Mail art…….a nostalgic return

When I was an art student back in the late eighties and early nineties artists’ journals and magazines used to be full of mail art projects. The need to connect was clearly there long before we all got online. Some of the projects were initiated by large and recognized arts institutions, others were very much smaller in ambition being the work of individuals.Looking back I can’t actually remember taking part in any of it, although I did find the idea of linking up with others in some artistic way quite attractive. I think the problem I had though was that it was all rather invisible and seeing and experiencing the results was always rather a weak link in the process.

Mail art rather faded away with the arrival of the internet. All sorts of online forums offered so many possibilities to share, collaborate and exhibit. This blog itself is of course a good example of this sort of development.

Yet here I am, many years later, in our digital world, enjoying being a participant in a mail art project with a group of creative people spread round the globe. The project involves a black hardback drawing book making a journey from one artist to another. Each in turn fills a series of pages with a documentation of a single day, in whatever way they choose before sending the package on to the next participant in the series.


I received the book earlier in the week with it already having passed through Australia, Vietnam, Poland and Sweden. When I’m finished I’ll be sending it on to the next participant in Canada. Today I’m traveling from my home in the Netherlands to visit my parents who live just north of Cambridge in the U.K. It provides an interesting day to document as I make the trip using buses, trains and the boat across the North Sea.

So what has lead me to participate in the project? Well, Margot, the organizing strength behind the initiative asked me, and others, directly to participate….that certainly helped! But things have changed from the old days of mail art, because the digital world enables us to follow the project, chart its development and in the end to witness the results. A very informal chat group around the project has developed and Margot has set up Flickr pages for the depositing of imagery. All this has undoubtedly helped us all feel an engagement in the project.


Having said all this I was kind of surprised this week by the pleasure of having the book itself drop through the letterbox at home. To sit down with a cup of coffee an read and look at the work of the others in the group and to consider the journeys that these pages, as a visual document, have already made.

I have been adding my experiences of a day as I have been traveling. It’s been interesting to participate, and who knows, maybe there will be some form of a follow up project. I have to admit to having one at the back of my mind.

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Digitalization – finding the right fit

Forcing digitalization into education can be a painful affair. Some people might say ‘yes, that’s what they’re trying to do to the education situation that I work in!’  But that would be to misunderstand what I mean by forcing digitalization. I am absolutely for the use of digital technologies in education. What I mean though is that the use of computers, laptops, tablets and indeed phones have a place, of that I’m sure, but exactly what that place is may take time to find.

The school I teach at took a decision a few years ago to move to a form of computer aided education where every pupil works with their own iPad. I’ve been teaching art lessons with the possible digital dimensions that this offers for two and a half years now. Despite being one of the most progressive minded in the school when it comes to the iPad, I would also say that I am still finding my way with the device and uncovering the possibilities. It’s a fascinating process for me, and I think for my pupils.  Searching out for the opportunities where it offers extensions to a project, or perhaps simply something new and previously unconsidered.

A few of these curriculum enrichment situations have been exactly what I have been experiencing in the classroom this week and observing in the pupils results.

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Last year I worked for the first time on a children’s book design project with the fourteen to fifteen year olds that I teach. In short, the pupils write and make an illustrated story book in which an artwork that they have previously researched plays a starring role.

Last year, each group of three produced and entirely handmade book. Illustrations were made, text was added either by writing it out by hand or printing it out on the computer and collaging it on to the illustrated pages. The results were satisfactory and in some cases good, but the problem we encountered in integrating the text was a bit of a puzzle. The classes worked well, but without the luxury of having the iPad to combine the language element with the illustrations.

This year though the situation is different and it is fascinating to watch. Groups are sharing tasks, stories are being written, handmade illustrations are being produced using the traditional materials, the artworks are being photographed, digitally enhanced where necessary before being inserted into page layouts and finally the text from the story is then laid on top.

I’m not quite finished with the assignment yet, but I’ve seen enough already to know that this is an example of digitalization extending a project into new areas. Groups are working genuinely as groups, sharing tasks and discussing what they are doing and working with a high level of engagement to produce and end product.  What was a good project has become an excellent one through a well-fitting digital extra element.

For those who are interested, the app we are using for the layout is the excellent Design Pad By Quark.

Photography and posters on teenagers’ bedroom walls

This may turn out to be just an initial post on this subject as I am just starting a photography project that I’ve been working on together with Pasi, an art teacher colleague in Finland. It will hopefully throw up some interesting work and stories to tell over the weeks ahead. The two of us have been working hard over the last couple of months creating an engaging series of assignments and collaborations that will hopefully culminate in some sort of online exhibition.

That though is all for the weeks ahead, yesterday was for me at least, just the introduction lesson, aimed at framing up the context of the weeks ahead. I gave an introduction presentation to two classes with a total of about forty-five pupils. During the lesson we talked about the place of photography in our daily lives in 2016.

