Paying attention and noticing

Astonishing splashes of colour: a good read by Clare Morrall; a quote from J M Barrie’s “Peter Pan’ (for the Neverland is always more or less an island, with astonishing splashes of colour here and there’ and my way to describe a gallery space in South Square, Nr. Bradford, W. Yorks.  There’s an exhibition in The Calver Gallery  (scrolling down required) until 2 August, by artist Lauren Iredale and I went along for a second look.

I’d had a first look a week before and needed to take time to look a little more closely. I wanted to look at sections of the paintings and notice. Something I’m learning about since taking up photography. So, instead of just looking directly, I looked through the lens of my camera. I focussed my noticing on the lines, their thickness, direction, shapes, colours; as lines are just not lines in these paintings. The lines convey directions of travel, single, multiple, signal interconnections; they become grooves, changing colour and strength. They stretch, becoming thinner then suddenly disappear, transform or retract becoming thicker once again. Sometimes there’s a flow to these lines, other times there’s interruption and change. The one you see a part of above this blog appeared to give my eyes direction; upward from left to right and then right to left along the lower part of the painting.

Does it matter? It was about appreciating the paintings and how they were. Robert Henri describes art appreciation as:

“The appreciation of art should not be considered as merely a pleasurable pastime. To apprehend beauty is to work for it. It is a mighty and an entrancing effort, and the enjoyment of a picture is not only in the pleasure it inspires, but in the comprehension of the new order of construction used in its making.’


Looking  through the camera lens focused my seeing on sections of the paintings. I scanned them in a logical way noticing tiny splashes or fragments of colour, gaining some insight into the order of paint application. Sometimes, like the little section here, it was almost like a warp and weft weave, then abruptly a change in order, a colour overlayed or the line going under when it was expected in turn to go over. Then a sudden broad overlay of more translucent colour. And there’s layers, with colours, shapes, forms underneath.


Ah! An abrupt change. There’s 5 oil paintings and then a drawn collage. There’s a small part of this collage which is different, very different. I didn’t see it on my first visit. In fact, it’s almost as if I had my eyes closed. There is just one circle and you can see it in the middle toward the very bottom of this section. It is in fact a black round ball, asymetrically inside a circle. Wow.

Looking, seeing and noticing is a series of discoveries. Perhaps this is part of what Alain de Botton means when he discusses art as a tool. In ‘ Art as Therapy’ Botton explains how ‘art is a therapeutic medium that can help guide, exhort and console its viewers, enabling them to become better versions of themselves.’

Botton and joint author John Armstrong (described as a philosopher and art theorist), suggest there are 7 functions of art:

  1. Remembering
  2. Hope
  3. Sorrow
  4. Rebalancing
  5. Self-understanding
  6. Growth
  7. Appreciation

lauren exhib 5

I’ve learnt how important it is to stop and take notice. T0 pay attention to the familiar (lines) and notice how and when  they become unfamiliar. To pay far more attention to shape, colour, density, flow and direction. Seeing these paintings through my camera lens has made a difference. Taking photographs has made a difference. I’m finding it extremely difficult to voice an explanation. This picture contains little splashes of colour, yellow on blue. Can you see them moving from the first complete grid square to the more central one below? These tiny, flashes take me back to playing ‘Battleships’ as a kid when we mapped out the grids on paper and drew in the ships. The memories flood back of sisters, mum and dad, my younger brother having a battleship set made of plastic and, of playing it using pencils and paper with my son in a hotel room during a wet, cold Majorcan holiday. The emotional and sensory meaning of those little shapes was remembering. How extraordinary! I’m so, so glad I noticed them! They’re brilliant in their own right too.

In struggling to know how to finish this blog I stumbled upon a No. 68 – ‘Lines of the same weight and density, colors of a similar tone, or comparable textures will tend to occupy the same visual plane in space and create the sensation of flatness.’ There’s no flatness in Lauren’s paintings. Kit says that it’s all to do with atmospheric perspective. The art historian Ernst Hans Gombrich’s  theory states that ‘artwork invites the individual not only to look outside but also within, to the subjective memories, ideas and emotions that form his interpretation. The capacity of art to help us look within our own minds….’ Well, he seems to have that spot on for me. I know there’s far more to Lauren’s paintings than lines. Who’d have thought tho’ that some of those lines stimulated memories and an internal sense of noticing something important, creative and colourful.

