Drawing my work place

I draw quite a bit.  Whenever I travel one of my drawing books travels with me. In my studio work I plan and prepare using drawings (on paper or digitally) to plot the way ahead.  Yet in we’ll over twenty years working in education I have never turned my attention towards my working environment in the form of drawing it.

A while back I decided it might be an interesting challenge to pick up, and so a series of drawings began.  I’m still working on the series.  I don’t think they are ever going to become more than a series of drawings; I’m not expecting to take them into a series of paintings.  But they are starting to become something of a ‘complete set’ in my view.

In many ways they are fairly detached from the paintings I make.  Although they do share a certain geometric quality.  The architecture of the buildings l work in have plenty of interesting angles and lines.  Maybe that’s what kept me interested while I have been drawing.

A full display of the series, online, and quite possibly within the school is likely to follow quite soon, but while I’m finishing things off, let me put this first on of the series out there as a taster

Vermeer and me

The biggest exhibition of Johannes Vermeer’s paintings ever opens this week at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.  Twenty-eight pieces are being brought in from all over the world to present the most complete retrospective of the Dutchman’s work ever.  Like many others, I already have my tickets to visit the Rijksmuseum in early March.

For me though, this is more than just a chance to submerge myself in the quiet, stillness of the artist’s views of seventeenth century domesticity.  It is a chance to revisit the art that I was making when I first moved to the Netherlands.  At the time, Vermeer’s work was hugely important to me, and I was engaged with a visual and conceptual exploration of these icons of art history.

I was exploring the nature of the art object, the painting as it is found in the museum, the role of the reproduction of images in our experience of art and indeed the place that the re-presentation of art has in Vermeer’s work itself.

I made paintings, drawings, collages, constructions and even installation work.  It was, for me, a rich vein of work that seems on reflection a strangely perfectly fitting body of work for my own arrival in the country.

So, in the light of all the fanfare around the Rijksmuseum exhibition, my own modest online Vermeer display.  A small collection here.  A more extensive collection on my other site that can be found here: Vermeer series

Why didn’t I think of this earlier? – The graphic novel, language and creativity combined

I have to mark a lot of reports.  I teach a unique Dutch cultural subject which translates as Cultural and Artistic education. It potentially touches on all sorts of cultural themes, visual art, architecture, film, theatre, fashion, photography, street art and design in all its forms.  A large part of the subject is giving the pupils (aged 15-16] a kind of cultural orientation.  As teachers we provide the class with cultural input, experiences and excursions and the pupils reflect on what they have seen or done.

It’s a subject that I love teaching alongside my more practical orientated art lessons.  However, with quite large classes, and multiple groups to teach, the reflection part does often mean that a significant number of reports are written and in turn, must be read and marked.

Recently I watched movies in class with three different groups, around seventy pupils in total and the plan was for them each to produce a 1000-word report.  I decided to offer an alternative, partly because pupils generally like have a choice, partly because I know I have creative spirits in all my classes who love to draw when they can, and yes, partly for myself to break the boredom of having to read so many reports.  The new approach was to make a more concise report (and in terms of text much shorter) in the form of a two A4 page graphic novel inspired design.

I gave those who chose this more creative route an extended deadline that stretched over the Christmas holiday, hoping that they would respond well to a less rushed time frame.  Did it work as I would have liked?  Yes absolutely, both in terms of content and design.  And oh, so more enjoyable to grade and give feedback on.

Educational aims

The purpose of the assignment is to require the pupils to think carefully about the film we watched and to reflect on how the skills and approaches used by the film makers have been applied.  Ultimately, they are required to explain their own opinions of the film involved, its strengths and its weaknesses.  Having looked through the resulting pieces of work I think I would say that by having to think about which images from the film to recreate the pupils have taken an extra reflective step before beginning on the creative work.

A second, and for me significant extra aim, is for the pupils to combine the use of language with image making and creativity.  My lessons are taught in English, which for these Dutch pupils, is their second language.  The graphic novel form forces a lean and to the point use of language in the text. This is certainly a skill worth learning alongside considering how image and text can be integrated and support one another.

I’ll certainly be using this graphic novel inspired work form again.  I find myself wondering if it could be applied in other areas, a book review perhaps?  Or could it go further?  A diary of a school exchange to another country as a graphic novel, a report on a biology dissection lesson as one?

Anni and Josef Albers – Kunstmuseum The Hague

When you visit a show that features Josef Albers you can feel fairly sure that the twenty year long Hommage to the square is going to feature. But the exhibition at the Kunstmuseum in The Hague that is nearing its end now, offers a whole lot more.  Yes there is the room that features fifteen variations of the long running series, including a mesmerizing and large yellow composition. 

But Mr Albers is very much only half the story. There is Mrs Albers too. Anni, 11 years the junior of her husband is every bit as important in the display. Her textiles, graphics and drawings are every bit as eye-catching with their rhythmic repetitions and wandering lines that remind me of so many artists that were still to make there artistic mark in the second half of the twentieth century.

