The summer 2020 sketchbook

This summer has been different. Not a completely stay at home holiday, but one that hasn’t seen me cross the Dutch borders. Like most holidays I document the trips we make in a small drawing book. No great aims or ambitions, just quick visual notes of where we go. That has meant images of forests, heathlands, the rivers and the coast.

Click here or on the image below to browse through the book.

I have quite a collection of similar books on the shelf in my studio. This is the first one that I’ve put into digital form. The quality is not too bad, and it is in the end a nice record of the ‘Corona summer’.

There connections to my other paintings that I produce is limited, although maybe there is just starting to be increasing convergence. A long over-due update and documentation of my studio work from 2020 should hopefully follow sometime in the coming weeks.

Art and language project – Merletcollege

Around this time of the year, about a month into the new school year, I visit a neighbouring school for a language and art project day.  I work with a class of 25-30 twelve year olds on a variety of language and art based activities for an intense six hour session, using my abilities as both an art teacher and a native speaker of English to my full advantage.

This year was no different, except for the obvious presence of a number Corona classroom rules and the fact that the normal presentation to parents at the end of the day wasn’t allowed to go ahead. Due to this reason I offered to put together a slightly longer blogpost than I might have done to offer parents a little more insight into the day.

I should perhaps start by mentioning, for those not entirely familiar with the situation, that the class of twelve years involved were Dutch children who have three weeks ago started on a bilingual educational programme that involves most of their regular subjects (including art) being taught in English. It is just the start of language immersion project that they are going to be involved with for the next six years.

But for the group at the project day it is very early days.  The main aims of the workshop is to get them to hear a lot of English, to let them play with the language a little but above all to start chipping away at the nervousness they have about speaking a new language and helping them worry a bit less about the mistakes they make.

The whole day had a bit of a journeys and traveling theme and started with a whole series of questions about trips that the pupils had made in the past, how they got to school and where they hope to go in the future.

We played story making games about imaginary and fantastic journeys. We looked at how artists had painted pictures of faraway places and looked and guessed at where the cities were meant to be.  We played an alphabet game where we tried to think of a different city that started with every letter of the alphabet and the second time through the alphabet thought of descriptive words for each letter that could be matched with a city.

The language games were mixed up with more arts and creative activities. Decorative and descriptive name tags were made for cities on our large shared artwork.  Skyline collages were cut-out and added to the map as a sort of frame and a large scale group drawing of a view of London was made. 

Some more focussed, and written language output, came in the form of Haiku poems about the cities of the world.  Each pupil doing their best to follow the traditional haiku structure of five syllables in the first line, seven in the second and five again in the third.  This asks a particular sort of playing with language and using the vocabulary that you already know as well as you can.  The results, even for such new language learners, are surprisingly good.

All in all it was a very intensive day and a little different from a regular day with its switches from one classroom to another. I arrived home a little worn out by it all, and I expect the same could probably said for the pupils.

Three weeks open again

Three weeks into the return to school, time to make up the balance a bit.  Three weeks of up to 30 children in the classroom and me the teacher trying to maintain a one and a half metre distance from them, in the classroom and in the corridors and also a similar distance from colleagues in the staffroom (actually probably the most tricky challenge!).

Front on teaching, teacher at the front talking and explaining (ironically the sort of teaching that for years we’ve been told is educationally the least effective) works fine. The tables in my classroom have been all moved back a bit to give me more ‘safe’ space at the front, so I have to shout a bit louder at times, but that is fine.  The first week or so was quite a bit of explaining so I left at the end of the first week feeling that distance had been maintained well. But then the practical activities started…..

Once again you explain from the from, examples on the screen and the pupils get started. Soon enough the questions and queries start to come. And after those come the specific enquiries about particular (often small) details on a piece of work.  You want to see, you want to help, you want to instruct and even demonstrate.  You quickly realise just how much of your job you spend shoulder to shoulder with your pupils, how often you stand amongst them. It is all part of classroom life and especially art classroom life. 

In some ways normal classroom life has returned, the faces at the desks. But at the same time that it is anything but normal. I find myself asking whole groups of pupils to hold up their work for me to check that they are roughly on the right lines whereas in the past I would have had multiple one in one exchanges.

