Where waters of Venice and the Baltic meet

17th January 2003 at 00:00
A trip to Italy has left art teachers awash with enthusiasm, reports Elaine Williams

The muddy tidal sweep of the Tyne on a grey, cold day at the bleak end of the year is a far cry from the sparkling waters of Venice in spring. Yet the huddle of art teachers looking down at the swirling river from the curve of Newcastle upon Tyne's new pedestrian bridge have Venice firmly in their mind's eye.

They are on their way to the Baltic, Newcastle's contemporary arts factory, wrought from an old flour mill. It may be a world away from the gleaming classical forms of the Venice Guggenheim and its world-famous modern art collections, but their meeting in the Baltic's education studio to discuss their own and their students' work bears witness to their renewed excitement about making and teaching art since they visited Italy together last Easter.

These 10 teachers from schools across the north of England were chosen from applicants for a bursary that offered art teachers the chance to be artists in Venice for a week. The experience of being with like-minded professionals in an art-soaked city, drawing, sketching, taking photos, looking at art, talking about art, dining out on art, making art - without the distraction of pupils, colleagues or family - has had a profound and long-lasting effect. They have become firm friends despite not knowing each other before the trip and differing wildly in age and character. They meet once a term as a group, exchange ideas in other visits and phone calls and are collaborating on a touring group exhibition.

Jo Walton, an advanced skills teacher at John Ruskin, a secondary school in Coniston, Cumbria, says her own art practice had more or less died a death over her 26 years in teaching. "You get bogged down, and as this is a small school (230 pupils) and I'm the only art teacher, coming up with ideas all the time is a huge drain. The Venice trip was a tonic. In terms of professional development it was one of the most inspirational experiences I've had." She also learned how her pupils must feel when asked to make drawings on-site. "I was reticent, even terrified, about sketching in public. I haven't done it for years."

Funding for the Venice trip came from the Association of Advisers and Inspectors in Art and Design which had pound;6,000, raised from former publications, which it wanted teachers to use in a venture that would probably not attract funding from elsewhere. Paul Brennan, art adviser for Kirklees, masterminded the trip. "We wanted to help art teachers to rekindle their own art work in the belief that those who keep up their own practice are the better teachers for it," he says. "We wanted to give quality time in a quality place that would boost teachers' professional and personal development. If teachers are motivated and inspired, that also benefits pupils."

Fifteen Minutes with Giotto, an exhibition of teachers' and pupils' work arising from the Venice visit, will open at Huddersfield Art Gallery next summer and move on to the John Ruskin Museum in the Lake District. The title comes from last Easter's visit to the Arena Chapel in Padua (20 minutes from Venice by train). "The group was bowled over," says Mr Brennan. "The frescoes were so fresh, it was as if Giotto had just finished them and was in the room with us. We talked about them all night through dinner."

Jake Attree, a painter based at the Dean Clough arts centre in Halifax, joined the teachers in Venice, looked at their work and gave informal advice. "It was a unique venture that should be repeated," he says. "All teachers need time like this to refresh themselves. They felt they were being spoilt, but they weren't. They worked incredibly hard."

Susan Coles, an advanced skills teacher at Biddick school, Washington, near Newcastle, has visited Jo Walton at Coniston "to keep up the dialogue". She is taking her art club GCSE pupils to Venice for a day next month and planning a day trip to Rome for another group. "Going to Venice has made me much more adventurous; it's made me feel that anything is possible and that a great deal can be gained from a short trip. I took 600 photographs at the time and did a lot of sketching, and more has come out since."

John Havelock, head of creative arts at Ossett school near Wakefield, was thinking of early retirement at 57 before he went to Venice ("I felt I'd done it, seen it all"). Now, fired with new enthusiasm, he is applying for advanced skills status. "There was a real buzz about the whole week; it feels like a new start," he says.

The National Society for Education in Art and Design with the Arts Council runs the Artist Teacher Scheme for teachers to review, develop or re-engage with their own creative practice to improve standards and give a contemporary edge to teaching and learning in art and design. The scheme operates throughout the year. Opportunities range from weekend workshops, one-off events and summer schools to provision for undertaking a master's degree course or PhD. Contact: Ian Cole, artist teacher national co-ordinator, NSEAD at ian@strat4.demon.co.uk, or tel: 01249 714825, or look up www.nsead.org. Details of Fifteen Minutes with Giotto from paul.brennan@kirklees.gov.uk

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