I went to bed very anxious the night before we went back to school this week. Simon and I were worried about everything. Worried about coming back out into the real world, worried about whether we had got the myriad of constantly changing COVID-19 precautions right, worried about our student's worries and our tutor's worries. It was not a good night's sleep, but I got up with more resolve than when I went to bed.
#yougotthis I kept saying to myself.
As usual, Simon's sense of humour kicked-in to lift the spirits, albeit slightly black humour today. His disturbed dreams had included one about the need to bury a dead horse on the way into work, and that his face mask had transformed into an allover body condom that came up over his head. Nice images to start the day.
#yougotthis I said again.
The next dilemma was what to wear. It’s been months since I was out in public or in the workplace and my wardrobe, usually full of smart work clothes, has been reduced to shorts and T-shirts for what feels like an eternity. I decided on simple lightweight trousers and layers on the top because Ardington can be draughty at the best of times but with all the doors and windows open to improve ventilation for COVID-19, it was likely to be even cooler than usual. Interestingly I haven’t worn any jewellery for 4 1/2 months either but noticed that in my dresser drawer, there were some pieces of silver clay jewellery that I had made myself at Ardington. It was comforting to put them on this morning and I left the house feeling almost human.
Walking down our garden path, I noticed there were a few brown leaves and some baby conkers that had already fallen from the trees. It's now early Autumn I thought. How strange that we have missed two whole seasons at the school already this year. The last time we opened was early Spring. The seasons do seem to catch us out at Ardington. I shuddered at the thought of 'Snowgate', when in our first Winter at the school, we got stuck in snow for four hours on the A34 and couldn't open for the last day of term. It was our 25th wedding anniversary that day too!
The journey to work was silent. Both of us usually have plenty to say on the way in, but this morning we just sat quietly in the relative safety of the car. I Googled that. There were 1,870 deaths on the roads in the last year, compared with over 46,000 deaths from the virus. I never thought that speeding along in the car on the A34 would be 'safe', but in absolute terms, it really was today.
I felt unnerved by my heightened anxiety levels today - I of all people should know what to expect. My day job as an HR consultant means that I’m advising companies on the health, workplace and financial implications of COVID-19 on a daily basis. I've even completed a major piece of research this year with WEF on the topic. And it seems that no matter how much exercise, yoga, meditation and healthy eating I do, and despite living smoke, alcohol and caffeine free, (all good anxiety busting activities), I was still feeling super anxious today.
We got to the school and opened up and there were several bunches of flowers that Simon had bought, waiting to be arranged in vases, as we usually do in the school. Anyone who knows me will understand that this is something I delight in. I set to work in earnest but still quietly. It was good to smell the flowers, and to the roses I added some honeysuckle and buddleia from the school garden for extra fragrance. Hmmm - still feeling anxious though.
I was booked as a student on today’s course as well as being there as a director of Ardington School to experience the new procedures first-hand. Our tutor and students started to arrive and we went through our new procedures with everyone, a long speech, the new one-way system, what to expect and how to craft and move around the school safely. Compared to the usual open arms warm welcome with a basket full of freshly baked cookies, today was definitely different.
However, the new 'brown-bag system' for the cookies felt friendly, nostalgic somehow in a nod-to-childhood sort of way, and the students and tutors embraced it. Small triumph #1! And the cookies were as yummy as ever, by the way.
It wasn’t long before the tutor, the lovely Debbie Page, was using the new overhead desk camera, from behind her perspex screens, projecting her demo to students via the 40 inch TV screen on a table out front. Debbie was also sharing her handouts via a special Pinterest board and through email PDFs with the students. She encouraged us to Google one of her icons, Dorothy Feibleman, whose work in Nerikomi ceramic techniques is exceptional and inspired today's worksop. Luckily we had put in a new Wi-Fi mesh system at Ardington School during lockdown, and students connected super quick to access all this good stuff from Debbie. Triumph #2. Our Wi-Fi has always been erratic in the past and would never have coped! Technology upgrades seem to have accelerated everywhere - tutors, students and even Ardington's old Victorian school building are now speaking another language - techno!
Debbie has always been a great tutor. Generous with her knowledge, calm, kind and supportive to the students and she started the session by giving us all a piece of white Saint Thomas clay just to handle as part of the warm-up for the session. It was cold and damp and left dirty marks on our hands - but it felt so good. Good dirt for a change – the sort of dirt that you don’t mind scrubbing your hands for. And with the cobalt and copper oxide colourants in the clay we were using, it was not just Ardington that was insisting on frequent hand-washing today!
