Dare to think beyond the familiar – fashion design with teenagers

When teaching in the art room it is often surprising how hard you have to push pupils to get them to think creatively and challenge them to get them to go a step further than the familiar or their initial idea.  There are of course various issues that contribute to their cautious approach.  The pupils’ age, peer group pressure, the comfort and security provided by a familiar approach all play a part.  The whole general structure of an educational system that encourages pupils to think that there is often only a single way to be ‘right’ and an ‘interesting failure’ isn’t valued in many other areas other than in the art room.

All these sorts of thoughts occur to me often enough when working with the children that I teach who are all aged between the ages of 12 and 16.  But perhaps there is one assignment that I hand out once a year to the oldest groups that I teach that underlines the conservative artistic approaches more than most.  It is a fashion design assignment.  I should stress at the start that it is a ‘design’ assignment and not a ‘make’ assignment.  We have neither the time or the facilities to actually attempt to make the outfits that the pupils dream up.  In some ways this is a shame, but it does mean that the final assignment is only ever result in a drawing. This in turn means that the pupils can let their imagination run wild, their design is not ever going to be limited by their (or mine) abilities with a sewing machine!

I’ll be setting this assignment in motion again this week and I’ll be leaning heavily on the work of two designers who don’t necessarily let the practicalities of wearing of their creations be a limiting factor. Most of the pupils are aware, at least to a degree, of the catwalk shows from the various fashion week shows around the world.  They may, from time to time, have seen images of one or two ‘over the top’ designs.  However, asking them to push their imagination into these areas of creativity is very much the challenge.

The assignment that a colleague reworked last year to draw on the work of Dutch designer Iris van Herpen fits very much into these sorts of intentions and we will be making use of here creative process again.  Added to this will be photographs that I have made this week whilst visiting the Kunsthal in Rotterdam to see the exhibition by Thierry Mugler.   It was a very theatrical experience to visit the show.  Video projections met you as you entered the space and each separate room was referred to as an ‘Act’.  Some designs were stylish and elegant evening wear, but others were extraordinary for their exuberance strangely retro qualities. Bodices modelled on classic American automobile styling, sometimes complete with wing mirrors.  A series of ‘fembot’ cladding with their roots seemingly in the sci-fi cinema of the 1920s and 30s.  And finally, one outfit that was constructed with an array of exhaust pipes with clear motorcycle references.

I’m left with two thoughts.  Are these the designs to tempt my teenage designers to push the creative boat out, and are Mugler and van Herpen’s designs the ones to tempt the boys away from choosing the parallel running architect design assignment instead?

I don’t use much green…….

I’m busy working on a commission for a painting. It is a larger version of the circular ring formed paintings that I have been working on for a while now. For me it is also a fairly large-scale work, measuring 120cm across and that hole in the middle being about 62cm.

The most recent smaller versions have often been essentially the bringing together of two colours, built up in numerous layers to gain an intensity of colour that causes the optical effects of the composition to work best. The initial layers being put on with acrylic paint and the later ones being oil for a better surface finish and greater depth to the colour.

For this larger work I decided to continue with the dark blues that I have been experimenting with and rely on Windsor Blue being layered on top of Cerulean Blue and just a touch of Phthalo Green. The green part though has been something of a new area for me. I’ve been working this area up with a mixture of Permanent Green Light and Cadmium Yellow.

So far so good, but then comes those final layers of glazed oil paint to bring the surface quality to where I want it to be. This has sent be deep into the bottom of box of oil paints looking for the appropriate shade of green. Like I said at the beginning, I don’t often use green. A fact that was confirmed by the discovery of the 37ml tube of Cadmium Green made by Windsor and Newton that I plan to use. The paper covering of the tube has yellowed with time, it took a while to get the cap off the tube, but inside the colour was fine. I’ve bought many tubes of paint over the years, most of which I can’t remember where and when I got them. But this one is an exception, it is a last remaining tube (along with a tube of violet, what I also rarely use) that remain from a set I was given when I started my Fine Art degree at Wimbledon School of Art in 1987.

