Saturday, 16 January 2016

To Teach or to Allow for Expression?

When I first began teaching art at Red Balloon my approach was very much inspired by the charity's educational ethos. Red Balloon advocates that students should be given the opportunity to take charge of their own learning. Implicit in this is the belief that the student knows what they're interested in and what they want to explore. In the early days, I didn't see myself as a teacher so much as a guide; I could gently direct students’ investigations whilst still allowing them full ownership of their art room experience.  Over time my approach has changed somewhat; not least because pf external factors like the need to perform well in inspections, and to give students the opportunity to succeed at sixth forms and colleges.

Four years into my time at Red Balloon, I find myself negotiating this dilemma; is it better to meticulously plan each art lesson or should I give my students the chance to express themselves without teacher-imposed parameters? Should I assume that a University education entitles me to impose my own interests on Red Balloon’s young people, or should I set my faith in the students’ innate desire for discovery, letting the process and the materials do the teaching? Through practice I’ve come to see that these approaches are not mutually exclusive, and that a compromise between the two extremes yields the best results.

An art education lets young people open their minds up to the wide vista of visual culture. A well-structured art curriculum can take in everything from prehistoric cave paintings to twenty first century conceptualism. However, the teenagers I work with often come to Red Balloon with a fairly narrow view of the world around them.  If such students are placed entirely in charge of their own learning, would they be able to branch out and expand their range? In the case of many of Red Balloon's young people, their range of interests is particularly narrow - something not helped by time out of school, away from peer interaction. Often a student's social anxiety has reached such a level that they are unable to access other educational institutions like libraries, museums and art galleries.

One example of how a more planned out project can broaden cultural horizons is the work my students do on the Mexican 'Dia de los Muertos' (Day of the Dead) holiday. Young people begin by reflecting on our own Hallowe'en tradition and considering the sort of imagery and artefacts associated with it. They're familiar with Hallowe'en and know all about pumpkins, cobwebs and witches’ hats.  Once we've talked through the sort of things we usually see around at Hallowe'en, I show the students a series of video clips from the Day of the Dead holiday, giving them chance to see the wild colour schemes and vibrant designs that give this festival its character. Red Balloon's young people are usually struck by the massive difference in visual style between the Day of the Dead and Hallowe'en.

My students then work through two practical exercises related to Dia de los Muertos. The first is a painting activity in which students use a blunt pencil to etch Mexican inspired designs onto tinfoil before going over with poster paint. The tinfoil's reflective surface catches the light through the poster paint resulting in striking and suitably vibrant work. Students then move into three dimensions, creating a Mexican sugar skull from papier mache and decorating it using paint, fabric and beads. The tinfoil paintings and paper skulls are then exhibited together, in an eye-catching display.

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A structured project like this will sometimes inspire a student to go beyond the prescribed work. A young person might become interested in Mexican art and culture and want to go further with these investigations. This is something I'm more than happy to encourage. When a project piques a student's interest and becomes something they want to find out more about, I generally allow this even if it means throwing away a week of lesson plans.

As a student's work starts to develop, they begin to create their own visual language. Recurrent themes, motifs and symbols start to appear in a young person's pieces indicating that their inner world is starting to find expression. At this point I begin to allow my students greater autonomy, as their engagement with the artistic process deepens. They start to acquire research skills and make connections between their areas of study. As their confidence grows, they become less reliant on teacher-given prompts.  The piece below shows how a student was able to take their own interest in science fiction and apply the 'poster paint on tinfoil' technique they'd learnt previously. This resulted in a powerful work that holds great significance for them.

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When students have reached this stage, I know that their artistic journey is really beginning.  From time to time I still drop in structured projects when I feel like a young person might need some fresh inspiration. This is usually easy to identify – a student’s work will become stale and repetitive, and their interest and enthusiasm in art will start to recede. Reaching into a very different area of art history can be useful here; for example, I might ask students to consider the expressive brush strokes of Van Gogh. Young people look over examples of his work and note the dynamism and movement visible in the pictures. They can then experiment with re-creating such strokes on the page.  After some practice, they can begin to create expressionistic landscapes inspired by Van Gogh’s The Starry Night.

The piece below was originally painted in poster paint, with the student adding fresh layers of colour before the previous layer had been allowed to dry. This 'wet on wet' painting technique opens up the world of colour theory to students; through practice they learn how primary colours can be mixed into secondary and then tertiary colours. Working spontaneously and intuitively on a surface enables the young person to learn quickly, creating and recreating as they go. When the student was happy, the painting was left to dry and then a final layer of conté crayon was applied over the top to give the piece greater visual depth.

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The Van Gogh-inspired landscape above was produced by the same student who created the tinfoil painting shown earlier. You can see that the colour scheme of purple, blue and orange was carried over to the second piece, with the student making the further discovery that yellow is an additional complement. The young person also makes consistent use of heavy black line work in both pieces, adding weight, space and definition to their images. This learning process began with the introduction of the ‘Dia de los Muertos’ project and ran from there, with the student simultaneously giving expression to their feelings and also learning key art skills like use of line, shape, colour and composition.

Every day working at Red Balloon is a terrific learning experience as all of our young people are so unique.  My teaching practice continues to develop and I'm constantly refining and re-working my approach. I've yet to arrive at a point where I feel like I've 'cracked it' and found the optimum way of working.  The methods I've described above have evolved over the past few years and will probably be always be subject to revision. Red Balloon's teenagers have taught me never to be complacent and they continually present me with fresh challenges.

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