Being an artist and an art teacher

 

Henry Ward, Shanty Town Studios, 2008. Courtesy the artist

Teaching art does at times feel like it might be getting in the way of time I could be spending in the studio. But I recognise that the space of teaching has become a vital and integral part of my artistic practice. Artists have almost always been involved in teaching art in schools. Sometimes this has been described as an unwanted but necessary evil to fund the making of work. Sometimes teaching is described as being an essential part of how an artist, like Phyllida Barlow, thinks about their work and ideas. Sometimes, as in the obvious case of Joseph Beuys or the less well-known Jef Geys, teaching has become an approach to practice itself. The pedagogical role is often the catalyst for the production of the most interesting and engaging elements of an artist’s oeuvre, as in the case of John Baldessari. In art schools the teaching is traditionally undertaken by practising artists. There is an expectation that the person delivering the lecture, leading the group crit or undertaking the tutorial has their own creative practice to bolster their teaching. The point being made here is that teaching provides these artists with an income as well as a critical dialogic space, where ideas are discussed, theories generated and developed.

But what of the art teacher in the secondary school? The role of the secondary school teacher carries no such expectations to also be an artist. Part-time posts are rare and becoming rarer. Schools often adopt a culture in which part-time staff are looked down on and seen as lacking the necessary commitment to the school. It is not uncommon to hear that school teachers have given up any hope of continuing their own practice. In this case, one gives up being an artist to become an art teacher and administrator. Considering the necessity of paid employment, in 1999 I trained to be a secondary school teacher, determined that I would also continue my own practice as an artist. I was inspired by the model I had experienced in art schools and wanted to see if this approach could be adopted in the school setting. I taught full-time for the next sixteen years and spent most of that time at Welling School, on the outskirts of south-east London. The school became a specialist visual arts college (the then government granted schools additional funding for such specialisations required to develop programmes to support the curriculum as well as the impact on local communities) and I set about realising my vision of an art school in a secondary school.

My approach to the classroom was borrowed from my experience as a student in art school, building a curriculum that focused on discussion, affording the pupils opportunities to explore their own interests. We were fortunate in having a designated gallery space at the school and I established a programme of exhibitions, bringing in external artists to work with the students. Having the gallery in the school changed the way that I and my colleagues were teaching and changed the emphasis in the ways in which we were encouraging the students to create their work. It introduced the idea of context and a consideration of audience. We started encouraging students from the age of 11 upwards to think about where they might place the things that they were making, why they might put them there, and what message or meaning they wanted to convey or communicate to an audience.

This was, and still is, unusual in UK art classrooms, where school artwork is generally made in a vacuum. Our approach introduced a completely different element to the lessons. In one exercise, the pupils were asked to develop a realised piece of work and then collaborate to curate and hang an exhibition. What was interesting about this approach is that it became evident that talking was the most important element of our practice as teachers supporting the establishment of a discursive space in which ideas could be shared. Consciously adopting the art school model and appointing practising artists created a dynamic environment. Teachers worked alongside the pupils, bringing their own work and ideas into the classroom to flatten out the perceived hierarchies and establish an environment that enabled everyone to be making, everyone to be thinking, and everyone to be learning in response to the spaces they inhabited.

Young Welling Artists, Berwick Road Gallery, 2008. Photo courtesy of Welling School, Bexley, UK
Young Welling Artists, Berwick Road Gallery, 2008. Photo courtesy of Welling School, Bexley, UK

One of the most moving and sophisticated examples of this was a project undertaken by a sixth form pupil, Camilla Price. I had set up a workshop one afternoon where I took the class on a walk around the school site with our notebooks, taking the pupils to spaces that they wouldn’t normally visit. We went to the caretaker’s space, the boiler room, storage areas and so on. One of the spaces that we explored was a corridor in the staff area, and in this corridor was a display of photographs from the history of the school, going back almost one hundred years. The pupils were understandably fascinated. The school had originally been two schools, a boys’ school and a girls’ school sharing the same site. The next day Price asked if she could have access to the noticeboard in order to re‑photograph some of these photographs and learn more about the school’s history. I suggested she go to the school office to ask for the key to the noticeboard cabinet.

She returned sometime later very excited, as she had been given the key to the school archive instead. Despite teaching at the school for more than ten years I had no idea it housed an archive. The records went back through the school’s history and included registers, reports, newspaper articles and an incredible logbook that the head teachers in which teachers were required to record daily events. Price started to spend time each week studying this archive and she became particularly interested in the period of time in the 1960s just before the two schools amalgamated. She started to research girls who had attended the school and, using social media, began to track down some of the former pupils. Some turned out to have remained living quite locally, but others were as far afield as Canada and Australia.

