Thursday, 29 November 2012

BA Fine Art and Foundation bridges

Wednesday was probably a milestone day in what might be the first stage in the future development of the college. I spent all day with students from the foundation course who have opted to take the fine art specialist route. They came up from Vernon Street to the fine art area in the Blenheim Walk building and I worked with them in the first year studio.
Historically foundation students went away from Leeds in order to broaden their experience of life, however when I taught on foundation most of the students were from the area of Leeds and its surrounding towns. Over the last twenty years things have changed and what was a trickle of foundation students from outside the area has become a flood and Leeds is now much more student friendly as a city. Several of the smaller foundation courses have closed and many of the new art and design degree providers will now accept students directly from ‘A’ level. This has meant that foundation courses if they are to survive have to on the one hand ensure they are able to develop portfolios of a quality to get into those degree programmes that still insist on foundation portfolios, (and these tend to be the older, better courses as well as of course University of the Arts London, Goldsmiths and Glasgow School of Art), and to become large enough to make themselves economically viable.
The degree course at Leeds College of Art is seen as a ‘new’ course. It has therefore not really been on the radar as far as foundation staff were concerned, it had yet to prove itself. However how long does it take to prove that a course is good and what does the proof consist of? For several reasons there has been no real connection between the two areas, something that has always grieved me, as I spent so many years working with fine art foundation students and now several years helping to develop a particular ethos for the degree course. There are as with all courses faults, but the course is now maturing, the student body gets stronger as application rates get higher and we can be more selective. This is perhaps something foundation students were in the past worried about, they might be a strong student on foundation and go on to degree and find themselves amongst weaker ones. That element of competition needed to move things on to a higher level would therefore be missing. The other issue of course is the fact that the course is in Leeds. Well the reality is if you are not in London you are in the provinces. Saying that, Leeds has developed a much healthier arts scene over the past few years and there are many more opportunities for students to engage with an arts community whilst they study and immediately on graduation. At the end of the day, if people want to go to London they will, there are still many MA opportunities down there and the fine art course now has a track record of sending people on them.
The new reality is also of course a financial one. Students applying to arts and humanities degrees now have to pay full fees of between six to nine thousand pounds. There is no matched funding from government so everything depends on this fee income. Foundation courses come under the umbrella of Further Education and therefore are under a different funding system, however the income per student is only a third of what a degree student brings in. So the reason for keeping hold of the foundation course shifts slightly. It can no longer operate exclusively as a feeder for out of Leeds courses. If it starts to operate more as a feeder programme for the degrees it will help the college maintain good levels of application and therefore enable it to survive through a time of heavy education cuts. This of course is a two-way contract, if degree courses don’t meet targets, they will close, if they close the college closes and the foundation programme with it.  So the real call is are the courses offered at degree level of a good enough standard to support this shift? The best of them are. Students are sharp enough to see what is happening and application rates for surface pattern, graphics and fine art have remained pretty good. The degree shows are comparable to others, some of the best work being exemplary. I would like to see more studio space made available for more ambitious work, but the workshop facilities are good and above all the educational philosophy of the course has at last started to flesh itself out. This is a philosophy centered on embodied thinking. It is not a conceptually driven programme, it supports the idea that artists are makers and that thinking starts with doing. However as an understanding of this has deepened the theoretical understanding of how concepts develop through making has deepened, paradoxically this understanding now driving more conceptual work. In the end this is about confidence and although confidence is easily destroyed, at the moment I think it is strong enough to offer foundation students something worthwhile.
The day was spent unpicking the processes of the critique. Ten foundation students spent the day with seven third year fine art students and myself. The third year students were interested in developing teaching skills, all of them considering whether or not to go into teaching. Therefore right at the start of the day I had to open this out to everyone to get an awareness of and agreement to what was happening. Both sets of students needed to get something from the day. The foundation students are about a month into specialist area and rather than give them something extra to do, the day was constructed to help them to become more aware of the possibilities for practice already inherent in their nascent development. Some had sketchbooks/notebooks with them, others nothing; but that didn’t matter as the sessions were about opening out possibilities from any information presented.
I had made sure the third year students had re-read a handout on the critique and that they were clear that we were looking at possibilities. I also added to this handout a list of strategies for ideas development.
During the day there were also two planned breakout sessions, the first a tour of facilities and the second a tour of the studios, both led by the students.
One brave foundation student volunteered to go first and I opened the crit out to everyone as a model for the others to follow, telling them that once I had taken the lead, I would go away for a while to let them get to know each other and to see if they could handle the situation as both learners and facilitators.
The first part of this was a how to listen and check for understanding session. The foundation student presenting had a small notebook, perhaps six or seven pages of notes, most of which were written and a small diagram. He spoke about three separate ideas he had. In order to get everyone to understand what he was getting at I had to keep throwing back at him what he was saying. “Do you mean this or that” or “from what you have said I understand the idea as being like this or that” etc. This takes a while, but is worth it because we all get a much better understanding of where he is coming from and what sorts of ideas these are.
Each idea is then unpicked. What are the concepts, what are the materials, what type of practice is this? Etc etc. The idea is to then take each component and then brainstorm around it. The students quickly get their head around this and are very good at coming up with suggestions, however if these suggestions start getting too off the wall, I remind them of the focus, “we are trying to open out these issues” etc. All the time I keep checking back with he student who presented, “Is this helping?” is there another aspect you want us to open out etc. The final stage is to remind ourselves of the different ideas emerging and to play a few games with them by mixing and matching. Perhaps one concept applied to a totally different materials idea, or a performative response applied to what were a series of ideas surrounding the construction of an installation. Finally the student is asked to ensure any notes taken are written up so that he understands them. During the course of this more and more students join in and in particular the foundation students are starting to have as much of a say as the fine art third year. I can then talk to them about how facilitation and engagement are part of the same experience and that they both have responsibilities to the situation. Educational situations don’t just happen, they have to be constructed. After checking with the third years that they have got the situation under control and the foundation students that they are happy with it I leave them to it for a while.
When I come back they are all engaged and the rest of the day follows on from this pattern, I take moments out every now and again to check people understand the learning, but they all seem happy and ‘get it’. One foundation student has to leave at dinner-time but says before she leaves that it has been really rewarding, the processes and strategies to help overcome creative blocks she particularly found useful.
Once it was all over and the foundation students left I had a feedback session with the third years and they had found it useful as well. It would be interesting to perhaps unpick the learning situation more often, as better use of listening and checking of understanding skills would lead to much better communication amongst the group as a whole. 

