painting clay, having fun

This post is written by Lexi Earl. 

At Grey Coat Hospital in London, the Art department has found an innovative way to offer more skills development for their Year 12 students, by running an informal after-school Art Club.

On Monday afternoons, once school is finished at 3.30pm, the Year 12 art students congregate in the bright upstairs art room. The room has a wall of windows looking out over the city, and as dusk fell outside one November Monday, Phillipa Prince, the Head of Art, demonstrated painting clay while still wet.

This method uses decorative slip to paint colour onto clay that has been rolled out flat, not yet formed, and not yet fired. Phillipa showed the group how you can add texture to the clay using a variety of ordinary household materials (bubble wrap, feathers, woven bamboo, engraved with pencil). The slip can be painted onto the clay, or painted first onto newspaper and then pressed onto the clay, or painted in sections. The possibilities are endless, really. Once a pattern or series of designs and colours have been added to the clay, it can be shaped into a form (a small vase perhaps), or left flat like a tile, to dry. Phillipa explained that this technique allows layers to be built up over time. Once the shapes have been fired in the kiln (something the group will be doing in the next few weeks), glazes can be added too. The results are complex, interesting forms that could be used as potential presents or gifts.

After the demonstration, the students were able to experiment with their own designs. Each had a flat piece of clay to which they could add colour or texture. Everyone worked happily, discussing their designs as they went along, asking Phillipa for advice or thoughts. Towards the end of the session, shapes began to form out of the flat clay as the students manipulated vases, jars, and spirals.

After the session I spoke with Clare Burnett, the other Art teacher who helps run the Art Club, about the purpose of such sessions. She explained:

“What we realised is that they [the students] do a lot of personal investigations in GCSE but the danger of doing project after project is that they go straight into more investigation just relying on what they’ve learnt before and they don’t actually expand their repertoire. Pottery after school has been really fun– it’s nice for them to have a bit of relaxation, allows them to expand their sculpture skills and we’ve got the kiln”.

The Year 12 students I spoke to explained what they felt the purpose of the class was:

Right now we’re doing pottery. We just learn basic skills. The first skill we learnt was making normal thumb pots. Then learning how to use the wheel. Yesterday we learnt how to use slip and how you can paint onto clay when it is dried or when it is wet. It is just adding to your book of skills that you can use in Year 13.

It is good that we are building up skill sets.

They are helpful because I have never done any of the things that they have. It is exposing me to different things apart from what I know.

Art Club is therefore a way to both introduce students to techniques they may not have encountered before, and to let the students develop their interests in multiple art forms. The session I witnessed was relaxed and fun, the students free to experiment, make mistakes, and develop ideas. Even though the club is extra-curricular, it clearly has an important place in the wider goals of the art department.

using artworks in drama

This post is written by Lexi Earl, on her visit to West Derby School in Liverpool.

As most readers of this blog will have gathered by now, I spend most of my time visiting the different schools that are involved in this project. Generally, I know what to expect from my visit. If the school has a partnership with the RSC, I spend my time with either Drama or English departments (and sometimes both). If the school has a partnership with the Tate, I am in an Art department, talking to students doing Fine Art, Photography, Textiles and the like. But one school in this project has broken this mould. At West Derby School in Liverpool, the partnership is with the Tate but the partnership is held by the Drama teacher, Kate Forrest. As I discovered when I visited, this means that Kate uses exhibitions at the Tate as stimuli for Drama projects and performances.

During my visit I had the opportunity to talk to two Year 13 Drama students who had visited the Tate Liverpool to see Tracey Emin’s My Bed (1998) when it was on display. The students then used this artwork as a stimulus for a play that they wrote and then performed. Their play dealt with sexual abuse.

They explained how the artwork was about more than just a messy bed, and how this had helped them develop their play.

See, Tracey Emin’s bed in the Tate, when you come in and look at the bed, people go ‘oh that’s just a messed up bed. I could do that on a Monday morning’. But when you look at it and what is around the bed, and what it symbolises, knowing her backstory, you realise that all of her life has unfolded in that art piece. She had a picture of her ex who she was completely in love with who left her, cigarettes, alcohol bottles and a bed just torn to pieces. That, in a way, shows her mental state, and we wanted to adhere to that and show the mental state of our characters. Hopefully that will connect to whomever we perform to.

