Are there artists too difficult to use in educational projects?

Over the last few months, I´ve taught an extensive Pop Art related practical art project.  Pop Art is an easy hit in education, its accessible, eye-catching and technically not too challenging to appropriate.  We’ve dipped into the work of Roy Lichtenstein, Andy Warhol, Michael Craig Martin and others.  This year we started with a little observational drawing of pasta that later brought us onto designing repeating wallpaper-like still lives of everyday drawings, comic-book drawing and lettering techniques before exploring the making of multiples and repetition in the form of lino-prints based on the original pasta drawings.  It has been an excellent project that simply hangs together very well.  But like I said, Pop Art, in a school context seems to lend itself very well to such projects.

This appropriateness and ease with which Pop Art can be used has set me thinking in other directions.  Are there other areas of the history of art that are more, or even too difficult, for a school context?  The short answer to that is undoubtedly yes, the ones whose work dive headlong into truly adult content. but right now I feel the need to try and develop something new that perhaps goes off into more uncharted areas (for me at least).  Drawing on art and artists that are maybe a slightly trickier fit in the classroom.

Listening to a review of the new Francis Bacon exhibition at the Royal Academy in London has set me thinking further in this area.  Bacon’s work is confrontational and at times a little shocking, but I think his images could be interesting to the fifteen-year-olds that I have in mind.  Yes, they would have to be carefully selected and explained well, but I do see some possibilities.  The sexual references are, for obvious reasons, an area where we have to be careful in a classroom situation.  Art history is filled with references to sex and sexuality, but whilst the idea of a discussion about such a theme could be something I could imagine doing, the idea of taking it into a practical form is a minefield that I can’t imagine stepping into.

The brooding, slightly nightmarish quality of many of Bacon’s paintings with their twisted deformations are perhaps an area to explore in the near future.  I have spent time working with ‘violence in art’ themes with a similar age group in the past.  Representations of violence are of course, to the average fifteen-year-old, quite familiar territory, be that in the news, through movies or social media.  Opening up a discussion into how we respond to such images and doing it within the safe context of a classroom, does have persuasive arguments to support such a decision.

I see myself returning to the brutality of Picasso’s Guernica, Goya’s work and others before getting as far as Bacon. 

Pupil work

This idea is very much a ‘work in progress’ at the moment.  I’m sure there are others in art education who have dipped into this area before me.  Maybe I’ll come across them in the weeks ahead.  But as I wrote at the start, a little Pop Art in the classroom is a more straight forward route, or a bit of analytical cubism, portrait or landscape work for that matter.

On learning not to fear the chaos……of a printmaking session

For quite some time I approached the idea of printmaking with my younger classes with a degree of trepidation.  The bottles of sticky ink, the messy sheets for rolling out the ink on, the pupils walking around with their inked-up lino blocks and all the sheets of printed images lying around the room.  Potentially there is so much that can go wrong.  And it is exactly that which was making me nervous.  An understandable worry perhaps, when it is room of thirty 13 year olds that you are working with.

Group print work with a distinctly Dutch Delftsblauw tile look to it

But I’ve got over it, it seems I didn’t need to worry.  The strategy is simple, clear instructions and a good demonstration of the various steps.  But perhaps above all it seems, explaining that I am a bit nervous about the lessons ahead and asking the class to prove to me that I didn’t need to worry. 

After that I step back and watch.  Of course, I am on hand to help with technical problems and advice on how to get the best results.  But perhaps simply because of the necessary classroom mobility that is needed, there is actually a tremendous amount of helping and learning from one another go on. 

As I stand in the corner of the room watching it really does look pretty chaotic, but look again, there is also order and organization as twenty-five to thirty pupils busy themselves with the steps through the process: the designing and drawing, the cutting of the lino, the inking up, the printing, the washing of the block, more cutting, a second colour of inking and printing, the list goes on!

Each step brings extra knowledge, insight and understanding.  Each printing moment brings that exciting moment of the reveal of the printed new printed image.

Why did I have to worry?  Sometimes I wonder, especially as I gather the work of the class together at the end of our series of lessons.  Each pupil has made a series of two colour prints and added to this in the last session we made a large group work using single colour prints made in a grid formation.  I’m left feeling happy and the children perhaps ever so slightly amazed at what they have made…….although most of them find it fairly difficult to admit it!

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.