The crucial teaching tool of your physical presence has been taken away. You can’t go and stand closely behind the unruly individual in the back row and teach from there (right into his or her ear!).  So much looks the same, but so much is different.  At the moment my pupils seem to respect my space, but we all know how forgetful pupils can be. Time to print a “don’t stand so close to me” t-shirt for the weeks and months ahead…..although I am fully aware when Sting wrote those lyrics he was referring to a very different situation!

How long will we be teaching like this? Well that is of course anyone’s guess right now. Right now its one week at a time, but I have to admit to often finding myself thinking about all the projects I want to offer this year, and wondering which ones to save and hold back for a potential online situation.

Some things would just never work in an online lesson

There are quite some contrasts in the emotions of being back in the classroom. I would be lying if I said that I was totally happy and comfortable to be back in the classroom. Having said that, it is great to be back doing some physical teaching and pushing the pupils to experiment and try activities and approaches that simply wouldn’t be possible in the distant learning situation.

One such example from yesterday.  The context was an initial session at the beginning of a series of lessons about abstraction in visual art.

Later on there will be assignments giving the pupils the chance to create abstract compositions that focus on dynamism and flow in an image, but today I wanted to get my group of fourteen year olds to loosen up, experiment with abstract mark-making and to draw a parallel with the abstract language offered by music.

Using eight different pieces of instrumental music and applying different ‘rules’ to each drawing a sheet of increasingly wild drawings was made.  We had fun, they smiled and laughed on seeing their own and the results of others. They were engaged and curious. The results made were maybe not of great artistic merit, but they were part of a process leading onto other things.

Would this lesson have worked online? Without a doubt it would not. Of course I could have played the music to them via the computers. I could also have asked them to have had paper and pencils ready. I could even have given exactly the same explanation about what they had to do. But still it would not have worked. Such a lesson (and there are many more in all areas of education) only work because you are sharing and participating together in an activity. It is perhaps not dissimilar to going to a theatre to watch a stand-up comedian or watching it alone on your laptop. The material might be the same but the experience isn’t.

We are social creatures and also social learners, being part of a group of peers, together with a teacher, brings a dynamic that rarely occurs in the online environment. In an art room context it is a dynamic that can be used to push learners further as they look over their shoulders and respond and react to the work that others around them are doing.

….five months later, a cultural recharge, and one work that kind of stood out

Exactly five months ago I visited the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam to see the Bernini and Caravaggio exhibition that was to be the big crowd pleaser exhibition in the late winter and early spring months. I had little idea at the time within a month the museum (and all museums in the country) would be closing and that my next visit to one would be close to half a year later and would be a feature of my stay at home summer holiday of 2020.

So here we are then, all that time later, and I have had my first cultural recharging of batteries from a visit to the MORE museum for modern realist art in the small town of Gorssel in the Eastern part of the Netherlands. Although the museum has been open now for a number of years and is only about 60km from where I live, it was still my first visit.

Strict protocols were in place, a pre-booked entrance time, a time limit of 90 minutes in the museum, a fixed route through the collection and no doubling back on the route.  All rather  unfamiliar and not my normal all over the place style of making my way through an exhibition.  Still, times change, and yes I was glad to be there, I’ve missed the chance to look and ponder.

MORE offers a collection of Dutch realists, many from the first half of the twentieth century alongside some more contemporary work. It’s an interesting collection, much of which is painted with an intensity and level of rechnical achievement that draws you in to take a closer look. The same could certainly be said of the work of Jan Mankes. I have rarely seen such small and intense paintings, some I liked, some I didn’t and some were just simply strange!

There was also an extensive display of the work by Jan Beutener. Figurative paintings, but ones with a strong awareness of the abstract qualities in the way his compositions are constructed. All very likable work, especially for someone like me whose own work walks a line between abstraction and figuration.