Price began to conduct a series of interviews, asking the women about their time at the school. Such an approach was born out of a confidence in seeing this research as a valid way of making art. Price went on to develop a series of proposed works based on her enquiries. She discovered that the two single-sex schools had shared a playground but that pupils had been forbidden to mix during breaks and lunchtimes, separated by an “invisible” line. She proposed to reinstate this line, collaborating with the entire student body to divide everyone by gender as a performance. Another idea was to reinstate the school hymn and conduct a series of assemblies in which everyone was taught to sing. The outcome was a beautiful exhibition in which she displayed the series of tremendously rich testimonies, alongside a church pew that she had discovered in a store room: a present carved by the boys’ school for the girls’ school. The finished work is an amazing example of socially engaged practice. Price’s approach was that of an artist-in-residence.

These kinds of teaching and learning experiences also empowered the evolution of my own practice as an artist and educator. When I first became a teacher I was a painter, but my ideas about art subsequently expanded, initially because I wanted to teach more than drawing and painting to actively explore different media and approaches, but also because my interest in the classroom experience as a practice began to take precedence. The facilitation of events, working with pupils, and the creation of instructions, anticipating the “do it” model proposed by Hans Ulrich Obrist or Harrell Fletcher and Miranda July’s “Learning to Love You More” project, which was an important reference for art teachers.

Joe Parmenter, Blink, 2011, video still. Photo courtesy of the artist
Joe Parmenter, Blink, 2011, video still. Photo courtesy of the artist

Work made in response to these instructionally based approaches included Joe Parmenter’s deadpan video self-portraits Blink, in which he filmed himself keeping his eyes open for as long as he can bear, and Breath, in which he held his breath. This openness to exploring whatever material or method suited a particular question and a fluidity with the choice of media started to shift my own artistic practice. I also became much more open to the potential of collaboration with students, teacher colleagues and other artists. An example is a piece I made in 2008 called Shanty Town Studios. Here I took a huge quantity of recycled cardboard to create a series of small studio spaces within my classroom. Over a period of several days, different pupils of different ages then occupied these spaces sometimes collectively, sometimes individually to make work. I had shifted the dynamic of what a school classroom might be and how it might operate. I could no longer see the pupils, they couldn’t see me, I had no idea what they were doing and how they were using the spaces they inhabited. I view Shanty Town Studios as a Happening and it proved an important milestone in the development of my practice as an artist and as a teacher.

This idea of working collaboratively and collectively was something that I became more interested in. As a faculty team made up of my teaching colleagues and students we experimented with different ways of working together. This included mounting exhibitions and projects as well as the primary focus on dialogue. In 2011 I was invited to participate in an education research project by the Tate. The project was called “Animating the Archives” and was about pairing artists and educators to work with small groups to create work, using the material from the archive at Tate Britain as a starting point. I worked with an artist, Harold Offeh, two colleagues and a group of six pupils on this. We decided to begin by looking at the letters and notes by the artist Vito Acconci and comparing these to works in the collection, asking questions relating to the acquisition and display of performance work.

Animating the Archives, 2011, Tate Modern A project developed with the Schools and Teachers team, Tate Learning
Animating the Archives, 2011, Tate Modern A project developed with the Schools and Teachers team, Tate Learning
Animating the Archives, 2011, Tate Modern A project developed with the Schools and Teachers team, Tate Learning
Animating the Archives, 2011, Tate Modern A project developed with the Schools and Teachers team, Tate Learning

We re-enacted Acconci performances and developed some of our own, with much time spent in long discussions. We navigated the gallery spaces in interesting and provocative ways. In one session as an adaptation of Acconci’s Following Piece we waited near the entrances and then followed strangers to the works they had come to see. After viewing the first work the follower remained, after the unwitting participant moved on, waiting for another stranger to engage in the work, before following them to the next art encounter. The project ran for almost a year, a generous period of time in which we could develop our ideas, and while it had no clear objective or structure, the Tate were extremely supportive and trusting.

Eventually, we developed a plan to put on a performance at Tate Modern and were allocated a space within the main galleries. It happened that the date we were given, 9 March 2011, was the birthday of one of the participants, and so we decided that we would perform a birthday party for him. Building on the fact that most of our sessions had involved a tremendous amount of talking around a table, we devised an event around gift‑giving, using the occasion of the opening of each gift as the catalyst for a 15‑minute unscripted conversation, that rotated around the table as each gift was unwrapped. Commissioned by the Tate Schools and Teachers team and ostensibly conceived as an education project, when we came to undertake the performance, the education team were concerned that they had not sought the permission of the curators and that we were in danger of stepping outside of the parameters of an educational project to create a work of performance art.

