“Do you think everyone will actually go for a walk?” – getting the landscape into the classroom

Pupil “M” in one of my third year (14-15 years old) is always good for a quote.  She has the habit of saying out loud exactly what she’s thinking.  Her comment related to my new art assignment.  I wanted to get the pupils doing some work that connected to the landscape around them, where they live and go to school.  Also, having had so many online lessons sitting behind their computers this year, I decided to try and be as specific as possible and actually send them out for a walk as part of my lesson.

That was the plan and I carefully put the idea of a walk into an artistic context by showing the work British artist Richard Long has made in the past documenting walks and using maps in his artworks.  My assignment was broken up into several parts with a few specific criteria:

  • Your walk must be a minimum of 1km in length, I was tempted to say 5km, but I did want the walk to be potentially able to be completed in one of my one-hour long lessons
  • Your walk should take you to a mature, full grown tree that you must photographically document with a series of 20 photographs that will later be used as a part of the documentation of the walk
  • Record the walk itself in the form of a hand drawn, imaginably presented sketch map

In my mind these were relatively simple instructions, and ones that would undoubtedly be easiest and quickest to carry out by doing the walk with the camera of the pupil’s mobile phone close at hand to photograph the tree plus a few other points on the walk.  Which was why I was a little surprised by the “Do you actually think everyone will actually go for a walk?” comment. No, actually I wasn’t surprised at all, teenagers are a contrary lot and most teachers and parents alike will recognise the way many choose to take an alternative route, even when the recommended one is easier.

Remember, some of these are the same pupils who complain sitting behind their computer all day doing online lessons is boring.  I already have some evidence that some have tackled my assignment by, you’ve guessed it, by spending some more time in front of the computer screen, searching the internet for sets of photos that look like they could be made of a single tree on their walk……some more successfully and believably than others!

Others have of course done exactly what was asked and will I’m sure produce good work.  I’ve seen some nice photographic collages; GPS tracks of walks and the hand drawn maps will come.  We’ve already moved onto some tree drawings when it is the turn of particular small groups to physically present in class, good artistic results will, in due course, come.  But it would seem, for some at least, sitting at home behind the computer isn’t so bad, at least, not quite as bad as having to go for a short walk!!

Digital presentation of pupils work, PR possibilities and a future assignment

Most schools in the Netherlands have open days during the mid-winter. Many schools have something of a pitched battle against nearby rival schools in the effort to attract a good number of new pupils for the forthcoming school year. The school where I teach is no different, we must be seen to compete!

Such open days are all well and good, if a little exhausting and long at the end of the teaching week. But with the current lockdowns and need for extreme social distancing the normal packed school with hundreds of children and their parents simply is not an option. As a result, things are moving online.  Most schools are frantically putting together a new online presence/digital open day. Films are being shot, interviews recorded, and websites constructed.

As far as the art department is concerned, in my school we were looking for a way to present a collection of pupils’ work.  Collections of photographs or films of pieces of work were of course possible but we wanted something a bit more immersive and interactive, and amongst all the other films that were being made, we simply wanted something that stood out as being a bit different.

The need of the situation, as with many other things in education in the last year, has forced me and a colleague to explore the possibilities more than we perhaps have done up until now.  The online exhibition possibilities offered my artsteps.com where something that I have known about for a while but have never fully explored up until now because I simply have not fully felt the need to.  But now was the time, was this going to be what we needed?

Well, the short answer to that is a resounding yes, absolutely. A week later I have built three online, three dimensional exhibitions of pupils’ work that are going to serve our purposes fantastically well. The links below will take you there and allow you to pass through and view the work. 

Exhibition one —————- Exhibition two —————- Exhibition three

Of course, it is not as good as walking around an art room in a school taking a closer look for yourself but given the circumstances it really isn’t a bad substitute for our 10- and 11-year-old visitors and their parents.

Having put it all together, what would I say are the pros and cons on offer here?

