26 February, 2012
One of the wonderful things about teaching is the sheer variety of people you meet. This weekend, I have a lovely couple with fascinating backgrounds, and so much knowledge about a wide spectrum of subjects. We have discussed travel, philosophy, geography/geology and many other topics based on life. They have put me in the direction of new books to read, and ways of thinking that hadn’t occurred to me before, and in return they’ve had different aspects of the same subjects as well as weaving and history, textiles and looms.
Being a teacher is such a privileged occupation when you are with students who are eager to learn, willing to learn from mistakes, and open to new ways of doing and thinking about things. It’s not such a privilege when your main occupation is trying to keep control of people who don’t want to be there! It’s not to do with age, but with willingness to keep an open mind and not being afraid to go wrong. Having been in three different camps – teaching at school to classes, teaching at school to small groups/individuals, teaching at workshops to small groups/individuals – all three have their challenges and their blessings, but I have to say that I really enjoy teaching in workshops.
For starters, your students have elected to be there, and are usually paying to be there. That means they have shown faith in your abilities as a teacher and expect a high standard of tuition, patience and competence in you. I love guiding new weavers through the initially daunting first steps of becoming competent, enquiring weavers who are able to trouble-shoot for themselves and work things out because you’ve given them the tools to enable them to have confidence in their decisions and choices. I love watching them blossom as that confidence grows and they start experimenting at the loom, with the delight that comes from seeing a new design grow as they weave and their realisation that they understand the relationships between warp and weft and can play to develop new designs.
It’s the same guidelines as being a parent, really. Give your students roots (i.e. a good grounding in the basics), then give them wings (i.e. the tools to allow them to develop under their own steam), and watch them fly!!
19 February, 2012
What do humour, the rings of saturn, landscape and passion have in common?
Well, they’re all books that I have read this week. And what diversity – from an excerpt from On Humour by Simon Critchley; The Rings of Saturn by W.G. Sebald; The Interpretation of Ordinary Landscapes ed D.W. Meinig; and finally The Element – How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything by Ken Robinson.
Humour takes a philosophical look at what we find funny. Whenever you start to take apart something as seemingly spontaneous as humour, there is a very real risk of everything that makes it funny disappearing, and sometimes that is the case here, but in taking a look at something as deeply personal as what makes us laugh, chuckle, roar, or be in helpless giggles is actually very interesting. As you might expect, there are elements that seem individual to each person but which are generic in how we respond to a joke, and I enjoyed my brief journey into the book.
It was in contrast to The Rings of Saturn by W.G. Sebald. This is a book set as a recounting of a walk in East Anglia, and I was never quite sure what was fiction and what was autobiographical, but it was all mixed in with a dose of history popping off at tangents. I found myself being drawn into it and creating images in my head of the characters and histories recounted.
The Interpretation of Ordinary Landscapes, edited by D.W. Meinig, is a series of geographical essays, and what I expected to be dry and academic was in fact absorbing and enlightening.
The last book The Element by Ken Robinson immediately had me wanting to buy copies to send to Michael Gove (Education Secretary) and all the bigwigs who make decisions on our children’s education! I hope that they have read it, but I doubt that they would – it makes far too much sense!!! If they did, they’d have to re-think the whole school focus on maths, english and science and be much more inclusive, bringing the arts and vocational subjects into the same level of priority as the favoured 3! Ironically, anyone who’s an entrepreneur in business could tell them (and probably does!) that creativity in how we approach business, negotiations, daily life, is what it’s all about these days, and adaptability and imagination is the key to developing businesses and lives that are vibrant, growing, and fulfilling. The old educational paradigms actually became defunct years ago, but the education system keeps hold of them for dear life.
I was in the position, when my son was around 9 years old, of teaching class music to 8 – 12 year olds at a middle school. I’d never done class teaching, but they were desperate, and my knowledge of music is generally pretty good, I’d say. I have to confess to being terrified at facing a class of 30+ youngsters who didn’t want to be doing school music, but I was blessed with colleagues in other subjects who were willing to try things out. The curriculum stated that the children had to learn about instruments. To me, an oboist, what better way to learn about instruments than to learn how sound is made, design your own instrument, make it and play it? The art teacher allowed the students to design their instruments in art class, the physics teacher taught them about sound production, and the technology teacher helped them to make their own instruments. Many children took the partially made projects home to finish off at home, and then they brought them to school and we composed little pieces that they then played on their own instruments.
It’s a simple enough approach, but one which required co-operation from other staff who had their own curriculum parameters to cover. I was very fortunate that they were so willing to help this rooky teacher, and the kids got a tremendous amount out of the whole process. That, to my mind, is how teaching should be – allowing teachers to work on collaborative projects which gives great enjoyment and fulfilment to them, and gives the children a holistic approach of how everything works together and also allows them to participate in a practical hands-on way also with great enthusiasm and passion for what they were learning.
One small example, but why, oh why, can’t the politicians and top educators get their act together and move into the real world with what kids need NOW to equip them for the world that needs them to be adaptable, versatile, imaginative and happy in what they do!!!!
If you haven’t read this book, do, and then go out and tell anyone in education – headteachers, governors, HM Inspectors, Michael Gove, about it. I’m off to write that letter right now!
5 February, 2012
An eagerly awaited conference, allied to the Lost in Lace exhibition, this was not a disappointment. A wide cross-section of people attended the conference, hosted by Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery with partners, the Crafts Council to hear quality speakers.
