Tag Archives: Art and learning

Art Is Our Human Right

AllSchoolsShouldBeArtSchools

I recently went back to the William Morris Gallery to see their current exhibit, “The Artistic Campaigns of Bob and Roberta Smith”.

Bob and Roberta Smith is actually one person, Patrick Brill, who chose this double pseudonym to create a more “egalitarian platform” for art making. The name Bob Smith is the most common name in England (like John Smith in the United States) and Roberta is Patrick’s sister’s name. Combined, this artistic nom de plume is about as low brow as one can get.

The son of a well-known landscape painter and teacher, Smith studied for his MA at Goldsmiths in the early 90s. He has been an Artist Trustee of Tate Museum and the National Campaign for the Arts. He currently is an Associate Professor at the Sir John Cass Department of Art, Media and Design at London Metropolitan University,

BRSmith-ThereHasNotBeenAGoodUnderground

His irreverent humor and straightforward approach is apparent throughout his work. He paints with sign-painting enamel on found objects and discarded wood panels. His images center on the written word – he paints personal stories as well as social commentary. His lettering is mostly freehand, paying homage to the sign-painting styles of fair grounds, old shop advertisements and folk art.

BRSmith-MuseumsShouldBeLikeNewspapers

This exhibit was of special interest to me. In Seattle, I was actively involved in advocating for arts in education. I volunteered as an arts community liaison for in Seattle public schools for over a decade. I started a blog – Pebbles In The Jar – to help inform and encourage others to do the same. I was a member of the arts community advisory group during the development of the Seattle Public Schools Creative Advantage plan. I even spoke on the topic at a few events.

Arts Soap Box

After moving to London, I was curious to see how arts in education is handled here. I assumed that, with London’s broad art scene and history of supporting the arts, arts teaching in public (what they call “state” schools here) would be more secure. I was wrong. The arts in education have been whittled away by conservative politics and “austerity” measures in the U.K., just as in the U.S.

Smith says he grew up believing “education is not about improving your life chances or getting a better job, education is about building knowledge and experience and enriching humanity and society.” Art as an integral part of democracy.

BRSmith-ILikeArtInSchools

Taking his art to another level, Smith in 2013 started the Art Party with Crescent Arts, Scarborough. “The Art Party seeks to better advocate the arts to Government. The Art Party is NOT a formal political party, but is a loose grouping of artists and organizations who are deeply concerned about the Government diminishing the role of all the arts and design in schools.”

BRSmith-DearNickyMorgan

In 2015, Bob and Roberta Smith ran for parliament as an independent during the 2015 general election against conservative Michael Gove, former Secretary of State for Education and Member of Parliament for Surrey Heath. This is when I first became aware of his work. I was impressed with a visual artist who dared to enter the outspoken and contentious realm of politics.

CreativityORAusterity

Smith sees his campaigns as “extended art works which include a variety of consciousness raising artifacts.” He has taken to the streets in a camper covered in his campaign slogans. He has created videos, performance pieces and radio shows. He sings. He plays guitar and piano. He walks the walk.

BRSmith-ArtIsAnElectionIssue

“It’s almost impossible for kids to study art and music together, let alone dance or drama as well. This is worrying for British culture and Britain’s long-term reputation for being a great place to make, teach and experience the arts.”

BRSmith-PaintDrawSculpt

“Art is about the appreciation of ambiguity. Only when people realize what unites us is huge and wonderful and what divides us is small and mean will people live peacefully.”

BRSmith-AudiencesShouldLookLikeTaxPayers

“Hey artists, forget about making money, and make things better.”

BRSmith-MuseumsShouldBeLikeNewspapers

It’s notable that the William Morris Gallery has hosted this exhibit and supported Smith’s campaign. William Morris was also a political activist. In 1882 he told the Royal Commission on Technical Education “everybody ought to be taught ought to draw, just as much as everybody be taught to read and write”.

BRSmith-GiveAChildAPencil

ArtMakesPeoplePowerful

MusicMakesChildrenPowerful

If you would like to learn more about Bob and Roberta Smith, you can watch this excellent and entertaining documentary, Make Your Own Damn Art: the world of Bob and Roberta Smith, directed by John Rogers.

I wish I could have voted for Bob and Roberta Smith.

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RUBobtimistic

A Window on a Doorway to a Launching Pad

I’m pretty busy these days working on the art for Boom Boomso I am re-posting a piece that I wrote for my other blog, Pebbles In The Jar, a site I created to be a resource and forum for people interested in connecting public schools to the arts community. I have worked as a volunteer arts liaison in Seattle public schools since 2000, when my eldest daughter started first grade.

