Once in a while something special comes along – Cartomania

I remember one of my lecturers at art school using the word ‘cartomaniac’ to describe herself. It struck an immediate chord with me because I recognized something of myself in the term. A gallery full of large scale map paintings at the Vatican museums that I had seen a few months before my teacher’s remark had truly captured my attention. The balance between the pictorial and the graphic qualities, the representation of landscape and yet the apparently abstract forms all come together to, form a type of image that engages and fascinates.

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It is the schematic representation of the world around us, everything so familiar, yet so different, the symbols, the lines and patterns, the place names. There is just so much to see. When I travel, a map is always a necessity, seeing where I am, what’s around me and where I can go. I, like most people, have a small collection of maps from various holiday destinations I’ve visited over the years. But perhaps my favourite is actually one closer to home, it is a very Dutch map indeed and one showing the most interventionist approach to the real landscape. It shows the 32 kilometer long afsluitdijk, a 32km raised causeway that was built across the North Sea to create a division between the sea on one side and the Ijsselmeer on the other.

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For a long while I’ve been planning to work with maps in my own teaching work (I continue also to ponder how I actually might one day include them in my own paintings too). The school plans though have made progress this year and resulted in a series of paintings made by my third year groups (age 14-15). While I feel that the project is still a bit of a work in progress and can be refined and developed next year, there have been some good results that I am posting here.

The assignment was built on top of an abstract drawing assignment where pupils explored ideas of movement and flow in an abstract design. There are also some very dominant conventions in map making, water is blue, more natural areas green and so on, one of my aims was also to break free from these more obvious routes.

Building on these ideas we were able to take map representations of cities around the world. Exactly which city plan was the basis us left to the pupils, for some it was a location they’d been to, for others it was an aesthetic choice and for still more it was place that they hope one day to visit.

The resulting works have an impact that catches the attention and has given us material that once displayed together on the printed banners we’ve made grabs the attention.

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Learning through not understanding? – CLIL (content and language integrated learning) art project

Yesterday I worked together with twenty three twelve year old pupils and two of their teachers (thanks Roderick and Wap!) on an long (8 hours!) and intensive art and language workshop day.  For the children this was just the start of their second week at secondary school and perhaps more significantly the start of the second week where these Dutch school children are getting most of their lessons taught to them in English.

This was the reason that I was brought in to lead the workshop. As a native speaker of English I can provide a kind of immersion day where all the pupils hear is English.  It’s a big language challenge for the children, and for me something of a challenge too as I try to hold back from allowing a single word of Dutch to slip out!

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We hear a lot about short spans of attention in the children of today and such a day as yesterday kind of puts that theory to the test a little. The children are more used to switching from one activity, subject, teacher or classroom at regular intervals, how will they cope with being in one room, with one project and one project leader (supported by a couple of others)?

Well on the experience of yesterday I would say just fine.  Yes the overall project was broken down into a number of smaller parts.  This is important for boosting and re-boosting the energy and focus of the class. Also important is that they could see what they (as a group) were achieving, this is undoubtedly a luxury of an art project, but a quality that surely can be simulated in other subject areas.  But above all, the opportunity not to be continuously interrupted by the school bell announcing that the class must clear up and move on to their next lesson offers new chances for ambitious work and prevents so much time being wasted in the day.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think we should do away with the fragmented timetable of ten or twelve different subject areas, but I would certainly be a fore stander for more occasional project days, as long as the lesson material, plans and teaching are strong enough to maintain a greatly extended lesson.

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Another interesting point of reflection after a day like yesterday is the question of what exactly is going on in the heads of the pupils on such a language ‘immersion’ day.  I think that the results that the group made yesterday show that the group as a whole understood the project pretty well.  But I am realistic enough to acknowledge that these twelve year olds in their first week of lessons that are being taught in their second language are likely to struggle at times. Yesterday I translated nothing into Dutch to make it clearer or easier to understand. This approach forces a couple of things to occur:

  1. They have to listen hard, probably harder than they have listened to a teacher before
  2. They have to learn to cope with missing or failing to understand some parts of the instructions that I give
  3. They inevitably and importantly starting to ‘train’ their ear in the listening skills that are going to be crucially important in the coming months

Points one and three are obviously very desirable elements of this sort of teaching strategy.  The second one sounds rather less positive.  Although as an adult who has learnt to speak a second language since leaving school this kind of ‘joining up the dots’ in speech is a skill I remember being so important to me. It is about having the confidence to make little conceptual leaps to link up elements of content when sections of language interpretation are missed for whatever reason.  Put me in a noisy environment, where everyone is speaking Dutch and I still find myself having to consciously try to do this.

A secret love

When I was at art school, one of my art history lecturers described herself as a cartomaniac. At the time I had to think for a moment about what she could mean, but as the lecture went on it became clearer, she had a love or at least a fascination for the world of maps. I can relate well to this. I too love a map.

It is the schematic representation of the world around us, everything so familiar, yet so different, the symbols, the lines and patterns, the place names. There is just so much. When I travel, a map is always a necessity, seeing where I am, what’s around me and where I can go. I, like most people have a small collection of maps from various holiday destinations I’ve visited over the years. But perhaps my favourite is actually one closer to home, it is a very Dutch map indeed and one showing the most interventionist approach to the real landscape. It shows the 32 kilometer long afsluitdijk.

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There are artists enough who have made use of maps in their own work. I fully expect one day to make paintings and drawings based around this particular view of the landscape, but up until now the right ideas in the context of my own work have yet to present themselves.

The same isn’t true though amongst the adults that I teach. I have regularly set assignments that are hung up around travel be that walking, running or biking routes through the locality or journeys round the globe. My angle has often been to try and encourage the participants to try and break away from the conventions of map making, get away from the idea that the sea has to be blue and polar regions white, simplify forms, think about what ideas of content you can use to help dictate the way the painting goes.

Last night while I was doing this I was struck a change in how this sort of assignment is now approached. I used to show up with a pile of black and white photocopies of the world map as a jumping off point. Now though, the iPads and tablets come out and the world quite literally opens up. Last night one group member opened up GoogleEarth, scanned around a bit, for some reason decided to focus in on Timbuktu, zoomed right in on the grid formation of the streets and buildings of the city, and proceeded to set to work on an abstract painting based on these forms. It really was wonderful to see, the instantaneous nature of it all. My black and white photocopies seem like such a distant memory.