understanding theatre as collaboration

This post is written by Lexi Earl, on her visit to The Bridge School in London.

When I visited The Bridge School (a special school for children with severe, profound and complex learning difficulties), I had an unexpected opportunity to accompany the 6th form to the theatre. On the day that I visited, they had been invited to attend a matinee performance of Ghost at the Lilian Baylis Studio. The production was put on in collaboration with people from the Daylight Daycentre and the Samuel Rhodes School – these were performers with various disabilities, acting on stage with others.

The performance was wonderful to watch. There were fantastic costumes. People came on holding colourful lights that then designated the space they danced in. The scene where Sam, the main male character, is shot and dying in the hospital (and realises he has become a ghost), was made much lighter by a fabulous dance routine of surgeons and nurses in scrubs. There was a live band on stage, who sometimes helped fill the silence if someone was late on or forgot their lines briefly.

During the performance I noticed the audience’s reactions to the different scenes, and different actors. Some of the performers were old students from The Bridge, and the young people I was with recognised them – telling me excitingly that so-and-so was on stage. They especially seemed to enjoy the music – clapping and singing along at various points. This theatre trip formed part of the students’ Arts Award activities.

The following week I returned to The Bridge to complete my 2-day visit. I spoke to Steven Mills, the music and drama facilitator, about the importance of such theatre experiences for their students, and the purpose of completing a qualification like Arts Award.

I think what is really nice about the Arts Award is that they get something at the end of it and it is something outside of the school and it is country wide so they are getting the same award as every other student who achieves it in the country. I think that is really good.

As part of the Arts Award, the students were interviewed about their trip to the theatre. They came up with the questions as a group and then individually answered them, giving their honest opinions about the experience. One of the girls summed it up perfectly when she commented: “the show was good because it was about life”.

Arts Award forms part of a much wider approach to a creative curriculum that teachers at The Bridge follow. I spoke to Ryan McClelland, the art teacher, who explained:

[We follow a] more creative curriculum which meets the very diverse needs of our kids. So it is very student led and we do have accreditation but it isn’t as stringent as GCSE or A Level and we decided to go with the Arts Award from the Arts Council because it is a little bit more flexible and interesting. […] We are finding a lot more sensory needs coming in [to school] and I suppose my practice, as an art teacher, has evolved to meet those needs. Over the last few years I’ve dispensed with the idea of an autonomous art work and I’ve been encouraging much more group work because I think that can encourage relationship building and it shifts the emphasis onto the staff as well and I expect the staff to treat the work as their work as well and whether that is supporting a child to make the work or them modelling something. I also think that the way the world is going I think this cult of the individual is going to be superseded and there will be much more of an emphasis on group work. Especially for kids with SEN because they are always going to need some sort of support in their lives and so we need to equip them with the skills to be flexible and to work with different people. We try to promote that through art, music and drama because they are the subjects that they access best.

The theatre production illustrated how this collaborative and group art might work between people of differing abilities. It gave the young people a chance to see similar people to themselves performing on a stage, and also provided me with the perfect opportunity to understand how Ryan’s ideas of collaborative and group work might work in practice.

seeing, observing, connecting

This post is written by Lexi Earl, on her trip to Royal Grammar School in Newcastle.

During my visit to Royal Grammar School in Newcastle, Christine Egan-Fowler (one of the art teachers) invited me to participate in a life drawing class. This is a class she puts on for any interested student, whether or not they are studying art. The class runs once a week, after school, between 4.15pm and 6pm. As Pat Thomson has written, those of us who do ethnography love to participate, as it can often generate new forms of understanding. But when you only have a few days in a school, opportunities to do so are rare. So, despite my nervousness and rusty drawing skills, I jumped at this chance.

Once school was finished, Christine arranged the tables in her class into a square, with space in the centre for the model to pose. The model sat on a table on some material and different fabrics, with her one hand placed in a tank of water by her side. Students moved around the room at first, looking at the pose from different angles and analyzing the changing light. Once everyone was settled, we performed a focusing exercise, dividing the body up by moving our pencil into different positions – horizontal, vertical, up, down. Christine advised that we might only want to do part of the post, and she warned us that with the changing westerly light in the room, there were “highlights being chased across the body”. She also told us to “look for the shadowy areas. There is quite complicated light from above, all the way around, reflected light on the water”. We began to draw (or paint, for those using oils). Music played quietly in the background, and there was the sound of pencils being sketched, and paint being swooshed and swished.