This is one of my favorite posts that I’ve published to date, largely because it grew out of a conversation I had with my dad about his experience of the arts in education when he was a teenager in New York. I couldn’t help but compare it to the situation I’ve observed in schools here in Seattle.

I’m lucky that my father got the encouragement in the arts when he did. He went on to study ceramics at Alfred University, where he eventually met my mother.

A Window on a Doorway to a Launching Pad

A long time ago in a school district far, far away…

Well not that far away really, just the Bronx.

At the beginning of World War II, when New York was still heating up the melting pot of immigrant cultures that would define the five boroughs, my father started his Freshman year at DeWitt Clinton High School, class of ’45.

My father’s father had come alone from Russia at fourteen, eventually finding steady work in the garment district in New York City. His family lived in a one bedroom apartment in the Amalgamated Co-op on Van Cortlandt Park South. My dad and his older brother shared the bedroom. Their parents slept in the living room on a Riviera hide-away bed.

The DeWitt Clinton student body at that time drew from the immigrant families who lived in the neighborhood; largely Eastern European Jews but also Italians and Irish as well as black students coming up from Harlem–thousands of them pouring out of the Mosholu Parkway station on the Lexington Avenue line every morning.

As my father describes it, DeWitt Clinton was an all college-bound high school. When he attended, there were over ten thousand students, all boys. I have his Arista pin, signifying his membership in a city-wide honors society which came with enviable perks like unmonitored access to the hallways between classes.

In addition to the core curriculum of math, language, science, history and English at this college-prep, ethnically diverse, public high school, students at DeWitt Clinton also had a full spectrum of arts classes to choose from. These included drawing and painting, theater, choir, band, and sculpture. My father particularly enjoyed sculpture.

They also apparently used what we now refer to as arts integration. My father’s Sophomore English class studied “Macbeth” with each student being given lines to memorize and recite. My father’s assignment was Lady Macbeth’s soliloquy. “Come to my woman’s breast and take my milk for gall.” I’m quoting my father, not Shakespeare. He still remembers a few choice bits.

And then there is The Magpie, DeWitt Clinton’s student literary magazine.

Read this for example, written by a young James Baldwin, ’42,

Black Girl Shouting

Stomp my feet
An’ clap my han’s
Angels comin’
To dese fair lan’s.

Cut my lover
Off dat tree!
Angels comin’
To set me free.

Glory, glory,
To de Lamb
Blessed Jesus
Where’s my man?

Black girl, whirl
Your torn, red dress
Black girl, hide
Your bitterness.

Black girl, stretch
Your mouth so wide.
None will guess
The way he died

Turned your heart
To quivering mud
While your lover’s
Soft, red blood

Stained the scowling
Outraged tree.
Angels come
To cut him free!

The Magpie, Winter 1942, v. 26, n. 1, p. 32.

And look at this illustration by his brother John Baldwin, ’40.

A Stroll Down Broadway, End Paper (Part 1) January 1940 issue

And this image by Robert Blackburn, ’38,

School Yard, p 21. 20.

James Baldwin served as The Magpie’s literary editor for a time. Richard Avedon was his buddy. Neil Simon was there then too, probably wandering the hallways wearing his Arista pin.

Countee Cullen, Will Eisner, Avery Fisher, Paddy Chayefsky, Frank Gilroy, Fats Waller–DeWitt Clinton has graduated an amazing list of illustrious people, as well as my father, who went on to become a high school and then a community college teacher in both ceramics and math.

Keep in mind that this was the high school you went to for a good education. If you wanted to be an artist, you went to The Music and Art High School next to CCNY.

So here was a public high school in a working class, immigrant neighborhood, during wartime, following the most traumatic economic period in US history, before fundraising auctions or walk-a-thons were a twinkle in any PTA member’s eye, providing art for its students without questioning art’s educational value or requiring significant data or RFQs in order to continue its funding, turning out some of the most creative American minds of the past century.

Yes, I am naive and no historian, and that was New York and this is Seattle, but still, the contrast is pretty awesome. What happened? Why don’t we value the arts in education anymore?

I think the answer may be that we don’t value education anymore. We value stuff. Lots of stuff. And Power.

And our culture no longer perceives knowledge as power. Instead, money and fame are what we respect most. If you asked the American people what they would rather have–a 55” Class Edge Lit Razor LED™ LCD HDTV with VIZIO Internet Apps® and unlimited cable access, a you-tube video of their overweight cat going viral resulting in an interview spot on the Ellen Degeneres Show, or a free, excellent, public education–what do you think the majority would answer?

What if that changed? What if education became the priority in our society across all learning areas? What if the entire population rose up to support schools, teachers, students, learning? What if knowledge was part of the American Dream?

If not, how many creative minds of this century will be left under-nourished?