Archives for the month of: February, 2011

This case study is about the making of a sequence of fifteen ceramic plates in a middle school art room as an example of art practice in an educational context. These plates and the continuing sequence is to be presented as the final part of the PhD report. The making of the plates represents a summary of the findings and themes explored in the research to date.

The plates have been made in the middle school art room as part of the daily life of the classroom and as part of the making of demonstration pieces for use in the classroom as an art practice. The ceramic plates have been made to explore learning and teaching about art in both form and content. The plates have been used to support teaching in the classroom and the process of their making has been demonstrated in the classroom.
The middle school that I work in is scheduled to close in July 2011. This is reflected in some of the plates which represent reflections on an art career in education. I have also been working in the role of head of year eight over the past year which has been onerous and stressful at times. The state of the school, uncertainty over the future, staff morale and the mood of the children have been the background to the making of this series of works. In many ways the focus on making work has been a welcome distraction and a solace from these working conditions.

Why Plates?
The only training I have had in ceramics was during my year of teacher training at Middlesex University. Before that there were a few childhood pots at school but nothing else. During my teaching career I have used ceramics extensively as a way of teaching the 3D element of the National Curriculum. Once I got used to firing the kilns I found in middle school art rooms I became more confident in using clay with children and more sure of successful results. Most of the children like using clay so I found it a good way to engage children. Many teachers don’t use clay because of fears over health and safety and behaviour with what is basically posh mud in a classroom. I found that I could use the clay to ensure good behaviour as if they didn’t use it properly I stopped them using it at all and this has a generally been an effective sanction.
The teacher at college was very enthusiastic about ceramics and the history of pottery and he opened it up for me and made me think about the history of the material. I have often told children about the tiny Roman pot that he showed us. It had the finger-prints of the maker on the base where it had been removed from the wheel.
What is so powerful about using ceramics in the classroom is the way that it connects the lesson to this whole history and technology of 10,000 years of ceramics. We are practising a sub-genre of ceramics called children’s pottery. Whilst down the road friends of mine make studio ceramics and in Stoke-on-Trent someone is making lavatory bowls. And not far from us there is a workshop making a revival of Lowestoft Porcelain.
Though I have developed a certain level of skill in ceramics over the years it is not high. I don’t do it often enough and I have not had the practice to get very good at it. My technical understanding of the process remains relatively basic. I can get children to make objects with buff school clay and terracotta, glaze them and have them come out of the kiln in one piece. In this way my pottery skill is entirely a thing of my teaching and thus seems a good way to explore the ideas about the classroom demonstration. All of my ceramic work takes place in the classroom and is an entirely classroom based sort of work. The things I make in clay always seem to me to have the mark of the classroom about them. They never transcend the classroom setting. I wanted this to be part of the work.
I was also interested in developing these ceramic skills with a sustained focus on the material. One of the themes of the research and of the practice in the research is the wide ranging nature of the practice and the continual distractions of working in a school. I wanted to try to concentrate on a set of work in a relatively narrow range to try to think about this aspect of the work.
I was also interested in the idea of skills and craft in the art curriculum. As my work has taken me into different phases of education I have become very interested in the different attitudes towards skill in these different phases. The National Curriculum in its various incarnations and current confusions, exam boards, foundation and degree courses and the art market in its myriad forms all seem to have different notions of skill. There is no single view of the value of skill in all these different viewpoints but a great number of assumptions. I think that what I am doing is showing students some creative thinking methods through the manipulation of materials and media. In this set of works I am trying to use clay as the medium to explore some creative ideas and ideas about process. I am also trying to show them creative engagement, an artist becoming quite obsessive about pursuing an idea.

The first plate
11th February 2010
From mind’s eye to object. How does this happen exactly? How does something go from being in my mind’s eye to becoming an object that everyone else can see? It’s a complex process, much of it inside my imagination but it is my imagination interacting with the material world and with people. It can be recorded at the time but sometimes it only becomes clear at the end. The plate started in come idea about how Roberts (2007) is wrong and that eh physical world and ideas is what is important and that the hand can’t and shouldn’t be taken out. So I was thinking about craft and plates and how the kiln in a middle school tends to produce work that looks like it was made in a middle school. Then I saw a link to an avatar making program. I made an avatar on this, for fun. I thought the result was funny but not much more. Then I thought about cutting it as a stencil to use in a painting. I reduced it to a black shape in Photoshop ready for that- ready to use a plotter to cut it, to be indirect. The machine was never going to happen so I went back to the souvenir plate idea which had evolved independently through Thomas Toft. So then I painted the image onto a plate. It being funny to paint a dematerialised avatar onto a dodgy middle school plate. Somewhere around here the mental image of what it would look like appears in my mind and then I go through the process of making that physical. I was very pleased with the result this morning. It doesn’t always work out as it didn’t with the CAD embroidery. And the process isn’t always like that either. Some things emerge before my eyes slowly and I find out what I meant later. And then there is doing the same thing through the children as per a lesson I did the other day that was observed by the deputy head. (From notebook)
The lesson I am referring to involved having the children making a ceramic mural that fitted together out of tiles that they made. This was a development of a painting project with connecting paintings. What I am interested in my own creative ideas and how they are communicated. With the plate I have an idea that evolves from an aside into a physical object that can be shared with others. With the class I am having an idea that I am getting the pupils to fill in, as it were. I am constructing a lesson that will fulfil the criteria of a learning experience for them and will generate a work of art. This seems more indirect, a mixture of an artistic imagination and a pedagogical one.

