Engaging the aesthetic

vignettes from home

It is perhaps when our lives are at their most problematic that we are likely to be most receptive to beautiful things. ~ Alain de Botton, The Architecture of Happiness

Aesthetics is concerned with appreciation – of nature, of art, of that which we can experience through our senses. As a philosophy it explores how we perceive and experience beauty. There are studies that have looked at how aspects of aesthetics influence people’s lives. For instance, this one on how the colour of room walls impacts students’ behavior and learning performance in classrooms. Or this one that investigates the impact of hospital aesthetics—such as light, fresh air, nature, colour, sounds, smells and art—on patient wellbeing and recovery.

Like art, which is a culturally-embedded conversation over time, aesthetics is knitted with the fabric of society and culture. Anderson (2014) shows that while harmony and unification have often been seen as important aspects of interior design, this focus can curb individualism and lead to uniformity. She describes the Cult of Beauty of the 1870s and 1880s as “discriminating eclecticism guided by artistic sensibility” (p.345). At this time the homeowner became, according to Edmond de Goncourt, a décorateur or metteur-en-scène; a ‘scene-setter’; an artistic creator of spaces.

In the 19th century, colours and objects were linked to class, social standing and education. Partly as a reaction to mass production of objects and vividly-coloured synthetic fabrics, brightness and shininess were considered garish and distasteful, while subdued secondary or tertiary colours were seen to reveal distinguished taste. With the rare, the exotic and the expensive seen as ‘good taste’, decorating the home was saturated with inflections of societal, cultural and racial superiority.

Aesthetic discourses and disputes continue today. For example, in 2015 the owner of a mansion in Queensland was ordered to undertake an ‘aesthetic overhaul’ after it was found that the architecture was a copy of a unique neighbouring house. This year, a woman was taken to the London high court for painting her Kensington terrace in ‘garish’ candy stripes. People continue to care about the aesthetic experience.

Kyle Chayka challenges us that current aesthetic tropes perpetuate cultural and social divides, describing the ubiquity of reclaimed wood, Edison bulbs, and refurbished industrial lighting (what he calls ‘AirSpace’) as providing ‘familiar, comforting surroundings for a wealthy, mobile elite, who want to feel like they’re visiting somewhere ‘authentic’ while they travel, but who actually just crave more of the same.’ Aesthetics, as it becomes globalised via social media sharing, continues to promote uniformity and entangle with social inequities.

Technology has changed notions of beauty, as well as who can access it. Now, the well-worn patina of an antique rug can be achieved via polypropylene and technology. Found treasures can be upcycled or new leather carefully distressed. A throw on the end of a bed should be artfully flung not neatly folded; it should appear luxurious without seeming to try too hard. Style appears just-so as if by accident.

These days anyone with an Instagram or Pinterest account is an aesthete. The interwebs are full of endless aesthetic noise, constant bombardments of staged and judiciously curated pictures in which the everyday person has become the composer of artistic, filtered images that show snapshots of life. Aesthetics is democratised and commodified in new ways. Influential Instagrammers make money by posting products in carefully cropped snaps. Chompoo Baritone’s photo series shows how real and imperfect details are often omitted in order to create a social media image of beauty.  Lindahl & Öhlund (2013) argue that using images on social media is part of identity marketing and developing a personal brand, and that this is limited and fake, as well as nuanced and expressive. They point to social media aesthetics shaping identities, especially through imitation. As life imitates art, so identity imitates Instagram. Social media allow aesthetics to be accessible across social divides, but also to be manipulated. The aim of uniqueness drowns in a sea of uniformity. There is at once aesthetic individualism and an aesthetic echo chamber of groupthink (or is that groupaesthetics?).