While we were sensitive to the internal politics, we also felt strongly that what we were doing was art generated through an educational project. On the day we were asked to display a notice (like a disclaimer), explaining that what was happening was part of an educational project, but at the last minute Offeh and I removed the sign. The performance was witnessed by several members of the curation team, who ended up commissioned us directly to reprise the performance as part of the live arts programme in the Tanks later in the year. In the autumn of 2012 we created a second performance, this time reversing the structure with the participant who had celebrated his birthday in the first performance giving each of us gifts and inspiring new conversations.

Birthday Party, 2011, Tate Modern. A project developed with the Schools and Teachers Team, Tate. Photo courtesy Henry Ward
Birthday Party, 2011, Tate Modern. A project developed with the Schools and Teachers Team, Tate. Photo courtesy Henry Ward

I am now Creative Director for a charity, Freelands Foundation, part of which involves working in partnership with the Institute of Education/University College London, teaching teachers undertaking the Post-Graduate Certificate of Education course. The project I have been running with the IOE/UCL, explores the notion of teaching as an artistic practice in its own right, not just the necessary evil to fund an artistic practice that happens elsewhere. The project begins with a series of workshops and discussions that cover much of the content I have discussed. We investigate the role of context and audiences in particular. Much of the project is quite playful, emphasising experiment and collaboration.

We discuss ideas about socially engaged practices and explore how this might apply to the role of the teacher, investigating practitioners who operate in ways that have a pedagogic angle. At the end of the first term the students are invited to develop a project to undertake in their placement school in the spring term. The emphasis is on documentation and the students are asked to record the progress of the projects through photography, film, audio and text. I want them to move away from any sense of a defined outcome and to encourage them to treat their classrooms as genuine experimental laboratories for research and creativity—like a studio.

Robert Bagley, Bored, 2016–18. Photo courtesy Freelands Foundation
Robert Bagley, Bored, 2016–18. Photo courtesy Freelands Foundation

The work produced by these student teachers covers a wide range of issues and speaks to their experiences. As an example of this, Robert Bagley had been collecting the things discarded on the floor of the classrooms at the end of the school day: inscribed erasers, purposely broken pencils, manipulated tools. This ongoing collection was displayed as a museum of found art, honouring the subversive creative acts of the pupils. In another provocative example, Jilly McAteer worked with pupils to disguise the chewing gum marks on the school playground, using after school sessions to carefully paint them the same colour as the concrete. Jack Hopkins, another student teacher, interviewed Year 7 pupils at the girls’ school where he was placed, asking them why it was that they didn’t play the “running around” games he observed their Year 6 peers doing at the neighbouring primary school.

He had expected the answer to be that they were “too grown up” but instead the girls explained that there were no spaces in which to play such games, as the school had been slowly removing playgrounds, building temporary classrooms and demarcating spaces for specific sporting activity. Over the coming weeks he worked with the group to create a “how to” guide book, outlining the rules of the games they wanted to play, but couldn’t. He also went on to make a film of the spaces where games could no longer be played.

Each year the project culminates in an exhibition and publication. This year the exhibition, Resist – Things Artists Do Whilst Learning to Teach, included a performance by one student where the entire audience at the private view were obliged to respond to a fire alarm, following which they were organised into year group queues outside the gallery and told off by a megaphone-wielding “teacher.” By sharing the results of these projects with a wider public we are consciously flattening the hierarchies often associated with the art that gets made in schools and the art that gets seen in galleries. What these projects demonstrate is the rich cultural context that the artist teacher operates within as maker, researcher, anthropologist, documenter, sociologist, historian, philosopher and curator.

The role of the art teacher is multi-faceted and complex. Teachers operate as curators of performative educational experiences, at once instigator and participant. Once being an artist and teaching art were symbiotic. Lecturers at art school were practicing artists with parallel but related careers. Now school teaching can itself be regarded as an expanded form of artistic practice.

Katie Grosvenor, Fire Alarm, 2019, installation view, Resist – Things Artists Do While Learning to Teach, 2019. Freelands Foundation Gallery, University College London Institute of Education. Photo courtesy of Hydar Dewachi and Peter Mallet
Katie Grosvenor, Fire Alarm, 2019, installation view, Resist – Things Artists Do While Learning to Teach, 2019. Freelands Foundation Gallery, University College London Institute of Education. Photo courtesy of Hydar Dewachi and Peter Mallet

 

Henry Ward is an artist, writer and educator. He is Creative Director of the London-based Freelands Foundation, a charity working with artists and art education across the United Kingdom. Ward has written and lectured widely on approaches to teaching art. He completed a PhD in Teaching as an Artistic Practice at Middlesex University in 2013.

Support independent writing on the visual arts. Subscribe or donate here.