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It’s no secret to say that teenagers (a society as a whole) are taking more photographs than any generation before, but I wanted to talk in more depth about the place and importance these photographs have , why we take them, what we do with them and what they say about us. We talked about the selfie-culture, school photos, holiday photograph albums, wedding photos on the mantle-piece at home and photographs of the children of the family on the bookcase. We also considered the places and ways we store/organize our photographs nowadays. It was an interesting and enjoyable discussion with both classes. However, in the last twenty minutes of the lesson, I broadened the discussion out a little bit into other areas where we find and collect photographs. Having two teenage children I knew that we also had to talk about the bedroom wall at home.

I moved the discussion onto the photographic images, firstly of musicians and performers and then sports stars, thinking in both cases we would be able to talk about this genre of photographic imagery in poster format on bedroom walls.

It was at this point I made a surprising discovery, of my forty-five pupils just two had pictures of any form of ‘hero’ on their bedroom wall! So much for my view that the bedroom wall was the bastion of self expression and identity, a place where you could mark out who your heroes are and freely associate yourself with them.

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This seems, alright within my relatively small sample, simply not to be the case. ‘What do you have on your bedroom walls?’ I asked, ‘my tv’ came the answer back! I shared an image that I had on my bedroom wall as a teenager, a huge poster of Beatrice Dalle from the Jean-Jacques Beineix film Betty Blue. A film that made a strong impression on me as an eighteen year old.

I have to admit to feeling pretty curious as to why this is. Do my pupils simply have no heroes? My own children seem to have them, my daughter is constantly changing the pictures on her wall. So what is it with my pupils at school. Too shy to say perhaps? Somehow I don’t think that this is the story here. I have a theory, and perhaps that tv or computer screen on the bedroom is a clue. This is a generation that has access to so much. A huge array of multiple tv channels, online entertainment in the form of games, films, Spotify and YouTube. They soak it all up, often I feel in a fairly uncontrolled and unfocused way. It’s like they experience and expose themselves to everything (or at least a whole lot) and become in doing so, fans of nothing. Ready made playlists are their music, focus and identification with a particular artist or performer seems to be occurring less. A consequence of our media saturated times perhaps? What I do know from my pupils, if I ask them about their favourite band, singer or film even, they find it difficult to express opinions that have any real focus, it is all rather generalized and vague.

I could go on to express many other opinions and theories as to why this may be, but a particular favourite I have, and I do think that it is highly relevant is the idea ‘shared experience’ being important in forming opinions in this sort of area of cultural identity. In the past pupils would talk about the film that had been on the tv the previous evening or the music programme they had all seen on tv. Discussions the following day would occur and cultural identities and preferences would slowly start to be formed. This simple sharing of experience to a large degree has been lost as young people make their own way through the media and cultural world in a more independent way.

This independence might well be a commendable and valuable thing, but there is maybe a flip side, are they becoming fans of everything and at the same time nothing?

A simple exercise in tonal/value work

Teaching the basics of drawing and what a simple pencil is capable of is one of the first things I like to get to grips with my first years (aged 12) at the start of the year. They are familiar with the idea of line, the setting up of an arrangement, but tonal work is often limited to shading an area in gently with a shade of grey. I want to deal with the extremes of shading, going from the whitest white to the darkest grey and everything in between that a 3B or 4B pencil can offer. I want to cover the gradations in shading and how you can achieve sensitivity in your results. Building on this I like to lead onto the modelling of form that can be achieved.

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fullsizerender-7There are numerous ways of doing this, from shading in boxes, drawing cylinders and imaginary balls. The ‘how to draw’ books are full of such exercises. Technically they cover the same ground, but they hardly catch a twelve year old’s imagination and leave them with a feeling of ‘wow’ as they leave the art room.

Yesterday I had the chance to cover some of this ground when I visited a neighbouring school to lead two, two hour workshops. I decided to cover these same areas with the two classes of 23 twelve year olds.

Working with a gridded up version of one of my favourite subjects, Chuck Close I was also able to bring in a little art historical context that was completely new to the pupils. After discussing his work for a while I was able to set them loose on trying to produce high contrast fragments of a large scale group drawing.

Four hours later I had a reworking of the first Close self-portrait and his image of a young looking Philip Glass and a classes full of children wanting to photograph the result to share what they had achieved as a class working together. In terms of creativity the assignment might not be the most experimental. But as an exercise in an important technical skill it does lay a basis that can be built on later.

For a more challenging variation see:

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Once in a while something special comes along…..

Most art teachers are constantly changing, adjusting and refining their lesson material and the projects that they do with their classes. I for one am rarely completely satisfied and am constantly looking to push the various assignments that I do with my pupils into new areas. This approach keeps things interesting for me and also keeps in the possibility of being surprised by the results that the pupils make.

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Sometimes it’s quite difficult to predict what will work and capture the imagination of the classes and produce really memorable work. When this happens though you can often sense the excitement running through the whole class as they realize that the things that they are designing or making are indeed something a bit special.

This happened recently whilst working on a project based around abstraction.  I’ve written on my blog before about dealing with abstract art with the third year classes I teach (14-15 year olds).