One work by Beutener should get an extra mention though. A painting from 2008, entitled With distance and featuring a face mask. It must have been included in the show as a knowing reference to the last months

Jan Beutener, With distance, 2008

Reflections on the 2019-20 school year

And so we come to the last week of a bizarre educational year. 2019-20, the Covid year, the distance learning year, the struggling to keep in touch with your pupils year. It’s perhaps a good moment to reflect a little.

For me, in many ways the first seven months were very much a more of the same sort of experience. Familiar lessons and many classes I already knew. In the background though, as a school we were working on a new educational concept that was a long term project, due to be launched in the school year 2020-21. The aim of the new approach being to increase both the educational engagement of our pupils and their ability to work more independently. Little did we know that in many ways this aim for a more independent form of learning was about to be twisted into a new form and thrust, on not just a single year group to start with, but the entire school of 1600 pupils.

So, as all those who work in education, those who are pupils and those who are parents know only too well, around February, March or maybe April, the learning world gets turned on its head. Suddenly the schools are standing empty and pupils and teaching staff, like just about everyone else are left stranded at home.

Much has been written about the admirable educational response to the new challenges. Seen as a whole this is true.  It was amazing to see the way that a steep digital learning curve was climbed and how effectively many schools and teachers got their online lessons up and running.

A first post-lockdown group artwork, June 2020

Three months later, and with the Corona situation in Europe at least easing a little we are getting closer to seeing how effective our emergency sticking plaster form of education has been. As a school we have even been able to carry out an exam week for a number of our classes. I have also spent time chatting with groups of pupils during lessons as part of the partial reopening of school.  And last week we had a series of report meetings to talk about the progress in each class. 

So how have things gone so far, and how are they going as we head into our summer break? It is early days to be drawing real conclusions of course, but what is the initial anecdotal evidence?  Variable it would seem. Like some of the teachers, a section of the pupils have coped well and relished the new challenges of working and organizing themselves a lot more than the normal school week allows. They have enjoyed puzzling out and researching lesson material and getting on with what was necessary.  Others though have struggled in the very same areas.  These are the pupils who need the structure, the discipline and the educational presence of teachers, a fixed timetable and the environment that a school building offers.

There are no great surprises in these early reflections, and the end of year test results of the students my wife teaches in higher education seem to hint at similar conclusions.  The top students continue to score top grades, but the lower areas of achievement have slipped a little lower.  Is an increasing educational seperation the risk here?  It isn’t any great surprise to discover that many pupils need the structures, rhythms and rules that the educational institution provides.  It is what we in education have taught them to be dependent on.  Take it away and replace it with distant learning that they follow from in their bed and things are going to be different.

The winners here do seem to be the ones who can work, plan and organize themselves more independently, both the pupils and it should also be said, the staff too. The new approach to the education we will be starting to offer at the school where I teach when we return after the summer is aimed at exactly these points. Letting pupils make a few more decisions for themselves in how they tackle the educational material.  Challenging them to work a little further and faster rather than allowing a general ‘class tempo’ to be the dominant one-size fits all form of education.  It would be nice (an maybe a little unrealistic) to think that if we had made such steps five years earlier our pupils may have been more ready for the effects of the COVID 19 influenced forms of education. Whether that proves to be the case only time will tell, and whether we can get on with shaking up the education we offer without further interruptions is of course also very unclear.

Exhibitions I would have liked to have seen…lockdown interruptions

Museums all over the world are shuffling their exhibition programs.  They are also undoubtedly counting the costs of the missing visitors, the entrance tickets, the book shop sales, the cafes and restaurants.  The museums here in the Netherlands are no different.

Dutch museums are in the process of tentatively reopening their doors. Limited visitors are allowed, and everyone has to pre-book their time of entry.  They have also been reorganizing the exhibition programs. 

For example, there was to have been this autumn in the Drendtsmuseum in the north of the country, a large-scale exhibition of the work or Frida Kahlo.  Kahlo is an artist whose work I have only ever seen in odd snippets here and there. It was a visit that I had been looking forward to making. It seems that I will have to look forward to it a bit longer, it has now been put back a year and is now autumn 2021. 

