Sunday, 30 September 2012

Memory and Time

Concentration and hard looking can be heightened if there is a specific task to undertake. One particular drawing session was divided into two distinct activities. The first part consisted of memory training. A morning would be spent building a drawing from memory. This would depend on the space available. For instance if a spare room was to be found, (this was possible in those days) a still life set-up would be constructed in one space and students would have easels set up in another. If not a particular spot was identified to draw, close enough to get back to the easel reasonably quickly but far enough away to make it an effort to do so. Students were asked to look hard and carefully at the chosen situation and in their mind's eye build up a series of relationships, that could be checked by simply closing their eyes, looking at their mental picture and then opening them to see how different this was to reality. What was next to what, how was its position indicated by its relationship to other things, what were the overall dynamics of the selection made? Then once it was felt that no more information could be carried in the head, they had to quickly get back to their easel and draw. When an individual student started to guess or make things up, it was time to go back, look again and keep repeating the process. I had put this one together after reading about Gainsborough setting up a still life in his cellar and then setting out to paint it on a canvas set up in his attic. At the end of the morning session we would look at the images and consider what was being edited out by the process. What sorts of things did memory do to the way we carried information? Attention to spacial positioning was often compromised by the tendency of the mind to be word dominated and the drawing could become more about things than relationships. Getting students to look at 'not what it is, but where it is' was essential. The critical debate centred on conceptual v perceptual information and the relative merits of each.
The afternoon session was more involved with speed and image summation. Drawings were done in response to the morning's attempts. Each one would take a shorter time. The first one perhaps 30 minutes, the second 15 minutes the third 5 minutes, the forth 1 minute, the next 30 seconds etc.   The end of the session was a critique looking at how successfully or not, these drawings had been able to capture the essence of what had been looked at. 
Finally both sessions were examined as ways to extract information from the infinitely complex world around us and a final drawing was done, (the last hour of the day), whereby students would strive to construct a drawing that was the clearest summation of the day's looking.
At one point I was given the job to do a days drawing with foundation students one day a week every week throughout the year. This would often involve having a life model, so I might take this memory session on as a way of introducing students to the problem of what happens when you turn your head away from the looking and attempt to put the information on paper. Even that brief moment between looking at a knee and turning your head and attention to the paper to respond to what you had seen, was filled with perceptual complications and memory loss. By extending the time between looking and drawing you were able to highlight the issues, such as the tendency to make symbols of things like fingers and eyes, rather than find how they articulated awareness of space and mass.
A key text was Frances Yates' The Art of Memory, and students would be directed to this as an arena within which to start exploring how memory could become a concept to explore in its own right and perhaps a subject matter that could be used to help generate their own developing practices. 

Saturday, 29 September 2012

Back to the 21st century. A day with 3rd years

I did a days cover this week for my old friend Steve who is having to nurse his very ill mother. It's the beginning of the final year of the students' degree programme and the course always begins the process by getting students to review what they they have achieved so far. In small groups they present and staff (with the other students support) try and highlight significant moments and interesting threads that run through the work. This is a delicate process. You can't just tell someone what sort of practice they should be developing, its more a process of leading them towards self-reflection. If a student doesn't 'own' the practice, it wont be sustainable and you can find people 'illustrating' your ideas rather than discovering new things. Only in work will directions be found, but if the work is being done in too predictable a manner, its unlikely that new, surprising things will be uncovered. Process is as important as materials, which are as important as content, which is as important as concept. Some will need to start with materials play, others with conceptual engagement, some with the documentation of personal experience, others with a dialogue with the art business. The advantage of experience here is that the more you have the more possible entry points are recognised.  I'm never sure of course how people feel about this. No matter how hard you might try to be objective, people can read your suggestions as being subjective. It's therefore better if there are at least two members of staff to offer opinions, and/or articulate and supportive other students. 
These days still fill me with excitement. It's amazing how many possibilities are revealed and I can see so much potential in the different approaches to developing a practice. Some students are clearly just as excited by what they are doing and others are less confident. It is at this juncture that confidence comes into play more and more. There is a need to 'go for it'. A willingness to just do things and hope for something to happen. Soon the need for crafting, editing and refinement of ideas will come but for now its better to be slightly all over the place and awkward, the work will have to develop its 'edge' and that will not come from understanding but from a process that supports finding and discovering. 

