“Oh….. he was my old art teacher!”

I was reminded this week of something one of my tutors at art school once said to me. It was nothing too profound, but for one reason or another it did lodge itself in my memory.  It went something like this, “I like being the artist in the village where I live because I can go down the pub, have a few drinks and on the way back home fall in the ditch and nobody thinks much of it”, thanks Mike for those words of wisdom!

I suppose one of the reasons the comment stuck in my mind was that I didn’t really fully understand what he was getting at. On reflection I see now that he was placing himself in a kind of slightly romantic context of the artist living on the edge of regular society, someone who is expected to do slightly odd things from time to time.

I’ve never really seen myself as being someone on the edge of society, but I do accept fully that as both an artist and art teacher you do sometimes find yourself doing slightly odd things.

plastic-bag-kite1The reason this all came back to me this week was that for the second year in succession I found myself doing a little preparation work for a school trip we make with our first years (12-13 year olds). It’s a trip to a science museum of the human body made in the context of a cross curricular project week about sport and physical activity. My part as art teacher is to make kites with the pupils so that we can have a mass kite flying session on the nearby beach.

It all sounds great so far, but as any parent who’s flown kites with children will be able to relate, kites that don’t fly, aren’t fun. So both this year and last, I’ve found myself on a windy afternoon during the school holiday week in February trying to build easy to make, cheap and flyable kites from a few sticks and plastic bags.

I don’t mind doing this too much, I quite like the challenge, but I do feel pretty self conscious doing it. Remember these are not glamorous ‘power kites’, no, these are small kites made from plastic shopping bags, which at times have struggled to fly. Flying kites when alone can look a bit of a lonely affair at the best of times, and when you’re an adult and it looks like you are flying a plastic bag on a string, as indeed you are, it looks well…….maybe a bit weird!

Last year, when I was doing this I chose the quietest corner of the university campus in the town where I live and set to work, kind of hoping no one much would see me. Eventually my shopping bag with its stylish tale of more shopping bags was fluttering in a rather unstable wind on about twenty meters of string, maybe I could start thinking of heading for home.

Just at that moment I noticed a young woman biking towards me on a bike with a second one perched on the back of the same bike. I continued to concentrate on my plastic bags, feeling slightly embarrassed, hoping that they wouldn’t pay me too much attention. They got closer and suddenly came the call,

“Hey! Mr Sansom!”

It was Laura, one of my old pupils from the secondary school (in another town) where I teach who was now studying at the University. The funny thing was, she didn’t stop to talk, just biked on by, but as she did I heard her say to the other girl on the back of the bike as they passed,

“Oh….. he was my old art teacher” as if to excuse or explain my behaviour to her companion. I think I might have imagined her offering a shrug of her shoulders and rolling her eyes too, but I certainly had a better grasp about what Mike had meant about falling in the ditch and people kind of expecting you to do it.

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Is that my work in a museum?…

gemeentehuis

Mostly pupils’ work lives in a drawer at school.  Sometimes the better pieces are mounted on a piece of coloured paper and taped on a wall somewhere around the art department. Very occasionally a particularly impressive piece of work might make it into a frame elsewhere in school.  We all like a little recognition for our best efforts and achievements. My pupils are no different and like to see their work appear elsewhere around school.

It is extremely rare that pupil work makes the jump from the confines of the school building to a truly public space. On the part of the teacher this always involves extra work and organisation. As a teacher I am prepared to make that extra effort but with two criteria that I feel make it worth the extra effort.

  • it must be a location where the work is actually going to be seen by a broader public
  • it must be a location where the work can actually be nicely presented in a space where it looks good

These two criteria don’t sound too complicated but are actually in practice fairly difficult to meet.  But knowing that I had some good work from a group of classes I set out looking for a suitable venue. The local museum of the town where I teach (Oss, in the Netherlands) was for a time an option. Highly suitable, but at present they are going throughout a process of reorganization and so that possibility fell by the wayside. However, with the help of the museum’s excellent education department I was put onto the town’s council offices. The modern architecture of the building offers a very good exhibition space in its foyer that with, not too much imagination, could easily pass as an gallery space in a museum of modern art….a fact that I feel sure won’t be lost on my pupils when they see the exhibition of their work that I have set up this afternoon.

The exhibition is small, showing just three works. All three are group projects made by a total of seven different classes over the last three years.  All three relate to war and violence and how it is represented in art and the media. The works make use of references to Picasso’s Guernica, Goya’s 3rd May and the piles of discarded shoes from the victims of the Auschwitz concentration camp.

It’s all quite heavy material, but the new presentation of the collages and sculpture give an extra credibility and one that gives me a sense of satisfaction and the pupils too it hope.

Three films, three classes and three reactions

My art and cultural education course that I teach to my groups of 15 and 16 year olds normally begins with a module about film and filmmaking.  This year has been no different. Film as a cultural experience is close to the world of the teenagers and easily accessible to them. With three large groups to teach and a total of 90 one thousand word essays to mark at the end, I chose, for my own sanity to use three different films. This way I would at least have some variety in the resulting report reading.

I like to select films that are just outside the pupils own film going experience and ones that challenge the to consider certain choices made by the film makers concerned.

The first class are now half way through watching the Schulman brothers’ and Henry Joost’s film Catfish and are absolutely loving it. It’s a film I’ve used before and knew that I was on fairly safe ground. The Facebook relationship story with its documentary style and tense moments works tremendously well.  It is a scenario that they can easily identify with.