The key-note speaker was Gijs Bakker, designer and co-founder of Droog Design, the famous Dutch design company who have done so much to change our perception of craft in design. His presentation, based round lace, as were all the presentations, was informative but above all humourous, dry and beautifully ironic. Taken from the notes that were given to all delegates, Gijs’ talk was entitled, Without Concept, No Craft. ‘Form-giving’ is the Dutch word for design. He talked about craft being a tool for communicating conceptual interests, and that without concept, craft is merely a mastered sill, for skill’s sake. His talk was stimulating, amusing and thought-provoking, drawing on his technique of jewellery making (which he loves and hates in equal measure, I think), but encompassing many of Droog’s innovative ideas and methods. He mentioned “for me, designing is a way of thinking, a way of observing – intuitively understanding by continually questioning the subject and avoiding preconceptions.”
He was followed by CJ Lim, the founder of Studio 8 Architects, a practice in urban planning, architecture and landscape. His presentation was a new experience for me, with his designs focussing on “multi-disciplinary innovative interpretations of cultural, social and environmental sustainability programmes.” He uses, among other things, paper, carbon and glue to build prototype models in 2 1/2 dimensions of his futuristic, fantastical and eco-sustainable environments. I am definitely going to buy his book “Short Stories: London in two-and-a-half dimensions”. For me, this talk was of particular interest as I am investigating further the world of fractals and fractal geometry, although CJ freely admits that there is no science behind his use of the term 2 1/2 dimensions. His is purely an artistic terminology where the work is not confined to the flat plane of 2 dimensions but is not a 3D model either.
The panel discussion with the two speakers was ably MCed by Grant Gibson, who many people know for his editorship of Crafts magazine, and also for his writing in various high profile publications both in the UK and beyond,and he oversaw the running of the day.
During the lunch break, and amidst the networking that was going on, delegates had the opportunity to be taken round the Lost in Lace exhibition by Prof Lesley Millar, the curator. This was a chance to hear the rationale behind many of the works (although this can also be found in the catalogue) but was enhanced by Prof Millar’s passion and enthusiasm for the works. It is the second time I have visited the exhibition and I was just as entranced the second time.
After lunch, Michael Brennand-Wood gave the story behind his piece in the exhibition, as well as showing us his close connection to lace throughout his long career. I first came into contact with his work back in the 1980s and was intrigued by it then, something which has continued to this day. His talk was called Pretty Deadly which reflected the use of military motifs integrated within lace-like and Islamic patterning.
Then came Kathleen Rogers, who explained the development of her piece in the exhibition which is a video installation of black Chantilly lace seen through a scanning electron microscope. It is accompanied by the sound of silk worms chomping their way through mulberry leaves heard through headphones, and leaves you wondering if you are listening to a tropical storm in a rain forest or the silk worms.
Finally, the team of Kira O’Reilly (artist) and Janet Smith (biochemist) talked about their joint work on working with living cellular materials in the laboratory. In the past, Kira has created artwork based on creating a living lace from skin cells, and together with Janet Smith , they have been working to culture cells onto spider silk. This talk was very interesting, especially in relation to the ethical issues raised, and how the development of the work they are doing ‘sits within larger lace, craft and textile practices.’ This is indeed thought-provoking.
A very stimulating day, which left delegates with plenty to think about! Also it was a very successful day in terms of attendance, even with problems on the mainline from London! Hopefully the Crafts Council will be encouraged to put on more events like this outside of London….
3 February, 2012
One of the things about a university education which pushes you out of your comfort zone is how it opens your mind and your understanding.
At the Lost in Lace conference (feature post to follow) today (3rd Feb 2011) at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, I met up again with Professor Lesley Millar, the curator, who was also previously a speaker at a conference in Wales in 2010. Prof Millar is a dynamic lady who is passionate about promoting contemporary textiles in the UK, and has spent the past 16 years tirelessly and effectively pursuing her goal through curating some wonderful exhibitions which have broadened countless people’s perception, introducing people to textiles in a new way. She is truly an inspirational figure who I respect and admire immensely, and I was dismayed and embarassed when she expressed strong feelings today about a blog I posted after the Welsh Warp + Weft conference.
When I got home, I revisited the relevant blog post (Warp + Weft Symposium, 14th September 2010). The passage of 1 1/2 years can change levels of understanding, and through studying for an MA, I have had to become familiar with a more reflective, more academic way of thinking, and a new vocabulary to boot! So I am now more conversant with Prof Millar’s world and, I am sure, if I heard the same presentation today, I would understand it in a very different way. I also have no doubt that in another two years’ time, after two more years of rigorous thinking, reflection, research and practise, I will appreciate it in a deeper way.
I’m sorry that Prof Millar was upset by my blog. If it was my comment about her presentation style that was at issue, then I can only say that that was my observation on the day and it is only my opinion. I am sure there are people who would completely disagree with me.
However, if it was my comment that at times her talk completely lost me, at that stage in my life I didn’t have the necessary knowledge, understanding and experience to understand her presentation at the level she was presenting it, which more academic people would have understood ((and probably did).
On a related theme, one of the major lessons learnt, for me, during this first year of study on a multi-disciplinary course where I am one of two textile practitioners amongst ceramicists, fine artists and sculptors, is how different audiences require different approaches. The level of tacit textiles knowledge, tactile knowledge and subconscious awareness of textiles in a textile-savvy audience is truly amazing. I took this knowledge to be universal – in fact, I hadn’t even thought about it until I realised half way through my first presentation to my fellow students and professors that my audience wasn’t on the same page. Right there and then, I had to rethink the whole of my practice from a different perspective! However, I have also learnt that my university presentations would not have the same relevance outside of a university setting.
This issue from my perspective, and as a speaker myself, does stress and re-inforce to me the importance of knowing my audience and presenting for that audience, without either ‘dumbing down’ or being too rarified. I have two more years on the MA to try to get that right!
A precarious balance!!