It’s funny how memory works, once you start to remember something, another related thing just pops into your mind. This reminiscence lark is opening out some long dead synapses. The still life situation was used in several other ways, in fact as I write even more are falling into place, so perhaps I’ll have to edit some out for now.
Once the initial drawing colour and 3D introductions were over we would usually move into a diagnostic period. This didn’t mean doing one week of graphics, then a week of 3D, then fashion etc., which we referred to as the carrousel system, it was a period where we set projects and the way students answered these would hopefully diagnose whether or not they were designers, 2D thinkers, problem solvers, pattern makers etc. This particular still life project was designed as one of these diagnostic projects. It would have therefore been something that would last for somewhere between five and ten days.
The Cubist still life
Cubism was still regarded on the foundation course as a vitally important ingredient of twentieth century looking and thinking, an understanding of simultaneity being at the core of this. We wanted to get over to students that although the world was composed of lots of fragmented bits of information, what good art or design could do was take in these fragments and digest them, then regurgitate the synthesized parts as new wholes. These new wholes would of course have to contain and make use of the life energy of the original experiences. Certain approaches to Cubism were seen as ways to grasp this, collage was another way in… this dam memory stuff, it keeps throwing in more and more information, at this rate this will turn into some Borges infinity.
A still life would be set up on a board, this could be for instance things from the kitchen; kettle, pots and pans, bread knife, spatula, whisk, cheese grater, mugs etc. This was placed on a table in the middle of a circle of easels. Small composition thumbnail drawings are then done by students in their sketchbooks and then they start working directly from the still life. They are to focus on measurement and placement and can only use line. After an hour or so the situation is rotated by 45o, they keep drawing using the same sightlines across the room that were set up in the first moments of the drawing. This new set of relationships of course starts to obscure the first drawing, students are told if something makes it too hard to ‘see’ what you are drawing, remove it and replace it with what is arriving. The situation is turned again and again, until all 360o have been explored.
The next stage was to take the table away and put the still life on the floor. Students were asked to draw their easels in close and to draw the situation again looking down on the objects.
The emphasis was on observation and reducing the information down to line and this could take all day. At the end of the day as always the crit. took place. The emphasis of the crit. was on how different energies and rhythms were captured within these dense drawings of lines and new shapes discovered within the matrix were pointed to, some picked out by simply rubbing out some of the charcoal lines with fingers. My job would be to explain how these new forms held within them memories of different times and changing relationships. The important issue was that we were starting to look for ‘significant form’, form that implied a ‘compacted’ relationship with previous experiences. The handle of a jug seen from the side might be partly rubbed out and now joined to the edge of a spatula seen from above, this new form a composite carrying information from the observer’s changing perceptual experience as well as being a synergetic form containing iconic visual elements from both objects.
The second day was spent working back into the drawings. We would stop at regular intervals so that differences in selection could be pointed to. Some students would maintain a flickering blend of open and closed forms, never actually nailing anything down. Others would be starting to identify new forms and would start isolating these and pulling them out by sharpening certain edges, some would be working all over the image, others starting to create more 3D forms. As the day went on, tracing paper would be given out and those wanting to pull out certain sections could so and then rework into these. Student numbers were low enough then to be able to spend quite some time with each one asking questions as to how they read the work, what they were interested in and we could explain how certain approaches might mean that they were naturally a certain type of artist/designer. (Looking back I’m not so sure how accurate these diagnostic sessions were, but the theory behind them seemed to stand up at the time).
Gradually some students might start to introduce colour, others might start to make 3D models from information selected and by the end of day three, lots of sketchbook work was being done as ideas were now been tested out and variations tried.
By day four it was time to push these ideas further, some of the best that I can remember went into wood and metal, one student in particular making a series of objects where the lines from drawings alternated between becoming edges made by the joining of solid wooden planes at angles to each other and at other times joining lines between the solids made by using bent metal rod; blocked masses and linear dynamics working in and out of each other. Another student used the forms to create wooden inlays within objects made to look like cubist furniture, so that at one moment you saw simple pattern and at another you were made aware of where the drawn form came from. In effect recreating the dynamics of looking and placing them back into a new 3D form. Pushing the images into these other areas is what the second week was for. By the end of the two weeks, some students had produced a series of paintings, others were still exploring drawing, some were developing shape and pattern variations and there were always those who found themselves drawn to Ted’s workshop. (Ted Winter was the course technician, he was always to be found in the wood workshop on the top floor of the Vernon Street building and he was a law unto himself)
The final afternoon would be the diagnostic crit. Did whatever had been made live up to the expectation of the brief? Were the forms found good or significant ones? Did they create good synergy and if so why? The last thing was of course to leave students with a sense of possibility. Working like this you could be a good…. The problem with this was that the most capable students could actually do anything and this could muddy the waters as far as the diagnostic element went.