Lydia the Tattooed Lady

'Lydia the Tattooed Lady'. This was a favourite 'morning drawing' of Colin Cain's. Students would first of all be asked to tear their paper into a complex shape. We would then play the Marx Brother's version of Lydia from the film 'At The Circus', (the Marx Brother's were key as they seemed to capture the anarchistic spirit of invention and humour that was we thought essential to art and design education). Here are a few lines from the song: 
On her back is The Battle of Waterloo.
Beside it, The Wreck of the Hesperus too.
And proudly above waves the red, white, and blue.
You can learn a lot from Lydia! 

When her robe is unfurled she will show you the world,
if you step up and tell her where.
For a dime you can see Kankakee or Paree,
or Washington crossing The Delaware. 

When her muscles start relaxin',
up the hill comes Andrew Jackson.
For two bits she will do a mazurka in jazz,
with a view of Niagara that nobody has.
And on a clear day you can see Alcatraz.

Come along and see Buffalo Bill with his lasso.
Just a little classic by Mendel Picasso.
Here is Captain Spaulding exploring the Amazon.
Here's Godiva, but with her pajamas on. 

Here is Grover Whelan unveilin' The Trilon.
Over on the west coast we have Treasure Isle-on.
Here's Nijinsky a-doin' the rhumba.
Here's her social security numba. 

After a few words about topology (topology was again something we would return to over and over again during these morning drawing sessions) students would be asked to visualise the song's images while responding to the torn pieces of paper as if they were bodies. Each 'illustration' would have to take up a defined space, but then the next one would have to fit into the space left and so on, until the whole paper was filled. There was to be no up-ness or down-ness just drawing that filled the space and responded to the torn shapes that were available. (At other times this drawing session was done without tearing the paper into a shape and the students had to engage with the rectangle) The point being that illustration did not have to operate as a 'window' it could have a physicality as powerful as a painting or piece of sculpture. As always the implications were picked out at the end of the session, images often turning on their heads as they moved around the torn forms, these drawings were ones to handle and turn round, therefore asking another question as to our physical relationship with them. We saw this as perhaps the first step into textile design, just as much as being a foray into illustration. Above all it was funny.

Starting points from art, literature, popular culture, music, maths and geometry, psychology (Luria and Anton Ehrenzweig) as well as simple basic visual experiences were all jumbled up and mixed together into a rich mix. A line of poetry could imply the rotation of the Earth, a slip of paper suggest the horror of war. The way a drawing suggested how disappearing foxes were now falling into the arsehole of the universe, would be used to fuse the suspect morals of fox hunting with the impossibility of light escaping from a black hole. 

The madness of learning outcomes

I thought it would be a simple job to keep dropping bits of information into this blog, but it's taking over my headspace. I couldn't sleep last night, replaying over and over teaching sessions from different times. What was also coming up through my sub-conscious though was something else, I started to realise that my personal life and what was going on in terms of my relationship with art school pedagogy were totally entwined. The time when the old foundation structures started falling apart, coincided exactly with my own personal life doing the same. I was trying to work out the precise moment it all started to unravel and I think I have pinpointed it. It was the day we learnt of the existence of 'learning outcomes'. (This must have been early to mid 1980s) The staff were asked to participate in a workshop, some organisation was trying to develop these things called learning outcomes for art and design courses. We looked them through and thought they were a joke. How could you reduce the experience we were trying to offer to such a petty level?   We didn't know ourselves what the outcomes would be and that was the point. It was a road of discovery and if one student realised that he or she now wanted to become an engineer and another a poet that was great, the point was that the process was all bundled together in some sort of untangleable ball and these people wanted us to unravel it. Education existed to draw out potential not to train. The problem is that when the ball is unravelled all you have left is bits of string. We pooh-poohed the whole thing, feeling safe because Leeds had been one of the first colleges to develop these courses and that we knew what it was all about and we would continue to lead on this and these sorts of things were only for failing colleges and poor teachers. A few years later we would all be shocked to find there were now national standards and that they were laid down using the very learning outcomes we had dismissed as useless a few years before. 
I now deal with learning outcomes for every session I have to teach. I simply ignore them and leave it to someone else to read them out and explain them to students. The glazed expressions spread as each outcome is trotted out and all sense of wonder and excitement gets sucked out of the room as lists of evidence are read out. Life and therefore art can't be reduced to these things, everyone knows it but no one does anything about it. Basically its training students to be able to do the necessary paperwork for an average office job or ticking off a set of basic skills that are targeted at an apprentice. Having been an apprentice back in the 1960s I can confidently state that they are not even up to the job of understanding what apprenticeship is all about.  I have a sense that ever since the early 1990s when the old course was accredited all I've been doing is fighting a rearguard action, trying to work with individuals, hoping to give them a sense of how wonderful things could be if only they could just be allowed to get on with making, doing, looking and experiencing. It's not all bad and some great things were done during the 1990s and continuing. As this blog unfolds I will try and explain why and how the differences matter. The key difference is this, learning outcomes suggest that a student can now understand or do something, such as mix a colour or adjust shapes in order to demonstrate their awareness of formalist principles. But the real issue was how can your sense of being alive, both as an embodied and as a thinking individual be enhanced by the experience of mixing a colour or adjusting a shape? 