Yes, there are social, cultural, and technological complexities of aesthetics. But in a world in which we are often obsessed by perforance, measurement, fast everything, multi-tasking, and efficiencies, often it’s worth immersing ourselves in the aesthetic of the real, as opposed to the virtual, world. Walking barefoot on grass. Wrapping palms of hands around a warm mug of tea. Watching the sun rise. Listening. Smelling the (actual, paper) pages of a book, feeling them between the pads of fingertips, hearing the swooshing noise they make as they turn. Sinking a vinyl disc onto a record player. Painting. Sewing. Tinkering. Looking and actually seeing. Breathing slow and deep.

bookshelf mis-en-scène

As I’ve been nesting in my new home, I’ve been pulling tactile objects out of boxes and placing them on shelves. Cutting flowers from my garden, drinking coffee to the sunrise song of local birds, letting my eyes wander over vignettes in nooks and corners. And it’s been giving me pretty big doses of contentment, even while I’m aware of the first world nature of my collections – objets d’art from exotic travel locations, international textiles, inherited antiques and collectibles, lots of books. I know these are the accoutrements of a priveleged life, and yet they tell me stories and bring me joy.

Maybe it’s my Fine Art background or my love of the weird and wonderful, but aesthetics have always been important to me. It causes my husband no end of annoyance that the first thing I like to do on moving into a new home is to hang pictures and place ornaments. (We have moved together seven times, not counting house-sitting or being ‘in between’ homes when we’ve moved interstate or overseas). In any home – whether in a tiny rented London apartment full of Argos goods, or an owned home in Australia, big or small – the aesthetic quality of my surroundings have helped to ground me. As well as providing experiences of colour, texture and light, the way we shape our surroundings encapsulates a story about ourselves and can provide a safe or stimulating place for us to burrow, create, or connect.

References

Anderson, A. (2014). Harmony in the Home: Fashioning the “Model” Artistic Home or Aesthetic House Beautiful through Color and Form. Interiors, 5(3), 341-360.

Caspari, S., Eriksson, K., & Nåden, D. (2011). The importance of aesthetic surroundings: A study interviewing experts within different aesthetic fields. Scandinavian Journal of Caring Sciences, 25(1), 134-142.

Lindahl, G., & Öhlund, M. (2013). Personal branding through imagification in social media: Identity creation and alteration through images (dissertation). Stockholm University.

Yildirim, K., Cagatay, K., & Ayalp, N. (2015). Effect of wall colour on the perception of classrooms. Indoor and Built Environment. Indoor and Built Environment, 24(5), 607-616.

Perfectionism, control, letting go

Have no fear of perfection – you’ll never reach it. ~ Salvador Dali

I’ve learned something about myself in the last week. Or maybe I’ve re-learned it. It’s one of those things I already knew, but sometimes manage to sweep into a shadowy corner. I am a perfectionist and control freak. I know ‘perfectionist’ is one of those things you’re meant to be able to say at job interviews as an example of a negative-that’s-really-a-positive. You know, “Oh I just pay such attention to minute details and need everything to be perfect. It’s such a burden! *mock sigh*” But, without trivialising mental health issues, it really can feel like a disorder when it becomes obsessive and consuming, as it does for me from time to time.

I tend to research everything to the extreme. From high intensity training and child birth to travel and party planning, I over-read and over-think. I create dossiers and Pinterest boards and wake up in the night with ideas.

The event that has brought my own desire for control over the minutest of details out of the shadows this time is putting our house on the market. While we’ve been thinking about the possibility for a while, last Wednesday we met with real estate agents. Thursday we signed the paperwork. Monday the house was photographed. Wednesday we received the marketing proofs. Thursday the house went on the market. Sunday the house will be open.

Never mind that it’s school holidays and I am home hanging out with my 4 year old and 6 year old while also preparing for a new school year in a new role, and trying to get various academic writing projects moved along their pipelines. Never mind all that. The house must look perfect.

I have decluttered to the point that our double garage now only fits one car. I have planted and mulched and watered the garden. I have fixed and hired tradies and made my husband lists of jobs. He visibly rolled his eyes when I was changing every lightbulb and cleaning every light fitting. I don’t even think he knows that I bought new fluffy white towels for photos and home opens. He probably hasn’t noticed my artful re-arranging of what we own. He does know I went to a wholesale flower market to buy flowers to arrange around the house. That I borrowed some lovely wall art from our friend at Frank Prints. That I’ve emptied and organised every cupboard in the house. That I re-wrote the real estate copy for the agent. And that I was disappointed at tiny things about the professional photos (leaving cords from the back of the tv uncropped and in the frame; the photographer’s bag visible down the hallway; no pics of the internal courtyard). None of these are things that will stop a buyer from coming to a home open or potentially buying the house, but they are things that have been on my mind and the whole process of preparing to sell has kicked off a little internal obsessive insomnia-inducing twitch.