Further Plates
Following these, made in the Spring of 2010, I made no further plates but persisted with the etching project and drawing. As the new school year got under way in the Autumn of 2010 these plates and the positive reception that they had got were still in my mind.
In conversation with a friend about the project he referred to the idea of showing someone how to make a pot as an example of the sort of demonstration we were talking about. It occurred to me that the pot as a thing you show someone how to make is often mentioned in these conversations that I have about the project. It is the obvious metaphor.

If I make a pot to show you how to make a pot does that make the pot different to other sorts of pot? If we take that pot and put it in an art gallery does it look like a different sort of pot? If I make a pot to show myself about making a pot does that look different and if so how? And what have I been demonstrating? Practice having a skill-can I demonstrate my own learning or understanding to myself? (Notebook 30th October 2010)
I had been looking at Richard Prince and Lily Van Der Stokker and I was interested in their use of humour and text in their work. The first two plates I made to demonstrate a paper stencil technique used a rabbit drawing based on the work of Ray Johnson that I had used in a mail art project I had done the year before with the children. The other one was based on a Lily Van Der Stokker piece “I am an artwork and I am 3 years old”. These were made with newspaper leters cut out and placed on the clay and then coated with a layer of slip. The letters are then removed to leave the clay showing through. The Johnson plate was clear glazed and the Stokker piece was glazed with a blue speckle glaze. I had to glaze it twice as the first time it was ruined by a foot falling over a pupil’s clay figure and landing on the plate, sticking in the glaze. I had filled several pages of sketchbook with ideas for further plates.

Commemorative Plates

For the next set of plates a number of ideas coalesced around them and I began to research ceramics more actively. I started thinking about royal plates and the Thomas Toft slipware plates I have always enjoyed. I spent an afternoon drawing in the Castle Museum and I saw a number of plates and vases that had been made to commemorate various naval heroes from the Napoleonic wars. Nelson was just the most famous of the celebrated heroes of the sea, it would appear. I tried to base one of the plates on an image of Nelson. The idea being to commemorate my teaching career at Gisleham as the ship goes down around me. I was considering myself as some sort of Victorian educational hero, famed on plates.
I was also intrigued to find plates commemorating Admiral Keppel in various tinware forms. Keppel was court martialled for a naval mishap but was found innocent. This event kept the plate and bowl manufacturers of Staffordshire going for quite a while it would appear form the number of pieces with his image on in various collections that I have found.
I drew his image and used it as the basis for a self-portrait in the manner of on two plates. The point being that we are awash with naval metaphors at school. I am often told that I will find it difficult to work in a bigger school as I have been the captain of my own ship for so long.

What Made You Want to be an Artist, Mr Cope?
A further set examined the beginnings of my wanting to be an artist. I was trying to think back to when I was the age of the children that I teach. This is often in my thoughts whilst not really thinking much about my own childhood, in many ways. It is a focus on the art auto-biography more than anything else. I see children who seem to have a similar relationship to art that I had and there are the same sorts of enthusiasms amongst the children for different sorts of drawing as there was when I was young. Sci-fi and comic strips and horses and flowers. The Stokker work made me think about male equivalents to her work though this didn’t seem that productive. The male equivalents are what we are more used to as ‘art’ which is what gives her work the point.
One of the plates uses a boy’s drawing of a robot figure which he had actually given to another boy. I have used this boyish interest in robot figures before and another plate features a dalek. This interest stems from the games the boys play on their entertainment machines and the prevalence of sci-fi in popular culture.
When I was twelve the main thing I drew were real space men and Napoleonic soldiers. One of the plates features a drawing of a French hussar based on a fairly inauthentic painting found on the web. I was fascinated by these uniforms and the strangeness of getting dressed up like that to go to war. Some early drawings which garnered praise were of these soldiers, as I remember.

I have been using the various plates I have made and the learning journals as demonstration examples with the year eights over the past three weeks. They have been tasked to make a small plate with the circular tile cutter that we have. The pupils have picked up on the Grayson Perry vase of his childhood heroes which I have used for a ‘Heroes of Anstey Library’ design. They have done a lot of footballers.