Abstraction – They’re too young to understand it

Lipstick, Powder and Paint….and abstraction

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Abstract art is a theme I enjoy exploring with them. The module starts with some drawing assignments that relate mark making to sound and music followed by some collage preparation work. This year I decided that I wanted to include in this module also a element about how illusionistic and real space can be combined in an art work. I wanted to make abstract work with them that lurked in the middle ground between two dimensional and three dimensional abstract form. There is maybe no other artist that has explored this middle ground so thoroughly than Frank Stella.

stella6Using Stella’s Cones and Pillars series as a touch stone the pupils set to work using a 30×30 cm piece of plywood, a hand saw, acrylic paint and wood glue, each pupil produced their own abstract work based on a quarter circle base form with a number of two-dimensional painted forms set in three dimensional space.

At a certain point the pupils started to see what was going to be possible and spurred on by the complexities of Stella’s work began to become more and more creative in looking for their own solutions. The end results across the fifty pupils in the two classes of this age that I teach was consistently good with a number of exceptionally well worked out pieces of work.

All of a sudden I had boxes full of rather fragile, but really interesting pieces of work that the pupils were actually very proud of. It was work that had to be exhibited around school. A few pieces will find their way into a glass case at school. But thanks to a little extra budget being made available by the finance department I’ve been able to photograph all fifty and had them printed onto a plastic canvas to hang up as an eleven meter long artwork in the school hall.

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“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.

Senna…..gripped to the end

A short follow up to my earlier post about my doubts related to the showing of the Senna movie to my group of fifteen year olds. We completed the film yesterday in class. The second half of the movie builds to the weekend in early May 1994 at the Imola racetrack when in practice on the Saturday a driver suffered a fatal accident and then the following day during the race Ayrton Senna also collided with a wall and died only minutes later. Both events are documented in the film, using the original race day footage. The imagery is not grotesquely close, but none the less both incidents are shown.

This was the point that I was obviously uncertain about. The classroom of 32 pupils went absolutely still. I’m so used to wise cracks from pupils in class, even when we are being serious, but on this occasion there was simply a hugely respectful silence. The titles rolled, still a quite classroom. I turned the lights on and gently started a discussion, a discussion that we will be continuing next week. My impression of their reaction?..well, they almost seemed grateful to have seen the film. They certainly seemed to have absolutely got the measure of the seriousness of it, which as a teacher is very satisfying to see.

The real feedback will come in a couple of weeks when they hand in the reports that they will be writing. But as things stand I am very pleased to have taken the chance and feel rewarded by the response.

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.

Is this the most difficult art assignment of the year?

I can’t speak for everyone of course, but for my pupils this is the most challenging assignment I get them to attempt. The challenge comes not in the technical skill, knowledge of materials or pure facility to draw but because it requires a sharp combination of text and image, maybe humour and above all a good idea.

 Essentially it is an advertising assignment, but an assignment that I also relate to surrealism and tend to focus on examples from advertising that could be said to have a surreal quality to them. The assignment I set is to design an advertisement for one product from a list that I provide and that could be used in a magazine, on a billboard or in a newspaper. Alternatively it could be a storyboard for a TV, cinema or internet advertising film.

 I start by showing them a whole series of examples. One or two or the examples are quite complex and might need a bit of an explanation, but by and large these groups of mostly fifteen year old are well able to follow the line of thought in the advert, make connections to the product, or see the joke if there is a joke to be seen. More broadly, they are perfectly able to spot the really good adverts and explain why they are so successful.

 But then comes the hard bit. Try coming up with your own idea. Be original, think outside of the box, take an oblique angle. Ask yourself what your product is all about, what are its characteristics, what can you focus on and start to build an idea around?

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It can all be so simple. An example like the one above makes use of an existing image or situation and by careful placement of the product name and slogan the image and text come together to form a delightful whole, with a real feeling for humour. The pupils see this, they understand it, they laugh. But trying to get them to think beyond the “Buy our chili sauce because, well, it’s very hot…” level is so difficult.

I tell them they have to turn every idea and product over in their minds, look at it from different angles, bounce ideas off each other. But this is so different to most other school work, where you are generally rewarded to grinding away at assignments or preparations for tests. It is about being open and ready for that idea to come.

 It’s still early days with this assignment, if anything memorable, the good, the bad or the ugly comes up, I’ll post for feedback. 

War and conflict project

As a follow up to my previous post I thought perhaps a little more documentation of the There they stood…. project would be good. Firstly the the installation of the work as it is at school at the moment. Trapped behind the glass at eye level does seem to work well for it.

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Discussions with the local museum are ongoing and hopefully with time it will be exhibited there I would fantastic for the pupils involved to see their work displayed alongside the work of others in such a professional context.

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The close up work shows a little of the process involved in the project and in particular the poems written by the pupils about the likes of Picasso and Goya, whose work we have studied during the course of the project. It is worth remembering that the poems are being written by fifteen year old Dutch pupils who are writing in their second language.

If you haven’t watched the video documentation in my previous post, do take a moment to do so.