Friday, 28 September 2012

Morning Drawing

'Morning drawing' evolved out of wake-up activities that were used to try and break through that feeling of tiredness and inertia that bodies of students tend to have first thing in the day. Initially all sorts of activities were used to sharpen senses and open minds to the fact that we were engaged in some sort of collective research into what it was to be a creative thinker. We had organised hymn singing, focusing on breathing and the sound of collective voices (always led by Patrick), games of catch, (the idea being to encourage the instinctive gesture, you can't think about catching a ball, you just know where it will be), humming exercises, whereby different groups would develop harmonies in response to a first hummed sound (focus was on our instinctive ability to build harmonic structure), physical exercise, jumping up and down as in some left over National Service activity, (to get the body attuned to a day's work), games like musical chairs but played with easels (we never had enough of these, so getting one usually meant arriving early), making paper aeroplanes out of any drawings left over from previous days (another way of thinking about the space of the room and the fact that paper was not just something to draw on) etc etc. 
At some point, i can't remember when it was decided, we began to formalise these beginning of the day activities, and to use them to focus on aspects of drawing. Sessions would be short and sharp, each activity designed to make a particular point as to how drawing could be used as a tool for invention. Each member of staff had to come up with ideas and a different person would lead off each morning. 

Here are a few I remember:

'Draw the angle of perceived pain'. That was it, no elaboration was given, students had to set out to draw it. They were to check each one they had drawn against others, change the quality of each angle as it was drawn, eliminate some and sharpen others until all that was left was one angle, the "Angle of perceived pain". Pages dense with rubbings out, removals etc. would finally have within them this angle, sometimes heavily drawn in charcoal, using a wooden ruler, sometimes faintly drawn by hand in pencil, sometimes one side of the angle would be sharp and black, the other side soft and grey. Lines would bend, be perfectly straight, be annotated by numbers as students attempted to think through whether or not this was at 33.7 degrees or 33.9, crossed out annotations as to what failed angles represented etc etc. The key text was Kandinsky's concerning the Spiritual in Art.  In particular Kandinsky's assertion that the subjective effect produced by a line depended on its orientation was critical: "a horizontal line corresponds with the ground on which man rests and moves; it possesses a dark and cold affective tonality similar to black or blue. A vertical line corresponds with height, and offers no support; it possesses a luminous, warm tonality close to white and yellow. A diagonal possesses a more-or-less warm (or cold) tonality, according to its inclination toward the horizontal or the vertical". Students would be told to read this, the important issue being that they had now experienced drawing in a way that would allow them entry into Kandinsky's writings and not the other way round, as this could lead them into simply illustrating Kandinsky's ideas.