It wasn’t long before the students were fully engrossed in Debbie‘s commentary and instructions. She demonstrated three approaches to Nerikomi - 1. laminating with pieces of coloured clay and making blocks of patterns from it, 2. coiling with clay using different colours in the coils like a stick of rock, and finally 3. a marbled effect using all your off-cuts 'smushed' (technical term) together.
Interestingly, my diary note-taking stopped of its own accord at this point. I was in crafting zone. On crafting time. My brain was working very differently with no wandering dark distractions. I was using different brain muscles that felt like they had been asleep for years and were just waking up! Ideas were flowing and good thoughts were flooding my head. I also felt the return of a sense of purpose. I was set on looking after our tutor and her students. How can we improve the camera set up? Is the screen in the best place? Is the one-way system working? Here, now, we could take positive action and fix things. In fact, we rolled out our 'Plan B' camera during the lunch break, as 'Plan A' camera kept timing-out. It was great to be back in control of making things better, albeit in a small way.
Lunch was a delight, delivered in brown-bags with Simon‘s calligraphy and culinary skills in full flow. He labelled every one and they were filled with what the students had ordered on their menu card at the start of the day. We both knew that this was the beginning of a new tradition that we want to keep post COVID-19. No more plates of sandwiches left open on the dresser for passing germs to jump onto. And everybody got exactly what they ordered, including a few treats at the bottom of the bag. No-one at the back of the queue missing out on their first choice of lunch, or unhappy because all the scones had been snaffled! Triumph #3. This day was getting better.
We took lunch into the sunny garden and everything started to feel a bit more normal now. The students started to talk together and share their own experiences and how it feels coming back to school. The afternoon workshop session was then full of chatter, just like the old days. And as for the work produced by the tutor and the students, well you can see for yourself it was an exceptionally creative workshop. Nerikomi was a great hit - we will do this again. Triumph #4.
During and at the end of the school day, students used the individual sanitising kit we provided to spray tables and chairs. And when everybody had packed up and gone home, we felt a sense of immense relief. Back to school - Day One - was done and it went very well. Yes there were things we would change, including the slightly over complicated menu card and the dysfunctional camera, but there were things we decided that we will keep forever. Brown-bags for cookies, lunch and cake, the new Wi-Fi mesh system, and big screen demo's for starters.
And even though we have set up ardington academy online workshops, now managed by our daughter Gemma who joined us on 1st August, I also concluded that there’s still a lot to be said for an in-person crafting experience. There are so many sensory elements from being in a room with other crafters and an experienced tutor that you can’t get online. You can see, hear, feel, smell and touch as well as understand from other students how to hone a technique or improve your own work. OK - yes, you have to get up and dressed and get yourself to the school, but it's still worth it!
One final thought - our feedback forms will be replaced with an online survey going forward. Small Triumph #5 – less paper and a more accurate set of analytics on how people felt about their experience so that we can continue to improve. But I did rely on old fashioned methods and asked everyone for feedback at the end of the day 'how do you feel?', 'what can we improve?' The students told us they felt very safe and comfortable, that they enjoyed the excellent course, that they were so happy to be out and crafting again, and gave us their thanks for seeing the school through the hard times and getting it back up and running. This was the biggest #Triumph of all.
We felt humbled and proud, emotionally drained and even more resolved to run many more craft courses in-person, for those ready to venture out, and online for those who can't get to the school. Arts and crafts are good for the soul. They were good for mine on Tuesday and I'm 100% certain they always will be.
New tutor, Clay Thompson, has plenty of experience to draw on. In his day job as a designer of trading software (user experience platform design for an investment bank), Clay commutes up to London most days and this gives him some quiet time to draw. Nearly all his drawing is currently done on the train. But this wasn’t always the case.
He grew up in Canada and has been free hand drawing birds and animals since he was just 3 years old. Calgary was so cold and he used to visit the Winter Gardens - like a mini Eden project - which was full of wildlife subjects. Clay laughs and says “I felt like the strangest kid sometimes! But my Grandmother was an oil painter and when she set up an easel, I’d watch the empty white board and the chemistry she mixed up on her palette and a picture would just emerge. It was magical.” Clay spent a lot of time with his grandparents and these early influences stuck fast.
Clay’s design career started when he left school and became a commercial artist and illustrator. His apprenticeship was in airbrushing and began in 1987. These were the days of real paint, not digital airbrushing. Macs were really expensive back then and there was no such thing as Photoshop. He spent most of his time drawing and preparing illustrations, and then moved into a visualisation role. Basically this means if you are producing a new product, Clay would sketch out what the physical thing might look like. You might just recognise some of his amazing work in the following images:
He also designed the 2002 World Cup corporate marks, seen by about 4 billion people for the Korea Japan FIFA world Cup. Clay worked on these images for about a year in total, which started 3 years ahead of the world cup.
