finding inspiration

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.

stal-int-ra-and-je

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 toshow 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.

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.