Thirty-two years on this Cadmium Green is finally to see the light of day and edge my painting towards its own finishing line in 2019.

 

Sprezzatura – Italian painting 1860-1910

I’m reading Fingersmith by Sarah Waters at the moment. It is set in Britain during the Victorian era. It’s an atmospheric and descriptive read that conjures images in the mind of the reader of life in the back streets of London, life in a country house and at points also a lunatic asylum. Waters’ writing is excellent at pulling you into these worlds, the people, the struggles of life and in the case of Fingersmith, the deceptions that could play out in these places.

I travelled to The Drendtsmuseum in the northern Dutch town of Assen to catch the last day of the Sprezzatura – fifty years of Italian painting 1860-1910 exhibition, wondering whether my insights from Waters’ book may be relevant in the way I viewed the exhibition. The seventy or so paintings from various Italian museums cover very much the Victorian period. In the end though, I have to conclude that I found only limited parallels and overlaps. Britain in the second half of the of the nineteenth century was of course a very different place in comparison to the newly established and unified country of Italy. Equally, northern Europe and southern Europe were in terms of landscape, traditions and politics also very different places.

 

The exhibition pitches in on trying to catch the diversity of artistic focuses in this period, but ultimately seems to get a little stranded in the middle ground between thematic approaches that artists took in their choice of content in the their work and technical and painterly innovations and developments.

We move from history painting to travel paintings, from gritty realism to luscious handling in idealized figure painting and from innovative painterly technical experiments to gushing symbolism. There is also space for sentimentality and tragedy. All in all, although I really quite enjoyed looking at the displayed work, it left me feeling a little confused by the switch from one sub-group of paintings to the next.

Italy must have been a country searching for an identity in this turbulent period, and in this sense the curating of the exhibition may well be an appropriate and fitting approach. But in terms of a clear direction or theme that helps the viewer work their way through an exhibition it was a difficult path to find.

In the train on the way home I’ll be returning to my book. Fingersmith certainly has an easier narrative to follow.

iPads in the art room

I might be jumping the gun a little bit in this post. But the school where I teach is considering a change in our digital device of choice. For about six years all the pupils at our school have worked with an iPad alongside their regular schoolbooks or in many cases in place of their regular schoolbooks. As a school we are on the cusp of implementing considerable changes in the way we teach our pupils and, as a result, it’s a good moment to be reflecting on the educational tools that we use. This is the reason why our choice for the iPad is up for evaluation. It could well be that in the end we choose to stay with the iPad, although I feel maybe the balance of opinion within the teaching staff is shifting. Might the future device we choose be a laptop or a Chromebook perhaps?

Within the art Department we are also reflecting and thinking about what we prefer. If I’m honest and look back to the start of our iPad experiment, in the beginning I wasn’t sure exactly how it would come to gain a place in my lessons. I too was new to the iPad and the possibilities the digital tablet may offer the creative wing of our school. Through a process of learning and experimentation the digital possibilities on offer found their way into all sorts of areas of my lessons.

I love having Internet access at every desk for researching and linking art history to practical assignments. I also love having every pupil ready with a stills or video camera to record their activities and document their work. It has offered graphics and page layout design possibilities in the classroom without having to relocate to computer classrooms to access desktops. I’ve done animation projects and photo collage assignments having simply first asked the pupils to download the appropriate app.

Possibly though, the area that I’ve grown to enjoy most, and in a way, has surprised me most, are simply the drawing and painting opportunities that the touch screen offers my pupils. Teenagers are often very cautious when it comes to putting pen or pencil to paper. Most are teachers have any number of tricks to try and loosen them up and tempt them into more expressive mark making. The instantaneous nature of a digital paper that the iPad offers brings different possibilities to this area. Yes, perhaps it is at times a bit overly disposable, but that’s exactly what helps. When I look at the decorative letter designs my 12-year-old pupils recently produced, and the freedom of mark making that they display, it is a considerable step from where I can get them to using pencils and paper. Also, when I consider the abstract designs that my slightly older 14-year-old pupils have produced using a different app. This work shows a speed of creative possibilities are so much faster than the comparable approach on paper would allow. It is not a replacement; it is simply something creatively different that allows them to cut loose and be considerably more experimental and ultimately more expressive in their work. In both cases these benefits can subsequently be drawn on and used in pieces that rely on more traditional media.

