The Other News From England.
Creative attitudes in education. Mar.3lst. 1993.
(I feel I have pinned down an anti-creative element in the general behaviour of one of our departments).
I WORK ONE NIGHT a week in The Centre for Arts And Crafts, which is equipped with a large range of special equipment, including bandsaw, printing presses, spot welding, and equipment for silversmithing, woodworking, stone work, wood-carving, sculpting, pottery, painting, etching, etc.
It is, in fact, a very exciting place to be in.
But there are snags. Some of the snags are to do with the strange idea that artists are exempt from the usual rules of behaviour that the rest of us are bound by. I don't know whether this is a bit of compensatory behaviour owing to a feeling of inadequacy, or a perfectly genuine delusion of grandeur, and since I have been an artist all my life, I doubt that I will ever know. The trouble with me is that I am also a craftsman, so I'm probably an artist grade 2 in the eyes of 'pure' artists.....But I am digressing.
My group, for instance, requires the use of a a trolley to move the equipment. One would expect a trolley to be part of the general equipment, and you just get it and put your things on it for the duration of the lesson. But here this is not so. When I find a trolley at all, it is heavily caked over with clay, and on it is someone's clay modelling with a warning that one should not touch it. This person has, in fact, decided that the trolley is their personal bit of equipment to use one day a week, and the rest of us can whistle (as they say in the vernacular) if we need a trolley the other six days. I am pleased to say that there are some people who ignore the warnings, and trolleys do in fact get used on other days. The shame of it is that the modeller probably has to repair their modelling every week! That's a marvellous way to use your time. It is also a shame that the people who take no notice of the warnings and use the trolleys probably do something equally obstructive themselves with equal thoughtlessness.
There is a bandsaw in the same room as the permanently occupied trolley. This bandsaw is kept locked for the safety of the 'adults' who use this room. But that's no deterrent to them. They just force the lock. And they saw away merrily, changing all the adjustments on the machine and apparently sawing all the wrong things with it, and when you go in next week, not only will it not saw straight, but the blade is so blunt it only goes through wood by burning it away with the heat of friction! As to other blades, forget it. It's not worth getting them.
In the room next door, stonecarvers and polishers help themselves to the equipment of picture-framers and upholsterers and dressmakers, with disregard of the consequences of their actions upon other people's work, stains being left on boards that are used for cutting mounts, and chips and gouges being knocked out of boards that need to be completely flat for their intended use, each class trying to threaten the next not to interfere with their efforts, and none succeeding.
That's one side of the building. the building is L-shaped, and along the other side of the L things seem different. Where doors are left open, the printing presses look to be in good order, and there are some signs that they are used from time to time. On the big Albion press, a sign reads "do not change any settings", suggesting that if you want to do anything with it you can't. Perhaps it's an exhibit, one wonders.
I'm both a very inquisitive person and an enthusiastic one. One evening on my way to get the register for my class I was turning over in my mind the possibilities of doing a few posters using the centre's equipment when I walked into the room with the Albion press to have a proper look at it. What a lovely machine! It could do letterpress (for which it was originally designed), linocuts, real lithography, and possibly several other 19th century processes.
I was just looking at the various adjustments on this wonderful machine when I was confronted by a rather angry lady asking me if she could help me. What did I want? Who was I? Did I teach there? I was just contemplating the Albion, and wondering what it would be like to do a few posters on, I told her.
"You can't do posters on that. It's for linocuts."
"I always thought they were designed originally for letterpress, although I was wondering what other methods one night use".
"No. It can't do letterpress. It doesn't do anything other than linocuts, and anyway it's not for posters and things. Why don't you draw a few?"
I asked if she was joking, as I was thinking more aloug the lines of some Toulouse Lautrec type work, which could only really work in printed form.
"There are other methods."
"Those roller presses are rather good," I said, not wishing to be intimidated, "we used to do litho on those when I was an art student........" The intention was to go on and describe how we used real stones and everything.
"They don't do litho those ones."
"Well, of course, one would have to set them up properly for the purpose....."
"No. They don't do litho. What do you teach?"
"A few things, really........"
She wasn't waiting for the answer.
"You can' t do any of that type of work on these presses. Tony would say the same thing too. You ask him."
This is getting tedious. Need I go on? I accept defeat, and would indeed feel guilty to be caught trying to do anything creative without first asking this lady if it was alright. This is education?
I wander on down the building. After the life-drawing and painting in the big hall (where I have taught in the past), there is a jewellery workshop with what appears to be everything you need in it. I look through the clear panel in the glass door. A hive of enthusiasts are in there, all looking like they know where they're heading. I decide to take a risk and go in, for I want to know something that the teacher might be able to tell me.
It is instantly apparent who the teacher is because he is showing enthusiasm for what someone else is doing! I Hang about, looking at all the equipment without being accosted at all, and in due course get his eye. He asks me if he can help, and I tell him that I hoped he might tell me how to make a long hollow cone out of thin sheet brass. He tells me that he can't remember all the details but if I come back next week he'll look it up. He even, in some subtle way, lets me know that it is OK to Iook at what goes on around the workshop. And, last of all, he allows me to go and get my hammers and polish the heads on the buffing machine without asking me why I want to polish them! He allows me to be in control of my own life!
The difference is chalk and cheese. The following week, this man lent me a book that told me all I needed to know about the brass cone, and suggested where I might get the metal. I want to do metalwork!
I'm not put off the idea of creative printing, either, although to some extent it is the stubbornness factor that makes me say it. In the sixties I did some quite good stuff, so I still have a bit of nerve left for it.
One might ask, "why the hell is he writing ill this?"
I am writing it in the hope that we might all get a better undorstanding of how things might be as opposed to how they are. I realise that because this is an educational establishment, some of the equipment will get damaged and that it may be a necessary part of education to experience the way it gets damaged (I particularly have in mind the bandsaw here, but I imagine the principle applies to everything).
But, it strikes me that what we teachers have an obligaition to do is:
One end of the building assorted influences try to stop us doing anything, whilst at the other the exact opposite is happening. It's rather strange.
A whole lot of people who know how to work with each other, and who spur each other on, are a pleasure to be with, and I needn't try to describe the difference in the quality of the products of their efforts.
FOOTNOTE: Prior to my brush with the print lady, the caretaker and I had been dIscussing with some enthusiasm the possibility of printing posters on the Albion (it's a huge Victorian thing of great elegance). When he came by and saw me in discussion with her, he said: "Ran into a spot of bother there!" and walked off smiling to himself - good old John.