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.

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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.

Five weeks into distant learning, the pros and the cons

Five weeks ago, after a week of school in early March where you could already feel that the Corona effect was about to burst loose, the schools in the Netherlands closed. Initially for three weeks, although for most people it was pretty clear that five weeks minimum was extremely likely as it would bring many schools up to the spring holiday.  We’ve reached that point, and holiday for me starts this weekend and runs until early May. As I write it is unclear what will happen thereafter, but that should become known sometime in the next week or so.

So, five weeks in, time for a little reflection on how it’s gone and is going. Let’s start with the negatives.

Cons:

  • I have undoubtedly put in more hours to my teaching job in a month than quite possibly ever before
  • As a result of the above, I go into the holiday hugely behind with my marking
  • I feel like I have an office job, stuck behind a desk, staring at a screen for hours on end. Which for an art teacher does come as a bit of a shock.
  • I miss massively the contact with the kids, the humour, the silliness and general classroom banter.
  • I miss the engagement with the pupils involved in their practical activities, the reaching over a shoulder to guide, coach and advise
  • It is too easy for pupils to be invisible. And herein lies the biggest potential problem. Successful and assertive ‘achievers’ will work well. The shy, the strugglers or the disadvantaged (in any number of ways) will run into more difficulties. This potential risk area, means the differences in abilities and achievements in any class is going to magnified.
  • The practical possibilities on offer to be able to work into distant learning art practical assignments are greatly reduced. I can’t really assume my pupils have access to much more than their iPad, pencil and pen at home.
  • The online lessons whilst being useful are so radically different in almost every way to the sorts of lessons I normally give.  There are possibilities here, but after these first weeks of experimentation I am only really just starting to get my head round the new format and to start to see the opportunities.  Initially you do seem to be constantly hitting your head on the difficulties.

But enough of the negatives, what about the positives….

Pro’s:

  • First, and most importantly of all, education is continuing, the form is different, but something is certainly happening!
  • The digital know-how and experience of virtually all teachers is coming on in leaps and bounds, instead of it being just the realm of the enthusiasts. I sense that the incredibly difficult to arrange art department meetings might be moving to a digital arrangement next year.
  • The pupils are actually turning up on time and doing the assignments at the required moments (at least in my experience)
  • The pupils are also rapidly picking up the necessary skills to work in new digital areas.
  • The pupils don’t seem to moan any more…..but maybe that’s because their microphones are turned off!
  • The one on one contact with pupils is interestingly different.  In the course of the week there’s quite a lot of messaging and chatting with individual pupils about assignments that are being worked on.  This is chatty and friendly and feels somehow different both to the rather awkwardly written emails I sometimes get or the face to face contact in the classroom.  They’ve started wishing me a good weekend, saying that they enjoyed an assignment, some have even asked for extra homework…..this is all rather uncharted and very interesting territory!

I certainly wouldn’t go as far as to say that distant learning is the future of mainstream education. But this is a learning experience for all, and there are undoubtedly things that should be kept in and built on when we do eventually get back into the classroom.

By the window, rain in February……digital experiments continued

It’s not been raining the whole time. I have even done a little February drawing outside. But there has also been time to sit by the fire experimenting a little more with the iPad compositions that manipulate and twist the earlier drawing I made whilst looking out the window on a rainy afternoon. I am seeing more and more possibilities

By the window, rain in February

February has been grey. It’s had wind, a lot of wind and rain. I find myself looking out of the window. I don’t mind the view of leafless trees, it has been a recurring motif in my paintings and drawings for a while. My drawing book is close to hand, but encouraged by my daughters increasingly digitally manipulated creative work I find myself reaching for my iPad. It’s early days but my attention has been awakened.

It starts here….

There are nineteen year olds, and then there is Bernini

I don’t teach any nineteen year olds. Mostly the oldest young people who end up in my classroom are sixteen and occasionally seventeen.  I like most teachers try to encourage my pupils to try their hardest and to be ambitious in what they are trying to achieve. My role as a teacher is to help them see what might be possible and to aid them in reaching those goals.