Positive points:

  • The learning curve for using the software really is not too step. Invest a little time and you should find your way.
  • Creating a stylish and well-ordered look to the exhibition is both possible and straight forward.
  • It is free and everything is online (apart from the photos and films you want to upload) with no software having to be downloaded or installed.
  • Videos can also be part of your exhibition.
  • You can design your own rooms.
  • But above all is just fun to create and fun to visit!

Negatives

  • Three-dimensional work is difficult to include.  3D printer designs can be unloaded and included, but documentation of a tradition sculpture can only be done using a film of the object or photographs of it.
  • I do not seem to be able to get the films to work on mobile devices. Although walking around the spaces to look at the pictures on my iPad works perfectly.
  • Visiting the exhibitions on a mobile phone is, it seems, possible on some phones and not on others.

The ease with which the software works leaves me thinking of the future possibilities.  I see opportunities for asking a group to curate their own exhibitions on selected themes.  They could visit the websites museums of the museums of the world gathering the artworks that they need.  I have done this before and set poster design assignments as a part of the project, but now I see the additional installation of a 3-dimensional digital exhibition as a fantastic extension of the project.

It is strange how necessity can be the mother of invention, forcing you to explore new possibilities. This has certainly been the case in the past few weeks.

Using technology to make use of an analogue trick

The idea of making a panorama photograph using a modern camera, even the one on your phone, is simple. Select the panorama setting press the button and sweep round the 180 or 360 degrees that you want to capture. The teenagers I teach are only too familiar with this possibility. So when I suggest that we are going to have a go at creating composite panoramic photographic compositions using maybe up to fifty photographs, there is a certain amount of ‘unlearning’ to be done.

Talking our way through a number of David Hockney’s ‘joiner’ collages of multiple Polaroid photographs certainly helps open the teenage imagination to the possibilities on offer. Preparing the pupils to head out to take their series of photographs is an important point in the process. Young people are not to used to the idea of stopping to consider their photographic subjects too much, the instant and endlessly free nature of the digital image has changed that. Yet for this assignment finding an interesting, complex and maybe above all, spatial subject is crucial.

Once the photographs have been made, what Hockney would have done, puzzling through all the hard copies of his images spread across a large table is easily done digitally and without expensive or time consuming printing. Although, having said that, I am regularly surprised at the difficulties experienced by my digital natives in getting images off their phone and onto a desktop computer! Once that is achieved though, the photographs can be dumped into a single PowerPoint slide or MS Publisher document and resized to an appropriate format. After that the enjoyable part to putting the photographic puzzle together again can begin, experimenting with the layering and overlapping as they go. At this point I can normally sit back and wait for the final pdf documents to be made and handed in.

This year was the second time I’ve tried this assignment with the 15 year olds that I teach. Maybe I’d learnt a few things from last year, spotted and alerted pupils to potential problem areas when explaining the process perhaps, maybe they are just more creative pupils than last year’s group…..who knows! Either way, the results are, generally more ambitious and successfully worked out than the first time around.

Advertising slogans…clil and creativity

When teaching a second language through the content of other subject areas, art lessons in my case, the production of language rich output from the pupils is often an important part of the learning strategies used. One day we might focus on written output and another on verbal. Both are important aspects of language acquisition and use.

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Within a standard language learning situation the focus is often placed on issues such as sentence construction or grammar. Within my own branch of language teaching, the CLIL classroom (content and language integrated learning) other elements are given increased focus, such as subject specific vocabulary, ensuring the pupils have a mastery of subject themes and terminology.

This is all well and good, but personally (and creatively) I want to take the output one step further and ask the pupils to take the creative steps that I expect of them when we are drawing or painting and make similar steps in terms of language.  In a sense I say to the pupils;

‘OK, you have a certain knowledge of language, now what can you do with it in terms of communication and creativity?  How can your choice of language output engage, communicate and grip the reader?’

I’m exploring this very idea with my third year class (14-15 year olds) at the moment. We are going to be looking at how printed and digital advertising makes use of the way image and text can be combined in an unexpected and maybe slightly surreal way in order to help sell a product. The language output is initially likely to be in the form of discussion based around some examples. But really my attention is more on that question of how can well-chosen words be used to communicate in the form of a slogan or attention grabbing phrase.  Whichever route is chosen,  a sharp and concise text is required. It asks the question of the pupils what can you do with language, how can you use it, and in this case use it to activate an image in a particular way?