'Greek myths in a moment'. This was one I used to enjoy doing. You would tell a Greek myth, let the story grow with its images and narrative weaving towards what was often a tragic denouement. A favourite was 'Europa and the Bull' a story that has of course been visualised by many artists, not least Titian, but which it could be argued was now redundant as a story with meaning for 1980s students as they were then. (This was partly the point, reminding students that myths were forever and not just about the past) Listening to a story is in many ways soporific, by its end many students would be half asleep or if it was told well, slightly lost in the world of Zeus and the ancient Greeks. After a moment of quiet, hands would be clapped loudly, and energetic language would be used to tell students that they had 5 minutes to capture what the story had been about and that in that 5 minutes they had to make full use of an A1 sheet of paper and could use colour as well as the normal drawing materials. A whistle would signal the end of the period. After frantic drawing students would stop on signal and then all the students would put the work up on the walls and the staff would pick out images that worked. This is quite a big one to unpick. By 'worked' some staff meant one thing and others another. I used to find this confusing at first and I'm sure many students did, but if you were sensitive to what was happening, you started to realise that it was in some ways a game, a game of articulation and conviction.  For instance debates in relation to de-centralised or centralised images would emerge. The 'frozen' image as opposed to one that articulated the 'nowness of now'. Finish v becoming, gesture v articulation, economy v energy, simplicity v complexity, staff would engage in a game of attention change. It could be an image was picked out that one member of staff decided had summed up everything in two lines, but this was then contrasted with an image perhaps composed of a myriad of twisting marks and lines by another member of staff who had been looking closely at work on the other side of the room. This meant lots of head turning and movement round the room as staff wondered about finding hidden gems and looking for things that illustrated one or another point they wanted to make. These staff critiques were a very important part of the sessions and a short summery of points raised would be given before we set off on the main activity of the day. Morning drawings were meant to be all over by 10am, which was when the next sessions were timetabled to start.  

'Energy converters'. Students would be asked to convert reciprocating motion into rotational motion, rotational motion to vertical motion, vertical linear motion to circular motion, rotary motion into linear motion. They were allowed to cut and shape paper and card and were given drawing pins, elastic bands and string and could construct directly onto their drawing boards. All sorts of weird and wacky 'W. Heath Robinson' machines would result, some of course relying on an inventive understanding of mechanics and others simply playing with the imagery. This was regarded as one of the clearly 'diagnostic' morning drawings. By not telling students what it was about, it was more likely that their natural abilities would come to the fore and then staff would point out how different skills lay behind different solutions and how these related to different possible art or design professions.  
'A coffin for a bicycle'. This would start with a reading, again by Patrick, from the Third Policeman, it would focus on sergeant Pluck and the atomic theory of the bicycle. "People who spend most of their lives riding iron bicycles . . . get their personalities mixed up with the personalities of the bicycle as a result of interchanging of the atoms of each of them and you would be surprised at the number of people in these parts who nearly are half people and half bicycles". De Selby's theories were a favourite, in particular his invention of D.M.P. which amongst many other attributes could affect he sequentiality of the experience of time. (This was the starting point for another morning drawing). Students would be left with some wonderful imagery and then instead of illustrating the story were asked to design a coffin for a bicycle.  Sometimes a bicycle would be wheeled into the studio as visual reference and sometimes not, the issue being to think about how a coffin very effectively simplifies the human body, so what degree of three dimensional simplification would be needed for a bike? Of course once constructed there was a neat metaphor for the humanisation of all things mechanical to be pondered upon and opened out during the crit. 
I'll return to these morning drawing sessions over and over again as they formed a vitally important element in not only opening out possibilities but in helping students and staff develop a dialogue around what it was individual students should eventually have to specialise in, the foundation course was at its core diagnostic. 

Thursday, 27 September 2012

The Hawk and the Handsaw

Holding the moment between things in order to create life. Not one thing not another.

