Earlier in the year I was in Halewood School, visiting Art, Photography and Graphics staff and students. I was lucky enough to visit on a day when some of the students had returned from a trip to Barcelona. It was clear that the art, the galleries, the architecture and the food had all made an impact on the students:
I just liked walking around and seeing how other people interact.
It was a completely different culture.
I tried to look under the surface of their enthusiastic responses to understand the way that these young people engaged with challenging contemporary work for the first time.
The students reflected on the way they had been prepared for the visit by staff from school and in the galleries:
There were paintings I didn’t understand. But there were art students who explained, so it broadened my thoughts
The preparation was clearly key to the visit and it was refreshing to see the students being given space to honestly discuss their responses. They were encouraged to say what they thought. Some of the year ten students expressed some uncertainty about some the work they’d encountered:
It [the art] didn’t really have any relevance.
We all had our preferences – some we found a bit strange.
But 6th form students articulated their responses in more depth and made strong arguments for the need to engage with art face to face.
It’s one thing seeing a piece on a computer screen but seeing it in person you see more.
Seeing it online the pieces can be diminished. You don’t appreciate the size.
The students also made it very clear that, for them, seeing art isn’t all about admiration and appreciation:
We went to see Banksy’s work and I’d seen all the pictures but when I saw the actual work it was different. It shocks you.
Having many and varied opportunities to access art through school and in their own city clearly has value, enabling students to explore their own responses and draw inspiration for their own self-expression. I’m not sure they would be able to do this in the same way if the premise for every visit was to invite them to simply admire and appreciate the exhibitions. Indeed as Head of Art Liz Shelbourne describes, the school invites the students to question and challenge what art is, making links to the Turner Prize in doing so.
At the schools’ preview of the Tate Modern’s new building and collections I caught up with the Halewood students again, as they encountered the new spaces. In observing their responses I saw everything from curiosity, surprise, boredom and enjoyment expressed as they encountered new work and new ideas. Trying to get a sense of the whole experience from the point of view of the students reminded me of their descriptions of the reasons they loved their visual arts lessons – it was the freedom of expression of ideas and the independent thinking that was expected of them.
Both at school and in gallery spaces the students’ own ideas about what they were experiencing were respected and listened to, and as a result they expressed genuinely diverse opinions,. They also demonstrated their understanding of subjectivity:
Two different people could be looking at the same painting and one could say ‘oh I get this from that’ and the other might not even know what it is.
The students described their own creative processes in art at school as being where they can try and make anything they want to, as long as they can justify or explain their decisions and ideas. When I asked them what they learnt from doing art, one of the students suggested:
It helped me in other lessons especially in GCSE. In art you have to link it back [to an idea] and in English you always have to link things back to the question – to show meaning and interpretation.
Liz Shelbourne and her team at Halewood, clearly also have high expectations of their students, ensuring they critically examine their own responses and develop these ideas in their own work.
My encounters with Halewood students having their own encounters with art, creativity and culture has lead me to reflect on the importance of having opportunities to see the art and culture of European cities at close quarters, to access contemporary art in prestigious cultural spaces and to be given the space to respond freely.