(Disclosure: 6 years ago, when we sold our last place, I took the marketing photos and wrote the real estate copy myself, as well as staging the home. This behaviour isn’t new!)

some thumbnails from our house

some thumbnails from our house

This in the same fortnight that I have failed to meet my own weekly blogging deadline. (My perfectionism does know bounds. I can’t sustain it in all areas of my life or at all times.) For most of last year, I posted a blog every Friday. This year, since the first of the month, I haven’t blogged. Partly, what has been on my mind is hanging out with my kids before the summer break ends, and getting the house ready for sale, not things the internet probably wants to know about (yet here I am writing about them). I also figured that my oneword for 2017—nourish—allows me to take a break from blogging deadlines in the name of self-preservation. But here I am, back to my Friday posting.

Also this week I was on a leadership retreat during which I had a refresher on the HBDI (Hermann Brain Dominance Instrument) that encourages self and team reflection on preferences of ways of working, thinking and relating to others and to problems. I was reminded of my love for details and my tendency to be excruciatingly clinical and heavily researched about everything. Just what I’ve been doing with my house. It was a good reminder to be mindful of letting go, for the sake of myself and others.

Tying myself in knots about the need for something to be perfect (an academic paper, a report to the school board, a presentation slide deck, a lesson, some performance review documentation) isn’t helpful. I need to be able to let go and be ok with good-but-not-exactly-how-I-envisaged-it. The only time I felt ok about this kind of obsession was with my PhD thesis; that seems an appropriate thing to obsess over so I was able to immerse myself in it guilt and shame free.

So I am going to try to be mindful of letting go of holding onto unrealistic expectations or obsessing over the minutest of details. I’m going to try to celebrate the benefits of caring about precision (because it does have perks!) while giving myself permission to be ok with a level of disarray.

Is teaching an art?

close-up of Monet's Nymphea at the Musée de l'Orangerie

close-up of Monet’s Nymphea at the Musée de l’Orangerie

How can we appreciate an artist’s work or know an artist’s worth?

We can see the genius of Frida Kahlo in one of her paintings, get a flavour of her life at La Casa Azul in Mexico City, or understand her dramatic story arc through a comprehensive exhibition of art she produced throughout her life. We can marvel equally at one of Monet’s early Impressionist works as at the spectacular exhibition of his Nymphea in the naturally-lit oval rooms of the Musée de l’Orangerie. One of Salvador Dalí’s paintings can give us insight into his skill, style and artistic significance, but a visit to his Teatre-Museu in Figueres allows us to more deeply know his life, work and mad genius.

Richard Olsen tweeted in the #educoachOC chat this week that he considered teaching an art, and that he thought that when being appraised, teachers’ teaching should be looked at as a body of work, rather than as individual pieces. You can see Richard’s tweets, which got me thinking, in the screenshot below. His view is consistent with those who warn against the compartmentalisation and atomisation of teaching into disparate, de-contextualised bits.

There are also, however, those who advocate for clear maps and standards of teaching in order to develop shared understandings of what good teaching might look, sound and feel like. My own school uses the Danielson Framework for Teaching as a tool for developing our shared language of teaching and the precision of our reflections on and planning for teaching and learning. These reflections are also based on lesson data snapshots of practice, which provide the basis for Cognitive Coaching conversations. Our approach seems to fit into Richard’s notion of “critiquing specific pieces”, rather than looking at a body of work. Yet fine-grained lesson data and consequent reflections allow teachers to drill down into aspects of their teaching practice, while acknowledging that one lesson is only ever a moment in time, a snapshot of practice, a through-the-keyhole-peek into their teaching as a whole.

Many, including Robert Marzano, describe teaching as an art and a science. The notion of blending art and science, creativity and systematisation, resonates with me. It was the approach I took to my PhD research, one that I outline in this paper in Narrative Inquiry. I have blogged about viewing research as sculpture, as art-esque conversation, about teaching Art, and about textiles as political metaphor for academic writing and identity.