Clay now mentors many young designers, and teaches drawing to groups of colleagues at work. His approach is relaxed and supportive. “You have to get people comfortable with just making marks. There is no judgement in art in my view. What people think has little relevance to the process. For me it’s more about how does this make me feel when I am doing it. I’m all for getting people to enjoy the process. The destination is not the main event – drawing is about answering questions – how do I make this 3D thing 2D? It’s also a form of meditation and a way to switch off while I’m commuting.”
His work is now mostly in graphite (pencil), and this is how he will be teaching his first course at Ardington in September 2020. Clay uses a Derwent mechanical pencil, (0.5mm) and works in layers, laying down all the tonal layers first and then uses a putty rubber to remove and lift off the highlights. Then he goes back in for the detail. There are maybe three layers in total and he works across the whole piece rather than being too systematic.
Interestingly, Clay works mostly from memory, simply laying down some negative space at the start from reference material and then the rest comes from his memory of the original detailed observation. You can see just how fine is the detail achieved in some of his latest work below:
What’s next for Clay?
“I want to do something with my art – I’m aiming at being more commercial. When it’s your day job, the joy can go out of the discipline. But I’m now enjoying drawing every day and it’s on my terms – doing subjects that I love. I would like to do a series of British wildlife as there are so many amazing British animals that people don’t get to see. It would be great to do a collection and start selling them.”
If you would like to draw on Clay’s experience as an artist, illustrator and designer, we are delighted to invite you to sign up for his class – simply click the button below to read all about his upcoming two day workshop.
For the third year running, our Wellbeing Study shows the beneficial effects of being involved in arts and crafts. The majority of respondents were women again, but we are gradually increasing the number of men who participate in workshops at the school. The word is getting out that it's cool! The key results show a continued high rating for the 'feel good' factors of being creative:
Once again, many respondents submitted personal comments to evidence their scores in the above section, and we have included a number of these quotes below (anonymous).
You can access the full results of the survey at the link below, and we thank you if you were one of the participants. Here's to another year of creative calm and wellbeing!
The grinding machine is just about to be started. “There’s water in the tray” Nicola explains, “use the grey part of the grinder, where you can see the water bubbling away as it spins”. The grinding wheel is not sharp as Nicola demonstrates by using it to file her nail and then puts her finger on it to show the students not to be afraid.
Grinding wheels and glass don’t immediately sound ‘cuddly’ in my experience but in glass work techniques, Nicola makes the tools and materials approachable, and works confidently to reassure those who are new to this craft. The machine has a safety screen and the cold water keeps things cool and dust free. Nicola shows her students how to grind nano-slices from the edges of their glass jigsaw pieces so that the final fit in their lead mounts and frame will be perfect. The students follow suit – growing in confidence as they feel their way with new tools. There are sparkling pieces of orange, red, yellow, turquoise and purple glass taking their turns on the grinder.
Kelly has just popped the kettle on. It’s not for a nice brew however, it’s for setting the colour dusting on the Poinsettia petals that the students have just made. The steam from the kettle spout deepens and dulls the hand-painted colours to make the finished flowers look as realistic as possible. “Don’t leave them in the steam too long though – they will melt and slide off the stem”, Kelly explains, and then she shows the students how to do it, and how not to do it! “You don’t have to set the colours by the way, it just adds a nice touch. Green really needs it, and if you add a flush of red to the base of the green leaves, it will also give a really authentic finish. A brush through the steam will deepen the colour”.
There is a mass of red Poinsettia petals hovering around the classroom. Each student has made upwards of fifteen petals each – different sizes and shapes, plus a cluster of buds that make up the centre of the flower, plus a few leaves. They are all standing to attention in a block of florists foam and already look so real. They are made by using a special flower paste which dries very hard and can be rolled very thin. The realistic petal veins are added by using special moulds that press both sides of the markings into the flower paste. Then you can soften the edges using a softening mat to give the contours to the flower parts. The ‘stem’ is a real florists wire, so the final effect looks like it has come straight out of a flower shop.
Liam has a relaxed and creative teaching style and likes to spend one to one time with his students. There is music playing in the background and it adds the right ambience for an Autumn workshop. “Music is so important to the creative process” Liam confides. It doesn’t stop the conversation though – students and tutor maintain a constructive dialogue throughout the day, comparing papers, linens, inks and techniques.
All of the students on today’s workshop have discovered and developed new ways of working in monoprint – with and without a press. With each design, Liam has given them tips and advice to enhance and develop the artistic outcomes further. They are all lost in their designs when I come into the room; some at the press and some at their workstations. Some holding up plates to the light to inspect the colour and some arranging pieces of foliage or collage onto new printing plates. As Liam asks the class to join him in another demo, they come together to watch the next technique as a group and leave their current solitary creations alone for a while.