The second class are now half way through Asif Kapadia’s documentary Senna. The initial reaction of the class to watching a documentary film for two hours was fairly sceptical. They want a good story…..they said.  I asked them to be patient with the movie and after fifteen minutes of watching it was clear to all that a good story is exactly what the film delivers. I explained before the start that I had thought long and hard about whether I should show this film. The film uses only genuine footage to tell the story of the life and death of the formula one driver Ayrton Senna.  The car crashes in the movie are a crucial part of the narrative.  A genuine death on film is course different to the countless deaths that teenagers observe in the more normal film fodder that they consume. I discussed this with the class before the film and offered an alternative to anyone who really didn’t want to watch. We are at the moment half way through watching the film, it hasn’t reached its climax yet, although the film is being watched in a focused silence….not always easy to achieve in a classroom of 32 watching a film together. They seem to realize that this is something different and that from my perspective is exactly the point. Senna is an excellent movie when it comes to throwing a new light on the sort of detached sense of realism with which we approach most films. Normally we have to give ourselves over to suspending our disbelief, but here we are living and thinking along with real people, their conflicts, their relationships and the risks they take. I’m curious to see how the second half is experienced.

In many ways, my third choice was the one aimed most specifically at my teenage audience. I wanted to make use of a film where music played a strong part. Sometimes I look a little bit further back into film history to find films that nobody in the class is likely to have seen. This is what I did and chose Alan Parker’s 1991 film The Commitments, a film about a struggling and ultimately, failing, bunch of teenagers trying to form a band in Dublin. The movie is packed with music, has a lot of humour and the leading roles are almost exclusively filled by teenagers. On the face of it you would think a highly appropriate film for one of my classes. Here too, after one lesson we are about half way through the movie, but I find myself perplexed by the reaction of the class to watching it.  It is a film that is heading towards being 25 years old, but I certainly feel that that isn’t the problem, it has aged relatively well. When a class is watching a film I often find myself watching the class, gauging their enjoyment.  The problem we are having is that they aren’t getting the humour. I can see that there are one or two in the class who are getting it, but the majority are watching in something of a stony silence. So why is this……? At the end of the lesson I had no time to quiz them; it could be a language issue, the strong Irish accents aren’t always easy, but then I have subtitles on to make it more accessible (they are after all watching in their second languages – Dutch being their first). Or is it that the Irish/British humour is so different to that of the Dutch? This is a regular topic of discussion with my Dutch colleagues at school. In our bilingual department we use so much British or American material to support our educational programmes, and humour, particularly British humour, is so often problematic. How can sensibilities in this area be so different? A point of discussion for another blog post perhaps, but for now I am spending the weekend wondering whether to scrap the second half of The Commitments and try something else!

War and conflict in a school art project

There they stood, there they were…. is the name of a group artwork that I have been working on with three groups of 14-15 year olds that I teach, sixty-five pupils in total. It has been made within the framework of a cross-curricular project that we run at school. During these projects we take one global theme and explore it in various ways in the context of a variety of timetabled lessons. For our third years the theme is War and Peace. For my part, as an art teacher I use the project to take a look at how the war has been presented in the visual arts through the centuries and how the media deal with it today.

It provides a good opportunity to show the pupils how art can tackle the most serious of topics, how it can be quite shocking at times and how artists can use their artistic practice as a form of protest. After such a project there can be little doubt in the minds of the pupils that art offers important communicative possibilities even with the heaviest of subject matter.

Having said all that, I have been quite taken aback by the impact of the practical artwork that the pupils have just finished working on. The starting point for the whole project are the piles of shoes (and indeed other objects) that can still be seen at the site of the Auschwitz prison camp in southern Poland. A couple of months ago I spent time showing pupils these heaps of ‘left overs’ from the victims of the camp. I showed them photographs of the piles of shoes, suitcases, glasses, artificial limbs and even hair that is still displayed there. The images were greeted by a attentive silence. I visited Auschwitz a number of years ago, everything about the place is in many ways quite overwhelming, but it was without a doubt these traces of actual victims that left the greatest impression on me.
The reaction of the pupils left me in no doubt, the work form that I had in mind was going to be the right one. Each pupil worked on and over an old shoe, first covering it with paper and paint and then a layer of imagery, text and paint. Each shoe became a three dimensional collage that documented one of the many conflicts and it’s victims from war zones around the world in the post-Auschwitz period of 1945 up until the present day. Vietnam, Korea, the Arab Israeli conflict, Afghanistan, Yugoslavia, Iraq, Syria and others all featured in the work. Photographs, artworks, newspaper articles, maps and details of the destruction of each conflict featured on the shoe.
On the sole of each shoe a poem was added that the pupil had written about one of the artworks or photographs that we had discussed in the lessons. Images such as Picasso’s Guernica, Goya’s 3rd May or the Eddie Adams street execution photograph from Vietnam.

I have been able to display the resulting heap of shoes in a glass case at school that is, in its way, not unlike the glass cases in the actual prison camp, although the pupils’ version obviously being of a much smaller scale. The shoes trapped there, behind glass, and in the film shown here have gained a weight, a charge, that I had hoped for, but if I am honest has been more powerful than I had expected. Watch the film, judge for yourself, the music helps of course, but it is a charge that the pupils themselves can identify and relate to once past the initial excitement of seeing their own particular shoe in the documentation.