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.

seeing and assembling

During my second research visit to Thomas Tallis school I was very fortunate to have the opportunity to observe an artist, Dafna Talmor working with year eleven and thirteen photography students. Dafna’s recent work entitled, Constructed Landscapes is described as consisting of:

staged landscapes made of collaged and montaged colour negatives shot across different locations that include Israel, Venezuela, the UK and USA. Initially taken as mere keepsakes, landscapes are merged and transformed through the act of slicing and splicing.  The resulting photographs are a conflation, ‘real’ yet virtual and imaginary. 

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 Dafna Talmor: Constructed Landscapes

Dafna explained her current practice to both groups, adapting what she foregrounded skilfully. Big questions arose about the value of the art and whether it was original or authentic. Challenging the students to question what is meant by these terms, Dafna suggested that in her work she explores the idea that ‘a photograph is supposed to represent something truthful.’

I observed Jon and Dafna working together to move the year eleven students quickly into trying out the splicing and slicing techniques. Armed with scalpels, found slides of holidaymakers and landscapes and light boxes the students embarked on a process of assembling which was clearly captivating. Resources such as pens, paint, nail-varnish remover, tape and typex were also used to make marks and add colour and texture. What I found especially fascinating was the way in which the affordances of the process pushed the students to continue to think about these questions, by challenging their creative routines. The use of found images in slide form shaped what they were able to do in very productive ways.

I watched as one student spent the entire three-hour session, creating her composite slides without ever seeing what they looked like in the slide projector.

I watched other students make tiny adaptations and then view their images before developing and refining them further. The projectors became a site of dialogue where teacher, researcher, artist and student shared responses to each image, images that could only be seen once projected on the back wall of the classroom. It was impossible not to get drawn in to responding to the students’ work as it surprised both them and us. They grew bolder in their choices and took more risks creating images that were dark, surreal, eerie and irreverent.

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One student, who was previously preoccupied with the monetary value of Dafna’s work, became adept at meshing bold colours in geometric designs with the ghostly figures of holiday makers hovering in the background.

Jon reflects on Dafna’s visit as part of a thought-provoking wider programme, including his response to the Tate summer school here.

My field notes were fast and furiously written as I observed this rich, dynamic process. As Pat has reflected in a previous post, I wanted to get ethnographic and join in more! Yet, watching the students looking, seeing and assembling in an intuitive way, creating images over which they had to relinquish some element of control, was compelling. The work was underpinned by the Threshold Concepts Jon and a colleague have developed for Photopedagogy which emphasise ideas in photography such as chance, context, abstraction, technology and time.

Interestingly, although the students had experimented in their assembling they ‘just knew’ when they had an image they liked. This led to powerful discussions – ‘Why? ‘What worked?’ ‘What didn’t?’ Jon had to push the students hard to move beyond ‘it just does’ and in doing so we could see tangible developments in their ability to make critical observations of the form and content of their own work.

close encounters

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.