The art department enthusiasm for the iPad isn’t entirely shared by other areas within the school. Some colleagues lament the lack of a proper keyboard. Others would like to have a bigger screen. And many would like to lose the instant accessibility of the games put the pupils are so determined to play outside (and inside) their lessons.

I would certainly be interested to hear from any other art teachers and art departments that have been confronted with similar digital choices.

Using technology to make use of an analogue trick

The idea of making a panorama photograph using a modern camera, even the one on your phone, is simple. Select the panorama setting press the button and sweep round the 180 or 360 degrees that you want to capture. The teenagers I teach are only too familiar with this possibility. So when I suggest that we are going to have a go at creating composite panoramic photographic compositions using maybe up to fifty photographs, there is a certain amount of ‘unlearning’ to be done.

Talking our way through a number of David Hockney’s ‘joiner’ collages of multiple Polaroid photographs certainly helps open the teenage imagination to the possibilities on offer. Preparing the pupils to head out to take their series of photographs is an important point in the process. Young people are not to used to the idea of stopping to consider their photographic subjects too much, the instant and endlessly free nature of the digital image has changed that. Yet for this assignment finding an interesting, complex and maybe above all, spatial subject is crucial.

Once the photographs have been made, what Hockney would have done, puzzling through all the hard copies of his images spread across a large table is easily done digitally and without expensive or time consuming printing. Although, having said that, I am regularly surprised at the difficulties experienced by my digital natives in getting images off their phone and onto a desktop computer! Once that is achieved though, the photographs can be dumped into a single PowerPoint slide or MS Publisher document and resized to an appropriate format. After that the enjoyable part to putting the photographic puzzle together again can begin, experimenting with the layering and overlapping as they go. At this point I can normally sit back and wait for the final pdf documents to be made and handed in.

This year was the second time I’ve tried this assignment with the 15 year olds that I teach. Maybe I’d learnt a few things from last year, spotted and alerted pupils to potential problem areas when explaining the process perhaps, maybe they are just more creative pupils than last year’s group…..who knows! Either way, the results are, generally more ambitious and successfully worked out than the first time around.

Street art, but just outside the classroom door

img_0138It’s been a while since I’ve done this wall drawing project, but a new addition to our school year has been two dedicated ‘project weeks’. The aim of the project weeks was to try and get some of the interruptions that regularly come along during regular weeks (and disturbing the lessons) out of these weeks and into one compact session. This has worked to a degree, but has also lead to new projects being dreamt up or activities from previous years being revamped and inserted somewhere into the five days. My ‘street art/wall drawing project’ was one such example.

For the second year pupils (aged 13) that I was working with, this was an opportunity, albeit a rather short one (about two hours) to have a go at creating some large scale images, a welcome change to the A4 or A3 sheets that we seem to spend most of our time working on. The other challenges we worked on were creating three dimensional appearance in the taped objects and also plenty of overlapping. Both points were aimed at creating a more spatial illusion in the drawings.

An interesting and very useful reference point we’re the wall drawings of British artist Micheal Craig Martin.

The documentation of this project from a number of years ago can be found here.

The Image conference Brussels – has a conference ever fitted me better?

Two days in Brussels, the first ‘Image’ conference that I’ve had the chance to attend and I return home with educational batteries recharged, perhaps also feeling a bit physically and certainly mentally drained! But I don’t think I have ever attended such an event that has felt like it fitted me quite so well.

