‘This is just what I saw’: sight, sound and spaces of art education
Where does learning take 'place'? What are the material cultures and cultural politics of educational spaces? How can we recover and re-animate these from the past through archival fragments? Dr Sarah Mills explores how her research interests relate to This is Just What I Saw, her Radar commissioned collaboration with the artist Katarina Hruskova.
The title of this project is taken from a reoccurring line used by children to describe their drawings from art lessons with their teacher Marion Richardson (1892-1946). This original material is held at the Birmingham City Design Archives and was the starting point for this Radar project. The collection first inspired recorded sound pieces made by Hruskova, which were then utilised in a series of workshops we led with children and young people in the East Midlands during April 2019. The project will culminate in an exhibition in Loughborough University's Martin Hall Exhibition Space this October.
Richardson spent most of her teaching career in Dudley in the West Midlands, my hometown. Her biography therefore evokes a personal connection, but I have primarily engaged with Richardson’s material for its insights into the material cultures of education, the space of the school classroom, and methodological debates in children’s geographies. An influential art teacher and later education inspector, Richardson developed experimental methods of both teaching art and handwriting, which had a profound impact on the everyday practices of schoolchildren in the UK for many decades. However, the national legacy of her work is often hidden. There are similarities here with other women in art and education history, for example Nan Youngman (the focus of geographer Natalie Bradbury’s research). Marion’s revolutionary use of the classroom was not to get children to draw or paint an accurate copy of items in front of them; rather, she developed child-centred methods of self-expression. She also encouraged pupils to critically evaluate their own work through a series of experiments, activities and exhibitions. She transformed the space of the classroom.
With this context in mind, our workshops with children and young people in the East Midlands had two core activities. First, participants were invited to create a 'mind picture', a technique Richardson used to encourage children to paint that which ‘came spontaneously to the mind’s eye’ (some images from her lessons are at the top of this page). Second, children and young people listened to one of four recorded sound pieces by Hruskova, inspired by student’s artwork from the archive. Workshop participants then had the freedom to create their own artwork inspired by the narrative description, using a choice of different art materials.
The workshops sparked a number of creative and critical questions connected to research on the geographies of education. This vibrant field considers key concepts in human geography (such as space, place, scale and mobility) in response to diverse educational settings and wider social, political, economic and cultural contexts. In the remainder of this post, I briefly consider three sets of these questions.
First, questions about formal and informal education. This remains a central debate in the field, focusing on the relationships between these different yet increasingly overlapping spaces and practices. The workshops straddled both formal and informal sites of learning, taking place in a primary school, secondary school, uniformed youth organisation, and art programme for excluded young people. Each of these has a different educational purpose, vision or curriculum (a theme I return to later) but also different physical spaces and environments of learning. Specifically, these workshops took place in an 'outdoor' classroom hut in a playground, a formal classroom space with tables and chairs, on the floor of a large school hall, and finally in a small meeting room of a historical community building. The workshop activities were inevitably shaped by the design and atmosphere of these different environments, as well as the wider culture, histories, philosophies and conventions of formal and informal educational spaces.
Second, questions of materiality and sound. The recorded sound pieces that sparked the workshop activities were inspired by original artwork from Richardson’s pupils, frozen in time as part of the archive. As ‘young ghosts’ pulled into the present day, this chimes with methodological debates on children’s historical geographies. In recovering these traces from the past, these original children’s artworks from the early twentieth century have been re-animated through Katarina’s creative practice. Some of these physical paintings with catalogue numbers are now the story of the ‘golden ear’ or the ‘velvet curtain’. Those colours and textures have been re-imagined as a narrative, in a new form as ephemeral sound recordings. Their performance in the workshops created a unique atmosphere and immersive audio environment. There were also mixed reactions from children, young people, teachers and volunteers, which varied from engaged silent listening, to stifled giggling, to a cacophony of noise punctuated by questions. These reflections echo recent work on historical and sonic geographies of childhood.
Finally, the workshops raised deeper philosophical questions about the ‘purpose’ or ‘value’ of educational activities and practices. The workshops were seen by schools, teachers or volunteers in contrasting ways. For some, the offer of this workshop was almost instantly and instrumentally linked to the national curriculum, even timed to form part of a formal observed inspection in one case. However, in other settings, it created a much-needed space of freedom, fun, and a playful creative break from those wider structures of governance. Although our aim was never to ‘test’ Marion's methods in a contemporary context, the workshops did raise timely questions about the purpose, policies, politics and pressures of different educational spaces.
The final stage of ‘This is just what I saw’ is an installation by Hruskova, inspired by children and young people's artwork from our own workshops. This will combine printed textile and spoken word. The exhibition opens 3rd October 2019.
This is Just What I Saw: Exhibition
Thu 3 October
12am - 12am
A mixed media installation by Katarina Hruskova, inspired by the pioneering arts educator Marion Richardson. Read more
This Is Just What I Saw: Opening and Conversation
Thu 3 October
4pm - 7pm
The launch of 'This is Just What I Saw', featuring a conversation with Katarina Hruskova and Dr Sarah Mills. Read more