Elliot Eisner’s body of work explores education as artistry and connoisseurship. Eisner advocates for the arts as a frame for re-imagining education as innovative, artistic practice, rather than as a cookie-cutter or assembly-line one. Conceptualising teaching as an art, or arts, or artistic, assumes a complexity, a non-linearness, a rich tangled web of intangibles and un-pin-downables.

Is teaching art or science? Or both? Is it inappropriate to look at a single work, a close-up of the brushstrokes or the marks made by the sculptor’s tool? Should we only talk about teaching in terms of bodies of work, portfolios of evidence, the whole and not the parts? Can Michelangelo’s David be separated from his Pietà, the Sistine Chapel ceiling and his unfinished ‘slaves’? Can or should meaning be sought in a singular laboured-over artwork, or in a dusty pile of experimental sketches found in the attic? Or should we only assess or seek meaning in a body of work accumulated over time?

How might a teacher’s performance be appraised? How can the whole, as well as the parts be considered? Of what use is the performance of teaching for observations by management, versus relaxed one-on-one discussions with students or an experimental lesson tried for the first time? And of what use are the ‘individual works’ such as unit plans, student work examples, lesson data and external test results? Data from particular lessons can provide a tangible, depersonalised third point for professional conversations, just as a particular work of art can be representative of an artist’s work. An exhibition from a particular period of an artist’s work can give a broader picture of their work during that time. A posthumous exhibition of their life’s work can provide the broad narrative of how their work has evolved. These are all different but meaningful lenses for appreciation and critique; each is a useful way of viewing the work and worth of the artist or teacher.

On the one hand, teaching does become a body of work over time. A life’s work for some. This gestalt includes ever-expanding subject knowledge, evolving pedagogies, relational skills and behaviour management tools. Many of the things teachers do become internalised, less-deliberate moves, part of a way of being. Perhaps a teacher should not be judged by a lesson that they teach or one set of student results, but there is value in each piece of work being reflected upon and closely considered for the understandings it might surface about that teacher’s practice; the details it might reveal; or the points of celebration, critique or change it might incite.

Textiles & academic writing: Material, process, product


This post, which could also be titled ‘remembering my 1990s feminist self’ is a re-emergence of some thinking I did a long time ago in my early years at university. After leaving school, I completed a Fine Art degree, followed by an Honours year. I’m writing this post as a way into self-inquiry, a way to write myself towards my hunch that my early days as a feminist-textile-artist-writer have underscored my more recent PhD work and academic writing. Big thanks to Katie Collins whose wonderful blog post on subversive material metaphors in academic writing sparked my thinking.

I was a painter from a young age, thanks to my artist mother, but I chose to study textiles as a major in my undergraduate Fine Art degree, rather than painting. This choice was due to the meanings inherent in textile materials, processes and products. A textile artist can weave in metal or print on latex. They can make work in the blacksmith forge or the sculpture studio. They can work with cardboard or furniture or paint or dye or thread or canvas or wire or plastic or found objects. The visceral and sensory experience of working with materials is central to the artistic process.

The materials a textile artist chooses, and the scale at which they magnify or miniaturise those materials, are deliberate meaning-making choices. The artist can choose needlework and hand-dying, or industrial Warhol-esque mass printing. They can applique or cut away. They can build or melt. They can assemble or destroy. They can stitch or slice. They can focus on the macro or the micro, staggering their viewer with enormous size or encouraging the viewer to come in, up close and personal.

Textiles is personal and political. It is also a subversive arena for artists, and often a feminist one. It pushes or rails against the stratification of ‘Art’, which has often meant the dichotomising of cerebral, thinking highbrow Art (upper-case ‘A’, often seen as done by men), and functional or decorative art (lower-case ‘a’, often associated with women and femininity). Historically, women were objects of art: she the body to be gazed at and sculpted. Or objects of art were personified as women: she the landscape to be scrutinised and painted.