The thrust of the conference content is focussed on the role of imagery, in its various forms, and how it can be integrated into the language classroom. Most of those present seemed to be language teachers who were enthusiastic about art, film or photography. I arrived kind of from the other direction, an art teacher with a rather heightened interest in language.

Added to this there was an extra strand of presentations relating to refugees and immigration, a subject that I also explore in some of my lessons.

Highlights? Too many to name, but my colleague and I return with plans to place the medium of film more centrally into our schools teaching. Also extensive resources for the language classroom relating to refugees and other pressing world issues. Further there were keynote presentations relating to the use of art in the classroom setting for purposes of narrative and cultural identity and reasons to celebrate multilingualism in the classroom.

I’m sure that in the coming months elements of what I have seen and heard will find their way into my own lessons and maybe also onto my blog. My only regret really is that this relatively small conference doesn’t have a wider public. From my own perspective as a bilingual educator in the Netherlands absolutely everything I have participated in in Brussels this weekend is utterly relevant and useful to the Dutch bilingual context. It is such a pity that only me and my colleague were representatives of this particular educational stream.

So when and where is the next ‘Image’ conference? Well that is as soon as the spring of 2020……what will make it a little more difficult for me is that it is in Vancouver, Canada! Although for the North American readers of my blog it could very well be of interest. The conference after that? Well, I hear whispers that it may be the UK, a chance to take a few more of my Dutch colleagues perhaps.

Rineke Dijkstra, Rembrandt, Night Watching and our pupils in the Rijksmuseum

dijkstra1It is a strange experience to arrive at the iconic façade of the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam and look up and see the faces of pupils you have taught looking out from the huge banner promoting the museum’s newest exhibit. But there we were, just over six months on from the start of this unexpected artistic journey. Dutch photographer and video artist Rineke Dijkstra had completed her work and turned the many hours of film that she and her team had shot after closing time back in the winter, in front of Rembrandt’s Nightwatch, into a finished artwork. The result, a three-screen video work, condensed into around half an hour and is now being displayed in the gallery of honour, next to Rembrandt’s masterpiece.

For the official presentation afternoon our group, made up of art department colleagues, the girls involved in the filming and their parents were joined by various clusters of others who had been filmed. We all crowded into the museum’s auditorium where, after a short introduction, Rineke Dijkstra came to the stage. She thanked all the participants and went on to explain a little about the process and the intentions she had had when constructing the final video arrangement. In truth there was little explanation needed, certainly once the presentation of the artwork itself began.

Anyone who has ever eavesdropped on the conversation of other visitors in front of a famous artwork in a museum will understand the principle. The viewing of such a work unlocks all sorts of opinions and personal narratives. In the artist’s film we see a range of people offering their own lines of thought. These are sometimes very considered or opinionated, others are quite light-hearted or simply funny. It is into these areas of reflection that Rineke Dijkstra’s work, entitled Night Watching takes us. The girls from our school who participated provided the voices and faces of high school age. Other groups included supermarket personnel, art students, university students, Asian businessmen, younger school children and pensioners.

dijkstra2

The visual arrangement of three screens is not overly complex, but allows fascinating combinations to be made, viewing the same speakers from different angles, close-up shots and groups arrangements. All the figures participating were filmed against a stark white background. Our attention is fully focussed on the faces involved as one group fades out and another appears. This reduced format keeps us visually interested but also gives every chance to focus on what is being said. This in turn leaves you adding to your mental picture of Rembrandt’s masterpiece which, in the film, is never actually displayed.

Although the Nightwatch itself is never seen, it is hanging only a few metres away and you leave the video work wanting to check and reflect on these new observations and insights (both the credible ones and the less credible ones!)

As a teacher involved in teaching one of the groups who were filmed it is of course fascinating to see how your pupils are presented. In the case of these teenage girls the image is surprisingly studious and serious. Elsewhere in Dijkstra’s film there is a considerable amount of humour. Often, we are laughing with the subjects, but on odd occasions it feels more like we laugh a little at them too.