"I am but mad north-north-west. When the wind is southerly, I know a hawk from a handsaw." 
How to keep a static image perceptually ‘alive’ was an issue that several ‘morning drawing’ sessions were designed to question. (I’ll at some point return to what ‘morning drawing’ was, but for now bear with me)The eye-brain had to be engaged in a variety of ways to ensure that somehow the flicker of life was embedded within the image. There were both non-figurative and figurative approaches to this and ideally at some point the lessons leant from both would be combined to form a visual synergy.
The non-figurative session could involve folding a sheet of A1 paper and cutting it in half and adjusting it to size so that a series of folded squares could be made. The pieces of paper would be fitted back together so a band of squares was ready to be drawn into. A line drawing of a square designed to occupy the majority of the space available would be put onto the first paper square and a line drawing of a circle on the last. Drawings of squares would then be slightly adjusted square by square, each one taking on more and more characteristics of the circle, whilst on the other hand drawings of circles were to take on more and more characteristics of the square. At some point in the process students should arrive at a drawing that was of a format exactly between a circle and a square. However because these had all been drawn by hand each one would have a slightly different energy and character, forms arrived at which started from a square being of a different character to those arrived at when a circle was the starting point.
The critical issue here was that different drawings had a tendency to visually ‘pop’ at one moment swaying towards a square and at another moment towards a circle and it was this visual ambiguity that gave the form its ‘life’. It was never one thing or another, therefore the brain couldn’t rest and an implied visual movement was created. These types of forms that lay between one thing and another were seen as essential if visual energy was to be embedded into a surface.
This particular approach had been a favourite of Harry Thubron and his legacy to the college was the Jacob Kramer red spot. The college symbol in those days had been taken from one of Harry’s constructions which included a red shape which was not quite a circle but which had some characteristics of a square, i.e. it was in Harry’s terms still alive as it was moving towards a circle, but not quite there. (It’s still in the collection of Leeds City Art Gallery) When it was proposed as the new symbol for the college it caused quite a stir, as on first glance it looked exactly like the Japanese flag, a red circle on a white ground and one of the staff had been in a Japanese prisoner of war camp during WW2. It must have been a wonderful confrontation, Harry explaining the subtlest nuances of formal meaning to a man who had a pretty clear idea of what a Japanese flag stood for and it wasn’t perceptual harmony.
Of course this type of drawing could be done with figurative imagery. The ‘Hawk and the Handsaw’ was a particularly clear example, (although as a drawing experience it had several problems in that to some extent the visual relationship was too easy). Once again you set out a series of squares, in square one place a drawing of a hawk in flight and in the last square draw a handsaw. Adjust as before and at some point hawk-saws will arrive, being neither saws nor hawks. They will flutter between forms, flying and cutting space as they seek to become one or the other, thus raising life energy via the brain’s searching for a rational resolution to a visual paradox. Of course the initial relationship was taken from Shakespeare. It was one way of reminding students that literature was a wonderful source of imagery. 
Other types of similar experiences could be obtained by examining how to use aspects of optical illusions and visual paradoxes such as the ambiguous duck/rabbit image or figure/ground switches, and of course there were a variety of other ‘morning drawing’ sessions designed to trigger other related issues. From time to time I will record them as my memory returns.

Drawing a Straight Line

Three dimensional spatial awareness and its translation onto a flat plane were two key issues that sat at the core of several visual learning experiences that were set up as part of the foundation drawing programme. One apparently simple experience that was set up was to perceptually draw a straight line. Students were asked to place themselves in relation to a found horizontal; for example a particular floorboard that they could easily see the full length of. They would check that at the centre of their vision it was at right angles to them, by using a pencil or a plumb-line to verify that it was so. In the centre of their paper they would mark a short line horizontally representing this initial measurement; then a vertical would be carefully drawn through it representing the checking measure (the pencil or plumb-line).  Students would then be asked to check how far away this point was and mark its position in chalk as a short vertical cutting at right angles across the floorboard. Essentially this would be represented as a small cross in the centre of their drawing paper. They would then return to the easel and mark their own position and a sight line mark was established on the edge of their drawing board that allowed them to re-sight by lining up two points, which they were to do whenever they went away and returned to the drawing.
Students were then asked to look along the line of the floorboard and find a new point and measure the angle against the plumb. They would then be asked to use chalk to again make a line across the floorboard that would sit vertically to their plumb when they returned to the drawing position. Of course the angle had now changed, but where to place this next perceptual reading? The plumb would still be vertical so they were allowed to set down a vertical mark; the new perceived angle would be measured off against the pencil or plumb by sight and then recorded and placed in accordance with the perceived distance from the drawer. Pieces of string were available, so that students could measure how far away this second point was. For instance the initial right-angled point might be 10 feet away and this next point 15 feet away, so that not only had the angle now changed but the perceived distance was a further 5 feet back.  The mark quality as well as the positioning needed adjusting until the drawing recreated the experience. This would then continue, more and more points being measured and checked, the drawings slowly revealing that what they were actually drawing was their own curve of vision.
One simple demonstration was used to help convince students that they were never actually able to see a straight line. A long straight rod was taken into the room, this would be raised up over the back of a student’s head and they would be asked to stare ahead but not to focus. The rod would be very slowly moved forward over their head and the student told to say stop the moment it entered the edge of their field of vision. For most students this was the moment of eureka, the rod would appear in its perceptual bent actuality as they had no other points of visual reference for it. The point being that their minds were telling them things were straight, even though their actual experience of the world was that of a being at the centre of two circles of vision.
This was a key experience for students to have had if they were to fully understand the way to approach ‘giron’ and ‘fess-point’ drawings.

