working with difficult ideas

This post was written by Pat Thomson on her visit to Thomas Tallis school in Greenwich.

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student-made image

Studying photography is not just about learning how to make images. It is also learning how the photograph itself can be understood.

On a recent visit to Thomas Tallis, I saw a visiting artist working with a Year 10 class. The artist was Dafna Talmor and her practice involves the manipulation of images to produce non-naturalistic landscapes. Her workshop ran for a whole morning, and the students were to learn a new process –  cutting, marking and re-assembling “analogue” slides to make a collaged image.

Jon, the teacher, began the workshop by revisiting a threshold concept for photography – photographs are abstractions, shaped by technology. This was, he noted, as he started a short discussion, a difficult idea.

The guided conversation covered key points:

  • the photograph is not a mirror on the world. It is a two-dimensional representation of a three-dimensional world;
  • the photograph is framed, usually by a rectangle. This is not how we see the world;
  • the photograph flattens and rescales what we see;
  • the camera sees with one eye (the lens);
  • the photographer alters the image through their artistic decisions;
  • what the photographer can do is shaped by the technology they are using.

Students were encouraged to bring these understandings to Dafna’s work; this is more obviously what might be understood as abstract.

Dafna explained that she thought about the photograph as an object that worked with loaded histories of image-making. She was working with images of landscape, but she could not avoid the ways in which landscape had been photographed in the past and was still photographed in the present. She told the students that she wanted to question the ways in which landscape images were often seen as ‘real’. She hoped to make visible some landscape features that photographs often left hidden, as well as making clear the ways in which the photographer’s decisions and actions generally remained out of a viewer’s sight.

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Dafna’s artist talk

The students were not only challenged by these ideas, but invited to play with them themselves. For a good part of the morning they experimented with second-hand slides that Jon had bought on ebay. They were surprised at what happened when their tiny slide was projected – colour was changed, composition of formal elements become more apparent.

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playing and experimenting

The workshop was an experience not just of learning technique, but also putting a difficult idea, a threshold concept about abstractions and technological manipulations, into practice.

 

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language and literacy in the art room

People often think about art subjects as purely ‘doing stuff’ with paint, pencils and maybe the odd camera. However, there’s a lot of literacy practice which is specific to the art room.

When I visited the Royal Grammar School in Newcastle, art room literacies were clearly in evidence. I saw :

(1)   Reading. Students are routinely expected to research artists and their work. This requires them to find a range of sources, including artist biographies and commentaries. These sources are on line as well as in books and magazines. At RGS, students regularly integrated reading into their project work.

(2)   Learning a vocabulary. Like all disciplines, the visual arts use specific terms for particular concepts. The lexicon ranges from descriptions of formal elements to ways of critiquing arts practice and cataloguing artists’ work.  Teachers at RGS taught and regularly used arts terminology with students.

(3)   Talking. Students have regular conversations with their teacher and with each other, Talking helps students to develop the idea they are working on. At RGS they present their work to their class. They might also offer a ‘crit’ of work from one of their peers.  While art classrooms are often quiet places, they are also equally often where lively engaged discussion takes place.

(4)   Listening. Talking also means listening. When students are discussing their work or the work of others, they need to listen carefully to the very many ideas and resources that are offered.

(5)   Writing. Visual art students keep track of what they notice and read and talk about, just like professional artists. They record how they develop an idea, test out approaches, find a line of investigation and produce a work, or series of works. At RGS, all students keep visual diaries from Year 7 onwards. They can record whatever they want in their visual diaries. I was told by many students that they carry their diaries everywhere with them. The students also produce formal documentation related to projects they are working on. Their formal documentation may include on-line as well as analog materials. The writing in the formal documentation always incorporates their reading and thinking/reflecting, expressed in the appropriate art vocabulary. 

 In art classrooms, many of these visual art literacy practices are interrelated and brought together.

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At RGS I saw many students who had their visual diaries open at a jotting about an idea – and who, at the same time, were researching on their laptops, taking a screen shot on their phone and had their documentation standing by so they could see where they were up to. They were also ready to discuss their current state of decision-making with their teacher.

It is this combination  that makes the language and literacy practices of the art room unique.

Post written by Pat Thomson

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creative arts and wellbeing

This post is written by Lexi Earl. 

During my visit to Lampton School in Hounslow, I had the opportunity to speak to a group of A-level students. Some were taking Drama, others Music, and many were also studying English Literature. What was most interesting about the combination of students I spoke to was the way the students spoke about the health and wellbeing aspects of creative subjects.

The students were aware of the way creativity can help relieve stress, and might help you cope with difficult situations. The idea of arts subjects being stress-relieving (often in comparison to other subjects) comes up a lot in conversations I have with young people (and is one of the findings of our Wave 1 Survey Report which you can find here).