Most people look at the art in a literal sense and say this art is just a bed. It is less about the bed itself and more about the person behind.

The students then explained how this artwork created a stimulus for them to leap from, to engage in difficult and complex ideas, and how it inspired their work on mental health and the links to sexual abuse.

I think the bed as an actual stimulus was what really pushed it for me because recognising that the bed wasn’t just a bed, it was the actual mental state so connecting that up to making a play about your mental state was really interesting for me. I could create bonds between our own production and the bed. When we first wanted to do it, we thought it would be more interesting if we included the bed – at least in the background. We had a bed onstage, messed up maybe so giving that sense of bad mental state. I’m not sure if you’ve read this but they say your mental state can be represented by your bedroom and the state it is in. It reflects what you feel inside which is really interesting. So we wanted to get that across but at the same time we didn’t want to confuse the audience so by the end of it we decided not to [include the bed]. We worried they’d be focused too much on the bed rather than the actual acting that was happening on stage. So we went for a minimalistic vibe rather than focusing on props, lighting, shadow, we wanted to focus on the actors. The only prop we used was a block to emphasise character stance.

I asked the students what the value to them was of being able to visit the Tate and use an artwork as a stimulus for a piece.

It helps build on your own ideas. We’re told in the media about these kinds of people, about mental health, and to just get down on the ground and see someone’s own mental health displayed really helps build upon what you want to do, how you want to present it.

WDtheatre

One of the students highlighted how Drama, through working with complex issues that form part of our world, can change your world view.

Most things when you come to Drama are confidence, you boost your confidence. But in fact, when doing this, it not only boosts your confidence on stage but going into the big world, meeting other people, you have got that confidence for it. When we were performing and exploring into it [the play], you realise the society that we live in and the society that the news feeds, that the government says it is, it is not. It is completely different to how it is. It changes your views on the world. You realise eventually who to go with, stay away from, what type of person they’ve built you into society and that is what Drama is pretty good for. 

The opportunity for these Drama students to visit Tate Liverpool, and use one of the artworks for an in-depth exploration of complicated mental states influenced their work. It was an interesting reminder that art can be used in different ways, with many subjects.

 

 

learning through trying again, and again…and again.

Last November, I visited Barcelona. During my visit I went to the Picasso Museum. One of the paintings I saw was Picasso’s Las Meninas. The painting itself was fascinating, intriguing, based on Velasquez’s work of the same title. But it was the way the painting was displayed that interested me most. In the rooms surrounding the main work, studies and sketches of Picasso’s work towards the final piece were displayed. It was evidence of the process of making an art piece, but I felt it was also evidence of experimentation, trying things out, looking at what worked, what did not, and trying again until the artist had achieved what he was after. I was reminded of this process of art making, the trying and failing and trying again, that is so necessary in making, during my visit to Childwall Sports and Science Academy in Liverpool.

As Becky Parry wrote about her own research visit here, the murals and art displayed all around the school is incredibly inspiring and impressive. There is a riot of colour, murals connected to subject themes, and student work on a variety of topics. The students I spoke with identified these public displays of art as proof that their school values the arts. It also meant that their own, older works were on display for other people to see, something they were not necessarily that comfortable with. The students explained that they didn’t necessarily enjoy seeing their work up (although it did make them proud), because they were now doing better work; work that they could see showed their progress as artists. They were therefore inadvertently able to see progress clearly because their older work is on display.

Students were also aware that the process of making progress in art allowed them to experience failure in a way that was not necessarily negative (or not necessarily failure) and contrasted strongly with other subjects where there is often a ‘right’ way of doing things.

In a conversation I had with Year 12s, the students explained:

 “It teaches you not to be afraid to fail. You have to fail to get better.”

“They [the teachers] encourage it. They want to see you do something wrong than you always get it right and never improve.”