There were other exhibitions that have simply passed by during the lockdown.  I thought that this was the case with the Breitner-Israels exhibition in the Kunstmuseum in The Hague.  The two top Dutch painters from the late 19th and early 20th century had been put head to head for comparison. The show opened shortly before Corona burst loose on us all. I hadn’t had the chance to visit and guessed my chance had been missed. As compensation to myself I bought the extensive catalogue and enjoyed reading it during the peak lockdown weeks for a bit of cultural distraction.

As it turns out the exhibition has been extended over the summer, so there is still the opportunity to visit. But for me there is a catch; getting to the museum involves a journey of an hour and a half on public transport.  The message coming out of government is that public transport should only be used when absolutely necessary……like when I use it to get to my work in education.  There’s a potentially interesting discussion to be had here, that being that after three months of no cultural input of this sort, it does feel pretty necessary and vital to recharge my cultural batteries! Is that needy enough?

A simple online group visual art project

Since the start of the Covid 19 induced lockdowns around the world I have seen quite a few musical and choir related projects come by on my Facebook feed.  Groups of musicians or singers all contributing their bit to the carefully mixed and arranged compositions that those with the digital know how have been able to mix and balance into impressive unity despite the geographical spread of the participants.  A classic case of the whole being greater than the sum of the parts.

I too work with groups of creative enthusiasts, both children and adults and these musically combined performances set me thinking about trying something similar in my field of the visual arts.  The group of adults that I support with assignments and ideas seemed to be the most obvious place to give my own fairly modest ideas a try.

They are a very social group of people who miss their chance to paint and share life once a week.  The club’s app group has been very active during the lockdown and the project I had in mind would work well using that platform.

The initial idea was quite simple, using the reference point of a seventeenth century Dutch still life we would try and compose our own still life with everyone contributing something that could be digitally added to the group composition. The only guidelines I gave were that the objects could be modern or older if they wished and they had to make a simple shaded drawing using just a pencil.

The drawings started to roll in via the app group and I set about contructing an arrangement that gave them all a chance to be seen. Gradually the enthusiasm for the working together nature of our little project grew, with me posting regular progress up dates.

I’d seen enough to see another, perhaps better possibility, we could move on to a Dutch flower painting as inspiration.

Opnamedatum: 2010-11-11

This time I’d provide the vase and the rest of the group the flowers.  The drawings streamed in, again just in pencil to help with the overall unity of the image.  For the digital assemblage the flower arrangement gave more scope for adjustments and moving things round and in the end it was possible to fill the vase with a huge number of diverse flowers.

A this stage I’m not quite sure what the follow up will be. But I think there has to be one.

Materials problems and online art teaching

After two and a half months of distance learning and online lessons during the Corona crisis a few things, in my art department at least, are becoming clearer.  One of these relates to the materials we use and difficulties we face in not having them available to us. In a well-equipped art studio, or even an only relatively well-equipped one there are choices enough on offer as lessons are planned. 

Once the children are based at home though, it is a completely different ball game.  Yes of course some children have plenty of creative stuff at home, but there are many with very little.  Within some classes I find myself assuming that some may only have a pencil and a sheet of paper…..and thankfully also their iPad.

While on the short term this is not insurmountable problem, I find myself looking ahead to after the summer holidays and realizing that this distant learning variety of education might actually be with us a bit longer. The follow up question is how might the temporary emergency solutions of the last couple of weeks, be slowly transformed into more meaningful and structural curriculum elements next year as and when they are needed?

During the lockdown period of online lessons, I have found myself particularly engaging with collage in its various forms as a way of getting beyond just the simplest of drawing assignments.  Collage relies on simple materials that all children should be able to lay their hands on.  I do always feel that you first must get past the idea in the heads of the kids that collage belongs at primary school. Although as the examples here show my pupils seem to be making this step.

We started with two, technically seen, extreme opposites. A digital collage to create a fantastic and impossible building using iPads and the limitless resources of online imagery of buildings to cut, paste and combine.  We then moved on to a more playful form of collage, piles of clothes arranged on the floor and used to recreate existing artworks from museum collections.

