This post is written by Chris Hall, about her recent trip to Upton Hall.
I saw this banner on the lamppost in the driveway as I was leaving Upton Hall on the first day of my visit.
I hadn’t noticed it when I came in that morning, partly, no doubt, because I was anxious about arriving on time – I hadn’t visited Upton Hall before or negotiated the morning traffic through the Mersey tunnel – and partly because it’s the kind of strap line you see on school advertising nowadays and don’t think twice about. But after a day at the school talking to students and to the art teachers, the banner definitely gave me pause for thought.
Becky made the research visit to Upton Hall last year. She’d already told me that the school building was very beautiful, and I’d seen for myself from the prospectus and website that the current school is centred on a ‘small mansion’ which it moved to in 1860, eleven years after being founded by the FCJ Sisters, a religious society originating in France. The reception area is immediately welcoming, even with all the normal security measures. The walls are painted a warm pink and covered with artwork produced by students alongside a large specially commissioned piece by a professional artist opposite the front desk, an elaborated version of the mandala the girls wear as lapel badges.
Two year 7 students took me on a quick tour of the school. They – and I – agreed with Becky’s opinion about the original features of the buildings, the chapel and the tiling in some of the older corridors. But what struck me most on the tour was the sheer volume of students’ artwork that is displayed on the school walls, on mannequins and in cabinets. In a long career of visiting schools, I’ve never been in a secondary school with so much student work on permanent display.
I’ve been in lots of primary schools, of course, where you have to fight your way through the thicket of dangling artwork and where there are layers of paintings on the walls, but the aesthetic at Upton Hall is very different to that. The work in the public spaces is mostly framed and always carefully hung. It’s obvious that a lot of thought has gone in to making the environment stimulating and, yes, inspiring, as the banner claims.
It was the students I interviewed who made the link between the artwork on the walls and being inspired. Here’s a snippet from a recording I made of a group of Year 12s talking about their school:
On nearly every corridor here there’s work by students and that really inspired me to do art.
Our school’s got colours everywhere.
In my other school they only picked certain people’s art to put on the walls, only the finest ones, and it’s not like that here.
You take ideas from them.
It gives the school a different aspect. It’s showing off students’ work, it gives us inspiration from the years above us and it gives us ideas for our own work as well.
A year 13 student said:
It’s nice that in this school they don’t use paintings that outsiders have done. Because all the stuff on the walls is what the girls have done. It’s advertised in the school and on the websites, it’s something that they’re proud of. You can take loads of inspiration from it. If you’re stuck you can go round and see what other people have done and get ideas.
The students talk a lot about being inspired because it’s part of their everyday work in art lessons. Ginny and Jennie, the art teachers, explained to me how they set tasks that involve students in visiting galleries and doing individual research to find and document their own sources of inspiration. One girl explained the process to me like this:
They [the teachers] always tell us to research artists and they tell us to ‘show your inspiration’ and, even if inspiration didn’t come from the artist, you can always show how the ideas link.
Others, from year 11 and 12 said:
We take a lot of inspiration from one another.
If you see someone’s work and it’s really good, you do think ‘oh mine’s not so good,’ but you can sort of look at the way they’ve done stuff and take ideas from it and kind of bring it into your own work. We learn from one another quite a bit.
I like looking at my first sketchbook and looking at the one I’m on now, and I’m like ‘this is so much better’. Because it’s not just that you get better at using techniques, but you get a lot more creative I think. Because you obviously look at other people’s work and you see how other people are using materials and it’s like – you won’t copy what they do, but you’ll use it, and make it into something of your own.
Being inspired, in this sense, isn’t about passively waiting for the Muse to strike – it’s about actively exploring, analysing, appreciating, and synthesising to generate new links and associations and ideas. The students I talked to at Upton Hall really understood that. Their inspiration was stimulated by the way their art teachers taught them, but also by the school environment that the staff have created.