Surreal sculpture and the challenge of being creative with language

Art teachers are interested in creativity. That’s no surprise really.  We’re interested in squeezing new things and creative approaches out of our pupils in their practical work. Well yes maybe, but even in the most creative of classrooms over-reliance on examples/predetermined models and the pupils’ sometimes insatiable wish to do things the ‘right’ way has to be fought. In this sense, my own classroom is no different.

Occasionally a lesson situation presents itself where the pupils are confronted with an almost infinite number of choices or variables on offer.  It calls for thought, reflection and a spark that might lead to the pupils coming up with something that is their ‘own’, something that is maybe a little more original or creative. It can be a struggle, and a surprisingly difficult situation to actually teach.

This has been the case in a recent assignment I have been working on with my third-year pupils (aged 15 years). It was an assignment that required some creativity in terms of practical activity when the class working with plywood. But actually, the creative core of the assignment was more one of creativity of thought.

The assignment was linked to a series of lessons about Surrealism and involved taking an existing object and combining it with a second plywood constructed object that interacted in some way with the qualities or characteristics of the first object to present a slightly surreal combination. The idea for the assignments stemmed from various artworks like those of Salvador Dali, Man Ray and Meret Oppenheim.

 

 

The idea of placing two objects together or combining them visually is not complex, and by and large the process of constructing the second object from plywood is not too technically difficult. However, the simple act of deciding what to do is surprisingly difficult. Analyzing the qualities of the first object, with a little encouragement generally works out reasonably well. If we take the example of a fork, the sort of which you might find in the kitchen drawer.

A fork is:

Metal, silvery, shiny, hard, pointy at one end, more curved at the other, the overall form is kind of wavy, it’s for eating, for spiking food, comes as part of a set called cutlery, four prongs, fits in the hand, etc, etc.

How then to choose a second object that in some way combines or contrasts with these existing characteristics? That was difficult. It requires something of a ‘eureka’ moment, just a single idea that was going to engage the viewer, like Man Ray’s nails under the iron. Here is the creative challenge. Often I found myself sitting round a table staring at an object with a pupil, waiting, coaxing, edging them towards some possibilities, but at the same time trying to hold back from offering solutions. Testing creativity of thought in this way can at times be something of a painful process to watch!

It the end, in most cases, an idea came. Some rather predictable, others surprising, smart or downright funny. In the case of the fork the pupil settled quite quickly on working with the wave-like form of the fork when seen side on.  He decided he simply wanted to make a ship with masts and sails that by inserting it between the prongs of the fork could ‘sail’ through the wave-like form.

wThe second creative challenge came in the form of dreaming up a suitable title, one that somehow locked in on the complexities of these combinations. Can you spend a whole lesson waiting and hoping that pupils come up with an engaging, perhaps two-word title? Will that flash of an idea come?

The language abilities of my pupils are good, even working as we are in English, their second language. But that is not to say that they are going succeed at this difficult challenge. This stretches their creativity and knowledge of often multiple meanings for words to the limit. In the end, the language component of this assignment is finding just a handful of words, but they are completely integrated with the practical content. It that sense it is a good CLIL (content and language integrated learning) lesson, although not an easy one.

For more of this sort of language assignment read this:

The most difficult assignment of the year?

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Language and creativity – content and language integrated learning idea (CLIL)

Most who work in education know that children generally respond well to games and puzzles. This is a short assignment that never fails to engage the attention and (particularly important for me) the creativity of the pupils. As I will explain the creativity comes in part with a drawing element at the end, but actually the area of greater creativity comes earlier in the part using language.

humunentBefore I start, I should perhaps explain that I first came across this idea in the work of the British artist Tom Phillips and in particular his book A Humunent: a treated Victorian  Novel. Although there are others who have subsequently used similar approaches such as Austin Kleon in his work and book entitled Newspaper Blackout.

Although these ideas come from a visual arts context do not get the idea that this is something only for the art department, as an assignment it has opportunities for language lessons and potentially other areas too. I often use it for cover lessons when I am absent from school for a day or have to fill in unexpectedly for a colleague.