The clothes experiments proved to be an excellent warm up and introduction to the more fully worked out transcription collages that I have been doing with the same groups in the last week or two.  I made a couple of demonstrations films to lead the classes into the assignments, that undoubtedly helped.  There was a degree of choice on offer; create a transcription based on the work of either Magritte, Hopper, Hockney or van Gogh.  All highly suitable for the collage challenge.

It has also been interesting to see over the last couple of months how several pupils (particularly boys) have taken time to produce some very good work.  Are they less distracted now than they usually are in the classroom situation…..or is an over-enthusiastic parent doing the work?  I guess we will never know for sure, but I do know that I am providing and art education for someone out there!!

Collage work has been a much bigger feature of my teaching during the last weeks than it normally is.  I and other art teachers are looking for solutions to difficult technical challenges.  Perhaps the biggest one still to be got to grips with is three-dimensional work.  If when we return to school in the autumn online lessons are still a significant factor (as seems likely), addressing how to work with more spatial challenges are likely to become more necessary.

Reflections and results from the distant learning artroom

I keep telling myself that it is a learning process, both for me and the pupils.  That is undeniably true.  Who would have expected at the start of the year that the education world would have been stood on its head and we would all be sat at home, staring into the webcam, launching our lessons into the homes of our pupils?

When I first entered the educational world, many years ago, I was given the advice, “Get your lesson material right for the class and the situation, and the rest will take care of itself”.  It was good advice and is as relevant now as ever.  The problem is that we find ourselves in a very new and different situation and discovering what works, what works really well, and what simply doesn’t, is all part of that learning process we find ourselves grappling with.

I have been experimenting quite a bit with different approaches in the last couple of teaching weeks as I try to understand:

  1. what works well actually during an online session with a class, what engages them and gets them producing something at the time of the lesson
  2. What engages them with becoming involved with creative and practical activities outside the lesson time and with the restrictions of most pupils only having limited materials available to them at home

In order to tackle these two main approaches/aims I have experimented with the following

  • Straight forward drawing assignments
  • Digital assignments using the pupils’ iPads or computers
  • Playful remakes/transcription assignments based on art historical images
  • Using the Google Art Project to visit and walk through some of the museum collections of the world
  • Using the Google Street Art Project to do a research project into what street art around the world looks like and can be

I’ve had some really good lessons and results from various classes, and some painfully quiet ones where it felt like I was shooting my lesson material into outer space, with the bare minimum of response from the pupils!

But I do feel that I am starting to get a hold of what is needed to finish lessons with a feeling of some sort of success and engagement.  I suppose I am starting to understand better this new context and what the possibilities are that it offers and what the long list of limitations are as well.  The more this insight grows, the better the chance of getting that all-important lesson material right.

Having a variety of things ready and at hand to show the pupils seems to help a lot.  A film, a demonstration, a PowerPoint or some well-chosen examples all help.  They seem preferable to having to look at your teacher staring out of the computer screen! Extra preparation is undoubtedly needed, but hopefully all useful for future lessons, once we are finally back at school once again, whenever that may be!

So, what exactly have my pupils been doing?……….

This morning I had a class digitally wandering round some of the great museum collections of the world.  When they had visited a number of these they had to, amongst other things, explain which museum they would like to visit for real and motivate why that was.

Click the link above to enter the gallery of honour in the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

I was a little nervous about how well this would work, but it ran incredibly smoothly and the pupils responded well in the written assignments.

I have done a drawing/digital design assignment loosely based around the work of the Belgian artist Filip Dujardin.

Inspired by the artist’s eccentric architectural creations I set the pupils a task of designing their own fantastic and fictitious buildings based on a number of local buildings in combination with architecture from around the world, working either digitally or by making a drawing.

There have been enough examples on Facebook and Instagram of people remaking artworks in their homes using any materials that are at hand.  It is something I have done before over the years in class, but this really is the situation to relaunch the idea in order to squeeze a little art history into the lessons.

Following on from this assignment is the remaking of an artwork using the colours and materials found in the clothes cupboards at home.  Most of my pupils do not have any paints at home so this playful (at quite large scale) assignment has been set in motion this week.

If you are interested in any of these ideas, contact me, I’m happy to share materials.