Wednesday, 26 September 2012

Giron and Fess-point Drawing

You can blame Denis Dalby for this blog. He recently mentioned on Facebook something about him never being able to see a clothes line in the same way ever again, after attending a course I ran at the Swarthmore Adult Education Centre in Leeds. I worked there during the mid to late 70s and early 80s and as I ran the course on my own and had no paperwork to do at that time, just made it up as I went along. I learnt a lot in terms of what worked and what didn't and was able to put into action stuff I was learning on other days as I also worked on the long established Foundation Course over at what was then the Jacob Kramer College. 
So back to the clothes line. 
Before the students came in I would put up several clothes lines across the drawing studio. Three or four, with old fashioned clothes pegs placed at irregular intervals. As the students came in they were asked to position easels so that they should not interfere with the construction or their ability to see at least two of the lines and associated pegs. Before starting to draw anything the talk would be of spatial awareness, where people were positioned was examined, how had they arrived at the decision to set up where they had. The gradual taking of space by them as individuals was reflected back as an essential human factor and that awareness of space was as much a psychological as a physical phenomena. Then set-up for a drawing would start. Easels were adjusted according to sight lines. We focused on where people were, where their easel and therefore paper was and where the object to draw was. In this case it was hard to find the object but this was the point. The previous session and following session were about perceptual drawing. A life model (Anne and that's another story) was available, but the looking had been slack and people had been very unaware of the space that the figure sat in. In particular I had tried to introduce a method of drawing we were at that time calling "Giron and Fesspoint" drawing. This is a term that was used by a collection of staff at the Jacob Kramer, a term I hadn't come across before but which I on first contact associated with a type of drawing introduced by William Coldstream at the Slade and which was eventually practiced by Euan Uglow in a very hard nosed form. However I was soon to realise that this was only superficially similar. A giron was an imaginary line connecting specific points between two masses in space. Fess points were the points where the eye would momentarily rest as it sought to make connections with other points. Gradually a network of connections is arrived at that reveals the space as it is perceived by the observer. The difference between the "giron and fess-point" method and the Coldstream/Uglow tradition however was the rejection of the fixed anchor points. This was also related to the problem of perspective. In order to 'see' we seek out what's there. The head rotates on its axis and both eyes come into play as depth is explored. So the problem of spatial awareness was not just to find the 'anchor' points which help understand the space, but to also engage with the visual scanning of left to right, up to down and in and out of the space. A giron was therefore as much an indicator of perceptual travel as a link between one thing and another. A fess point could therefore come into being at any point along that travel, not necessarily at a point where the edge of an object might cross where this line might be, because it ought to be an important point in space that was indicated by an awareness of relationships. And, more importantly, that point itself was in flux.  Already I can see the students' brains descending into a foggy unknowing but I would persist. At this point I'd walk out and physically pinch a point in the air, ask students to watch carefully where this was and then let it go. Students were asked to scan around that point and find others, then try and find the invisible point that I had moments before indicated. This was a 'fess' point. Finally we would get to the drawing. The clothes lines were to be seen initially as physical manifestations of the girons. The pegs as fess points.  Students were to look at how the space was traversed by this construction and how it could be used to make drawings that explained their growing awareness of the space. 
The main problem I had was getting students to stop drawing clothes pegs and clothes lines. Things are not important I would state over and over again, its all about relationships. At the end of the day we would be left with drawings consisting of faint lines and marks indicating the students' struggle to come to terms with what I was asking them to do. The 'crit' at the end would consist of us looking collectively at these images and assessing whether or not the spatial experience had been realised. However this had to come out of individual's approaches, some making tiny delicate pencil insertions, others working in charcoal and creating a mass of rubbed out and energetic marks. The test was the spatial re-creation, but the levels of energy and personality within these constructions was unique to each student. Many of the processes used to open students' eyes were introduced to me by my older colleagues who worked at the Jacob Kramer. In particular the man who wanted to re-create the eye movements as actions that could be read not only in space but time, was Patrick Oliver. But others there stressed structure and the tension between the flicker of momentary perception and the need to structure any experience if we are to act in relationship to it. Colin Cain was a structuralist and he used perspective, so was Gavin Stuart, who didn't. When I started (academic year 1974/5) Frank Lisle, the then principal used to come into life drawing classes I taught and make comments on my ability to articulate the underlying anatomical structure. He had no truck with 'giron and fess-point' drawings, he was much more Henry Tonks/William Coldstream and had taught David Hockney when he was a student at Bradford. Hockney came to Newport to do a bit of part-time when I was a student I think John Selway had invited him in. (1969/70 I think) I mainly remember Hockney talking about why he had placed a plant pot in front of someone's feet in a drawing he was showing us, basically because he couldn't get them right. A useful lesson I thought in getting round a problem by avoiding it. I was into conceptualism at the time though and wasn't really listening to what he was saying. The stupidity of youth. 