The art historical devaluing of textiles pivots on its early treatment by critics, galleries and institutions. Aesthetic disciplines depend on recognised ‘powers that be’ to promote and uphold them. Early galleries and history books excluded textiles. Unlike painting and sculpture, textiles was historically seen as an unimportant discipline, undeserving of discussion, not worth deconstructing for message or meaning. The association of textiles with the devalued domestic space of the home, the opposite of the glorified public space of the art gallery, contributes to its dismissal.

So, why am I back here, thinking about textiles as feminist discourse or subversive act? Because Katie Collins’ post brought memories of my past self bubbling to the surface. And I am wondering to what extent my long-ago thinking and artistic practice, around the meanings inherent in working in and writing about textiles, has influenced my current and recent research and academic writing. On reflection, my PhD incorporated disruptive elements. While fitting largely within an accepted academic paradigm, it quietly challenged the ways that knowledge is traditionally written about. I used narrative method, literary metaphor and created three multimedia illustrations for the thesis, corporeal expressions of my thinking.

Now that I’m back in the eye of this needle, I need to think further about how textiles might provide a metaphor for research and academic writing.

In the meantime, below I will type an extract from a paper that won me the Allport Writing Award in 1998, and was published in Textile Fibre Forum. It was an analysis of Vivienne Binns’ artwork Mrs Cook’s Waistcoat. The piece gives a sense of where my thinking was around textiles as feminist activism in the late 1990s. I have deliberately omitted an image of the artwork as I’m wondering if the text itself can paint the picture for you.

(For non-Australian readers, Captain James Cook was a British explorer who claimed to ‘discover’ the south eastern coast of Australia in 1770.)

_________________________________________

Extract from ‘Mrs Cook’s Waistcoat: Rewriting history through cloth’

by Deborah M. Netolicky (1998), Textile Fibre Forum, Volume 53.

Mrs Cook’s Waistcoat may be read as one woman’s attempt to rewrite and reinterpret human history. Here Vivienne Binns contributes to the discourse on journey, adventure, and historical significance, telling the pain-filled woman’s story of discovery and adventure—the burden of waiting and worrying, as opposed to doing and dying. Through this work she questions platitudes of the day, such as “men work and women weep”. Binns demonstrates that women were not passive, but were actively working contributing, storytelling, and recording their own histories, written in needlework.

Binns uses journey as metaphor, identifying with Mrs Cook’s expedition as expressed through the waistcoat for Mr Cook. She challenges the value placed on women’s histories and women’s work by challenging the notion that Mrs Cook’s journey was insignificant in terms of human history. She has chosen to elevate its significance, giving it voice, implanting it in the discourse of high art.

… Captain Cook’s wife is the “Mrs Cook” referred to by the title of the work which tells the story of her laboring over a waistcoat for her husband while he is away on a long voyage. The waistcoat mapnel is larger-than-life, describing the legendary reputation of Captain Cook in Australian myth-making, and the amplified importance that Binns intends to give to the making of the waistcoat.

Binns connects the historical representation and exploration of Cook’s journey with issues of women’s value, women’s history, and the construction of gender. In her version of this story, the ocean water is a metaphor for a bewitching, intoxicating vacillating, unpredictable femininity and female identity … Cook, the white, middle-class male, is discovering, navigating, defining, and fixing the limits of the Pacific Ocean. He is writing the experiences, histories, and memories of and for the water, which has no voice. It is formless, restless, intuitive, irrational, and passive, in need of taming, subjugating, explaining and defining by the rational, scientific logic of male discourse.

Nature is tamed by culture. Binns places herself in the middle ground. She associates herself as water, as a woman employing subconscious, intuitive processes – her own emotions, remembrances, and ideas about certain colours, materials, and ways of working. On the other hand, she calmly calculates, selects, and constructs her images, associating herself with the heroic explorer, just as the artist does on a continuous intellectual journey to discover new meanings. This marriage of antithetical metaphors reflects Binns’ concerns with shaping perceptions of women’s ways of knowing, living, researching, remembering, experiencing, and making. By yoking the two ways of working, she gives equal value to each.

