time I didn’t really have any plans to enter education, but the film gave me a glance into what might be possible.  I found it fascinating and inspiring.

About a decade later I was lucky enough, while doing my teacher training course in Utrecht, to observe a guest workshop given by Rollins to other students.  If there was ever anyone able to demonstrate the power of the group project it is Rollins, and a fantastic example of the “result is greater than the sum of the parts” argument I mentioned earlier.  Fantastic to see, and for a teacher in bilingual education, all the more inspiring for the way in which language, text and literature found its way into the work.

Tim Rollins and KOS on Artsy

Fifteen years on…….

Around fifteen years ago I made a series of drawings that were prompted by the increasing awareness of the storm clouds of climate change gathering on the horizon. Alongside this was the feeling that society and our leaders were showing little inclination for action. A human trait you might say, we prefer to sit on the edge of, or swim in, the comfort of our metaphorical swimming pool while the sky turns, grey, purple and black. 

We hide from the confrontation, preferring to seek the security of short-term comforts and pleasures.

My drawings weren’t complex, I’ve always thought that this was the strength of these particular pieces. The isolation of the apparently tranquil pools in the turbulent landscapes around them.  In other pieces figures stare into the pools that are in fact an Arcadian and idealized visions of the world, lifted from the history of art.

I spent Saturday on the streets of Amsterdam, along with 45000 other marchers, calling for greater action on the more and more pressing problems that climate change is bringing.  As I walked, I was thinking of these drawings in particular. I was also reflecting on whether I actually wanted to spend the day in over-crowded trains and walking with thousands on the streets with Covid cases again on the rise?  No, absolutely not. I would have preferred to have been at home, amusing myself in my studio perhaps. And there perhaps lies the problem, we all prefer to do those other things. We all prefer not to have to confront difficult or uncomfortable challenges. We can all do small things to contribute, but perhaps more than anything else we need to get our leaders to act and as a society we need to elect those who are prepared to act.

Today is the day to take my drawings out of the drawer and send them back out into the world, they are as relevant as ever.

Prussian Blue…..it can take over a bit

When I was at art school I made a number of drawings where I masked off with tape a geometric shape on a piece of paper.  I then took pure Prussian Blue pigment and rubbed it into the masked off area.  I pushed the colour in hard and the result was a razor sharp form (once the tape had been removed) with an inner area of the deepest, darkest quality that absorbed light fantastically and had an almost velvety surface.

Every since I have had a bit of a soft spot for Prussian Blue, I’ve used it from time to time, but as a colour it can have a bit of a tendency to take over. It’s intense qualities being on the one hand really attractive to use, but at the same time you find yourself trying to keep it in check.

Today was such an occasion.  When I travel around I often take one of my small drawing books with me.  These are mostly filled with rapidly made watercolour sketches of landscapes I encounter.  These in turn feed into my studio work, recently in an increasingly direct way.

I don’t pretend to be a great watercolour painter. Generally I only use the medium on a very small scale in my notebooks.  Today I found myself on the Dutch north coast on a somber day, with grey clouds racing across a heavy sky.  The paints and notebook came out of my bag.  It set to work on a series of rapid sea horizon sketches. I love making these sorts of images, fluid colours and flows, held in place by the taught horizon line across the double pages of the drawing book. 

Today though was different for one small detail.  Yesterday, my much preferred Ultramarine ran out.  In my small box of paints, just twelve colours, I was forced to dip into the rarely used Prussian Blue.  Cautiously at first I mixed.  The first painting reflected this caution.  In the second the depths of the blue started to become more apparent.  In the third it threatened to get completely out of control and had to be quickly neutralised with some Raw Umber. 

The results are a set of paintings that took perhaps twenty minutes to make, but are surprisingly different to those I have recently made. They are also paintings that I think may well end up being useful once back in the studio.  Today, necessity was the mother of invention and Prussian blue crept back into what I am doing.

A flash back to my place in the classroom as a teenager – creating a safe learning environment

Last week we had a teachers’ study day at school.  A day off for the pupils and a day to work together with colleagues without too many distractions.

The theme for the day was ‘Didactic coaching’, or put another way, improving the flow between pupil and teacher, clearer instruction, clearer feedback, and better understanding of the educational processes at work from both sides.

Photo: Wendy de Jong Thijssen

One particular aspect of the day has lodged in my mind in the intervening week.  It was related to the themes discussed I suppose, although didn´t get a specific time or place for debate.  It relates to the need for a `safe` classroom climate, a climate where all individuals feel secure in the knowledge that successes and failures are both part of the process.  Safe in feeling that getting a question wrong, or your work being used to illustrate a maybe less successful aspect than you may like, is acceptable, and as I said, all part of the group learning process.

Why did this point hit home for me last week?  Well, that has to do with the sensation I experienced when involved with a group discussion involving all 100 or so of my colleagues.  At this point our guest speaker was posing questions to us, his audience, and asking for us to reflect on and share our thoughts.  He was doing this in a perfectly reasonable way.

But here’s the thing, in such circumstances I find myself doubting, have I interpreted the question correctly?  Is my answer relevant?  I find myself wondering whether my mastery of the Dutch language (my second language) is going to let me down or has led me to misunderstand what is being asked (I should say that this is possible, but probably rather unlikely nowadays)?

With these doubts kicking around in my head I find myself sitting rather uncomfortably……just as I used to as a rather shy teenager in the classrooms of my secondary school.  It was quite a confronting flashback.

The experience has left me pondering how many of the pupils in my own classes might be experiencing something similar.  Are there children just waiting and hoping not to be chosen to join the discussion?  Or are the learning environments that I create more open and relaxed? 

I’ve asked small groups in my classes this week for their thoughts and views in this area.  The initial reactions are thankfully good.  But I’m only too aware that children often feel a pressure to give the socially acceptable answer and that, in effect, criticizing the teacher is probably as hard as it gets!  So, I’ll be probing again this week.  I like to think that everyone feels that I treat them equally and openly.  We spend time laughing together, sharing stories of what is going on inside and outside the classroom.  I think this all helps, but I’m not yet completely convinced and will be trying to speak some more to the quiet, shy ones this week.  The ones who I recognize parts of myself in!