The students at Lampton, however, linked creativity and creative subjects to health and wellbeing in a way that other students I’ve spoken to have not yet done.

So I think what is quite good is the school, within the creative subjects, let’s it be the creative outlet compared to other subjects. They allow it to be individual. They allow it to be an expression for you to express what is going on or to get emotions out or to portray what you want to portray, with guidance of how you do it.

If you go to university and things get too much, it shows you there are healthy ways out there to deal with the stress, to deal with the anxiety which can help. Like music therapy or art therapy or drama therapy. It is a way for you to have an outlet and can help for the rest of your life.

Doing something, escaping your troubles.

The students spoke about how creative subjects are both a potential escape from the stress of life, but also a method to finding one’s way back. One student explained:

It does take you away from problems. But you can use it to your advantage. Put a different spin on it. It’s your escape but it is your route back as well. It’s more like guidance because it’s always there. Even if you have a lot of stuff and you’re really stressed and you can’t think clearly, you can go back to making your own piece of music, go through it, maybe implement what is going on in your life and it helps you to come out of things. I suppose also with Drama, although I don’t do it, it lets you see different perspectives and people. You get to look at how people deal with things. It creates a way to look at something. Instead of looking at one side, you can take a step back, ‘okay that is how I see it but this person will see it like that’ and then put them together and think the best route forward would be to do this.

Another student explained about work they had done in their Drama class and how that helped them see different perspectives on issues of mental health:

In Drama we did a mental health unit and obviously all of us experience mental health in our own ways so in the final performance, we could see the way it affects others.

One student explained what he thought the benefit of taking a creative subject (in his case, Music) at A-level did for him personally.

I’m doing Economics, English Literature and Maths, and to have Music, I wouldn’t say it’s easy; it is something that is challenging. It is something I enjoy doing. Especially if we are rehearsing, it’s great because you don’t have to touch a pen or a book. Do what you like and enjoy doing. It is something that is completely different. I think it keeps you healthy because your mind is doing one thing there and then something completely different. It keeps you on your feet.

The Lampton students brought up an important idea regarding mental health, young people, and the way creativity can help address mental health issues. This is hugely relevant at a time when newspapers are reporting rising mental health issues amongst young people.

painting clay, having fun

This post is written by Lexi Earl. 

At Grey Coat Hospital in London, the Art department has found an innovative way to offer more skills development for their Year 12 students, by running an informal after-school Art Club.

On Monday afternoons, once school is finished at 3.30pm, the Year 12 art students congregate in the bright upstairs art room. The room has a wall of windows looking out over the city, and as dusk fell outside one November Monday, Phillipa Prince, the Head of Art, demonstrated painting clay while still wet.

This method uses decorative slip to paint colour onto clay that has been rolled out flat, not yet formed, and not yet fired. Phillipa showed the group how you can add texture to the clay using a variety of ordinary household materials (bubble wrap, feathers, woven bamboo, engraved with pencil). The slip can be painted onto the clay, or painted first onto newspaper and then pressed onto the clay, or painted in sections. The possibilities are endless, really. Once a pattern or series of designs and colours have been added to the clay, it can be shaped into a form (a small vase perhaps), or left flat like a tile, to dry. Phillipa explained that this technique allows layers to be built up over time. Once the shapes have been fired in the kiln (something the group will be doing in the next few weeks), glazes can be added too. The results are complex, interesting forms that could be used as potential presents or gifts.

After the demonstration, the students were able to experiment with their own designs. Each had a flat piece of clay to which they could add colour or texture. Everyone worked happily, discussing their designs as they went along, asking Phillipa for advice or thoughts. Towards the end of the session, shapes began to form out of the flat clay as the students manipulated vases, jars, and spirals.

After the session I spoke with Clare Burnett, the other Art teacher who helps run the Art Club, about the purpose of such sessions. She explained:

“What we realised is that they [the students] do a lot of personal investigations in GCSE but the danger of doing project after project is that they go straight into more investigation just relying on what they’ve learnt before and they don’t actually expand their repertoire. Pottery after school has been really fun– it’s nice for them to have a bit of relaxation, allows them to expand their sculpture skills and we’ve got the kiln”.

The Year 12 students I spoke to explained what they felt the purpose of the class was:

Right now we’re doing pottery. We just learn basic skills. The first skill we learnt was making normal thumb pots. Then learning how to use the wheel. Yesterday we learnt how to use slip and how you can paint onto clay when it is dried or when it is wet. It is just adding to your book of skills that you can use in Year 13.

It is good that we are building up skill sets.

They are helpful because I have never done any of the things that they have. It is exposing me to different things apart from what I know.