…The waistcoat can be seen as a woman’s way of writing and recording history. Women write history in fabric, men write history in text. Binns makes Mrs Cook’s journey of waiting, sewing, and weeping, as valid as Captain Cook’s journey. The labour and time involved in making this waistcoat explain the wife’s dedication and devotion to her far-away husband. Binns questions the trivialisation of women’s roles surrounding issues of the domestic and ‘crafty’. … She uses the processes, materials, and experiences of women—traditional metaphors of women’s work—to weave a myth about women’s forgotten places in history.

Penetrated openings are created by slicing, cutting, and scarring the fabric, fabric that represents flesh as well a material. … Rolled up papers (the stuff of men’s work) penetrate exposed fabric (the stuff of women’s work); paper penetrates fabric; men’s work penetrates women’s work; culture penetrates nature. The slits in the fabric are peeled back like open sores, mirroring the multiple stab wounds that were the cause of Cook’s death. The ultimate satire of the story is that while Mrs Cook is lovingly creating the waistcoat for her husband, he is already dead, his stab wounds mirrored in her handiwork. This is reflected in the typed and hand-written text, which permeates through a layer of white paint: “Mrs Cook embroidered… this time the Captain did not return and the waistcoat remains unfinished”. This irony elevates her personal anguish, and points to the difference in men’s discourses and women’s ways of speaking through needlework.

…Binns … uses traditionally female and domestic techniques of women’s work: embroidery, pattern-cutting, and sewing. There is a sense of Mrs Cook’s physical involvement in this garment, her time, effort, and care. It is stitched, cut, glued. Elements, images, textures, and metaphors are exposed, denied, revealed, concealed, constructed, deconstructed, veiled, disguised, patterned, decorated slashed, sliced, torn, ripped, reconstructed. The piece is layered with the corporeal stuff of memory.

… Binns does not create a new reality, but reflects and reinterprets the existing one in a way that gives it new meaning. She puts one moment in one woman’s life under the microscope until it boils, making her audience reconsider women’s lives, women’s history and women’s art.

Art can be taught: On knowing, doing and thinking Art

Art is power. ~ Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

As someone with a Fine Art degree, who studied Art through high school and university, I often hear comments from others like “I’m not artistic,” “I’m not arty,” “I can’t do art,” or “I can’t even draw stick figures” (this last one from my dad). As the daughter of an artist-educator (my mum), perhaps people think that anything arty I produce is the result of some kind of genetic sorcery. That Art is in the genes and in the bones. You’ve got it or you don’t. And yet, we don’t view many other things this way.

My mum always said that learning to paint is like learning to play a musical instrument, something needing hours and years of careful instruction and diligent practice. Of course some people have more aptitude than others, but it seems accepted that anyone can learn a musical instrument, if they learn the knowledge and skills, and then practice, guided by a teacher.

Playing a sport also needs a coach and regular teaching, training and playing. My 5 year old son recently started ‘Auskick’ Australian Rules Football. Did they give him a ball and send him onto the field to play a game, only to send him off when he didn’t know what to do, with cries of, “You’re just not sporty!”? No. They’re starting with skills and drills, small groups of children with coaches who are guiding them through the basics, giving them opportunities to develop and setting them practice goals in between sessions. First the knowledge (how the game is played, rules, positions, teamwork) and the skills (handballs, kicks, marks, tackles, disposals) are learned and honed. Again, some will have more innate talent than others, but all can learn, engage and participate.

The same goes for Art. Learning artistic knowledge and skills leads to artistic capability.

from a 1980s newspaper clipping; me & my painting beside my mum's painting

from a 1980s newspaper clipping; me & my painting beside my mum’s painting

My mum taught me age-appropriate artistic techniques from an early age. Her teaching meant that my attempts at Art looked good for my age, but these were carefully taught strategies. She ran Art classes out of our garage where she taught other kids the same tricks—learned, practiced on newspaper and then enacted on canvas. Parents were impressed. This wasn’t magical ability, but careful teaching by someone who was a knowledgeable, skilled practitioner and an experienced teacher. My mum now teaches my kids how to draw and paint, and they experience the same success. Is it genetics? No, it’s teaching.

