Do you still draw and paint? – the iPad story continues

That was not a question for me personally, but a question about the art department where I work. It came towards the end of an evening where the bilingual department that I teach in presented itself to primary school children who are thinking about coming to the school next year and their parents. Having started a project last year that involves all new pupils working with an iPad, a considerable effort was made to show the effects of increasing digitalization in school.

Made with Repix (http://repix.it)

After hearing the iPad story in the course of the evening, one parent came up to me and asked about the effects on the art department, “you do still draw and paint, don’t you?” Came the slightly nervous question. The parent involved I’m guessing probably didn’t honestly expect me to say “no of course not, we’ve given all that up and just use the iPad”! But at the same time it does reflect a nervousness that parents, and if I’m honest some teachers also have about creeping digitalization in education. Essentially its a throwing the baby out with the bath water fear, that good practice and successful classroom approaches will be somehow forced out by more (and not necessarily better) hi-tech strategies.

What I’m discovering in the art department is quite the opposite, I am still doing all the things that I always did, but the iPad offers new possibilities that I never had before to enrich the creative process. A good example of this is the clay project that I have just finished with my first years (12 year olds). As we have done before, the practical assignment was the create a ‘scary monster’ clay head, to fit onto a body that we will make later.  In the past the result of the project was simply a clay fired clay head that ultimately went home with the pupils. This year though I asked the pupils to photograph the development of the head at the beginning of each lesson. As a result each pupil has a photographic record of the whole process, from the beginning with just a formless lump of clay, to a finely worked head with a whole array of scary features. These photos have been put into an iMovie with accompanying text describing the process and the best of the photographs of the final piece of work have be digitally reworked (as in the examples here) to try to create even more sinister effects.

So to return to the parent’s question, well, yes of course we still paint, draw, work with clay and other materials. The digital developments are there to help, support and above all extend the educational possibilities, not replace the parts that already work perfectly well. It does sometimes feel like we are in a race towards a digital educational world, but drawing and painting does still have a place along with a whole load of other ‘old-fashioned’ approaches, it’s important that we don’t throw those ‘babies out with the bath water’, but equally we can’t close our eyes to the new possibilities on offer from the new tools and techniques that we have.

Big skies and geometry

I grew up in the east of England in an area to the north of Cambridge known a s the Fens. It’s a landscape that is dominated by the simple and often hard geometry of a flat horizon line interrupted by an odd house or cluster of trees. Many might find it a bleak and empty landscape but it is an area of great beauty, rich colours and hugely expansive skies. I love visiting the area, as I often do, and driving and walking across the roads and tracks that run like ribbons across the fields.

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Simple geometry and hard lines have always been an important part of my own work and I often wonder whether some of the reason for this might actually be in part tied up with my love for the simple structures found in the Fenland landscape and indeed the expanses of the nearby north Norfolk coast with its beaches and marshlands.

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The fact that I have ended up living in the Dutch landscape has, I guess, only strengthened this fascination. I don’t consider myself a landscape painter, although I am hugely interested in the landscape and what it means to us, how we use or abuse it and how we manipulate the way it looks.  These are the sorts of issues I am considering in my work.  Whilst doing this, that interest in geometry keeps coming back, and above all that horizon line stretching taught across a composition.

Having been back to the Fens during the Christmas break with camera in hand I feel the geometry recharge has set me up for the coming months in my studio work.