Art Club is therefore a way to both introduce students to techniques they may not have encountered before, and to let the students develop their interests in multiple art forms. The session I witnessed was relaxed and fun, the students free to experiment, make mistakes, and develop ideas. Even though the club is extra-curricular, it clearly has an important place in the wider goals of the art department.

what kind of pirate are you?

This post is written by Lexi Earl.

Late last year, I had the opportunity to see Coriolanus at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre. It was a spectacular performance, and I was completely immersed in the story and the characters. I found myself paying particular attention to the fight scenes. I watched as the actors moved together in the fight, as a dance. One actor moved, the other responded. This obviously happened very quickly and with much violence, but it was mesmerizing. I noticed how the sounds of smacking and slapping happened, and the way the actors’ feet moved in sequence with the other.

I can only pin my sudden awareness of the fight choreography to my visit in the same week to Welcombe Hills School. Welcombe Hills is a special school, and while I was visiting, the Key Stage 3 pupils were learning about Peter Pan. The school is putting on a production of Peter later this year (in aid of Great Ormond Street Hospital) and the pupils I observed were learning about fight scenes. Rather than Roman generals fighting with their fists, these would be pirates and lost boys clashing with swords. Jo Bradley, the Drama teacher, and Cassie Gibb, the Drama teaching assistant, were schooling the pupils on the details of fight choreography.

Cassie explained to the pupils, “as actors, you need to think of a fight like a dance. No one is going to be surprised; it is choreographed. A sword fight is action, reaction.”

To begin, Jo and Cassie illustrated the physical movements they wanted the pupils to learn – moving backwards and forwards in response to the person facing you, and swooshing your arms around to chop off someone’s head. “It’s got to come as if it is slicing his head off,” Cassie explained to some pupils.

The students got to practice in pairs during class. First they concentrated on getting their feet to move easily forwards and backwards in reaction to their partner. One foot stayed cemented and unmoving while the other moved in response, some pupils naturally leaning back as their opponent tried to stab them in the stomach. Some students giggled as they got their bodies to react, others made swooshing, swishing noises of a sword cutting through the air.

The class then shared their work with each other, each pair taking a turn to demonstrate their movements. “That’s tiptoeing,” Cassie said to one pair who hadn’t quite gotten the foot movement down yet. “What kind of pirate are you?” she asked amusedly.

Next they practiced thrusting the sword forward to stab their opponent in the stomach, still trying to get their foot movement correct. Once they had both their feet and the two different arm movements sorted, they were asked to choreograph their own fight scene in pairs. They could choose whatever sequence they wished to do. “For example, you can go head head middle head,” Cassie explained. The pupils had to do five different actions from the two different sword movements. “This is a fight sequence,” Cassie explained, “swing to the head and duck, step forwards and thrust the sword forward, the other steps backwards. Work out how the fight is going to end.”

The children were given time to work out their fights, moving around the room and discussing their strategies in pairs. Then they were all invited to show their fights to the group. Each fight was different, and there was much enjoyment and laughter as they worked. Many fights ended in a death scene, the injured party falling dramatically (and often heavily) to the floor.

When everyone had demonstrated their work, Jo asked how fighting relates to the story of Peter Pan. “The pirates and lost boys fight,” a student explained. When I later saw the actors on the stage fighting, I saw how the basics that were being taught to the students applied to the professional stage.

using artworks in drama

This post is written by Lexi Earl, on her visit to West Derby School in Liverpool.

As most readers of this blog will have gathered by now, I spend most of my time visiting the different schools that are involved in this project. Generally, I know what to expect from my visit. If the school has a partnership with the RSC, I spend my time with either Drama or English departments (and sometimes both). If the school has a partnership with the Tate, I am in an Art department, talking to students doing Fine Art, Photography, Textiles and the like. But one school in this project has broken this mould. At West Derby School in Liverpool, the partnership is with the Tate but the partnership is held by the Drama teacher, Kate Forrest. As I discovered when I visited, this means that Kate uses exhibitions at the Tate as stimuli for Drama projects and performances.

During my visit I had the opportunity to talk to two Year 13 Drama students who had visited the Tate Liverpool to see Tracey Emin’s My Bed (1998) when it was on display. The students then used this artwork as a stimulus for a play that they wrote and then performed. Their play dealt with sexual abuse.

They explained how the artwork was about more than just a messy bed, and how this had helped them develop their play.

See, Tracey Emin’s bed in the Tate, when you come in and look at the bed, people go ‘oh that’s just a messed up bed. I could do that on a Monday morning’. But when you look at it and what is around the bed, and what it symbolises, knowing her backstory, you realise that all of her life has unfolded in that art piece. She had a picture of her ex who she was completely in love with who left her, cigarettes, alcohol bottles and a bed just torn to pieces. That, in a way, shows her mental state, and we wanted to adhere to that and show the mental state of our characters. Hopefully that will connect to whomever we perform to.