The work of both artists has a modest scale, you are drawn in to stand close and look carefully. A scale that is not dissimilar to my own paintings and drawings. I wondered beforehand if I would discover anything during my visit that may find its way into my own studio, and yes, I think I have. I’ve been folding landscape spaces in recent paintings and drawings, maybe there is something I will be able to do with Josef Albers Steps from 1935.

Steps, Josef Albers, 1935

A Chess set and a social experiment

A couple of weeks ago I wrote a post entitled Collaboration, social flow and a search for a school vision.  It was prompted by an afternoon of brainstorming by the teaching staff about the sort of school of the future that we wanted to achieve in the forthcoming years. At the table I sat at, with a group of five of us we found ourselves focussing rather on the social aspects of education.  Exam results are important, but the feeling we had was that a well-functioning social environment is also extremely important.  The sense of well-being, at all levels, of an educational institution also has a significant role to play in a healthy learning environment.

My own personal feeling is that the general levels of social engagement should be given more priority and we should be considering ways of facilitating interaction and in the long-term improving a feeling of wellbeing between pupils and pupils, staff and pupils and indeed also amongst the staff.

I left the discussion afternoon with the feeling that I wanted to do something.  I reflected back on my own secondary school days and remembered with fondness the inter-year football league that was played during the lunch breaks and featured a couple of teams made up of the teaching staff.  It did, back then, undoubtedly bring the school together. 

I’d been sitting on an idea, not unrelated to this, for a while.  A modest step that I could perhaps individually realize.  I decided I was going to make a large-scale chess board and accompanying pieces and then just one day leave them standing in the hall at school, take a step back and see what happened.

Two weeks later after many before and after school drawing, sawing and painting sessions I was finished, plywood pieces on a 120×120 cm board.  I carried it down to the hall after the lunchbreak.  A few groups of pupils were sitting around, taking it easy during a free lesson.  I set it up, took a photo for myself and withdrew to the balcony around the hall to look down on my handy work.  I really wasn’t sure, were the pupils at the school really waiting for a giant chess set?  Would they play?  Would there respect the pieces and leave them where they are meant to be?  Would it just become an ornament that nobody touched?  I had no idea.

I needn’t have worried, literally within two minutes the first game started. The early signs were good!

Since then, we’re a week further on, the board has been in virtually constant use, from early in the morning until the very end of the day. Serious players, beginners and everything in between, often with large groups watching and discussing the action.  It has been such a pleasure to watch.

Often it really hasn’t been the groups of pupils that I’d expected to see.  The problem cases, required to stay behind at the end of the school day have been playing, the youngest in the school, the oldest and yes, the staff too.  I really seems to be working the way I hoped, its fabulous to see, dare I hope that it will continue?  The signs are good, but I’m realistic enough to know that we will have to wait and see!

I find myself pondering what to do next. I have a number of possibilities, but perhaps first up is a sister board for the chess set, but this time the popular Dutch game dammen, comparable to draughts, but played on a larger board and a few small differences in rules. An extra job for after the Christmas holidays!

Contrasts in art – Labour of Love, By Wim Delvoye

Contrast is important in art.  An intense black and white drawing by Seurat, rice colour contrasts in a Van Gogh painting or a lonely or an isolated Anthony Gormley figure in the vastness of the Thames and London skyline.  But I have rarely visited an exhibition where contrasts of content have collided with such directness as the Belgian artist Wim Delvoye that is currently at the Noordbrabantsmuseum in ‘s Hertogenbosch. 

There are sparkling laser-cut steel used to rebuild Gothic cathedral architecture into the form of cement mixers and dumper trucks. Heraldic crests are displayed on ironing boards and gas cylinders decorated to make them look like they are constructed from Delftsblauw ceramics, and that is just in the first room of the exhibition. 

Throughout the show the work displayed is playful, at times mischievous but always immaculately made.  The collisions of content that Delvoye manipulates are carefully considered and combined visually is a way that captures the attention, draws you in to look closer and in doing so encourage you to give the work the time it deserves.  The intricately carved forms cut into heavy duty tires, tattooed and flayed pigs’ skin or the bent, reformed and twisted crucifixion sculptures, there is a great deal to see and think about. 

While I’m not sure that Delvoye’s work will find its way directly into my own creative practice, but I have previously used a little of his work in my lessons and I can certainly see myself extending that.  A series of lessons I give on surrealism and surreal combinations of two objects really seems to be crying out for his input and influence! 

Are these the best paintings I’ve ever made?

Yes, I’ve thought that before.  In fact, almost always the most recent work feels like it’s the best.  You are most in tune with the newest creative processes and the ideas attached to them.  But having said all that, these recent pieces to feel like particularly good ones.

I seem to be finding potential of the ideas and approaches that started to take an initial form back in January.  They paintings are slow and labour intensive to make, but the results are good.  Bringing together visually interesting compositions, with landscape, seascape, weather, and the disrupted effect we are having on our environment.

The result……elements of beauty and elements of fragmentation.

Collaboration, social flow and a search for a school vision

This week, together with colleagues I spent a couple of hours brainstorming a way towards formulating a new school mission/vision plan.  Prior to the afternoon I’d already given the subject some thought.  I’ve been doing it quite a bit since the Covid interruptions that started back in 2020.  What sort of school environment do I want to work in, and what do I miss at the moment.

