Art Class: Autumn-Winter 2021

Dear Sis…You asked for a progress update on the City of London Community Education art class I joined in September 2021. The Autumn term is now finished and we have all wished each other a merry Christmas and eaten cake together.

One of the requirements of being in the education-supply business is that students and tutors must serially assess and record the quality of the product. It is a legal requirement, and rightly. In our case everything gets pumped into an app called Moodle. Here you will find all the course notes, updates, exercises and progress reports, including photographs of the artwork produced. If during the term Moodle and its admin demands sometimes interrupted the flow of artistic expression it was probably not intended. Moodle is a recent addition to The Art Class family and as with all newborns it takes up more of your time than you’d probably like it to.

I joined the Art Class on the recommendation of our friend Marge, a veteran of the community and of art practice, having in the past been a potter and sculptor. Marge asked my wife if I might enjoy the class, adding that it was inhabited by “good lefties”. When my wife replied that “he doesn’t take well to instruction” Marge said no problem. The class is very relaxed and improvisational, or something along those lines. In other words, I’d fit in. That’s how I arrived here, feeling slightly fraudulent since I am no artist, but looking forward to the adventure of pretending to be one.

I got the feeling in Week 1 that I’d jumped into a fast-flowing stream – a project was already underway and my entry had been delayed. This was the environment of my orientation: several people who already knew one another, all with different skills and a range of views on what “art” looks like. Many of the scheduled exercises came with the word “observational” attached. What was that supposed to mean? The immediate task was to depict “A View From A Window”. I looked through the nearest window and got to work on a corner of the Golden Lane Estate, where boxy modernist social housing sits amid green lawns laced with trees and shrubs. Here the strong geometry of a man-made world is disturbed by the patterns of nature. When our tutor Sara then asked us to re-depict the scene taking inspiration from the work of David Hockney, the project took on a new level of discovery. Only then did I look at David Hockney’s work not out of reverence but for what I could steal from it. My swag included long lines and solid colour. Plus the observation that Hockney is a ruthless editor of his work. He cuts out the bits he doesn’t like and paints in things that weren’t there in the first place. In my image I moved some rose bushes and demolished an Islington Council tower block. And I framed it in an iPad-generated photo-effect cut-up of the original scene.

In the end, the innocent jumble of the colours and the attempt to draw straight lines by hand gave the painting a childlike flatness I really like.

Our next assignment was a collective project based on postcards. Each student would start a postcard, which then passed to a fellow student, who studied and added to what they saw in the original work. In this way, a collection of ideas and points of view became embodied in each single postcard. The lesson behind this project was to “let go”, to appreciate the potential of teamwork while still operating as an individual. 

Then our ability to think on our feet took another step in an assignment called Titles, in which students made an artwork with the same title as an existing artwork. This gave us the opportunity to be as serious or as playful as we wished. The title I was assigned was A Place Where All My Thoughts Are Frozen Together. The artwork for me was made specifically for the title. In the process, I came to the view that the titles of artworks are often an afterthought. For this task I imagined a footballer whose thoughts are all singlemindedly contained in a single frame in the shape of a football pitch. 

Straight after half term we returned to that word “observational”. But this time our task, hooked on the festival of Diwali, was to observe light. This took us into a shady area, where shadows shoot in from every direction to cast new meaning on the thing being “observed”. I started to look at the same object (a glass jar) but saw something subtly different every time. As we worked Sara observed that there was no such thing as a line. A line is a boundary between light and dark, she said. This sounded so philosophical it stayed with me for weeks afterwards. I think it might even appear on my gravestone. My doodles have since become a lot more exciting.

By now it looked like everything to do with this class boiled down to the word “observational”. It took a comic turn when our tutor Sara said look inside your fridge and show us what you see. I saw a very old, half-used bulb of garlic. 

The next week our task carried the title Old Brown Shoe. I took this as an opportunity to explore the memories that become lodged in items of clothing. Do you remember what you wore during your first meaningful kiss? Etc. I went for the Blundstone boots I wore during our big 1997 Australian road trip with Liz and Spud, coupled with a scrawled map of the route we took.

‘White-on-White’ was a challenge. It straightaway raised the question: what is white? Is white 0% black? Is black 0% white? And where does that leave 50 shades of grey? Before the class I’d thought about this a lot and experimented with images.

This emboldened me to trust my instincts, so I then spent days collecting together anything I could vaguely describe as white. My haul included sugar, baby powder, cotton buds, photocopier paper, PVA glue, acrylic white paint, tissue paper, linen rags. In class I decided to create a formal landscape including pyramids.

In the final two weeks of the Autumn term we were asked to fly solo in a self-initiated project. It was, said the notes in Moodle, an opportunity to “reflect on this term’s work or the chance to revisit/finish a project you feel you’d like to work on further.” I reflected on how much I enjoyed the David Hockney project and decided to study and steal from another famous artist. I chose to hang out with the illustrative faces and figures of Julian Opie.

Their strong black lines and solid colours seem so simple. They look like heavily manipulated photographic facsimiles, as if they were made by a machine. Yet the exactness of their shape is revealing. The tilt of an eyebrow tells a story. The hand on the hip holds a message. So with this in mind I got to work on the crumpled face of a friend. Chris is a brain-injury survivor whose misshapen mush contorts most visually when he talks. The images I chose to illustrate are single frames from a 20-second video I shot while Chris answered a provocative question about politics. I presented them in a photo-booth style in an attempt to depict the action of him speaking rather than a single moment during his speech.

In the end I’m not sure I stole very much from Julian Opie. My drawings are obviously bad freehand. The black lines are not thick enough. The colours are too random. My efforts look quite cartoony whereas Opie’s somehow look realistic. But the exercise did push me a bit closer towards finding my own meaning for the word “observational”, so maybe I’m getting somewhere.

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