“Mono-print is almost like a build up to something bigger – a testing ground for future designs on fabrics and heavy archival papers, although some artists use mono-print as an art form in its own right” Liam explains. “The workshop today is all about creating an experimental body of work. Then it’s up to each student how they take it forward”.
Bob and Del Neill, husband and wife team, spend much of their year travelling to art and craft shows teaching and demonstrating, as well as topping up the four galleries that Bob supplies with his pyrography. For the uninitiated, pyrography is the art or technique of decorating wood or leather by burning a design on the surface with a heated metallic point.
Bob works mainly on wood and the unique thing about his work is that he uses colour to enhance his designs. The process goes something like this: first choose the piece of wood, be it a board, platter, dish, spoon (plus many more), then prepare your design and the medium and then burn the pyrography onto the surface. The colour is applied at the end of this initial process. Sixties designs are the style preferred but some of Bob’s work has more historic attributions such as the Celtic knot-work wooden pebbles or the Art Deco bowls and boards. Then the colour is added as a secondary layer and for this, Bob uses water based acrylics, iridescent water based colours, even felt pen. The beauty of the water based medium is that you can see the pyrography design work beneath the colour; it acts just like a wash as in these beautiful platters and dishes below.
I gate-crashed an interview which Sue Pearl was giving to one of her students recently. Hannah Lithgow, the keen student, was studying for her A levels including A level Art, along with Biology and Geography. As part of this, Hannah's doing an EPQ (Extended Project Qualification) in Dyeing with Flower Pigments on Silk. She was looking at how effective certain methods of mordanting are, amongst other nuances of technique, and had some hypotheses to test with Sue, the seasoned expert in this field. The conversation was fascinating. I was listening in to an eager young mind, wanting to push the boundaries of eco-dyeing techniques, experimenting with both new and traditional ways of doing things.
Lin Kerr is one of Ardington’s original teaching faculty and has changed gear in the recent past, from calligraphy to oil painting. Charmingly, she starts our interview for this blog by cuddling her gorgeous dog, Isla. They haven’t seen each other for a week and the reunion is a cloud of effervescent fluffy white and brown hair!
Lin has a fine art degree and was an oil painter long before she took up calligraphy with a passion. Lin trained as an art teacher as well and taught adults in her home country of South Africa. When she first arrived in the UK, she gained a diploma in traditional gilding techniques. She taught art and contemporary lettering to calligraphers all over the UK travelling as far as Newcastle, Wales, and Hastings. After many years of exploring words in art, and completing a mathematical series, (one of which is in the Fitzwilliam Museum), she wanted to get back to figurative art and oil painting. The gilding techniques have not escaped though. Lin has now begun using gold leaf in some of her oil paintings, and is still exploring ways of incorporating gold.
Jessica Rose now divides her professional time between teaching and art (and the occasional cat!). She is a classic example of someone who has decided to embrace creativity not just for pleasure but as a profession too. She spent much of her early career as a journalist and then decided on a full time career change eight years ago to an artist. She has not looked back.
While Jess is an accomplished watercolour artist, and uses this medium a lot in her work, the call of print has never really left the journalist in her. This time however, she is on the other side, not producing copy to go into print, but producing art in print herself. This interest was sparked through learning to print at secondary school. She was lucky enough to have one of those inspirational and dedicated art teachers who spent quality time with students. This teacher was the first person that showed her how to take a complex process through from start to finish, hazards and all. She found herself playing around with dangerous chemicals, acid, naked flames, dust and hot wax at an early age. Jess comments “I’m not sure health and safety rules would be so tolerant these days!”
Jess talked me through the etching process today, like she used in the The Globe piece above, and it’s very specialised. Etching was originally invented to decorate suits of armour. It wasn’t long before artists, like Rembrandt for example, caught onto it. He became a master etcher. Many people are quite surprised to learn that Rembrandt’s fame and international reputation came from the work he produced through the etching process, not painting. As the 20th Century developed then many artists took up some type of printmaking - Picasso for example.
Jess explains that there are not too many print makers in UK compared with other countries. In the US, printmaking is more accepted as a fine art discipline, but less so in the UK. However, there are some printmaking methods that provide a quick and fun method to reproduce your own art. Linocut is one of these techniques, and one which Jess teaches. She explains just how accessible it is and if you need more evidence of its value, then check out Picasso’s work at the British Museum.
Jess is a talented watercolourist too. Pet portraits are a large part of Jess’s work and are great fun. She loves rescue animals – especially being around lots of cats through her work in a cat rescue centre. “They make really popular presents and whilst I often work from photos, I do try and meet the pet if I can. I want to try and capture the character.”