Tuesday, 7 September 2010

'Hey Teacher...Leave Those Kids Alone'

Jake and Dinos Chapman

Whilst searching the net the other day I tripped over the name of artist Lawrie Quigley (below) I hadn’t heard the name in a long, long time. Lawrie was one of my lecturers on my Foundation Course at the Birmingham Institute of Art and Design way back in 1988. He taught painting and was the first tutor that actually took an interest in my work at a time when I was really struggling to find my legs on the course. His words of encouragement, spoken in his soft Liverpudlian brogue, gave me the much needed confidence to actually think maybe I could do something in this area. I love these paintings I found by him below. He taught me a lot about some of the basic principles of handling colour and composition.
Another seemingly unlikely voice of support further down the line was Dinos Chapman, one half of the Chapman Brothers. I was studying for my MA in Fine Art at Norwich School of Art and Design in 1995, and having a very difficult time, lacking all confidence in my painting. I was booked in to have a tutorial with Dinos, and was dreading it. They were relatively unknown then, but the previous week I had been to a presentation by him on his work which had shocked a lot of the students. I thought he would hate my ‘expressionist’ paintings, as all the course tutors seemed to. But no, the quietly spoken but intense Dinos, made no such judgements. Instead he took my work much more on face value than anyone else, and for the first time that year encouraged my expressionist tendencies further. He was the first person to say ‘this is great’ about some of my drawings. ‘but this isn’t’, about other things and why. ‘Who cares if you are expressionist’, he stated,’ that’s who you are- just do it and push it much further’. To put it simply he was the first person to actually encourage my work all year. (he also told me I should take more drugs and listen to more music while I painted, some of which was useful too). It gave me the confidence to get out of a hole, and create some of the best paintings I’ve ever made.

The Chapman Brothers (Dinos left)

I’ve been thinking about some of these issues as I sit at my desk at College enrolling a new cohort of students at the start of September. I’ve been an art lecturer for nearly fifteen years now, and much of my approach to teaching is based in opposition to some of the terrible art teaching I received over the years: the lecturers that talk to you more about their practise than yours; not a word of encouragement, as a pose of studied cool aloofness is adopted; a real lack of ability to engage more meaningfully and objectively with your work; and as to passing on any technical skills.. It’s a really difficult thing to be studying, and I really believe in the idea of using encouragement as a tool and focussing on the glimmers of potential in a student’s work. I know from experience what an empowering thing it can be and how we all need a bit of it. It’s not so cool to be cool.

I have also been fortunate to have some great teaching encounters which have equally inspired me, particularly from the Visiting Lecturers at Universty. I’ve been lucky enough to have tutorials with some terrific painters and artists over the years, including Denzil Forrestor, Ansul Krut, Graham Crowley, June Redfern and Roger Ackling.

Denzil Forrestor, 'Blue Night', oil on canvas

Ansul Krut, 'St Thomas of Patamos'

There has been an interesting discussion recently in Artist’s Newsletter magazine about lecturing. One artist/lecturer was complaining about the many new art graduates that go into teaching without any professional experience, and the rigid structures of some vocational courses. He wanted to see the return of more artist-lecturers who come in from their studios to teach. I think this is important to some extent, and essential at University. I think my own artistic practise is important to my role as a teacher, but how many of these people can actually teach is another question. I don’t teach to subsidise my income as an artist (there are much easier ways to do this), I teach because I love teaching. But it is a craft and skill that I’m qualified in that is forever being reflexively developed to enable the student to get their ideas off the ground, not mine. I also think modern vocational courses offer students the chance to develop good transferable skills that were not so available when I was a student.

It’s also a very difficult job these days with many pressures, and not that easy option it once was deemed to be to subsidise a career in painting etc. Every September I say to myself, ‘I just want to be a better teacher than last year’, and don’t think I ever will be. But I think that’s part of the territory of being an artist and trying to teach. I just hope to try my best. I still get nervous going into the class.

Barry Hirst, 'Hawthorn Trees', watercolour

The best teacher I never had was my friend’s at Sunderland University. Professor Barry Hirst was her tutor and would visit the studio space we shared and just discuss the fundamentals of picture making, being wholly focussed on the current painting in progress. His attention was totally on your work. He was very formalist in his approach and particularly interested in colour. He was not interested in your ideas, just whether the painting worked. His ideas and views had a big influence on me and have informed my own practise ever since.

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