A museum in place of the last lesson of the week

Friday afternoon and what better way to end the week than a quick trip with sixteen of my fourth years (15-16 year olds) to the local museum to see a little art first hand. The town where I work, Oss in the south of the Netherlands, is not that big, but it is lucky to have an excellent small museum, the Jan Cunen museum to give it it’s full name. At least is lucky to still have one for the time being, as the council are busy with plans that is likely to end with the museum being a significantly less interesting and educational place to visit. But for now though on this sunny Friday afternoon I have been able to visit a fantastic exhibition of photographs by the Dutch photographer Gerco de Ruijter. De Ruijter is a landscape photographer although not really in the usual sense. First of all most of his work is made using a camera that is attached to a kite that is being flown above his subject. We are of course more than a little used to the idea of viewing the world from above, be that from a plane or by using Google Earth. What makes the work more interesting is the choice of the specific sorts of landscapes he chooses. They are most often landscapes where the effects of man are quite evident and have resulted in an exposure of geometric quality in the composition of the photographs. The results are often stunningly close to the appearance to certain kinds of abstract geometric painting, a fact that the photographer is more than happy to acknowledge.

blog Gerco de Ruijter Untitled 2009 Dubai  (l. de Ruijter, r. Mangold)blog imageshandler  (l. de Ruijter, r.Marden)

It’s interesting to watch the pupils respond to the work. They see the abstract qualities in the design, a circle carefully positioned in a square in a fashion that to me is clearly reminiscent to the paintings of Robert Mangold, but in de Ruijter’s case a roundabout framed sharply be the edges of the photograph. Or perhaps it’s Brice Marden, Sean Scully or Agnes Martin that comes to mind when seeing a composition of rectangular geometry. Such references are of course lost on my fifteen year olds (although it will certainly be a subject in a forthcoming lesson). However they do often get to an appreciation of the abstract qualities via a different route. The photographs offer a high level of fine detail and you find yourself drawn into looking ever closer in an effort to decipher exactly what it is that you are seeing.  That might be irrigation systems in the U.S., a frozen lake that has been ice skated over or countless rows of small trees or saplings in a plant nursery. The pupils found themselves searching and enquiring as to what each photograph was showing. Once it became clear what exactly they were looking at, the next question was, ‘how do these small details come to combine to form such a pattern or design?’ and one that dominates the photographic composition. This in turn leads to a greater appreciation of the order (imposed or not) that we encounter in the world around us. It was a short but very good visit, the pupils left having had a break from regular lessons, but they also left with a new enthusiasm for a photographic form of art that probably quite surprised them.  I head for home with the feeling that eyes have been culturally opened just that little bit more.

Lipstick, powder and paint….and abstraction

I’ve been working on a project that focuses on abstraction with my third years (15 year olds). The direction of the various parts of the assignments touch on a number of issues such as design principles, dynamics in an image, colour and draws a parallel with the abstract nature of music.

Some years I have made three dimensional work during this project, but this time round I have chosen to focus on the two dimensional image and try and push the creativity of the pupils as far as I can using simply drawing materials. As we near the end of the project (and the school year), I am certainly not unhappy with the results and the pupils themselves seem to be feeling a sense of achievement, certainly when they see the work they have made grouped together.

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I’ve been also trying to encourage the class to mix up the materials, look for interesting combinations, get the class to ask themselves ‘what else can I use?’. For the most part I had in mind a little collage in combination with the more obvious pencil or pen work. But as the photo here shows this has extended to some of the girls reaching inside their bags and pulling out the make-up and working the pearlescent and metallic colours into the design. I’d been showing plenty of Frank Stella’s work in the build up to the project, that may have influenced some of their choices. I’m sure he would approve!

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Manipulated landscape

There can be few more manipulated landscapes in the world than the Dutch landscape.  There is constant construction and reconstruction, rearrangement and quite literal landscape creation as land is reclaimed from the sea. There is a constant tension between man and nature in this densely packed land.  My work as an artist has grown increasingly to focus on these tensions and what the natural world around us means to us and how we respond to it.

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Today we walked through a small section of the landscape of the central Netherlands. As I often do on such an excursion I made a small watercolour sketch, in this case of a the linear geometry of a recreated piece of nature, a pool for wading birds.  Further on we encountered a selection of other newly created pools of a various of forms for a variety of nature.  I was reminded of my own pools I created in my work a few years ago.  Manipulated nature of a slightly more extreme form.