Exam results are a subject that often raise their head in such discussions.  They are a very tangible piece of evidence to the successes or failures in any school.  But an overly focussed attention on this the academic success of an institution often leads to a vicious circle of pressure.  Teachers need to perform better to squeeze the best out of their pupils, pupils need to work harder and focus more on the teachers’ message, and the teachers need to be more aware of the needs of their pupils when constructing their lessons, and the pupils need to make the best use of what the teachers offer them.  It all sounds obvious and sensible enough, but this upwards educational spiral can equally become a downward one where pupils point fingers and the shortcomings of their teachers and teachers lament the failures of their pupils.

Within this educational pressure-cooker the pressure builds on all involved, and in the end reaches into most corners of a school.

One of the things that came out of the productive discussion table I found myself sitting at during the mission statement discussions this week reached into this area.  It touched on areas of well-being and state of mind amongst staff and pupils at school, and how by addressing shortcomings in this area we might contribute positively to relationships between:

Staff and staff

Pupils and pupils

and

Pupils and staff

It’s a personal view, but in the classroom, I generally think that we have too much of a ‘them and us’ view when considering the educational process.  Staff and here to teach and pupils are here to learn.  Of course, this is true to a degree, we are in the process together, there should be more space for a sense of ‘we are doing this together’ as opposed to ‘you have to do this’.

We seem to escape this ‘them and us’ relationship on occasions in education, on a school trip, exchange or excursion, a snippet of doing things together, but get back to school and things seem to change back again.

Togetherness, contact and collaboration were, for me, the key words in our brainstorm session.  Steps towards a greater sense of positive wellbeing, where pupils and staff work together on a better flow of contact that stretches beyond the academic level.  Get this right and it will surely bring its own contribution to the academic performance.

Let me repost an earlier piece I wrote on the artist/educator whose work made me first take steps towards entering teaching.  Tim Rollins knew the importance of working together and the benefits it could bring.

Tim Rollins and collaborative educational processes

A treasure hunt, art history and language (CLIL assignment)

When you make an artwork, I’ve always felt that you need to create some sort of hook of fascination in the work that the viewer latches onto quickly and that will hold them long enough to take a proper, more considered view.  Good lesson material is similar, in that you need to catch the learner’s attention, once you have that you then take them to the content that you want them to encounter and understand.  Below is an example of such an approach.

Over the years I have written a large amount of lesson material, my OneDrive and the various websites that I have created are full of it.  One of the problems that arises with this is that you sometimes forget or overlook something that you made at some point that was good material and worked well.  I rediscovered this week exactly such an example.

With the twelve-year-olds that I teach I include a series of lessons that are centred around Renaissance and Northern Renaissance themes.  For our practical lessons we look at one-point perspective and we make a clay monster inspired by Hieronymus Bosch.  The “forgotten” lesson material though was a little art history lesson based around the Tower of Babel by Pieter Bruegel the Elder from 1563.  I´m not required to teach anything about this particular painting, it certainly isn’t in a fixed curriculum.  This is simply about encouraging pupils to look and to think carefully about pieces of art, trying to show them that art history doesn’t have to be a dry and stuffy place.

The Tower of Babel is great for this.  It has a simple story that is not difficult to understand, it is painted in a very realistic way, but above all, it is packed full of action and detail.  It is this level of detail that is the vehicle for this simple language and art history assignment.

Basically, my aim is threefold:

  • Get the pupils to look carefully and in detail at the artwork
  • Ask them to create language output inspired by the discoveries they make in the artwork
  • Create a fun and playful way of learning that has a gentle form of competition to it using a sort of scavenger-hunt principle

The whole lesson is hung up around the availability of extremely high-resolution photographs of artworks that can be found at various online locations.

Tower of Babel high/resolution image

I ask the pupils to get this image open on their laptop screen and first have a good look round the picture, zooming in and zooming out, taking a good look at everything that is going on.

Then I start my PowerPoint up at the front of the class.  Each slide shows a very zoomed in piece of detail from the painting, along with an arrow pointing above, below or to a side of the detail.  There is also a word, maybe `climbing` for example.  The idea is simply to±

  1. Find the detail in Bruegel´s original work
  2. Look just beyond the detail in the direction of the arrow
  3. Describe or explain what is going on in this `beyond` area, but the sentence that you form MUST include the given word in exactly the form it is given

Returning to this assignment for the first time in a few years it was great to see the pleasure that was had by this particular group of twelve-year-olds, They were searching around a nearly 500 year old painting, laughing at some of the more quirky discoveries they made.  They were enjoying looking at and exploring for themselves a jewel from art history.  Added to this they were also constructing often quite complex English sentences in what is their second language.

I´ll be doing my best not to overlook this half hour activity again next year!

For anyone interested in trying the assignment, my PowerPoint can be found below.

Studio day

Linoprint and watercolour collage

There was actually rather more got done than just this lino-collage. But this one did get finished. An experiment to try and speed up the process development and testing of ideas that can run alongside the current rather labour intensive paintings. This one being a step further on a previous painting.