Jennie Guy thinks that students aren’t learning enough about the art world.
The Leaving Cert art curriculum doesn’t teach students how to thrive in a world where contemporary art is a vehicle for critical thinking and philosophical inquiry, says Guy.
Many aren’t ready to apply for art college with a suitable portfolio, she says. “There is a stasis throughout the post-primary system, especially in art.”
So for the past three years, Guy has been running Art School, a project that aims to remedy these deficiencies by placing contemporary artists in residencies in schools.
On Friday, an exhibition of the work created through this collaboration between established artists and secondary-school students, It’s Very New School, opens in Rua Red.
The programme and the exhibition are both meant to challenge the education system to up its game when it comes to art, says Guy.
Some say it is working to demystify the art world.
“It has broken down barriers in terms of attending exhibitions and relating to contemporary art,” says Turlough O’Donnell, an art teacher in Blessington Community College, which has participated in Guy’s Art School programme for the last three years.
“How to Swim on Dry Land”
For Sarah Browne, one of the artists who teamed up with students to produce a piece that’s included in the exhibition, it was a chance to get students to reflect on learning.
“I was very excited to share … the idea that artists have a voice in society,” says Browne, who worked with students from Killinarden Community School.
She showed them photographs from around 100 years ago, and together they worked from that starting point to create “How to Swim on Dry Land”.
The title is a response to one of the photos, which shows young boys trying to learn to swim without being in the water. “Really how do you learn something when it is very materially abstract to you?” she asks.
The group came up with 10 things they would like to learn or unlearn, from which they created a poster. They then picked four of these themes to make a video. The video is in the exhibition.
The students wanted to learn “what art was like when everyone was poor”, “the invention of the first musical instruments”, and “how people exist”. They wanted to unlearn social media.
Browne says her role with the students was that of a facilitator and editor, rather than a teacher.
The Art School project aims to take a collaborative approach, says Guy, with learning and benefits for both sides.
“It’s amazing for the artist to be able to come in and experiment with things in their own practice, so it is mutually beneficial,” she says.
“… Amongst Others”
Different artists took different approaches.
Mark O’Kelly, a painter and lecturer in fine art at Limerick School of Art and Design, worked with 20 students in Our Lady’s School in Terenure.
They collaborated on a larger-than-life group portrait called “Image of the Self with and Amongst Others”.
O’Kelly started the process by telling the group about how the concept of group portraiture and the history of that genre have been big influences on his work, he says.
He wanted to get them to reflect on “the significance of images and pictures in terms of power relations in society”, he says.
Group portraits are often of powerful figures like political and military leaders, or members of the board of a company, he says. “People of similar classes or professions, or ages would tend be grouped together.”
“It is a way to get the students thinking about their own place, and how representation of the self can be accommodated as being part of a group,” he says.
O’Kelly also wanted students to reflect on “how people come together to press for change”, he says. He has worked on group portraits of striking workers in the past.
O’Donnell at Blessington Community College says that he will take all his fifth-year art students to the It’s Very New School exhibition. They’ll be required to write a report about their visit.
He agrees that there is little space for contemporary art in the current curriculum. Teachers need to work hard to incorporate it, he says.
“It can be done, but it takes a bit of work on the part of the teacher to weave it in,” he says.