It is surprising just how open and forthright Rineke Dijkstra was able to get her subjects to be, but this is the charm of the project. Whilst the visual arrangement was carefully constructed and controlled, the reactions are anything but that. The gallery of honour in the Rijksmuseum is generally a busy but also a fairly serious sort of place. It will be interesting to see and if the regular visitors and tourists experience the humour as tangibly as my colleagues and I did.

The story of how we became involved

Rijksmuseum podcast with Rineke Dijkstra talking about the work (in Dutch!)

Brexit….three years on and three years back

brexit

This is generally not a political blog but………..I wrote the text below relating to my post-Brexit referendum views more than three years ago. I never imagined that three years on the whole debate would have reached the point that it has. Reading it again I despair, but I still stand completely by what I said:

June 2016

I left The UK more than twenty years ago. Not because I didn’t like it there, but because I had had a Dutch girlfriend, the Maastricht treaty had just been signed and this interesting opportunity just came along. It wasn’t always easy, certainly dealing with the bureaucracy in the early years was complex and at times, less than a pleasure. But now, all that time later, I have absolutely no regrets. I have, for as much as it matters, dual nationality and I feel integrated into Dutch society. If you asked me if I feel more British than Dutch, then I would still say yes, I feel more British. Your formative years as a child, teenager and young adult, are it would seem, just that, very formative.

Working in education it is a privilege to play your small part in helping steer young people through these influential years and giving them some extra baggage and vision as they step out into the adult world. At the school where I work, we make great efforts in broadening the international perspectives of our pupils, helping them see and understand wider contexts. We organize trips abroad, exchanges with other countries and work experience placements that sometimes take the pupils quite literally to the other side of the world. This is my Dutch educational context, but there are educational institutions all over Europe working along the same lines. The message is very much, ‘the world is your oyster’. With this as background it is very easy to see why the younger voters in Britain have been so despondent about the result of the referendum.

This week I have been asked so often for my thoughts on the whole Brexit debacle. I have watched from a distance with increasing disbelief. On Thursday night I was genuinely starting to believe that the remain campaign had done just enough. But no, headed by a group of opportunists behaving like secondhand car salesmen throwing their promises around a Pandora’s box has been levered open. What were the voters hoping that they discovered inside, a sort of nostalgic 1950s view of the country that never really existed?

There is clearly a very long way to go in this complex situation, and it does seem apparent that the likes of Boris Johnson and Michael Gove might just be starting to realize just how complex. A poison chalice? Maybe, time will tell.

This week, when I get back to school, I will doubtless be asked again for a perspective as one of two token ‘Brits’ on the teaching staff. I will talk about my bafflement at the behaviour of the politicians and my feeling of despair at the outcome. But above all the insular, inward turned message it gives. The world is a complex place, with difficult issues on any numbers of levels, it needs and requires cooperation and understanding, not distancing yourself when the going gets tough. My teaching I hope reflects this stance. I want my pupils to feel engaged and that they have a place and a constructive relationship in the broader world. Maybe if you plough through the statistics there are reasons for hope, a more open-minded youth vote may seem to suggest it. But departure from the EU restricts perspectives, limits choices and does little to help young people find their place and their voice in a broader world. I don’t want the opportunity that I had, and took, to belong to the past.

A secret art project…..and a unique opportunity

The post below was written six months ago. At the time it had to remain unpublished, an art related secret yet to be told. Things have moved on, I can now tell the story.

27 February 2019

I am writing this knowing that for the time being at least, I’m not going to be publishing this post. The reason for this is that it involves an artwork that at the moment is something of a secret and is related to the ‘Rembrandt year’ that the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam is hosting to mark the 350 years since the artist’s death.

The story starts two and a half weeks ago. My colleague Caroline and I were at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. We had split our group of twenty-two pupils into two groups and were receiving a tour from two tour guides focussing on Dutch 17th century art. Such a tour inevitably stops off in front of Rembrandt’s Nightwatch. I was elsewhere in the museum with my group when Caroline was standing in front of Rembrandt’s massive masterwork.