During the drawing process I started to think about how we learn to observe, learn to see things in particular ways. This might seem obvious, in a life drawing class, but it is less obvious when you think about it as a research skill. I spend a lot of my time observing in schools, often in classrooms but also in dining halls and outside. Learning to look is a skill that has to be honed and developed. It is guided by research questions and ideas as they develop, but it also relies on conversations, where you can talk about your ideas. These ideas then shape how and where you look, when you return to observe.

While I was drawing, and shading with graphite, I began to wonder about the transferable skills from life-drawing to researching. I was incredibly focused during the class, concentrating, looking and re-looking, tentatively shaping a shoulder, then looking again. Once I had the outline I started to look again, at the light, at the shadows. Research observation is similar. You look, you look again, you take notes. Then you look again.

The following day I spoke to Christine. We talked about her experiences at the Tate Summer School in 2016, and how this had shaped how she approached her teaching. During our conversation, she explained:

“No longer am I a teacher who goes into the classroom and expects everybody to be able to come out knowing a skill but I am giving them an experience and I want to see the students connecting that experience to something else. It is the connecting that is more important than the skill. In that way the students start asking the right questions and treating you in the right way: they treat people as means to bounce ideas off of and not as getting every skill they can. I think that is really good for them because they discover things for themselves and then they can teach other people. Quite often in school now I will say ‘I don’t know but I do know that so and so did that last week’. So we’ve got this kind of interchange going on”.

To a certain extent, I had done exactly this during the life-drawing class. I certainly did not suddenly become a maestro with the pencil. But I was able to take the experience and connect it to other experiences and ideas I had – does spending time in a life-drawing class make me a better researcher? Does it develop my observational skills?

There is a lot of debate at the moment, both in our society and in our schools, about the value, place and purpose of art. I wonder if more people had the same experience life-drawing as I did, using it as a stimulus for thinking about how I do my own work, whether we might not think differently about the purpose and place of art?

 

school and community

This post is written by Lexi Earl, on her visit to St. Ives School in Cornwall.

When I arrived in St Ives, early on a Monday evening in March, I was entranced. Like thousands before me, I found the town captivating. Everywhere there was sea – sometimes silvery grey, sometimes aquamarine, sometimes golden in the sunlight. I walked the tiny cobbled streets. I watched people with their dogs, happy as can be on the creamy sandy beaches. On my walks up to St Ives School in the early mornings, I found myself listening to the squawk of seagulls or the twitter of sparrows, instead of my usual podcasts.

Island view of St Ives

I am of course, not alone in feeling this way about this particular part of the world. In the Barbara Hepworth Museum, which I had opportunity to visit during my stay, there was a quote on wall that resonated with me.

St Ives has absolutely enraptured me, not merely for its beauty, but the naturalness of life… The sense of community is, I think, a very important factor in an artist’s life”.

I have been thinking a lot about community since starting to work on this project, and at St Ives School some of the students talked about the sense of St Ives as an art community.

I think Cornwall, especially St Ives, does attract, it’s like an artist magnet. It attracts people from all over the world.

St Ives is such an art-based capital. Obviously we’ve got the Tate here, so that’s cool. There are life-drawing classes; there is pottery. There are self-portrait artists.

Like the island, you could just sit there and paint.

The art and graphics teachers I spoke with at St Ives School clearly thought that partaking in the arts community was important, and sought to provide opportunities for their students to experience this kind of arts-focused community.

Hepworth in St Ives

Gizela Daemi-Rashidi, who is Head of Creative Design, is involved with the St Ives School of Painting and has helped set up an opportunity for students to learn there.

The St Ives School of Painting asked me to be one of its trustees. So I go to meetings and we really try and expand the arts for the students. And the students are now doing an Arts Award through St Ives School of Painting, after school every Thursday for two hours. It’s [for] students who lack in confidence, who want to do more art. The opportunity is there if the students are willing to put the time and effort in.

Some of the students I spoke with were taking advantage of this opportunity.

It’s a bit more strict. It’s kind of just expanding your art skills than when you’re in school. 

We’ve done life drawings at the moment. We did marbling, colour mixing, using our pencils with measurements to get everything into proportion.

It’s a different kind of atmosphere cause you’ve got different people, and teachers who are specific to what you’re doing at that time.

Every summer, Paul Fox-Williams, Head of Art at St Ives School, organizes for the GCSE artwork to go on display at the Penwith Gallery in town. This provides an opportunity for the students work to be displayed in a gallery exhibition, and for the local community to see the kind of work the students are producing. The students gain valuable feedback from local artists. Paul explained:

What the Penwith Gallery did was go actually the bit that is brilliant about this is the kids work so let’s work something out that means that the rest of the world can see that work of those kids.

