I have been back with the first year fine art students and working out at Thwaites Mill. This is the beginning of the site specific module and students have to get proposals checked off for health and safety and to ensure they don’t clash with each other/understand the nature of working in shared spaces.
This part of the year is very bitty. Last week I was working with third year students and starting to get a feel for where some of them were. Two days is though not enough to really get to grips with their needs. In my last post I made some remarks about the need for more supportive or collaborative working, but the reality is that most artists work on their own and this is the case for most of the people I was talking to. However I still feel conversation helps. Talking things through helps an idea settle, but it doesn’t have to be in the formal spaces of a crit.
A typical encounter that illustrates the reality of art education.
I was on my way home after a day of second marking dissertations. As I walked away from the office one of our second year students stopped me to ask about how he could embed a clock into a painting. We started to talk and I started to draw. I introduced the student to Billy Klüver, now dead of course but in his time vital to both Robert Rauchenberg and Jasper Johns. Billy was the technician behind many of their pieces and he was brought in to solve problems such as “how do you wire this up so it does this…etc”. I pointed out that Klüver helped artists to think through what they were doing. I drew some technical isometrics of how the back of some of Rauchenberg’s combines would have looked; detailed how thick the support must be to house a set of things that needed to be behind the canvas, and the need for precise planning and good woodwork skills. I ended up with drawings that looked like shallow shelving units, each element the student wanting to include, (the clock was just the first of several), being planned for, measured up and the support designed to fit. Then he could stretch his canvas over the now much deeper ‘frame’, knowing exactly where the spindle for the clock hands would go, as well as all the other bits and pieces he wanted to bring into the picture.
This accidental encounter was one of those ‘conversations’ all practical people have but they are vital to the learning experience. Perhaps all I need to do is to be let loose to have a chat. Doesn’t seem very pedagogically powerful does it? Hey ho, so it goes.
So back to the first years. It was very cold out there and I froze right down to the bone. This is a problem because I don’t think too clearly when I get cold. It slows my mind as well as my body. Working with Kelly, we had 25 students each and walked with them individually to where they had proposed to develop work. Each person was then questioned as to how they would project manage the work and why they had developed the proposals they had. (They had made a site visit a week earlier, taken photographs and developed ideas).There are two main issues to consider, the context/history of the site and the phenomenological impact of actually being there. My own responses tend to be focused more on the “what would happen if?” side of things. I tend to be slightly suspicious of too much historical research if what it means is that students start to illustrate rather than respond. For instance the mill is very dark; something inserted into it that is light can therefore be fascinating. One student last year, working in the mill, simply covered half an old hanging rusty chain with aluminium foil. The visual impact was startling and the afterimage reverberations as to meaning, opened out into several different areas. If the work is to succeed I really feel you need to dance lightly, making several trials and testing how materials work. The other issue is time management; too many students have convoluted ideas that will take a long time to make up away from the site. The problem being that once you transport them out of the studio they often just look too small or totally ‘wrong’ because you have been unconsciously making the work to the studio and the studio is smaller and lighter and has different spatial characteristics. We shall see. We are off on an Easter break now and hopefully the weather will change, it’s much harder to make art in inclement conditions. I have also finished second marking my pile of dissertations, so am up to speed with the assessment processes. Too many of the students are writing these dissertations without an awareness of how the research they have done could support practice. I proposed 4 areas around which dissertations could be written some time ago, but as with so many things I have proposed over the years, it was ignored. Just for the record these were; Research into a context for practice; research into practice itself; research into subject matter to be used in practice and research into audiences for practice. The point being that ‘practice’ was always at the forefront of the students’ reason for writing, therefore they might find the activity useful.