Tuesday, 27 November 2012


The graduation ceremony on Friday reminded me that it’s not always fine art students I work with. As this blog is designed to get a feel across of what it’s like to work in an art college perhaps it’s good to also get a sense of the wider responsibilities I sometimes have to take on. Last year as well as teaching on Fine Art I was working across all three years of DFGA concentrating on contextual and theoretical studies modules. In support I hosted a blog, this is at:
It is now a closed blog, but archived posts will give an indication of some areas covered.
In the meantime back on Fine Art I have just had two days studio teaching with the second years and at the end of each day I’ve been doing dissertation tutorials with third years, so by the time I get home I’m exhausted. I made notes at the end of the day so will post about what went on another time when I’m less knackered. 

DFGA: Digital Film Games and Animation

Friday, 23 November 2012

The Graduation Ceremony

I was off work Monday and Tuesday with a chest infection and only returned mid-week to do dissertation tutorials. I wasn’t really well enough and ended up back in bed on Thursday, but came out again today for the graduation ceremony for last year’s students which was held in Leeds Town Hall.  Still not quite recovered, I arrived with a splitting headache, which would last all day and into the evening.
I’ve been attending end of year leaving ceremonies, or graduations for well over thirty years and it never ceases to amaze me how students change in such a short period of time. And yet in many ways they remain the same and I change, each year getting older, the students returning bathed in their eternal youth, frozen in their late teens and early twenties, whilst I outwardly age, inwardly remaining an eternal art student.

I had two groups of students I had taught graduating this year, from Digital Film Games and Animation and Fine Art. I probably knew the digital film students as well, if not more than the fine art students because they were a small cohort and I was brought in to solve a problem with their attitude over contextual studies. The fine art group is much bigger and I didn’t get to teach them that much in their final year, a few days doing crits and some sessions near the end as final shows loomed. Even so it was enough time for me to feel bonded to them in some way. Enough time to hopefully pass something on from that mound of accumulated knowledge of the business I’ve managed to glean over the years.

A dreamlike distancing takes place when the students don black Open University robes with their light blue and gold hoods and flat mortarboards. What is designed to ensure the passing out ritual is remembered and has significance also renders all the individuals into cyphers. Their strange flat-topped headgear named after its resemblance to a plasterer’s hawk, operating as a last tiny vestige of an apprentice’s passing out ceremony. A ceremony with perhaps a longer and more dignified history than academia, these students inheriting a tradition that for thousands of years was passed on from master to apprentice, a skill based craft ridden occupation, muddied by the Carracci Brothers with their dam academy. The students walk up onto the stage of the Town Hall, a hall decorated with swirls of imitation marble, a wonderful celebration of craft, labour and work, as they stride out to applause, their shoes speak of their time, their bodies and heads of history and as they shake hands and receive their certificate, somehow they also become strangers, people I no longer recognize. They are suddenly older, in the past few months have matured without me realizing it, now men and women, not the youngsters who arrived just over three years ago. 

I hope they do well, I hope their dreams are not crushed by reality. Some will perhaps make art and survive, some may even go into art education. If they do I hope it will be as good an experience as it has been for me. For all its ups and downs, for all the attempts to smother the profession under layers of administration and false learning goals, there is still a kernel of truth and solid links that go back through all the connections of artists who have taught artists who have taught art.

Thursday, 22 November 2012

Still life (part two)

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.