I thought these ideas summarized what is so great about art in school, and is what we often forget when we look at art in a gallery. I found myself thinking about my conversation with the Year 12s at Childwall while I wandered through the Roy Lichtenstein rooms currently open at Tate Liverpool. Art teaches students that it is okay to fail, to not get things totally correct the first time, and to have the courage to start again. Later, when I looked properly at the flyer I had picked up from the Tate I laughed. The flyer is designed as a comic and on the front sat a frustrated Lichtenstein with the caption, “It’s not good. I need some inspiration.” This, I felt, was the crux of my discussion with the Year 12s at Childwall: art requires frustration and perceived failure on the part of the artist in order to improve, to achieve the vision that they have. Even great artists try multiple things, creating studies in different colours or techniques, before they create their final piece (the one we inevitably see in the gallery). Art teaches you that this process is okay.

Surely we should be encouraging more people to take arts subjects rather than less, so that we mould resilient young people, comfortable with failure, ready to navigate our complex world? This was certainly the approach I saw at Childwall. It is something to aspire to, I think.

approaches to teaching art

This post is written by Lexi Earl.

During my time on this project I have witnessed many different approaches to the teaching of art to young people. At Richard Cloudesley School in Islington, I was impressed by the various ways art teacher Lucy Pook has adapted her teaching in order to allow her students to experience art, and make art. Richard Cloudesley is a school for young people with physical disabilities and additional sensory needs. Many are only partially verbal, others use sign language and there are clever communication books students can use to explain their needs and wants to teachers, staff, and carers.

While I was at Richard Cloudesley, I got to experience just how this communication works during an art class. The class was focusing on the work of Robert Rauschenberg, and had already begun creating multi-media art works. That day the class was going to create clay figurines and then make tyre tracks to add to these particular works, in the style of Rauschenberg’s Monogram 1988-56. Lucy Pook, the school art teacher, put up a photograph of Rauschenberg’s work on the projector. She explained to the class that the idea is to get “lots and lots of layers” on the work.

After identifying their work, students and staff all gathered around the two tables in the centre of the room and Lucy provided each student with a piece of clay. Each student was tasked with choosing an animal to make from the clay. There was music playing and there were adults (teaching assistants and carers) helping and working with all the children. The atmosphere was relaxed and everyone talked easily. I worked with one student who uses a ‘pod book’ to communicate. These books are made up of rows and columns related to various themes, and each block contains a particular picture or word. You read down the column and then along the row, giving the student time to respond and say what they are thinking or want. The girl I worked with eventually told me she wanted to make a parrot, as these are her favourite. (One of the other teaching assistants warned me that sometimes she just likes to go through the book, saying no to everything, as a form of entertainment). Some of the children simply held the clay while the teachers created the creatures they’d chosen, while others shaped the clay into animal shapes, and some students got to poke eyes and other details into the clay. Everyone was involved to some degree, depending on their fine motor skills. Eventually there was a whole troop of clay figurines left to dry on the windowsill.

During my time at Richard Cloudesley, I spoke to Lucy about this collaboration-as-art I had participated in. She explained that she thinks it is important but that:

“I’m also aware that I don’t want to take the projects away from them and it is a constant challenge. Even after three years if you are working with a student who takes a long time to respond you have to rein yourself in and not do too much for them. I’m not sure how successful we are at that but we are supporting each other’s projects. My favourite bit of those projects is including the students from the other school because the work that we’ve done with them has been for big events and I think, with our students, and especially doing kinesthetic stuff where you are all moving around together, they get very enthusiastic about it”.

Lucy was clearly aware of the need for patience as part of the collaborative work the students and staff did. There was also a need for flexibility, which is how Lucy approached her planning.

“Whatever I plan to do I leave it so open so that I can see how they are responding and I’ve just realised that that is the only way that you can do it really. So within a lesson structure we have a window of time when everyone is supported and I will try and do most of the activities then. I’ve been teaching literacy a lot but I’ve also wanted to look at design and performance art and the process of performance. I’ve been trying to create projects because our groups are so mixed and we have profound and multiple learning difficulties in with some quite able students. So it is quite disparate and I try to create something that everyone can access on some level and then we’ll see what happens. I leave things to chance to some extent and that is often where the nicer things happen actually”.

Art lessons at Richard Cloudesley were therefore approached in a particular way, clearly focused on student need and interest. Lucy is able to adapt her programme of learning to meet student requirements.

 

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.