First week Fine Art Year One

I'm only teaching two days a week at the moment, but they are pretty intense days and can be exhausting as you have to try and get every individual on board with what's happening and that means talking to them face to face as well as performing for the whole group in order to keep the general atmosphere right and to ensure that they are all working with a high level of intensity.

Monday was the students' first real day of work, last week was Freshers and they did visit the Yorkshire Sculpture Park etc. but did no actual practical stuff. 
First thing (9.30) they came to the lecture theatre to get an introduction to their first module. I won't get into the paperwork, the learning outcomes and the particularities of this module or any other, as from my experience all these things are simply stuff to make the paper pushers happy and to get boxes ticked, the real stuff is what happens between people who have been practicing for a long time and people who are new to it. This has been going on for ever, in some cultures it's called an apprenticeship in others an initiation but whatever its called it's about passing on experiences to others so that they can function within a particular chosen area of work or profession.  

So I get to speak to the students en mass for the first time. It seems to me that my job is first of all to impress them that this is an entry into a wonderful profession that has been operating in its various guises for thousands of years and that they are the inheritors of a tradition that goes back to cave painting and that embraces all cultures and times. The particular module brief does involve an introduction to the idea of transition and drawing, so I weave ideas in and out of changes in cultures and times and materials and concepts in order to create a sense of open possibility and excitement far beyond the perimeters of the set learning outcomes.  I want them to get a sense that this is going to be wonderful and that they are going to be important to the way culture will evolve into its next manifestation.

After the lecture we get started in the studio. It's too close to a dinner break to get physically working so I perform. I try and get them to think about drawing starting as soon as you move your body. I stretch and jump and bend to try and get them to see how their own bodies will influence everything they do, how lengths of arms and fingers will influence the marks they make and then I get them to breath and be aware of how the air is brought in and fed back out, invisibly changed but vital to the body's life and to the brain's function. I leave them with two things to do over lunch, to find a scrap of waste material that is capable of being drawn upon and to think about how their own bodies have shaped the way they think.

The first drawing session: Transformation as an overarching issue.

Starting with the scrap of material they found over lunch, students are asked to work from some aspect of a piece of work they have done over the holiday. They are then given a sheet of white A1 cartridge and asked to tear out a similar shape to the one they have found and then tear up the rest of the sheet into pieces. Then they draw a response to their drawing on the waste material onto the first torn out cartridge shape. As soon as the first transfer of information is attempted there are issues. Text running across the scrap of material, a difficult surface to make marks on, an awkward shape etc. Each difficulty causing decisions to be made that force new things to happen. Then these first drawings are responded to. Now their initial art work is turned to the wall and they are asked to look carefully at what is now in front of them and make a new transcription, this time using the materials made available such as charcoal, pencils, masking tape, pens etc in such a way that their materiality is emphasised. I take a sheet of paper out of its packet and talk to the group as I do so. I want them to think about what is important, first of all I get them to think about the noise the paper makes as it moves through the air. It's interacting with the air around us and then as it does this, is producing sound waves. I look at both sides, I stand with the paper in a portrait format and talk portraits, I turn it sideways and talk landscape, I start to fold the paper as I talk, I make sharp creases so that I can tear it in straight lines and then start talking about the quality of paper, the way it is made and why it might be the sort of white it is. As the paper is given out I start working with a piece of charcoal, I tell them the story of how it is made, making them aware of its history, I then drop it onto the ground onto a sheet of cartridge and jump on the charcoal crushing it and starting to draw with my shoes. Always trying to break expectations, always trying to balance intense awareness and the development of a feeling for materials and their histories with an awareness that you can use destruction as an opening to creativity and that you can come at these things from left field as well as directly head on. 
Students now draw and as the first drawing is done they are asked to meditate on its qualities and enhance these on a next drawing and so on until all the pieces of paper are used up. At break time they are asked to gather in teams of 4 and look at others work. They can only talk possibilities, no criticism. 
At the end of the session they are asked to think of three different ways to present the work. Either to put the pieces they have been working on back together like a jigsaw, or to present the work done in a format that highlights a structural issue they have discovered during the day, or to edit everything out and just put up one image. They have 15 minutes to do this.
Finally at the end of the session, things are pointed out. The most important issue being that the presentation is shaping responses to the work more than the images themselves.  Finally a meditation on paper and two questions set for the students. Is the medium the message? and What might I do to further transform the work tomorrow morning, if I am to do this within the rules of the game as evolved during the day? 