While the group were answering questions Caroline noticed that the group was being very closely observed by another visitor. Moments later the same visitor came and introduced herself as Rineke Dijkstra, the Dutch art photographer who is perhaps best known for her photographs of teenagers, awkwardly posing before the camera on apparently empty beaches.

Dijkstra didn’t waste anytime in getting to the point, she had been commissioned by the Rijksmuseum to produce a new video work as part of the current Rembrandt year. It was going to be along the lines of the earlier work shot in Liverpool of British children talking and reflecting on a Picasso painting without the painting itself ever coming in shot. The new project was going to have its focus on Rembrandt’s Nightwatch though……and the bottom line was, that she wanted to use Caroline’s group of pupils as a part of the project.

Two weeks of organisation followed, permission from school to participate, permission from parents because the group was mainly made up of sixteen and seventeen year olds and the willingness fo the pupils themselves to be involved.

Two and a half weeks later we find ourselves, after museum closing time in the essentially deserted gallery of honour, with its collection of Vermeer, Steen, Hals and Rembrandt works. But in front of the Nightwatch a temporary studio has been errected for the film shoot. A white cube, bright lights and multiple cameras. It begins, I think, to dawn on the pupils that this is actually really quite a big deal! We are introduced to Rineke, she also seems quite excited about the work to be done that evening.

One of the Rijksmuseum tour guides take the girls off on a quick tour of some of the other paintings to settle nerves (yes, only girls, clearly a factor that made the artist pick Caroline’s group from the masses a couple of weeks earlier). A clear embargo was placed on photographing the set or any of the activities around the shoot. No images were to find their way onto social media!

Then it was down to work. Rineke sellecting clusters of girls to join her on the set that had been created in such a way that the pupils were issolated against an intensely lit white background.

I stood, a little out of view. Behind three monitors streaming the input from the cameras, not unlike the multiscreen effect that I had seen before in the Liverpool work. However, unlike that work, where the children involved were presented in a row side by side, this time the artist seemed keen to experiment with different approaches and compositional devices. The girls were arranged sitting on a bench together, but with the bench lined up in such a way that it was angled towards the camera. The result being that the faces of the girls appeared almost stacked up behind one another, way more dynamic and perhaps more in keeping with the work of Rembrandt himself. The girls were encouraged to talk about what they saw, what they thought, no script, just spontaneous reaction.

Dijkstra also asked a group of the girls to look at the painting and draw from it in their sketch books. After much careful positioning and repositioning of the girls, and laughter and a little bemusement from the young subjects, Rineke gave the sign, cameras rolled, silence decended. The girls drew, they looked, they drew again. This time the shoot ran for a considerable time, in fact it seemed to go on and on. The concentration was palpable. Were these really the same chatty, and often enough, distracted children that we see in class at school?

The material that was recorded was fascinating to see, as was the process of work of Ms Dijkstra as she cast her critical eye over the detail of the framing of each of the cameras. One of the later shots that was made reminded me more of Rineke’s well known photographic work of teenagers on the beach and a certain discomfort that creeps through in those images. A row of girls took up position against the white backgroud, the Rijksmuseum guide, just out of shot started to talk them through the painting, an extensive and detailed monologue which went on for quite an extended period. The girls focussed on the image of the painting, following the guides descriptive speech. You saw their gaze move around the image. They remained standing and looking. After a while you saw an ocassional adjustment of balance, a dip in concentration, a momentary distraction. Suddenly you observe that ‘not completely relaxed’ mark that is present in so much of Dijkstra’s work. Simply by filming for just long enough that lapse in focus starts to show itself, both physically and mentally.

23 August 2019

At the time of writing we had no way of knowing how much, if any, of what was filmed would in the end be used in the film work. We’ve reached the point now though that there is a finished work that will shortly be unveiled in the Rijksmuseum. The presentation of the work Night Watching in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam is a couple of weeks away and the group of girls and us, their teachers, have been invited to the preview at the beginning of September.