Oh, I’ve just had a thought about a future blog topic. I’m wondering if we wouldn’t need the current promotion of ‘character building’ in school curricula if we had more teaching and focus on the arts? Oliver Beach seems to have the same idea too.

If you want to see more of Lauren’s work take a look at those on permanent display in an NHS setting in Scotland.

Oh, and No. 68 is in ‘101 Things to learn in art school’ by Kit White. No 2 and link is in a previous blog.

MARKING – Walking with students

I think in riffs, playing with ideas, events, moments, turning them round and round, connecting and dis-connecting until I’m ready to write. Right about now I’m ignoring an almost ‘Garden size – Jenga’ stack of multi-coloured folders, accompanied by pages of empty boxes desperately seeking numbers.

There’s no two ways about it, marking student writing is work!

A word about marking: I love reading student writing. To my mind, marking is part of a much larger landscape of pedagogical practice and as I’m writing this, I’m beginning to understand why I’m procrastinating. I’m feeling disconnected, un-coupled from learning conversations, from the students and from my soul and being as a teacher. It’s visceral, as captured by R.S. Thomas in his poem ‘Here’

“I have nowhere to go.

The swift satellites show

The clock of my whole being is slow…”

I need to walk! Walking is part of who I am; paradoxically it both empties and fills my thinking, pushing me on a little further, higher. I’m taken back to a poem by R. Graves; “There was this road, and it led up-hill, and it led down-hill. And round and in and out…Resolutely nowhere in both directions…The doubt unchained them; they had run in twenty puddles before I regained them…” He was of course talking about legs, the poem title.

At various times I’ve turned to my bookshelf, my notebooks now awash with scratchy quotes, names, page numbers, but nothing leapt out from the pages to hug me. I recall Festinger’s description of ‘cognitive dissonance’ and it helps me understand my current feelings of disconnection and loss. Whilst engaged in the monologue activity that is marking, in ‘non-splendid isolation’ I feel the loss of the dynamic shared space where meanings, understandings and contexts may be interrupted, perhaps transformed. My individual accountability to the student feels diminished compared to the ‘machinery’ of assessment. Heidegger describes leaping ahead, taking over, dominating; and this is how it feels.

Crikey, where do I go from here?

Bruner says ‘…for there to be a story, something unforeseen has to happen…new possibilities…’ My new possibility was Lauren, an abstract artist, exhibiting her paintings and floor (more about this a little later) at the Dean Clough Galleries: Summer Exhibitions.  I admit to having an infinitesimal knowledge of art and painting and felt a lot like Jess in ‘The Icarus Girl’ when she explains why she was scared “…once you let people know anything about what you think, that’s it…they’ll be jumping around your mind…holding it up to the light…” Well, I needn’t have worried, Lauren walked and talked with me, she spoke of her system; often not knowing what’s going to happen when she starts painting at the edges of her canvas. Of how her first paintings were lines and circles interrupting space, but now she paints rectangles, sometimes quickly, very quickly it seems, and sometimes with a slower pace. She tells me that you can see ‘pace’ in a painting, and demonstrated her slower pace in one painting. And, I did see it! There’s a painting which doesn’t feel like hers and one that covers others she’s dissatisfied with. Her paintings have no labels or ‘For Sale – prices’, and she told me of her difficulties finding a way of labelling them, as titles confer meanings, they have connotations, which also bring dis-connotations. I understand, as I’m struggling to unearth what it is about our conversation that has become a memory for what is good and positive about life.

Virginia Woolf to the rescue, “…happily my thoughts were now given another turn…”

In the ‘twinkling of an eye’ I get it; the authentic self. Lauren’s conversation comes from ‘who she is…an artist.’ My procrastination, my cognitive dissonance is due to my loss of authenticity, the loss of who I am as  a teacher. I dream of talking with students about their writing, just as Lauren talked with me about her painting. I need to break out of the isolated, solitary marking monologue and walk with the students, just as Lauren walked with me.

What brought about my loss of authenticity was an assessment architecture which clashed with my pedagogical practice. Ah! I get it now! I see why Lauren created an artwork covering the floor of her exhibition room. She ‘hated the blue lino,’ but it was more than this, it’s about her authenticity as an artist, and as one visitor said ‘she’s pulled off a blinder!’

What have I learnt? That marking is and should be relational! Are we ready to have the conversation with students to make it possible?

To see more of Lauren’s art:

Virginia Woolf’s: A Room of One’s Own