The school also takes students to the Tate Gallery, the Barbara Hepworth Museum, and the Leach Pottery studios. The students expressed what this kind of experience meant to them:

It’s just inspiration for us, to put in our work. Just to see what can happen, if you put your mind to something.

It does teach you a lot. Like your work can be produced and people can see it. People can go there and look at your work. I think it’s very good for us.

The art block is just like paintings and drawings and that on the walls, but it’s different in the Tate. They have pictures and sculptures. It’s a different aspect of it.

St Ives is an inspiring and beautiful place. It is also a community of artists and makers. St Ives School’s art department is making sure students experience both the opportunities for looking at art and also the opportunity to participate in this arts community.

 

inspiring future arts careers

This post is written by Lexi Earl on her visit to St Ambrose Barlow RC High School in Salford.

In my conversation with Bernie Furey, the Assistant Head Teacher (Creativity and Research) at St Ambrose Barlow RC High School in Salford, she talked about the focus on giving students functional and useful art skills. This is to enable students to obtain jobs in the creative industries when they’ve finished studying. One of the ways the art teachers at St Ambrose do this is through developing a wide range of partnerships with creative organisations – from the Tate galleries to the Ideas Foundation to working with artists and design agencies.

The art department spends a lot of time organizing and taking their students to local galleries like Manchester Art Gallery and the Tate Liverpool so that students can see art on display and get ideas for their own work. These experiences have a long-term focus, extending the possibilities of what their students might aspire to be.

During our conversation, I asked Bernie if the department were conscious of the kinds of job markets that might exist when their students finished. 

Definitely and making sure that we are giving them those skills and we are working very closely with the digital industry in Manchester to make sure that our curriculum is fit for purpose.

One of the partnerships the department has is with McCann’s – a design agency that has offices in both London and New York City. In the weeks before my visit, the art department took a number of students from Year 10 and 6th form to New York City for 5 days. The packed schedule included a trip to the top of Rockefeller Center, the Empire State Building, Central Park and a show on Broadway as well as visits to MoMA, the Natural History Museum, and the Whitney.

The students spoke about their trip with enthusiasm:

Everything you could do in five days, we did.

[On the NYC galleries] They were all different I’d say. None of them were the same. In each one none of the art was the same. There was so much different art. So it was good for us to get ideas.

It was so big as well like. There were so many different types of art, to see them all, it was really good.

Some students also visited the McCann offices in NYC. One of the Year 12’s I spoke to there told me about her experience in the design agency:

I want to go into advertising and Ms. Furey has really helped me out with that. Because when we went to New York I went to visit McCann’s agency. […] We went to the 16th floor and they have the whole floor and it’s the creative side to it. They had different sections so we went round there. Then they were showing us how they create magazine covers and it was just really good to see how it’s all created. So they start off with a basic idea and then we moved on to how they edit it on Photoshop and then how they print it. They do loads of different prints to see which is best. It was just nice to see how it all comes together and how much work it actually takes to create something like that. It was just really good.

Rose Warner, one of the art teachers, explained about the importance of these kinds of experiences for their students.

It was great. The kids just loved it. […] We did a lot in five days and it was a really good trip and the kids get a lot from that for their sketchbooks. […] It’s an exhausting trip but it is brilliant because some of our kids haven’t even been out of Salford by the time they get to Year 10 and there were about four girls who had never flown before. That is a lot for them and it means to lot to them and they learn an awful lot from it even down to how to manage their own budget and money. […] I think for us it’s the chance for pupils to see us in a different way and a couple of years ago we took a girl who had completely switched off from art and when we took her to New York she returned a completely changed girl who wanted to get back to her art. We took a girl this year who is really quiet but creates beautiful art work but can’t talk about it and she came back with a much more confident side to her. I think it will help their confidence a lot.

Bernie and her team work to build these partnerships precisely so that their students are able to gain a lot of experiences whilst still at school. This, they hope, will help their students understand the wide range of job opportunities that exist, particularly in a creative hub like Manchester.

displaying and sharing art

This post is written by Lexi Earl, on her time at Welling School in Kent.

When I arrived at Welling School in Kent, I was immediately fascinated by the ‘mini gallery’ space in reception – a tall glass cube, filled with objects. It displayed work by Year 8 students, responding to work by American artist Judith Scott. These were vibrant, colourful balls that used thread and textiles to create new art from found objects. The wall next to this mini gallery was filled with posters advertising the school’s ‘alTURNERtive’ prize – a yearly art competition for students.

