Tom about Art

Flying Whales I have an incredible job. I teach Visual Art to teenagers, which is a wonderfully preposterous endeavour. Simply “Art” would have been impossibly broad, at least I have that caveat of “visual” to focus the beam a little so the subject only covers the concepts and crafts of drawing, painting, etching, printing, photography, collage, textile design, sculpture, installation, video, animation, architecture, digital manipulation, dance and performance art. Piece of cake.

So how do you teach all that in an 18-month High-School course? Well, you don’t of course. You make practical choices based on the time, skills and materials available; and reach for the skies while having your feet still firmly anchored on a paper-maché plinth. As much as we might love (or hate) Jeff Koon’s 4-metre-tall stainless-steel sculptures of balloon animals, we realistically won’t be making any giant dogs at Katten, so we’ll opt to paint flying whales instead.

Subjectivity Rules

The world of Art is so amazingly varied that each student is likely to come into the course with their own ideas and preferences and will be encouraged to explore and expand upon these areas of interest. As an art teacher I know that my area is as subjective as it gets, shrouded in personal tastes and opinion. On a logical level I simply can’t argue with “I don’t like Push Wagner’s work”, even if I like it and think it’s funny – interestingly we are both correct in this instance. If Math were my subject I’d have the privilege of imparting actual universal truths. Something undeniable. I dream of this at night before waking up to realize I have to go work and face a bunch of kids who don’t “get” why Marina Abramovich is ground-breaking, and more importantly, face the fact that they are probably right. I’m comically fuming at the very thing that makes the whole endeavour so wonderful – there is no right and wrong here, at least not when it comes to taste. Every year I’m delighted to discover new artists I’d never heard of thanks to my opinionated and expressive students. Discussions and debates about Art are one cornerstone of the Art-course. The point isn’t to form people’s taste, but to provide the students with the toolset to explain, defend and explore those tastes. Pragmatically this skill is useful for one of the course components, which I’ll get to, but it’s also invaluable for future dinner parties where you can tell snobby old artsy-farts like myself not just that “Warhol sucks” but exactly how he sucks, why he sucks, who he plagiarized, where I can see better art for free – and do it all with more eloquence than that.

Two won’t do The Chinese have an expression about a painting, saying one needs: “a good eye, a good hand and a good mind – two won’t do”. This idea somewhat echoes the approach we have to teaching IB art, we train the eye to look, the hand to draw and the mind to think creatively.

As budding artists, we spend a lot of time looking at art and enriching our palette(e)s. This includes art documentaries and online museums, but also visiting local galleries and talking about Art with curators and other artists. This connects directly to one of the course components, a Comparative Study where each art-student looks at and compares work from different artists, also documenting how these pieces have influenced their own art-making. Unless you actually ARE that cave-woman who first put a hand-print on a wall then your art is influenced by that of others. It’s important to recognize one’s roots, and as artists we are treading in the footprints of some of the most creative folk ever to walk the earth, it’s both humbling and exciting.

Unknown primitive woman, 37000 BC. Michelangelo Buonarotti, 1512 AD. Elly Smallwood, 2016 AD

If it were only about looking, then every museum-goer would be a new Picasso. Art is obviously a very practical subject, and we spend as much time training our hands to draw as we do our eyes to see. Most lessons involve practice with pencil, pen or brush at the very least. Guided sessions to introduce new techniques are the first steps, but there is no secret that it’s practice that makes perfect. Nobody is born drawing well, it is an acquired skill, and personally when I feel like I’m useless at a certain type of drawing I find it reassuring to think that when he first picked up a pencil neither was Michelangelo. He had to practice like everyone else, and boy did he practice…

Each art-student documents their work in their artist journal, typically a quite worn book full of half-finished sketches and barely-legible notes. This is the Artist’s secret laboratory, where skills are practised, ideas form and either crackle and pop in the bubbling cauldron or burst forth and take on a life of their own. This ever-morphing Artist’s diary will form the basis of a second course component, the Process Portfolio. In this document the art-student will show us behind the curtain, how they developed their skill, their eye, their taste, how their ideas formed and ultimately how they made their art.

Last but not least we have the Exhibition, the 3rd and possibly most exciting component. Over the 18 months the Art-Student builds up a body of work in various media, at the culmination of this they pick 6 to 11 pieces to exhibit. The 18-month course is structured around teacher-led units based on various techniques (e.g. perspective drawing, photo collage), materials (e.g. ink, acrylic paint, charcoal) or indeed an art-movement (e.g. fauvism, surrealism), and the student is expected to show diversity in their aforementioned Portfolio. However when it comes to the exhibition the young artists are able to choose (almost) any form of expression they want and focus on theme(s) they’re passionate about using material(s) they are skilled with. The exhibition, usually hosted in the School Gym, is a 2/3 day tribute to the Artist’s work over the 18 months. This is the final exam for IB art-Students but also a first glimpse into playing the Art “game”: making something and exhibiting it so that others can appreciate and criticize it. Scary, but fantastically fun.

Those are the 3 Bears the IB Visual Arts Student has to face, armed with a trained eye, a busy hand and a creative mind. We strive to work with all three, because as the Chinese say: “Two won’t do”.