This challenges the pupils in a number of ways:

  • Be economic in your choice of words, this is absolutely about being clear and to the point
  • Be creative, entertaining and engaging
  • Stretch your language ability to the limit, don’t rely on the familiar, safe and obvious routes of communication (a tendency that is often very strong in teenage learners!)

The assignment

Let’s get one thing straight from the beginning, creating advertising imagery and text writing is deceptively complex and difficult. In some ways it is like coming up with a joke, we can all recognize and appreciate a good one when we see or hear it, but coming up with one of our own is completely different matter! It is not without good reason that businesses employ expensive advertising agencies to help them with this problem.

But let’s not be deterred, surely 14-15 year olds can do this!

It is all about framing the assignment up in such a way that it leads the pupils in down the path you want to explore and still offer scope for their own ideas and creativity.

I provide the pupils with an image from advertising. An image that has been lightly photoshopped in order to remove the text or slogan which activates the image in terms of bringing image and text together to promote the product being sold.

The pupils are also given the necessary information as to what the product actually is, if indeed it is not clear from the image. The challenge after that is simple, working in groups they have to write their own adverting text, one that engages and activates the existing image.

This whole project comes on the back of a series of lessons about the art of Surrealism, so I certainly encourage a slightly surprising and out of the box line of thought.

What does this require of the pupils?

  • A thoughtful interpretation of the image that they have been given and an understanding of what exactly the product is and what our relationship to it can be.
  • A concise and creative formulation of a text or slogan to activate the relationship between the image and the product Like when working on a drawing, pupils have to remain switched on to working with care, correcting where necessary and above all trying to stretch and refine their language output, both in terms of the verbal discussion of possibilities in the group and the small, but hugely significant written output that follows.

In practice this might only be a few words, but that is all the more reason to be critical in producing a truly fine-tuned phrase. Below are a few examples of the resulting pupil work, along with the original texts from the advertisements.

Like when working on a drawing, pupils have to remain switched on to working with care, correcting where necessary and above all trying to stretch and refine their language output, both in terms of the verbal discussion of possibilities in the group and the small, but hugely significant written output that follows.

My colleague says she loves her job……

My colleague app’ed me the other day to say that she loved her job. I love my job too. We both work in the art department. This admission came in the context of a particular assignment that we are working together at the moment.

The project is part of a street art related theme and is centered in particular on the Little People Project by the British street artist Slinkachu.

Slinkachu’s own website

We were preparing the figures, similar to those used by Slinkachu to give our pupils the chance to work in a similar way when they visit The Hague for a day in a couple of weeks’ time. We were both doing the preparation work simultaneously on a Saturday afternoon apping photos of what we were doing to each other.

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We’d sourced our own simple plastic figures and had them mailed from China. We wanted to deliver our fifteen year old pupils high quality painted figures with which to work and had decided to do the painting ourselves.

Why were we enjoying the preparation so much? Well, it was fun to do. Slinkachu’s art has a childish playfulness to it. Having presented the idea of the assignment to our pupils this week it is clear to see that they too recognize the element of childish play that is involved here.  Even fifteen year olds love the chance to play…..sometimes there almost seems to be a nostalgic view back to their own childhood activities! If I ask them to bring in the LEGO from in the box under their bed for an animation project, they love to do just that, and the excuse to play.

Picasso once said:

“Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.”

In this regard our assignment certainly seems to connect with Picasso’s thought.  But I think that it also relates strongly to why my colleague and I enjoy our work.  All creativity involves an element of play and experimentation.  An open minded involvement to our activity as art teachers has a free wheeling playfulness to it. When, as a teacher you are able to awaken this sense of playfulness in your pupils, the rest generally takes care of itself.

 

Capturing the imagination – a photographic remake

It is normally a pretty good sign if some colleagues in the staff room know about a project that you are working on before you’ve told them about it. It means that pupils themselves are talking about it!

