Hung, drawn and altered

15th September 1995 at 01:00
There's more to being an artist in residence than demonstrating skills. Jane Norrie explores the benefits of a new diploma course.

East Anglia has a long history of arts residencies in schools, some highly successful, others less so. Now, in an attempt to eliminate the hit-and-miss element, a part-time diploma course for artists in residence has been set up at Anglia Polytechnic University, Cambridge. Courses for residencies have been attempted elsewhere. What makes the Anglia course different is the fact that it arose out of a collaboration with Eastern Arts, is long-term, and is assessed and validated by the university.

The course is open to artists across the spectrum, from musicians to writers, but in practice it is mainly visual artists who have applied. Successful applicants attend taught sessions once a fortnight over two terms, collaborate with a teacher "partner", and in the third term conclude their training with a 10-day residency. A three-month personal development module also allows the artists to make progress in their own work under specialist tuition. The course costs Pounds 995, of which Eastern Arts awards a bursary of Pounds 450 to each artist. Participating schools also pay a sum of Pounds 250 towards the training component of their teacher.

These are the bones of the course, as explained by its director Michele Tallack. A committed arts educator, who previously led a five-year critical studies project in relation to the national curriculum in art, Tallack is involved in a regional network aimed at improving arts education from five to 18 and beyond. The links with Eastern Arts were developed from this networking group and through it the need for structured training for artists in residence perceived.

The course operates over a two-year cycle. Last year's artists trained to work in secondary schools, this year a new group is working with primaries.

Beginning at Easter with a residential weekend, they are helped to understand what they have to offer schools. "Not just making skills, they can act as role models and provide valuable input across the curriculum." Through school visits, the artists learn how a school runs - from the role of the governors to the problems of timetabling.

Self-presentation, the third strand of the training, is a vital element. "The artists have to be able to present what they have to offer in a way that makes immediate sense to the school, even to the extent of knowing how a residency can be financed, showing, for example, how providing in-service training for teachers, or a performance for parents can generate income," says Tallack. When it comes to the residency, especially in primaries, the artists will normally fit in with the themes current in their school.

The requirements of the curriculum, how children learn, how to transmit the language of artists, how to draw up a professional contract, are just some of the things the artists learn in preparation. Again, Tallack is adamant that just passing on making skills is not enough. The artists "have to design a project which delivers what a teacher can't deliver - the range of knowledge and experiences artists have as professional creative people". Last year, one artist designed boxes as memory containers in response to an exhibition, another talked about the way a theatre works from the dancer's viewpoint, yet another took pupils to her studio.

The partnership with the teacher is considered crucially important. The artists learn to identify and respect teachers' skills and to negotiate their projects with them. The teachers attend the initial training weekend and learn about the aims of the course through their collaboration with the artists. They keep a log of the residency, video as much as possible and on the last day give a joint presentation of the project to the rest of the group. Last year this took place at Kettle's Yard, Cambridge, alongside an exhibition of the work achieved in school.

The course is an impressive attempt to maximise the benefits of residencies, although some might say it is too costly and unnecessarily long. This suggestion prompts an indignant response from Tallack. "As the course progressed it became clear we needed more time, the artists were raising so many questions. We are only scratching the surface of issues such as how children learn, the range of the teachers' own expertise, how artists should articulate what they do."

Textile artist Vanessa Leonowicz has secured two residencies since finishing the secondary course at Easter, both funded by Glaxo. She found the training so valuable she is now doing the primary course as well. "It helped me to perceive myself in a different way. I can introduce more issues. I see myself as a living book for teachers, falling open at the page they need - what motivated me to be an artist, why I chose textiles not painting, how I make my images, how I use my sketchbook, rather than just how to applique or sew a straight seam. The residency can also be useful for maths and science in measuring or dyeing fabric."

Keith McPherson, head of art at Witchford Village College, Ely, who partnered the painter Geeta Boolkah, thought the project was extremely successful across the creative arts - "a brilliant project".

"Geeta brought 15 large paintings which we exhibited in school. They were used as a starting point across the creative arts. Music was composed to illustrate them and they also acted as a trigger for improvisations and performances. "

He found it useful that the project extended over the three terms. "Working over a year allowed time for everything to be very carefully planned without a sense of pressure. The children got an amazing amount out of it and completed very successful work. They saw the subject with fresh eyes through the identity of the painter, had a chance to re-evaluate visual vocabulary and sensitivity. They also got a better appreciation of how artists use a wide range of materials and saw how Geeta's work evolved from drawings in her sketchbook to 6ft x 6ft paintings," he says.

Tallack concludes: "The experience should be exciting and, in the long term, life-enhancing. Pupils should be enabled to enjoy, understand and value the arts, to see how artists enrich their lives. If a pupil encountered only one artist every year of their school life, what a broad understanding and in-depth knowledge he or she would gain of what the arts are and what they contribute. "

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