Second drawing session day 2, Tuesday.
A general reminder of issues that arrived yesterday and a further reminder to students that even though we were setting out the process there was already a very diverse set of responses. 3D/sculptural awareness was coming through, environmental, painterly, etc etc. This time the students are asked to transform the images yet again, but this time to think about previous experience and how this might inform the process. Again they are restricted to paper, drawing materials and wire. The final issue before they set off for the day is craft. The one thing each transformation has to have is a deep consideration of craft. Why must the material be like it is? Why should the paper be folded in one way and not another? How should a tear be torn? How should a mark be made? The process must now include an investigation usually involving trial and error as each element is tested as to its possibilities. Students are asked to keep a notebook to record the process. This time as they get started, we are going round individually and working with each student to try and open out their ideas and suggest possibilities, as well as having a first opportunity to ask them questions as to where they have come from, what their ambitions are and what type of artist they imagine themselves to be. This also reassures them that we are interested in them as individuals and helps when suggesting possibilities. During this stage the work starts to be much more diverse and for the first time some fascinating pieces start emerging. Whole group dialogue with the space they are woking in now becomes important and for the first time we start asking conceptual questions about the work and its possibilities. For instance the process of documentation, how is this itself starting to shape different ideas, how do documentation formats work? As soon as one issue opens it leads to others and dialogues start happening that can relate to other types of approaches to making art. Already certain students will start to prick up their ears, they recognise that this is not about making a pile of drawings its the start of a dialogue as to why and how and what it might be right for them to be eventually doing. 
We stop students several times to point out things, first of all to point out how where people are working is influencing what they are doing, then to point out that it is possible to change the conditions by moving. We finally do some moving, shifting tables away from some areas to open out wall spaces, make people more aware of the floor etc. 
Finally re-presentation. Before leaving students are asked to edit their wall/floor spaces. Once again presentation comes to the fore. One tiny piece of paper representing one student's work, a solid looking (dusted charcoal on folded paper) sculpture, a trail of tied paper knots, a wall mounted colourful collage and bottle hung from masking tape, a drawing of a face; whatever it is must be at a particular height, placement, angle etc. Students finally once again reflect on the day and make suggestions in their notebooks as to how they might proceed. These notebooks are already becoming a mix between documentation, ideas development and self-reflection, they will need them more and more as the first few days unfold. 
I'm not with them again until next Monday, but they will still be in doing inductions and working in the studio, so it will be interesting to see where they get to by next week.  


The beginning of the end

After 37 years of teaching at what was Jacob Kramer College when I arrived in Leeds and is now renamed under its former title of Leeds College of Art, I'm very aware that this aspect of my life is coming to an end. However I've still got three years, (perhaps) to go as my phased retirement draws to a close. I've decided therefore to start this blog as a repository for thoughts and reflections on the art educational experience. Over the years I've devised all sorts of methods and approaches as to how to engage art students in self reflection and develop the potential of their work. It seems at times I've forgotten more than I remember, but one of the great lessons of creativity is that everything is made clear through work. In this case the more I write I'm sure the more I will remember and that a shape to what I'm doing will gradually emerge, so here goes.