Jeff Wall in the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam

There is so much to see in this exhibition.  Wall’s engages you in a different way somehow to the way so much other photography does.  The work that is presented in ‘light-box’ form especially seems to invite you to look at it in a different way.  It brings it closer to the language of film perhaps, we are less aware of the object, or at least the surface.  Instead we submerge ourselves in the world beyond the frame.  The normality of it all draws you in to a world that in other ways seems so different an almost palpable ‘otherness’.

Wall constructs and manipulates our vision on what he offers us. But often the complexity is such that you know that many of the conclusions and thoughts you find yourself considering are likely to be if not accidents, well, things that just happened.

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Walking round the exhibition with friends we found so much to pick up on and discuss.  The discussion felt in many ways like a discussion we might have had about an exhibition of figurative paintings from say, the seventeenth or eighteenth century.  The way everything has a place and a reason for placement.  Yet Wall acknowledges himself that his degree of control is different.  Few things arrive on a figurative painting of this type by accident, the painters hand is in everything.  Wall’s tableaus show likewise a large degree of control, but working through the lens of a camera throws up other layers of consideration.  These were the loops of discussion we found ourselves in. Reality and fiction, pure representation and theatre, control and unintentional occurrences.

Illegal Immigration and Art

Many years ago I gave a series of creative workshops to children of asylum seekers at an asylum seekers centre that is on the edge of the town where I live. I can’t remember a great deal about what I did with these groups of children in terms of activity. But there are a number of things I do remember about the experience.

I found it very difficult, they spoke many different languages, they were all very different ages and they weren’t (it seemed to me) used to someone coming to draw with them. All or these are very challenging factors to someone trying to give some kind of structured recreational/educative/creative activity. All the more so when, as was the case for me at the time, you have virtually no experience of teaching or group leadership.

But looking back these are not the things I remember most of the experience. What sticks in my mind years later is the feeling of “otherness” I had of the environment within the fences of the centre.

It wasn’t (and still isn’t) a closed fences centre, the people there are allowed out into the area and local town, I regularly see them still. But within the centre I felt that I was somehow in a sort of dislocated place. The building that these people lived in was unmemorable and grey, but it was set in the calm and tranquil beauty of woodland that stretches out beyond the centre for miles. This context was one that I felt very strongly, and it was coupled with an air of uncertainty in the future that you inevitably feel in such a place.

The experience as a whole was for me a relatively short one, lasting only a few weeks. But it was one that has stayed with me and has coloured and filled in my thoughts on the issues of asylum seekers and immigration.

Immigration is a theme that I have been working with in my art lessons during the last weeks, in combination with my social studies colleague who is dealing with the issue simultaneously in her lessons. It’s a major subject and one that is important to discuss.

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I do it using the excellent work by Dutch artists Carlijn Mens and Henk Wildschut. Both have produced work that deal with the subject of illegal immigration head on. The challenge for us as teachers is to try and open the eyes of our pupils to a subject that is so far from their world for virtually all of them as they make their daily bike ride through the countryside and town to school. Virtually all of the them, because I have also had young people from Iraq and Afghanistan who were still in the immigration process in my classes in the past.

To help bring the theme a little closer to home I am now sitting in a train, along with forty-three fifteen and sixteen year olds and three colleagues heading towards The Hague and the exhibition centre called the Humanity House. Here we will be participating in two activities aimed at engaging and confronting the visitor with the issues of refugees. The kids are excited about the day out it will be interesting to see their response to what we encounter.

 Six hours later

In the train again for the two hour ride back home with forty three generally very enthusiastic teenagers. Two activities completed, both engaging, informative and in their own ways entertaining in an enlightening sort of way.

The humanity game involved letting teams of pupils divide aid resources across scenarios based on real disaster situations.Volcanic eruptions in Indonesia, flooding in Pakistan, chemical poisoning in Bhopal and an abnormally cold winter in Mongolia all played a part. It was all about judging priorities, gauging what is most needed. Simple enough but extremely engaging.