What is quite interesting is the way that tracing has become a big part of the project. One of the pupils mistook some Pennsylvanian pin decorated ware of a horseman riding by for Thomas Toft’s work. I pursued the links further and found out more about the images. I have based two plates on the horseman who was apparently a stock figure in Pennsylvanian ceramics in the late eighteenth century. The second one I used a pin decorated method which gave the lines a certain quality but did enable a pretty accurate transposition of the photocopied drawing I used. The pupils have really gone for this and some of the results have been very fine. A girl this afternoon rendered an old fashioned car using this method which worked very well.

If I hadn’t got so involved in making plates myself then I wouldn’t have pursued these lovely Pennsylvanian plates because the link was because of my drawing of a hussar on a plate. It was because I was interested in making plates of a horseman riding by that I picked up on the serendipitous research image and following it through into something that has been so useful for the pupils.


Design for a commemorative plate

Design for a commemorative plate about Monet



I finished another learning journal or sketchbook yesterday in a sudden rush of glued in drawings from the British Museum. I did have a notebook with me which sometimes serves as a sketchbook but I also had a pocket full of postcards and I drew on these instead with a fountain pen. I should have taken some shots of the cards as a pile as it was quite nice to have this pack of shufflable ‘culture cards’ as it were. What I actually did was paste them into the current sketchbook along with other bits and pieces and some photo thumbnails that I had taken with a digital camera. I used this book at school when I was explaining to the pupils how we were going to design our commemorative plates.

I was using my plates, my current practice, as the instigator for the project so I was trying to share with them the inspiration behind my “Admiral Keppel” style plates of a doughty head of art on a sinking ship. As I did so I was thinking about how much the work that I did last summer on the learning journal module for ARU has affected the books. They are packed with huge amounts of detail, much improved referencing and layers of complexity. What I am trying to do is demonstrate something to a future self much more. I am packing up the ideas with a view to unpacking them in the future. I am using the book as a thought technology in a much clearer way than I was before. They make my old sketchbooks (ordinary ones) look utterly casual, letting the reading of them to pure chance.

I don’t decorate the books much, I don’t embellish them with much more than layers of notes and pointers. Beyond the odd bit of collage here and there I just lay them out with gaps for later notes and in fill. They remain pretty chronological, on the whole. I have had a run of using spiral bound books and quite a lot of glueing in. One of the books has black pages and is written in with silver and white pens as a nod towards the idea of journal as scrapbook.

I don’t know what the children make of them but the books do seem to be a much more deliberate presentation of practice than before.

With the year eights I am demonstrating a set of six plates, one for each group. I picked up on Grayson Perry’s ‘Heroes’ pot which I saw in the V and A a few weeks ago when I was drawing in the ceramic galleries. I had the idea (on the 15th January, according to my book) to do a plate about heroes of the Anstey library: towards a job definition. When I was a lad first getting interested in art and being told by peers and some teachers that ‘you really should be an artist, Paul’ I spent a lot of time getting all of the art books out of the Anstey library. I was a committed reader and I read my way round this little library from 1972 to 1977 a couple of times. I was fond of military history, sci-fi of the more cerebral sort, Orwell, art books, drawing primers (the best being Paul Hogarth’s ‘Creative Pen Drawing’), Huxley, and Alistair MacLean. I did not grow up in a house with a great deal of original art beyond my mother’s amateur oil landscapes. There was a print of a chuckling cavalier on the stairs, a couple of Canaletto prints and a writhing black bronze horse with a snake wrapped round it that gave the shivers.

So I had to come up with a job description myself. There was Graphic Design or Commercial Art which I was a bit too flakey for, really. Rather unbiddable for the commercial world. And then there were the lives of the Great Artists int he black Thames and Hudson volumes. What a great bunch of role models they were too. So my plates are dedicated to six wry art heroes of the Anstey library. I think this was all rather lost on the children who were with me as far as Admiral Keppel but stopped getting the jokes thereafter.

One of the things that came out of the physical process of making these designs was tracing the images. I traced the first one about Gauguin and realised that this simplified my source somewhat and seemed to make the possibility of carving it into clay way more achievable so I grabbed some old drafting paper out of the old DT room and found the old light box and we were away. I got the pupils to trace their pictures of Eric Cantona and Bobby Moore (?) and it all started to look a lot more likely to succeed.

The whole process of inspiration from Perry, Toft, and Keppel, of day dreaming in ceramic museum spaces and letting these ideas mull and intermix on bits of paper in books looks fantastically complex and individual. And a huge amount of work. I have been committed to this for some time, if not obsessed. I have really pursued these avenues of thought with pen in hand and the journals and helped me do it. I am modelling obsession, partly. And now I have turned it into a viable school project. It doesn’t look that self evident at all.

I lie awake at night planning sprig moulds of fruit gums.