This was the case last week. I had taken my fourth-year classes (15-16 year olds) to our local museum, the Jan Cunen Museum, to see an exhibition by the Dutch photographer Micky Hoogendijk. Most of the work on display were quite large-scale portraits with varying degrees of digital manipulation often in the form of overlays of other imagery imposed over the head or face. Three works stood out though as slightly different. These particular photographs didn’t have the same manipulation, but they did have a historical resonance with seventeenth century Dutch art.

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We talked about the set of photographs whilst at the museum, the clothing, the poses, the use of light and the restrained expressions on the faces. The linking with seventeenth century art was strong and something the pupils later explored in a homework assignment.

Whilst the Hoogendijk works don’t seem to have been based on specific images from the past they offered the pupils a contemporary route back to artworks that they often pass quickly over in other circumstances.

The photographs also offered me a chance to make use of a practical assignment that I have used in the past. This involves a photographic remake of an art historical portrait where the pupil plays the part of the subject of the portrait. It is a relatively straight forward assignment to explain, and maybe this helps in the way that it seems to have captured the attention of my pupils in the last couple of weeks.

I provided a large selection of images for the classes to search through to find something that they thought that they could work with. I gave strict instructions for the photographs that they were going to take, and these were going to become my marking criteria when evaluating the work:

  • The pupil really has to play the part, the expression involved and displayed was important
  • Composition and the arrangement of figure and attributes were important
  • The use of light in the painting had to be followed as much as possible in the photograph
  • The pose of the figure should be used as a basis in the photograph
  • The clothing can be updated but should show a relationship to the original painting   Providing the framework
  • Cardboard box office
  • Related posts:
  • All photographs shown above are included with the pupils’ permission.
  • Looking back on the results that were finally handed in, I feel that the effect of that having seen high quality photos in the exhibition had a positive effect. I feel that it made them approach their own work in a more ambitious way. It definitely seemed to help them in taking a step away from the idea that this was just going to be a relatively unconsidered snap shot, an approach that is the dominant feature of most of a teenagers photographic output.

Beyond these instructions I left my pupils to it. Sending them off with a two-week deadline to produce this practical homework assignment. Although I did also stress that this was perhaps not an assignment to work on in a hurry on a dark Tuesday night…..they were to try and make use the of the natural light that the weekend offers.

 

Looking back on the results that were finally handed in, I feel that the effect of that having seen high quality photos in the exhibition had a positive effect. I feel that it made them approach their own work in a more ambitious way. It definitely seemed to help them in taking a step away from the idea that this was just going to be a relatively unconsidered snap shot, an approach that is the dominant feature of most of a teenagers photographic output.

All photographs shown above are included with the pupils’ permission.

Related posts:

Photographic frames of reference

Cardboard box office

One day I must do this in class…

It’s been a while since I’ve visited the Cardboard box office blog. For any film lover it is worth dropping by to Lilly and Leon’s site. Although, nowadays it is also Orson (yes really!) and from the most recent posts, also little Elliot. The new arrivals do perhaps give an understandable reason for rather less frequent posts than in the past.

Ever since stumbling on the site a few years ago I have been toying with the idea of how I might do something similar in a school/education setting with a heap of cardboard, some lamps and a whole load of duct tape. Maybe in some sort of a project week, because trying to build such scenery spread over twice a week art lessons for a number of weeks is one sure way to fall out with colleagues as they battle their way past all the cardboard in the store room!

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Scan through the site, and you’ll soon find you’ll have your own few favourites. I think that my own personal favourite is King Kong, but there are so many others that catch the eye.

I think if I stop to analyse it a little there are two main things that I like so much about the ‘installations’ that Lilly and Leon construct. Firstly, there is just the lovable silliness of it all. They clearly love the film world and want to use their own creativity to engage with it in some way. And that leads nicely onto the second reason, that being the amount of creativity and inventiveness they show in making their ‘screen shots’.

As an art teacher creativity is an often talked about subject. We like to encourage our pupils to be creative with their materials, you try to design lessons and assignments that challenge your classes creatively. But Lilly and Leon’s installations display a visual inventiveness that requires a particular mindset that teenagers enjoy seeing but find surprisingly difficult to dare to explore in their own work.

