Jane Norrie sees different disciplines providing inspiration for pupils. Most art lovers would give their eye teeth to see leading artists at work in their studios. For the girls of Ashford School, Kent, however, it is an everyday occurrence since the school has no less than four artists in residence.
The youngest is textile artist Lorna Moffat. A regular exhibitor at Chelsea Crafts Fair and at at the Crafts Council shop in the Victoria and Albert, earlier this year she completed a nine metre wall hanging for Macclesfield Public Library in celebration of the city's silk industry. Seeing the vibrant cushions and hangings in her studio, it is easy to see why they are so popular: worked in silk, lustred with metallic foil, heavily layered, fringed and tufted, her designs are richly tactile.
While Lorna stitches, Alexandra le Rossignol makes stained glass, also to commission. She has been carrying out an ambitious project for Ashford Library, a series of exotic panels illustrating Stories from Round the World.
Downstairs painter and printmaker Akram Rahmanzadeh draws on Persian miniatures for paintings with an aerial perspective. The studio quartet is completed by sculptor Seyed Edelatpour. He has been working outdoors carving a meditative figure from a gigantic block of Yorkshire limestone. Now he is engaged in a book which will form part of the same mega sculpture "Canon to the Gods".
An independent school, with nearly 800 girls from infants to A-level students, Ashford has a thriving art department. But how did they come to have four artists in residence? Head of art Sue Hards and art teacher Gordon Reynolds explained that it was the result of a conscious decision. Three years ago when a small boarding house became redundant, the art department went into action using the auspices of the Sarah Drew Gallery in Canterbury to select four artists. Their aim was "to achieve a broader expertise within the school than we were able to offer as individuals. And to let the students see artists at work operating as individuals in the real world."
In practical terms the artists make a small contribution to heating and lighting and have the use of the studios for the entire year. In return they teach all ages in the senior school for one or two days every term. They make the girls welcome in their studios, and are also available not only for art but for all project work. Lastly they accompany school visits to exhibitions and give artistic advice in general. For the teaching component, considerable discussion with the art staff is involved regarding both the practical work and the critical studies component of the national curriculum.
On the day of my visit the school was humming with art activity. Seyed for instance, was, initiating fourth year GCSE students into the mysteries of "thinking in space". Previously they had drawn redundant machinery not making accurate representations, but deliberately abstracting and distorting the drawings with scope for self-expression. Now armed with clay, chicken wire, wood, and paper, (and later plaster) they were encouraged to move from two to three dimensions. One of the benefits the art staff relish is the pupils' chance to learn from fresh angles, to understand how professional artists think and speak.
Eavesdropping on Seyed I recognised what they meant. "Think of building in space. How can you create volume, what is the relationship between the shapes of the different parts? How can they be joined? Can they be playful? How will the textures relate?" What I loved to see was the way the students were guided to find their own answers rather than having Seyed's ideas imposed upon them.
Talking to the fourth year girls most had been surprised that sculpture would be on the course but were enjoying the challenge of "something different. " Meanwhile the lower sixth were revelling in the opportunity of trying their hand at dry point etching. Akram had asked them to draw "figures in an interior space, thinking of pattern and texture and including objects of personal affection." Using etching needles, they had incised the outlines of their drawings on to zinc plates and were scraping ink into the grooves with cardboard wedges. Emphasis was laid on the fact that this was a repeated process, affording the opportunity for re-assessment after each print was taken. Shading and tone could be added before later prints to build up the richness of the final image.
Two of the original four artists have now moved on. The current quartet clearly enjoy their teaching and consequently pass on a whole range of benefits. Fresh viewpoints keep the students stimulated: the range of experience on offer is much wider than hitherto: also the students have a much greater appreciation of the different kinds of art. In addition there are exciting spin offs for project work. Alexandra Le Rossignol, for instance, is working with the girls on a major project to create a stained glass window for the dining room. Six student designs, based on characters from Chaucer, have been selected. Subsequently the young designers have worked in the studio, learning how to treat stained glass. In the process they have learned the techniques of masking up, staining and painting glass and how to decide where to insert the leadlines.
"I am passionate about my work: I want the girls to see that art work can be successful", says Lorna Moffat, indicating the important part the artists play as role models. One student interviewed her for a "Study of an Artist" learning all that is involved in a design brief from the first drawings to the finished product. Lastly, the art teachers as well as students find the artists "inspirational". At least one member of staff was looking forward to doing a serious bit of art work for himself on a school trip to draw and paint in France.