 

Welling is an art specialist school and there is a lot of opportunity to partake in art of various kinds, but what struck me in the first few moments was the clear importance of sharing and showing students’ work. In my few months on this project, I have noticed how students talk about sharing their work, and how comfort with sharing appears to develop over time – younger students tend to be more cautious about sharing their developing art works, whereas their older peers are sharing on social media and engaged in conversation with other young artists.

Students I spoke to clearly knew that their school valued the arts, their art in particular, and showcased this in various ways.

Art has always been very big in the school. I just think that it is appreciated.

They have an awards ceremony as well. The alTURNERtive prize they do that every year cause we have a gallery downstairs. And we have a lot of stuff around the room, like everyone’s work is displayed. Like last year, everyone’s final pieces will be up on the walls.

It’s one of the main things that attracted me to the school [the way it values art]. I used to go to [another school] and they’re into art as well but I thought that this was even more into art cause its what I want to go into so it felt like this was the right decision to come here.

When I asked how the school’s value of the arts made them feel they said:

It makes us want to do more big stuff and show it off, cause we know we can.

I feel less restricted cause you can make big stuff in this school.

One student explained about her experience in The alTURNERtive Prize:

So they choose a couple of people from Year 11, 12 and 13, art that they’ve done and they put it in the gallery and it’s like a show. Everyone comes in to watch it. And they choose an overall winner. […] It’s fun. It’s a good experience. You feel quite involved in everything and it feels a bit more real. And you feel like you get rewarded for the stuff you do, so it’s quite nice.

And what did everyone say when they came in and saw all the artwork?

It’s like not a community but like everyone’s joined together and everyone is like ‘oh, your work’s nice’, ‘and your work’s nice’ and you all give each other ideas. It’s a nice thing to do. It’s a good idea. It works.

Sharing art work at Welling was not only confined to formal gallery spaces or competitions. The teacher’s classrooms displayed student work, and the corridors of the art block were full of posters, art, photographs and notice boards showcasing recent plays or information on exhibitions students could visit.


At Welling I began to think about the role the school and teachers can play in creating spaces where students can share work in a gradual fashion – anonymously in the glass cube, with friends, family and other artists in the school gallery space, and eventually, on social media and in other public spaces. And through doing so, empower students to share their work with the world.

opportunity and art

This post is written by Lexi Earl about her recent visit to Archbishop Tenison School in London.

On our recent visit to Archbishop Tenison, Becky and I had a conversation with the Y13 art students. It was clear that they were taking advantage of the various opportunities they had been offered that connected them to art organisations and experiences outside of school – some were involved in Tate Collective, others in the October Gallery Youth Collective, and some had done work experience at Universal Studios. They supported each other’s efforts by attending events and going to exhibitions together, forming and creating their own art community.

october-gallery

By contrast, the Y10s were not yet involved in the arts community around them. In conversation I asked them whether they visited museums or galleries, either by themselves or with their families. They said no. They went on to say that it was likely that the only way they would visit such places would be on a school trip. This was interesting because ATS is a school in central London. The Tate is within walking distance. But these young people do not necessarily feel that they can access such places on their own.

Opportunities to become part of the art community, to participate in it, and to take up work experience do not happen by osmosis. The engagement of the Y13s in comparison to the Y10s is part of the work of Hannah King, their art teacher, and is an example of the role teachers play in connecting their students to wider opportunities and experiences within the arts and cultural organisations, either on their doorstep or more broadly in their communities.

Hannah explained the process through which she connects the students to opportunities they might not otherwise be able to access. She runs through her own personal contacts – friends and acquaintances working in a variety of industries that might be of interest to her students. She checks what opportunities might be possible with the organisations and businesses where she has contacts, looking at what is doable and realistic. She takes these opportunities to the Head of Sixth Form, to check whether the school can support the students to take advantage of an opportunity. Finally, she offers the various opportunities to the sixth form students – not only the art students, but anyone who might be interested. For example, students who are interested in the business side of arts organisations can also take advantage of these opportunities.

tate-collective

Hannah knows her students interests and future ideas, and is therefore able to tailor opportunities for them that will help them in the long run. As Hannah told us, it is not just the opportunity to gain work experience somewhere like Universal Studios, Apple, or Ministry of Sound. Having to put together a CV, and write a cover letter gives students practical life skills. This then supports their potential UCAS letters, and ultimately helps students once they start “thinking about how you apply for jobs”.

Teachers like Hannah King play an incredibly important role in connecting young people to the arts, widening the opportunities they may have, and exposing them to new ideas and people that they might otherwise miss.

ats-notice-board-outside-art-y2

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.