A personal journey in art education: passions and reflection

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Dr Peter Gregory FRSA FCollT NLG

Principal Lecturer in Education (Creative Arts)
President-Elect National Society for Education in Art and Design (NSEAD)

In today’s educational landscape it is sometimes easy to forget that the richness of human experience is made up of more than the ability to attain particular grades in English and maths. I would like to outline what else can be overlooked as part of the current obsession and tease out some thoughts about what needs further attention. I’m writing as someone fully convinced of the importance of art and design but I’d like to explain my personal story and how it has shaped and affected my whole career – now spanning over four decades.

I don’t know whether you’ve ever stopped to think why some people are so enthusiastic about children and young people making art, savouring the artworks created by others or enhancing their learning about new materials, technologies or techniques? Have they always been like that? Or are there other explanations?

Family visiting Generation ART, Isle of Wight
Family visitors, Quay Arts

For me personally I enjoyed drawing, painting and making from a very young age – but it wasn’t until an enthusiastic young student teacher came to my school when I was 8 years old that I really began to see the value of art for myself. Many decades later I can still vividly recall the images that I encountered at a local art exhibition when that student teacher took us on an outing. It was the very first time that I had visited an exhibition and it was like walking into another dimension! I had never imagined such simple and stylistic designs as I then encountered – especially of birds and fish. The impact of the visit has never left me – and it still has a major influence on my career.

By the time I left primary school I had experienced a range of art-making materials thanks to the willingness of my teachers. One in particular developed a new interest in creating models and artefacts from papier-mâché. This was a messy, slow, laborious process but I absolutely embraced it and continued to make, mould and create new objects at home and at school, because an adult had enthused, encouraged and supported me.

My secondary school experiences continued to build on those I’d already had. Art had value and its contribution to learning was prized in the boy’s grammar school I attended. My art teacher was most interested in painting but I recognise how many other materials he was prepared to allow us with which to experiment, adapt and explore. I also learnt a great deal about art history from him. Bearing in mind my earlier experiences in visiting a single exhibition, you might begin to imagine my delight in discovering works of art in other galleries on many visits during this time. But these weren’t ad hoc and unplanned. I recall many lessons at school using a very large technological ancestor of today’s visualiser (it was called an epidiascope) to study large scale projected representations of the images from books of the works I would experience ‘for real’ in subsequent visits. These included the works by Impressionist and Postimpressionist artists at the Tate and Courtauld Institute as well as more contemporary works at the Haywood Gallery.

At college I studied ceramics. You may have noticed I have not mentioned clay so far, so quite understandably may be puzzled how this entered my experience bank. It also began when I was 8, soon after I’d been to the first exhibition I mentioned and I had to spend some time in hospital. During my stay I encountered a well-meaning teacher who tried to ‘teach’ me how to reproduce line drawings of fish and birds using incredibly simple devices – an elongated ‘m’ as a flying bird for example. I was not impressed and felt cheated by her approach. I was already spoiled in that I’d seen, experienced and delighted in a dimension of art-making which was way beyond this. In desperation, the teacher allowed me to play with some clay instead. The endless possibilities now flowed from my imagination: Viking long boats, dogs, human figures and even super-heroes. Even at that age I sensed the anxiety emanating from the teacher – although I clearly enjoyed the activities, was I really learning anything which she could mark?

It wasn’t until secondary school that I was actually taught the rudiments of clay work beginning with sculptural forms, additive and subtractive processes and then the ‘magic’ science of firing and decorating. It was this springboard which took me into my study of ceramics at college. There I learnt so much more, about the qualities of different clay bodies, processes and particularly the importance of good aesthetic design. (If you have the misfortune of ever accompanying me when I’m buying even basic household objects like mugs or plates, you’ll discover that deep investment my college tutor made is still there!)

I then became a teacher…. I found myself applying my interests, enthusiasm and guidance in a range of schools – primary, secondary and special across London and the South East. I observed the transformation of reluctant students into willing risk-takers, those who grew in confidence and embraced new possibilities and those that excelled beyond my own skill level. Lots of professional pride and stories from others here but I’ll gloss over these aspects in order to get to the one crucial point I must make.

I entered higher education. Today I work in a university, teaching the subject which has shaped, influenced and defined my being as I’ve set out here. I train student teachers.

This is a growing challenge as more and more student teachers arrive at the start of their studies having been denied the kinds of rich experiences I still draw on from my youth.  Those that were particularly poorly taught are very unsure what the value or purpose of art is: those who have natural talents may have been groomed to gain academic results but too often in narrow (or worse, prescriptive) ways.

My challenge then today with student teachers is often to deconstruct previous learning and experience before trying to reconstruct and widen their understanding in a comparatively short period of time. My hope is that they too will ignite the interest of their own pupils and cause a disruption in learning which allows an alternative dimension to open for them. My joy is that some do exactly that and I delight in the work of students returning from placements in school or who stay in touch as their teaching career develops.

The importance of art education is therefore in the learning, understanding and recognised value of art gained through the experiences undertaken. The future will be shaped by what is given to those that will inhabit that time and space.

I would like to end with a simple challenge for each of us, whether parents, teachers, gallery educators, artists or young people to consider. In our own time, how many opportunities will we have to aid artistic development? What can we do to support and encourage (rather than limit or hinder) human development in others?

Hands up if you're proud; Generation ART exhibitors' launch, Turner Contemporary
Hands up if you’re proud; Generation ART exhibitors’ launch, Turner Contemporary