 In the skin of a refugee took you on a journey through the experiences of a person fleeing a place for whatever reason. You pass through a series of alienating spaces that simulate the feeling of having to rapidly depart your home, to flee into the unknown. Interrogation, confrontation, questions of trust and loyalty all played a part.  Parts of the experience left you feeling uncomfortable, possibly scared, but also, greatly informed in an extremely activating and stimulating way. 

In the context our project at school we couldn’t have asked for more. For myself as an art teacher there is the extra layer that I’ll be talking about in the lessons later in the week when I refer back to the work of Mens and Wildschut. Their work deals with a tremendously serious social issue, and in the case of Mens, one with tragic consequences. Showing pupils how art can be relevant and a carrier of information and opinions about the most up to date of issues is always so enlightening and valuable to show.

Photographic frames of reference

Establishing clearly defined areas of creativity when working with young people is something I’ve posted about before, it is something that, as an art educator I feel quite strongly about. This week I’m being reminded about again through an assignment that I have set.

The assignment is part of a photography module that I am working on with my fourth year class (15-16 year olds in the Dutch system of education). We’ve spent time in the lessons looking at examples of good portrait photography, the pupils have compared photographs and written about them.

But ultimately the core of the whole project is getting the pupils to take their own photographs and trying to insure that the photographs are more that the bulk of the photographs these teenagers take in the average week.

This is a generation that take so many photographs. This is fantastic in so many ways, the freedom to experiment, the minimal cost involved and the ease with which they can share their creative discoveries. The big down side though is that they rarely stop to think about what it is that they are doing, everything is a snap shot, instantaneous and so often just for amusement purposes.

With this in the background, it is actually often quite difficult to get the sorts of photographic results that you might hope for. The assignment that I have been experimenting with is essentially a portrait assignment, not so much about ensuring that the portrait photograph discloses something about the subject, it is simply more about encouraging the pupils to look carefully and critically at there’s on that they are photographing, consider how they are framing them up and how that they are controlling light.

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The assignment is based on an idea that I came across on the www.booooooom.com website although I have also seen work by other photographer doing similar things, such as the Dutch photographer Hendrik Kerstens.

For the project I gave the pupils a selection of five Vermeer and five Rembrandt portraits to use as a basis. They simply had to create their own photographic versions of the portraits. It was not so much about dressing up or gathering attributes to fill the picture, but more about creating the ‘look’ of the painting, simulating the glance, creating a comparable composition.

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By allowing the pupils to play the role that the original offered seems to have removed a lot of the self-consciousness that might otherwise get in the way. They step in front of the camera knowing what they have to do. The endless possibilities that the camera normally offers is framed within some limitations, but these limitations allow the chance to focus on the issues I want them to focus on. This is the strength of the project I feel.

The Most beautiful People Project

beautiful peopleThe Most beautiful People Project

In secondary education we work with young people who take more photographs than any previous generation and discard an equally large number of images.  The idea that the photographic image can have a sense of design, a sense of meaning or of social context or importance is often quickly lost.

A number years ago I saw (together with two of the classes I taught at the time) an exhibition of the work of Michel Szulc Krzyzanowski and his ‘Most Beautiful People’ project.  I was instantly taken by the simplicity of the project and saw clearly how the same simplicity and the social edge the project has attracted the attention of the pupils.  In the fixed format of three photographs and a simple series of questions so much information is given.  It invites us to ask the same questions about ourselves and make comparisons.

The differences between our own situation and others on the other side of the world are often huge, but when the social ‘mirror’ is turned, we all want to see ourselves and be seen by others as beautiful seems quite universal.  Some of the reasons people give as to why they consider themselves to be a beautiful person are hugely revealing, others are humorous and still others are simply familiar.

The accompanying photographs tell their own stories and provide the ideal springboard for a relatively simple schools photography project.  I stick to the exact same format with my own pupils, having shown them the work of Szulc Krzyzanowski.  The photographs are always interesting to see, and once in a while someone comes up with a real gem of a reason as to why they see themselves to be beautiful,