Most people look at the art in a literal sense and say this art is just a bed. It is less about the bed itself and more about the person behind.

The students then explained how this artwork created a stimulus for them to leap from, to engage in difficult and complex ideas, and how it inspired their work on mental health and the links to sexual abuse.

I think the bed as an actual stimulus was what really pushed it for me because recognising that the bed wasn’t just a bed, it was the actual mental state so connecting that up to making a play about your mental state was really interesting for me. I could create bonds between our own production and the bed. When we first wanted to do it, we thought it would be more interesting if we included the bed – at least in the background. We had a bed onstage, messed up maybe so giving that sense of bad mental state. I’m not sure if you’ve read this but they say your mental state can be represented by your bedroom and the state it is in. It reflects what you feel inside which is really interesting. So we wanted to get that across but at the same time we didn’t want to confuse the audience so by the end of it we decided not to [include the bed]. We worried they’d be focused too much on the bed rather than the actual acting that was happening on stage. So we went for a minimalistic vibe rather than focusing on props, lighting, shadow, we wanted to focus on the actors. The only prop we used was a block to emphasise character stance.

I asked the students what the value to them was of being able to visit the Tate and use an artwork as a stimulus for a piece.

It helps build on your own ideas. We’re told in the media about these kinds of people, about mental health, and to just get down on the ground and see someone’s own mental health displayed really helps build upon what you want to do, how you want to present it.

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One of the students highlighted how Drama, through working with complex issues that form part of our world, can change your world view.

Most things when you come to Drama are confidence, you boost your confidence. But in fact, when doing this, it not only boosts your confidence on stage but going into the big world, meeting other people, you have got that confidence for it. When we were performing and exploring into it [the play], you realise the society that we live in and the society that the news feeds, that the government says it is, it is not. It is completely different to how it is. It changes your views on the world. You realise eventually who to go with, stay away from, what type of person they’ve built you into society and that is what Drama is pretty good for. 

The opportunity for these Drama students to visit Tate Liverpool, and use one of the artworks for an in-depth exploration of complicated mental states influenced their work. It was an interesting reminder that art can be used in different ways, with many subjects.

 

 

learning through trying again, and again…and again.

Last November, I visited Barcelona. During my visit I went to the Picasso Museum. One of the paintings I saw was Picasso’s Las Meninas. The painting itself was fascinating, intriguing, based on Velasquez’s work of the same title. But it was the way the painting was displayed that interested me most. In the rooms surrounding the main work, studies and sketches of Picasso’s work towards the final piece were displayed. It was evidence of the process of making an art piece, but I felt it was also evidence of experimentation, trying things out, looking at what worked, what did not, and trying again until the artist had achieved what he was after. I was reminded of this process of art making, the trying and failing and trying again, that is so necessary in making, during my visit to Childwall Sports and Science Academy in Liverpool.

As Becky Parry wrote about her own research visit here, the murals and art displayed all around the school is incredibly inspiring and impressive. There is a riot of colour, murals connected to subject themes, and student work on a variety of topics. The students I spoke with identified these public displays of art as proof that their school values the arts. It also meant that their own, older works were on display for other people to see, something they were not necessarily that comfortable with. The students explained that they didn’t necessarily enjoy seeing their work up (although it did make them proud), because they were now doing better work; work that they could see showed their progress as artists. They were therefore inadvertently able to see progress clearly because their older work is on display.

Students were also aware that the process of making progress in art allowed them to experience failure in a way that was not necessarily negative (or not necessarily failure) and contrasted strongly with other subjects where there is often a ‘right’ way of doing things.

In a conversation I had with Year 12s, the students explained:

 “It teaches you not to be afraid to fail. You have to fail to get better.”

“They [the teachers] encourage it. They want to see you do something wrong than you always get it right and never improve.”

I thought these ideas summarized what is so great about art in school, and is what we often forget when we look at art in a gallery. I found myself thinking about my conversation with the Year 12s at Childwall while I wandered through the Roy Lichtenstein rooms currently open at Tate Liverpool. Art teaches students that it is okay to fail, to not get things totally correct the first time, and to have the courage to start again. Later, when I looked properly at the flyer I had picked up from the Tate I laughed. The flyer is designed as a comic and on the front sat a frustrated Lichtenstein with the caption, “It’s not good. I need some inspiration.” This, I felt, was the crux of my discussion with the Year 12s at Childwall: art requires frustration and perceived failure on the part of the artist in order to improve, to achieve the vision that they have. Even great artists try multiple things, creating studies in different colours or techniques, before they create their final piece (the one we inevitably see in the gallery). Art teaches you that this process is okay.

Surely we should be encouraging more people to take arts subjects rather than less, so that we mould resilient young people, comfortable with failure, ready to navigate our complex world? This was certainly the approach I saw at Childwall. It is something to aspire to, I think.