I saw this inventiveness a little during an animation project that I did with groups of fifteen-year olds last year, once they realized that they had to go looking at home for suitable materials to animate, a bit of a creative lid did seem to come off.  I’m hoping to see something similar with a forthcoming project where pupils will be photographically reconstructing old master portrait paintings.

Visages Villages (Faces Places) – a film review….and educational possibilities

Agnes Varda film maker and JR the French photographer and installation artist make an unlikely couple. One is an 89 woman who originally made her name as a filmmaker during the French New Wave, the other a 34-year-old photographer/installation-maker with a well-established name in both the world of street art and the more conventional art circuit.

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But in the film Visages Villages or Faces Places if you prefer the English title, a couple they certainly are, travelling around the French countryside in their van that is dressed up to look like a giant camera.  They visit a variety of places discussing, bickering and interviewing before getting down to the business of creating and installing a series of artworks using JR’s preferred installation method of pasting often huge scale photographs on exterior walls, sea-containers, trains and even a disused and crumbling relic from the second world war.

The film presents a fascinating insight into the working process.  JR largely takes the lead, but the constant input from Varda deflects and contributes to the creative development.  She brings the perspective of a long life, creative insight and a certain historical perspective that clearly fits well with the younger artist’s own interests.

The passage through the film builds a heart-warming picture of what seems to start with as a rather unlikely friendship.  There is a certain about of teasing that goes on between the two, but also a tremendous amount of respect and warmth as they discuss their work, their lives and their differences.

Technically the film is a documentary and has seen as that when it has won various film festival awards.  But it is also very much a road movie as we travel along with the leading characters on their journey of discovery.

As an educator I think that there is a good chance that I will be showing my older pupils this film in the future.  It gives a revealing view into the artistic process.  My pupils are interested in street art and the way it intervenes into the world around us.  Perhaps slightly unusually for this sort of public space work though, these are images that often provide us with a subject, an ordinary person, to look at and think about.  JR and Varda often choose the humdrum, the ordinary person and the elevate them to often quite huge scales.  Yes, I feel sure that this film and JR’s other work can be an interesting route to explore with my pupils.

There is also no doubt at all that I see possible practical assignments that may be possible to challenge my pupils with.  Certainly, photographic installations that we could make virtually on the computer, but who knows, maybe a few real installations could follow.

Related JR links:

JR Photographer

JR street artist

Previous street art related blog posts:

Street art and illegality

Street art in the classroom

Bouncing off the work of others – Tim Walker and Loving Vincent in the Noordbrabantsmuseum

There is a very strange double bill of exhibitions in the Noordbrabantsmuseum in Den Bosch, the Netherlands. Both, in their different ways, lean heavily on the artworks of Dutch masters from the past. British fashion photographer Tim Walker presents a series of larger than life photographs that take as their reference point Hieronymus Bosch’s painting The Garden of Earthly Delights. Meanwhile, in the neighbouring galleries there is The Loving Vincent exhibition, a display of a cross-section of the thousands of paintings made for the Hugh Welchman and Dorota Kobiela film of the same name. To say that these lean heavily on the work of Van Gogh, would be a massive understatement.

Art in general rarely escapes referencing the past in one way or another. All of those who have any form of creative or artistic practice have their own influences that touch and inform their own production. Having said that though, these two particular exhibitions are extremely explicit in their referencing of influences and acknowledging the creative forces that lie behind their projects.

Let us start with Loving Vincent. I’m used to seeing museum spaces filled by paintings made by Van Gogh. I’m a regular visitor to both the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam and my local museum the Kroller Muller in the central Netherlands. Both have excellent collections and both have galleries filled with both the Van Gogh’s art and crowds of visitors. From a distance the experience in Den Bosch looked similar, walls filled with vibrant, loosely painted images and crowds of people. There is though a difference, here there is not a single painting made by the famous Dutch man. It is a strange experience. Like the film itself it is rather a strange experience. If there ever was a painter whose work seems, through its inherent vibrancy, not in need of being animated it is surely Van Gogh. Yet the film does have a sort of hypnotic attraction. The relatively course animation techniques seemingly allowing the paint to flow across the cinema screen. Some parts work better than others and shear visual experience does tend to occupy your attention, at the expense of the narrative that the filmmakers were also trying to present.

