In December 2012 I was invited to visit a year 10 GCSE art class at Brunel Academy, a secondary school in Bristol. I’ve taught web design, Flash and Photoshop before, but I was very nervous about how to approach teaching something so close to my heart as Art. Teaching a practical subject like web design is completely different: there are specific goals and tasks that can be taught in a step-by-step way.
However, art is a nefarious and vague subject; open to debate and hard to define objectively. After several days worrying about what to say I realised that the best thing I could do was to be honest about what art means to me, and not to compromise or water down what I believe in the hope that one or two of the pupils might find some inspiration from what I had to say rather than to try and sell what I believe to everyone.
I was hugely flattered to come in, since the pupils had been studying my art and had been making copies and their own pieces inspired by what I’ve been doing. It was a very odd feeling to see my drawings rendered with such exact attention to detail. It must be how a singer feels to hear their song performed by someone they’ve never met. In fact I was very impressed by the standard of their work and the creative energy that they had put into the copies. I remembered how dull the projects were at my own school that inevitably involved drawing the dusty old cheeseplant, contrasted with the modern approach that aims to involve the pupils in something more expressive and relevant to their lives.
copies of my artwork by pupils at Brunel Academy
The project involved a visit to a gallery that had a theme of human/animal hybrids, drawing animals at the zoo, and studying the artist Mr Mead’s work and then my own. They were going to take the copies of the artists’ work, and use them as the basis for their own pieces. I had a very favourable impression of the kids. It’s not an easy area to grow up in, I could feel that some of them had difficult issues to deal with, but they all seemed to throw themselves into their artwork despite the typical awkwardness and embarrassment of teenagers, and I was very inspired by the level of their creativity and interest. I’ll be looking forward to seeing their final pieces, to see if they took their initial ideas based on others’ work and made them their own.
I brought in a drawing I had done on my Foundation Art Course aged 17, which was a self-portrait in objects. I had chosen objects that were special to me and drawn them as a still-life to illustrate that who I was. I explained that it might not be the best drawing I’ve ever done, but that it was a very important picture to me, because it was sincere and made an accurate snapshot of where I was in life at the time. I suggested that if they were sincere in the drawing they created from this project they might have a picture that they felt was important in their life regardless of their skill. Remembering how nervous teenagers are about the value of their work, and how quick they are to dismiss or destroy it if they feel the slightest risk of being ridiculed for creating it, I felt it was important to remind them to make their art belong to themselves first and the school second. I told them how long it had taken me to discover that nobody would ever be more qualified to judge your work than yourself, since nobody else could know the life that went into it. Some of them seemed to wake up at this point and think. I hope that if only one or two of them could see the value of their work if they expressed themselves truthfully, then the day would have been worth it.
I remember people who have pointed the way… my school history teacher who would march us tirelessly through the university complex pointing his umbrella at concrete monstrosities explaining why they were engineering achievements, or through Bristol Cathedral demonstrating the gradual evolution from lumpy weighty Romanesque arches to the delicate traceries and soaring lines of the Perpendicular style… my short, rotund and slightly disreputable foundation teacher who would call everyone ‘Dear Heart’, wore a rakish cravat and floppy fedora and would go into raptures about someone’s life drawing, tottering on tiptoes with an infectious excitement… then Ferris Newton, the first tutor I met at Goldsmiths who told us candidly to keep our ‘bullshit detectors turned on’ since we were going to hear a lot of it in the coming years, and not to be fooled into mistaking ‘artspeak’ for intelligent thought… I’m sure he saved my sanity by that one conversation… and there have been many others who had a great influence on my development.
Well, I’m grateful for the influence each of them had on me, the glimpse that art could mean more than previously thought, the opening up of knowledge, glimpses into another world where art has importance in life and creativity means something…I felt the responsibility to be real to these kids rather than to act out the part of an artist, and to try to tell them something genuinely useful. But maybe that’s the luxury of being a visiting artist.. you don’t make it into a routine! However, I would really enjoy doing this again, perhaps being part of a longer and more involved project. I hope the pupils found it as enjoyable and inspirational as I did.
The pupils’ work developed into their own projects