And imitation and practice. As a teenager I would sit and draw. Copying posters, copying faces, copying landscapes. Over and over until I got it right, or at least better. My scribbling was informed by knowledge I had been taught about proportion, perspective, shading, the way colours work and techniques for using a variety of materials. I also copied the Old Masters, as many Art students do. Being able to replicate others’ work teaches how to follow the rules. Then an artist can think about and experiment with how they might be bent or broken.

field of flowers painted by my 5yo, as taught by my mum

field of flowers painted by my 5yo, taught by my mum

But Art is also more than knowledge and technique. It is communication and conversation. As I discussed in this post, artists respond to the world and to other artists. Like bloggers, writers or commentators in other disciplines, artists use the language of Art to protest, to provoke or to celebrate. It’s why Manet’s Olympia was so scandalous in its time. It’s why Pop Art and Dada, and even Impressionism were, in their time, an ‘up yours’ to what had come before and a challenge about what could be. Art has always been about communication, storytelling and symbolism (just look at any cave paintings or religious Art), but especially since photography made copies of reality possible, artists challenge what Art is and what its purpose might be.

I paint objects as I think them, not as I see them. ~ Pablo Picasso

Today’s blog post is a response to this one by Greg Ashman, who reflected on his own experiences of Art. Also, tomorrow is Mother’s Day here in Australia, and my mum and grandma have both majorly influenced my love, appreciation and practice of Art. Like Greg, one of my parents is (among other things) an artist. She is currently in America for an exhibition. Like Greg, most of my high school Art classes began with an instruction like, “there’s something: draw/paint/sculpt it,” without much other direction.

Yet the totality of my experience is very different. My mum gave me the grounding in the knowledge, skills and thinking of Art. My grandma still explains artworks and their intricate meanings to me. At university I was taught skills from welding and glass pouring to printmaking and drawing. I was taught Art History, and have since taught this in London at A-Level. I wrote a 25,000 word Fine Art dissertation. Once, I won a national art criticism prize based on the description my grandma gave me of an artwork. The artwork was in the gallery basement and as she was a gallery guide she was able to recall it from memory and describe it to me. When I finally saw the work, I realised that my critique was more inspired because of the image she gave me through her description. The piece was published in a national journal. I’ve written about the PhD as sculpture. I painted illustrations for my thesis.

thesis illustration

thesis illustration

I take my kids each year to Sculptures by the Sea in Perth (here are my pics from 2015 and 2016) and we talk about what our favourites are, and why. I recently took my 5 year old to the State Art gallery and he looked at a large canvas painted dark purple and said, “That is NOT art!” Then we talked about what art was and what criteria made something Art. I didn’t tell him my own views, but was more interested in encouraging him to think about his own thinking and his own assumptions about what makes something Art.

If it’s in a gallery, is it Art? Is Damien Hirst’s Mother and Child Divided (a mother cow and her calf, cut in half and displayed in formaldehyde), or Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ (a photograph of a small plastic crucifix submerged in a glass of the artist’s urine), Art? What about Robert Rauschenberg’s Erased de Kooning, in which he took a drawing by another artist, and erased it? Or Marcel Duchamp’s signed urinal, Fountain?

For me, Art can be a way of seeing, a way of thinking and a way of doing. It’s not something people are inherently bad at, or good at, but a concept and process in which to be engaged. Its value is in that engagement. Can I teach someone to paint a landscape or draw a realistic figure? Sure. Can I teach someone to think more like an artist? That’s trickier, but, like learning to think using a mathematical, theoretical or scientific lens, it’s worth the effort.

All in all, the creative act is not performed by the artist alone.. the spectator brings the work in contact with the external world by deciphering and interpreting its inner qualifications and thus adds his contribution to the creative act. ~ Marcel Duchamp

Words from the Bard #Shakespeare400

over-door plaque at the Folger Shakespeare Library

over-door plaque at the Folger Shakespeare Library

The 23rd of April–yesterday– was the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death.  As an English and Literature teacher I’m a believer in the power of reading and writing. And I’m a Shakespeare nerd. I loved teaching Shakespeare for the three years I lived in London. There it all was! The Globe Theatre, Stratford-Upon-Avon, the streets and boards upon which Shakespeare lived and on which his work breathed. Two weeks ago I visited the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington DC, which houses the world’s largest collection of Shakespeare’s works and artefacts, including 160,000 books, 60,000 manuscripts and 90,000 works of art. It’s Shakespeare nerd heaven.