The whole project is a Labour of Love. An infatuation with these iconic images. With this as a backdrop, and with the film in the back of my mind, the technical process is kind of interesting to see. But does it all warrant a place in a museum. Is it more than an advertisement for the film? I’ve always maintained in my teaching, even to the youngest pupils that art is about the ideas. Are there ideas here on display here?

There is clearly an audience for the exhibition, but I have to confess to feeling strangely perplexed by the visit. What are we actually looking at here? A series of paintings made by artists, or are they illustrators, who are all working in a style that is as close as possible to the way the Dutch master handled his paint 125 years ago.

Tim Walker’s exhibition in the same museum in Den Bosch is rather different. He too reaches back into art history. This time though, to a single work, The Garden of Heavenly Delights by Den Bosch’s most famous citizen, Hieronymus Bosch. Walker acknowledges in the forward to the display that he has always had a fascination for this particular painting. Is it an image of “naïve joy and freedom” or “playground of corruption and sexual deviance” is one of the introductory questions.

Having seen the work in the show I definitely feel that Walker comes down heavily on the latter choice. These are disturbing images. Staged photographs with a painterly quality, figure compositions that ooze a depraved sexuality and nightmarish menace.

Coming as he does from a fashion industry perspective with its slick images of perfection this does come as something of a contrast. Yes there are certainly elements of his fashion roots to be found. Overly theatrical….perhaps, but the photographs in the Noordbrabantsmuseum make for uncomfortable viewing, for me at least. It begs the question, would Bosch’s original work have offered still more uncomfortable viewing for its original audience? Being as it is, a warning of the hellish world that could be waiting for these original viewers back in the sixteenth century, in the afterlife.

Related post:

Hieronymus Bosch, Chris Berens and Oss

Winning an award….well, nearly

Awards and prizes in education should be taken with a pinch of salt. How can you possibly choose a teacher of the year? Even it was possible to for one organisation to actually somehow consider them all, what criteria could you use to say, this particular one is the best. I don’t dispute that the teachers who win such prizes are indeed very good teachers and worthy of being allowed to stand in the limelight and enjoy the recognition. But singling one out as the ‘best’ seems a little odd.

Having said all that, it didn’t stop me entering a competition a while back for innovative approaches to language teaching here in the Netherlands. Together with Pasi Kirkkopelto, my online art teacher collaborator (who up until now I have never actually met), I had worked on a project last year that seemed to fit the criteria of the competition rather well. It’s a project that I’ve posted before about:

Stating the obvious – language as a tool of communication

Photography, language and communication (a clil assignment)

I filled out the application form, without even mentioning it to Pasi. I was uncertain, it fitted the criteria in my view, but would it do so for the judges? It was a competition that seemed more geared up to full blown language teachers, rather than art teachers who squeeze language education into their lessons on the side.

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Two weeks ago, I received a mail to say that our project had been shortlisted and would have to be presented to jury and public at the National Conference for Language Education. Presentation is something that I do feel at home with, so two weeks later I found myself with a stand at the conference with our ‘Photographic Exchange’ project presented as stylishly as I could, given the fact that I had only very limited time to plan how to do it.

Maybe I’m just a bit shy, but I did feel a little like a gatecrasher……as an art teacher at the languages conference.  Perhaps I’ve never quite got over just how bad I was at languages at school, and here I was presenting a project for innovative approaches to language education at a national conference. It’s funny how things turn out!

Anyway, to cut a day long story of conversations with a great many visitors short, the project that we had put together last year was awarded second prize in this competition for good educational practice.

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I still think that educational competitions should be taken with a pinch of salt. I know full well that there are other excellent projects out there that for countless reasons never even got as far as being sent in for consideration by the judges.  But what I do know is that we had a good project, one that we as teachers and our pupils worked well with. I also have to say that having your moment on the stage in a huge theatre in front of your peers is, well kind of fun.