Today I have visited the Bernini and Caravaggio exhibition at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.  I hadn’t anticipated leaving the exhibition reflecting on what teenagers can achieve.  But it was a sculpture of Saint Sebastian that in many ways caught my attention the most. It presents the problem of how a sculptor, carving into marble, has to deal with the technical challenge of including the necessary arrows piercing the young man’s body and that of course on top of representing the human figure.

The sculpture was perhaps about 80 cm tall, in terms of ambition and spectacle very modest in comparison to the large scale sculptures by Bernini that can be found in Italy.

So why did this particular cause me to pause and reflect, you may have guessed the reason already. The sculpture was created when Bernini was just nineteen years old.  It was of course a different time.  The young Bernini would have already had a several years experience of learning the technical strategies and techniques needed to create such an image. 

Sculptors like to point out that the sculpture is simply in the block, be that marble, wood or  sandstone.  Seeing that and subsequently being able to find and reveal it is a tremendous challenge of insight, technical ability and spatial awareness, and in this case all realised by the hands of a nineteen year old.  I may show the image to the pupils I teach.  Will I dwell on the fact that it was made by such a young man? To be honest, I’m not sure yet!

Below are further images from the exhibition by Bernini, Caravaggio and others.

A return to the lost consonant

Sayings and proverbs are one of the last areas that you seem to get to when learning a language. My own experience in this area certainly confirms this. I’ve been learning Dutch for over twenty-five years and I still rarely feel confident enough to casually throw a Dutch proverb into things I’m saying. Having a full and complete understanding of both the phrase itself and when it is appropriate to use it isn’t easy.

Some proverbs are sometimes a little familiar when you come from an English background or are relatively simple to work out the meaning of them. Phrases such as “Er schuilt een addertje onder het gras“, translates easily as “there is an adder hiding in the grass”, something that you should obviously watch out for and avoid the danger if you can.   However, others are confusing or just plainly weird! Maybe they do have a logical history somewhere in the past, but for me, they just feel like a language obstacle waiting to trip me up. A couple of examples of this category could be “Zo gek als een deur zijn” (as mad as a door) and “ik schrik me een hoedje” (actually means, it scared the wits out of me, but literally translates as “you scared me a hat”).

I’m certainly no beginner with the Dutch language anymore, but still, this area of language does feel a bit like a communication minefield that I enter at my peril!

With this in mind, and as a sort of language orientated art teacher I have recently reused for the first time in a while a creative project that gets my pupils to think a bit more about the extensive collection of proverbs that there is in the English language. Many of these are every bit as odd as the Dutch examples I’ve mentioned. But to make my creative activity a bit more fun I combine it with an idea based on artist/designer Graham Rawle’s Guardian column from a while back, “The Lost Consonant”. In it Rawle took a sentence and removed a single consonant from one of the words that resulted in the meaning of the sentence being stood on its head and gaining an often ridiculous or plain silly alternative. This new version of the sentence was then accompanied by an equally silly collage that illustrated the new, twisted version.

My assignment, that I use with the (14-15 year old) pupils works in a similar way. Except I ask them to choose an existing proverb or saying from the English language and make use of that as a starting point. We make use of the many websites that there are that list plenty of possibilities together with their meanings.

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Then the challenge is two-fold. Firstly, find one where the removal of a single consonant can stand the meaning on its head. In this way “Barking up the wrong tree” can become “Baking up the wrong tree” or “Caught between two stools” becomes “Caught between two tools”. Whilst doing this it is equally important to keep in mind that an entertaining collage also needs to be made that illustrates the new version. We do this using photo-manipulation software on an iPad, but it could equally be done on a desktop computer or with scissors and glue.

For me the assignment has several interesting elements:

  • Developing familiarity with a difficult area of language acquisition
  • Playing with language and looking for humourous possibilities
  • Creative opportunities for communication through manipulated imagery in the form of collage combined with text

Although I am an art teacher, I certainly don’t see this as an assignment that should be limited to the art room.

For more of Graham Rawle’s work click here.

Perspective drawing and a crowd pleaser – instructions for painting

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Earlier today I posted this picture.  Several people have asked for instructions on how to make it.  It’s not too complicated, and can also work well without the earth appearing to be in the hole.

It does need a large piece of paper, or several pieces joined together.  I did the bulk of the practical work together with a class of fifteen year olds.

Click here, Hole in the ground instructions for full instructions.