Why are the Bard’s plays taught ubiquitously in English language and literature classrooms around the world, 400 years after his death? Because his work is considered to be universal and relevant across time and space. His plays and sonnets have influenced the very formation of the English language: the words we use and how we use them. He writes about things which resonate deep in the core of humanity: love, jealousy, history, ambition, rage, war, passion, flesh, and being a flawed person in the world.

So, today I thought I’d share a few of my favourite quotes from Shakespeare’s plays, along with some of my photos of the wonderful Folger Shakespeare Library.

a 1623 Shakespeare First Folio, seen with my own eyeballs ("eyeball" - a word invented by the Bard)

a 1623 Shakespeare First Folio, seen with my own eyeballs (“eyeball” – a word invented by the Bard)

What’s in a name? ~ Juliet, Romeo and Juliet

Juliet’s famous line draws into question notions of identity. What does it matter what we’re called? Does a name or a title change who we are, or who we are perceived to be? I kept my maiden name when I got married, embedded as it was in my sense of who I am. Recently I got to change my title from ‘Ms’ to ‘Dr’ which has come with its own inner identity wrangling. This question is still relevant today, as the language we use to define and describe (ourselves, the world, anything, everything) shapes the meanings we make and the realities we create.

This above all: To thine own self be true. ~ Polonius, Hamlet

An oft-cited line, here’s a case of art speaking a universal truth: the importance of being true to oneself. Shakespeare reminds us to live authentically and purposefully.

If you prick us, do we not bleed? ~ Shylock, Merchant of Venice

While Shylock’s speech ends in vengeance, it begins with a powerful, emotive plea for social justice and equality. This plea can be seen (from a particular angle) to challenge the beliefs of Shakespeare’s time. It also challenges modern audiences to consider their own prejudices and kindnesses. Who in our contemporary world is treated with a lack of empathy or humanity? Who is voiceless or powerless? Who is willing to stand up for justice and fair treatment of all? What is fair?

Shylock’s character is complex and open to different interpretations. Is he villain, victim or man of integrity? He challenges viewers to reflect on themselves, the world in which they live, the way they treat others and the way they conduct themselves.

Screw your courage to the sticking place. ~ Lady Macbeth, Macbeth

Lady Macbeth is initially the backbone in her relationship with Macbeth, although she later goes mad. Here she is at the beginning of the play, strong, resolute and convincing. She calls on spirits to “unsex me” in her drive to take on the strong masculine role alongside her then-weak husband. The actions of Lady Macbeth and her husband are murderous, driven by ambition. The complexities of their relationship explore still-relevant themes of power, gender and love.

Macbeth, like Shylock, is a complex and flawed character open to interpretation. The play encourages us to reflect upon to the extent to which we are each responsible for our own actions and on our own “black and deep desires.”

What angel wakes me from my flowery bed? ~ Titania, A Midsummer Night’s Dream

I love this line. Titania is enchanted as she wakes, but who wouldn’t want to have these words sleepily uttered to them as soon as a lover opened their eyes?

The Folger Shakespeare Library, with the Capitol in the background

The Folger Shakespeare Library, with the Capitol in the background

Because: beauty

Sometimes we can get caught up in the details of our lives. The minutiae of tasks and to-dos, which for me this week has meant an explosion of Post-Its across my work space and yet another blog post on finishing the PhD. I’ve been existing very much in my head.

It’s nice to be reminded of the beauty, wonder, and creativity in the world. This morning I took my boys to Cottesloe for the Sculptures by the Sea exhibition which runs each March. We ran along the sand, splashed in the water, and admired the art. They played, laid on their backs to appreciate the sky and sculptures, and clambered over rocks. It was gloriously simple, and yet the art gave us much to talk about and to think about.

Below are some of my photos from this morning. You can find some of my pics from last year’s exhibition in this post.

by @debsnet

by @debsnet by @debsnetby @debsnetby @debsnet by @debsnet by @debsnet

by @debsnet by @debsnet by @debsnet by @debsnet by @debsnet by @debsnetby @debsnet by @debsnet by @debsnetby @debsnetby @debsnetby @debsnet