practising photography in a garden

This post is written by Lexi Earl. 

Most of our school visits take a fairly general form. We observe lessons of various kinds, interview teachers, and talk to students. These are always interesting and exciting days – one never knows what one will encounter in an art class or a drama class – but I have gotten used to their form and substance. Occasionally however, I have a totally unusual experience during a school research visit. This happened on my trip to Digitech Studio School last year.

My visit happened to coincide with a planned Year 10 photography trip to the Bristol Botanic Garden and I was able to accompany the class on their trip. This 23-acre garden is part of the University of Bristol, and is a scientific and teaching garden. The Year 10 students had just begun a macro photography project and their teacher, Kelly Bogan, thought it would make for an interesting class if they went to photograph different plants. The focus of the trip was on taking close-ups of various plants and natural forms. The students could use the 6 school SLR cameras, a digital point-and-shoot camera, or take photographs with their smartphones. They were encouraged to practice with the SLRs so took turns sharing them around while we were in the garden.

When we arrived at the garden we were split into three groups and were each assigned a guide to give us a tour around the garden. My group started in the evolutionary dell, ‘jurrasic park’ the guide commented as we walked through. The guide explained that we would experience the history of plants, walking a path showing plant evolution. He pointed out the different mosses, the ferns and explained how plants evolved. The guide told us about the ‘fancy’ scientific names – that it is an international language that botanists all over the world can use and understand. The guide, knowing that this was a photography trip, pointed out the monkey puzzle tree and told the students it is very interesting architecturally so would be good to photograph.

We walked past birch trees – one pure silver, another gold and orange and copper. We were shown into the Chinese garden and the guide drew our attention to the gingko tree and it’s foul-smelling fruit. The guide let everyone (brave enough) sniff it, explaining that it smells like rotting flesh. He said that the tree is dying out in the wild because no animals will eat the fruit. Scientists think that dinosaurs ate the fruits but since then, the tree has been slowly moving towards extinction. The gingko is found in fossils it is so ancient.

From there we walked into the Mediterranean garden – this space was filled with lavender and rosemary as well as vines and lemons. Signs around the garden explained the plants, and their history. There is a South African garden, and also a herb garden organized according to the medicinal uses that I personally found totally fascinating. From these gardens we walked into the American garden where the three sisters are grown. The guide explained to the students how ‘the three sisters’ – beans, sweetcorn and pumpkins – are grown by people in North America because they grow best together. This garden also featured nasturtiums, quinoa, and physalis as well as varieties of tomatoes. At every plant, students stopped to take photographs, turning their cameras this way and that, capturing the middle of a flower, or the veins of a nasturtium leaf. There were plenty of beautiful seedpods to capture too.

The botanic garden has a wonderful ballast border garden, where plants found in the ballast in Bristol harbor grow. These are the plants that arrived accidently on ships. The boys loved the squirting cucumber, laughing hysterically while the guide showed students how it reacts when you squeeze it.

We were then taken into the greenhouses. There are three, all with varying temperatures moving from cooler plants to sub-tropical to tropical. There was a citron plant in the first greenhouse with amazing sized fruits, various cacti and lots of carnivorous plants. In the second greenhouse are orchids, and in the third we found a pond with water lilies. There was a lot of oohing and aahing over the beautiful orchids, and many photographs of their flowers.

Later I asked Kelly about the purpose of such a trip. She explained:

Initially it was about where could we go to take some good photographs and I thought that natural form was a great thing for photography and there are loads of photographs to look at and lots of photographers who have done that. I didn’t really think about the sort of cultural element of the gardens and the historical element as well which I think is really useful and if we go there again we will develop that a bit more. The idea of wellbeing as well with the medicinal garden and the herbs and I feel that can uplift the students in a way. When we started they were a little bit despondent because they thought it would be boring but when we got there they did engage with it quite well. And looking at their photos and the outcomes that they got from that trip, they were really impressive. They got some nice work that they can print out and use and manipulate further. So that is all going towards their final piece. I think it was quite a successful trip actually and probably a place that many of them hadn’t been to before so it was a new experience and I think that it is important that we do that.

A trip to a botanic garden thus provided a multitude of possibilities for the students at Digitech. It is yet another example of the extraordinary experiences that teachers organise for their students.

mistakes are often the basis of creativity

Esther Tyler-Ward, from Digitech school in Bristol, is a teacher of art and photography who is participating in the Tale research project. Here she shares her reflections about her engagement with the Tate’s Common Projects project:

community-session

Tate’s Common Projects 2015/16 was a year long project that brought together artists, educators and curators to explore art education. At our initial meeting a group of teachers, including myself, shared how we saw ourselves as artists as well as educators, through visual snapshots of our practise as artist-teachers. This immediately set the tone for the professional development I was hoping to achieve through participation.

This wasn’t a course to help get the grades now that photography grade boundaries are extraordinarily high, or how to support low ability boys with poor behaviour in the classroom; this was bigger, (and dare I say, more exciting) than that: an open-ended conversation about how and why art education is important and how and why we teach and engage with it.  

The sessions were organised by Sarah Jarvis and Anna-Marie Gray from the Tate. I met up with other art teachers at Tate Modern or Tate Britain alternately, where Sarah and Anna-Marie facilitated workshops in response to the key question, ‘What could happen if for one year the classroom, gallery and studio talked to each other?’

The focus soon became how we see art as empowering and also the importance of play to help develop confidence and creativity. However, seeing art in this way and teaching in this way can often be two separate entities!

We responded to our initial thoughts and discussions by creating a mess, I mean playing!  Scissors, glue, paper, string and a pair of nude coloured tights worked to create a long line of playful experimentation growing out from our key words. Straight away the theme of ‘play’ struck a guilty chord. I worked my last GCSE group so hard last year in order to hit exceedingly high target grades, that I felt the fun, (the play) had been wrung out.  Also, the  ‘expert teaching matrix’ delivered at my last school inset had no area for ‘play’. And this is why the course was liberating – discussing art education outside of the boundaries of UK art curriculum and assessment criteria meant I was able to approach teaching art from a new set of creative parameters, (or possibly no parameters!)

Other inspiring sessions included:

One of the most memorable sessions I attended on the course involved working with the artist Judith Brocklehurst, who facilitated the creation of our own after-hours mini cinema in the Tate Modern. Working in teams with basic materials, we designed a structure in response to the artworks in our room. The whole process was recorded and then projected onto our cinema structure at the end of the session. Team-work, recording, experimenting, responding to other contexts – this hit so many of the assessment criteria required for GCSE or A-level. But would I dare attempt this at school for fear of the whole thing falling into chaos? In our short-for-time curriculum there is no room for error…and yet mistakes are often the basis of creativity.

On reflection, one specific idea that I have subsequently introduced to my students is ‘failure sketchbooks’. These are little folded mini accordion sketchbooks of one length of paper. Students work in these alongside their main coursework in order to try out ideas, complete experimental homework, or just doodle without the pressure of constantly creating successful, beautiful coursework, where all work clearly links together and is in context, ready for assessment. This encourages students to play, create, keep and collate their experiments, and is a physical reminder that failure is just one step towards success.

The Tate Common Projects course has reminded me of my younger, enthusiastic NQT aspirations of creating an art studio, (rather than classroom) where all students can access opportunities to create their own ideas at their own pace. Such ambitions have been gradually eroded during my decade working in schools due to the increasingly hard system-flogging towards target grades. However, I am now inspired to reconsider the bigger picture of art education and literally play around with my schemes of work for next year at Digitech school!

Tate’s Common Projects’ thoughts and experiences are loosely collated at https://tatecommonprojects.wordpress.com.