Essentially the idea is very simple. You take a piece of existing text, from an old novel, a text book or newspaper article for example, and give the text to the pupils. Personally I love walking around at the start of a lesson ripping a book to pieces, it certainly succeeds in getting attention! It also ensures that everyone has a different piece of text, which I quite like, but isn’t absolutely necessary, copies from the copy machine are also fine.

Then, using the text that they have been given, and in the order that it appears on the page (so reading from top left to bottom right) they have to make a new version, a summary, a storyline or even a poem. The words that you don’t want to use simply have to be crossed out or better still completely obliterated. In the early stages it pays to be a little cautious, you don’t want to cross out anything that you later will want to use. Generally it quite quickly becomes evident that there are some words that seem loaded with meaning that just have to be used!

Imagine for a moment that the text below was the piece that you have been asked to work with:

One of the cardinal clichés about the English is that, as a nation, we are obsessed with trivial fluctuations in the weather. Lamenting the onset of a sudden shower could happily occupy two strangers on a railway station platform for several minutes – or, at least, that is the perception. Yet Weatherland, a beautiful new book by the British cultural historian Alexandra Harris, suggests that this cliché is a fair reflection of reality.

Moreover, the argument of the book, which examines how scores of great writers and artists have been inspired by English meteorological phenomena over the past two millennia, goes even further.

Summarizing assignment

Extracting the essence out of a text is the basis of writing summaries. This is the same here, but with an added language dimension, or if you prefer, restriction! It requires creativity and flexibility with the language options that are on offer, sometimes removing a single letter from the end of an existing word can make all the difference. Remember it’s all about summarizing the essence of the text as well as you can  with the text and words that you have to work with. The result might look something like this.

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A more playful assignment

For a more creative variation, perhaps more suited for a language lesson, give the pupils a free choice of coming up with the most fantastic, imaginative and inventive new storyline, as long that is, that the grammar used still fits together and is correct. Our same initial text might produce a result like this:

FullSizeRender (54)

The full creative assignment

For the full creative explosion of the idea combine the idea above with a drawing assignment where the whole design and layout of the page has to be activated to tell the storyline that has been created. At this point the sky is the limit, after an initial planning stage the pages used could be enlarged to open up the full creative possibilities.

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I’ve experimented a number of times with these assignments. They really do engage the pupils in language and creativity, particularly at the puzzling out with the text stage. Believe it is well worth trying, regardless of what sort of teacher you are and which subject you teach.

The examples above have been made on my iPad, an ideal tool for experimenting with this although for the full creative effect hand-made offers so much, as Tom Phillips shows in his original work. It is really worth taking a look at his site:

http://www.tomphillips.co.uk/

Austin Kleon talks about his work in this area in his TEDx presentation about his books Steal Like an Artist and Newspaper Blackout, also well worth a look.

I have an over optimistic view of time – until I discover how long things take to do

I have a very positive, some might say over optimistic, view of time. This is particularly true of making things myself or getting others to be creative in my role as a teacher.  I always underestimate the time it takes to do practical tasks. Generally I’m really pretty good with my hands, I do work fast, in the kitchen, when painting the stairs or making a drawing. But if I’m pushed to pin down how long a given task is going to take I almost always under estimate.

This is also true when planning practical art assignments for the various groups I teach.  The initial idea might have been for say six one hour long sessions. We get that far and the task simply doesn’t look finished to me. Do we stop and move on, well no, almost never. One of the most important lessons I learnt from one of my lecturers at art school was simply that too many good ideas weren’t ever pushed to a conclusion they deserve. So with this in mind the project invariably gets extended. One of the advantages you might say of the art teacher, time has a more elastic quality in my planning, but so does the curriculum.

double portraits

The pupil work shown here is a good example of work time extensions being necessary. Yes it was a fairly complex assignment for my third years (14-15 year olds). Yes I like to push them hard and to build up an image of complexity and yes collage is a working method that kind of invites dithering and hesitation at times. But still I imagine each time that they can do the work in half the time it actually takes!