2018 marks the centenary of the end of the First World War. Education plays is part in recognition and remembrance of the events a century ago and the conflicts of the years that have followed. At the school where I teach we will be spending time considering and reflecting on the the we years of war and years of peace shape our societies and lives in the new year.
But today I see no better moment to repost an artwork that my classes of fourteen year olds made in the context of a similar project four years ago. For a full explanation of the project click here.
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.
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- Tagged art, art education, art project, artist, arts, artwork, assignment, auschwitz, conflict, creativity, cross curricular, exhibition, gallery, goya, museum, picasso, shoes
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.
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.
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.
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- Tagged art, auschwitz, conflict, education, goya, guernica, memorial, picasso, project, school, shoes, war, world war two
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.
High heels and creativityThe kunsthal in Rotterdam has been experimenting with audience participation in its exhibition planning. What would you like to see as a theme for a future exhibition? That was the first question. Shoes, Victor Vasarely and dinosaurs were the options on offer. Perhaps not surprisingly, shoes came back as the popular choice, although I dare say that the under twelves voted differently!
Subsequently, further choices were offered that related to the presentation of the shoes, pr and advertising issues were also open to a degree of consultation. It is not so very different to an assignment I might offer the older pupils I teach (16 year olds) in their cultural education lessons. Choose a theme for an exhibition, research the artworks that you want to include, plan a layout for the exhibition and design the advertising campaign with a poster or a information folder.
The end result in Rotterdam is very good. In dimly lit spaces created in the basement hall of the Kunsthal close on five-hundred shoes are displayed. Exclusively women’s shoes, and as my wife pointed out, almost exclusively high-heeled. There is huge variety, from the familiar and practical, to eccentric and surely unwearable.
Though I am unlikely to be able to take my own pupils to see the exhibition, the costs involved and the cancellation of too many lessons, stand in the way of that. It is the sort of display I would like them to see. There are a number of reasons for this, reasons such as:
- The familiarity of the objects on display. We all buy and wear shoes and are used to the selection criteria we impose on them when choosing.
- The shear quantity on display, it’s a chance to see an impressive variety.
- The pupils are perhaps more ready to come with their own opinions and evaluation than with some other areas of the arts where they perhaps feel confused or pressured by the opinions of others to like or value something they struggle to understand.
- But perhaps the nicest aspect of hundreds of shoes placed side by side is insight into creativity it gives when working within a restricted frame of reference, in this case a pair of shoes.
Let me expand on this last point a little more.
We all like to have choices and it is not different in education. Teachers are encouraged to built elements of choice and differentiation into their lessons. As an art teacher we can offer choices of two-dimensional or three-dimensional, traditional materials or digital media, painting or drawing, collage or printmaking techniques, large or small, the list goes on and on. The choice of how exactly, and with which material, to develop an idea can definitely be an integral part of the creative process. But it can at times be an awkward distraction as a pupil struggles to choose and maybe struggles also to fully explore the numerous creative possibilities a material or process offers.
We want our pupils to be creative and we want to give them the chance to be creative. The shoes exhibition provides an excellent contained frame of reference of creativity. Everything in the exhibition is a shoe, to be worn on a woman’s foot. That’s the frame of reference, but within that frame there is huge variety and examples or designers stretching the creative possibilities. Just how far can you in being creative with a sole, a heel and upper of the shoe. Some of the results border on the sculptural while others seem quite conventional, but the interesting dimension here is the range.
Back in the classroom, by offering pupils endless diversity in the choices on offer you don’t necessarily extend the creativity in the work they attempt. My experience is often quite the opposite, they become restricted by the choices.
We hear often enough that children and young people like to know where the permitted borders lie. The challenge for the art teacher, and maybe others too, is to set the frame of reference wide enough to offer challenges and choices in finding creative solutions, but not so wide that it ultimately inhibits the very creativity that you what to stimulate.
It’s a long while since I did a shoe design assignment with one of my classes, maybe it’s time to have a go at it again.
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- Tagged art, creativity, design, education, exhibition, high heels, kunsthal, project, Rotterdam, school, shoes, the netherlands
The work of an art teacher is at times one that requires considerable patience. When you see a given class for two hours a week, on separate days and the project you are working on requires a certain of setting up time at the start on each session and clearing up time at the end, then the ‘big picture’ is sometimes very slow to unfold.
This is certainly the case with the war memorial shoe project that I’ve been working on. It feels like months of lessons have passed since the beginning of the big project, whereas I know from my diary that it is actually just a matter of a few weeks. But now as the project, spread across three classes, nears its completion things things are starting to fall into place.
Teenagers level of activity is interesting to watch in such circumstances. When you announce “and this is the last lesson working on this” inevitably the level of activity rises. Sustaining engagement and activity is the key. This particular project has had a number of different phases, a certain amount of donkey work preparing the shoe for the relatively intense, in terms of content part, that comes at the end. Maintaining interest in what becomes an over familiar object over the weeks requires strategy to freshen things up. The poetry element for these pupils who are being taught in their second language provided such a break and a good reminder of the seriousness on the content.
The photos here show the work of the first of the three classes to reach thr conclusion of the project. It is not the complete pile of shoes, but I am definately not unhappy with the way it looks.
I’ve been working for a few weeks on an inter-curricular project with my three classes of 15 year olds that I teach. The whole project has been hung up around the theme of war and peace and has involved contributions from the art, physics, English, geography and history departments and possibly a few others too. My art part of the project was based on a couple of main points. Firstly that art can be used as a carrier of a serious message or opinion. Secondly, beauty is often a criteria that seems rather dominant in the minds of the pupils, but in this case, due to the seriousness of the subject matter, it wasn’t really appropriate or even relevant. And finally I wanted to try and make the work about real issues and real history.
With all this in mind and with the experience of a visit I made to Auschwitz in Poland a number of years ago I set about making an assignment that turned around the shocking sight of the mountains of shoes of the victims of the extermination camp that can still be seen by visitors. Lists of names of victims, the huge numbers involved and the scale of the camp make an impact, but these ‘leftovers’ marking individuals who died was truly shocking to me.
The resulting project, that is nearing completion now, has involved pupils using a shoe to make a three dimensional collage that documents conflicts in the period since the second world war. The photos here show the Auschwitz shoe stacks and the progress of the work of a few of the pupils. More documentation will doubtless follow when the project is complete, but the working process and the tone of the collages that the pupils have made has been great to see. This attitude has been reinforced by the poems that they have written on the themes we explored in the lessons, such as Goya’s 3rd May, Picasso’s Guernica and photography from Vietnam. These poems too will find a place in the project when they are finally added to the sole of each shoe.