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I am privileged to have permission from a friend and current Atelier student of mine to repost here his own recent blogpost. A gifted art educator in his own right, he eloquently expresses the ‘heart and soul’ of the practice of drawing from the live model, along with the regrettable ambivalence that pervades students’ access to such opportunities across our UK university system. The Broadway Drawing School in Cardiff is an independent art school where the heart beats strongly and the soul breathes, and where we consider such ambivalence an anathema.

The drawing is mine. The words are his.

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Extracts from a letter ‘concerning life drawing’

… ‘I’ve been life drawing since 1993, teaching it for 20 years, and been involved in decisions regarding accommodation for most of that time. It has allowed me a degree of perspective, time to question the practice, and also time to observe the personalities and cultures of the schools, faculties and institutions who’ve employed me in this capacity. For the outsider, it may appear to be an obscure, anachronistic, or opaque method for teaching in a world that is increasingly concerned with technological novelty, and with forms of education that are grounded in quantitative resolution.’

‘There have been periods in education where life drawing has fallen foul of fashion. The foundation course was born in the UK out of the Basic Design movement, which in turn drew heavily on the original Foundation course – the introductory year at the Bauhaus. Priority here was essentially non-figurative, addressing the essential qualities of colour, shape, form, texture and inherent materiality. Many UK art schools in the 60’s, gave life drawing a wide berth. If you look at the specification for the foundation course today, there is no mention of life drawing, although drawing from live experience, as an experimental process, covers the entire first semester. There isn’t a single art school of any quality, in the western world today, who would consider operating a foundation course, or any course of drawing, without life drawing. Life drawing, in observing the nude human form in space, can address every aspect of drawing. Line, tone, colour, texture, space, compositional design, description of form, division and arrangement of picture space, kinetics, spatial tensions and dynamics. There is a lifetime of study to understand the human form itself. Anatomy, balance, movement, weight, proprioception, stillness, the effects of time, gravity, and the relationship of each of these to historical and philosophical canon. Its relevance to human centred design practice, from fashion, animation or furniture design is unquestionable.

Quality here, is a key distinction. It underpins all questions related to teaching and delivery of life drawing, at every stage of the process. It is a distinction that many are happy to avoid, because teaching life drawing is often inconvenient in many ways. It requires time. Time out of a curriculum for which it is often seen as a supplementary practice. It requires time to learn. Its not an instant fix. The more you do it, the more you realise how much you have to learn. This means also that you need experienced staff. It requires space – a simple, large room, which is not a studio that is otherwise in daily use (meaning that all staff can access the room efficiently), in the same way that sportsmen access a gym. A suitable analogy. The room needs easels, furniture for the model, somewhere set aside for changing, adjustable heat, adjustable lighting, and a floor that can receive ink, paint or similar without hindering practice.

In his preface to Richer’s anatomy, Beverley Hale describes something close to the heart of life drawing as a learning process. He points out that when confronted with a model, the student draws upon an image of the figure which is held in the mind, as a means of dealing with what he perceives. The nature of the figure in the mind, dictates the success of the drawing. In simple terms there is a correlation between assumption of knowledge in the student and pitfalls fallen into within the drawing. Making a life drawing is a significant feat. The students enters a space and must confront the model, taking what they believe they know with them. They must then undergo an examination of perception, and on the surface of a blank page, translate the conversation between perception, knowledge, assumption and correction, through their own body, and the medium of their ability and familiarity with tools and materials. The evidence is present, visual, and unforgiving. Life drawing is a philosophical endeavour, as much as it is a practical one, asking the student to pass through an unsuccessful model of understanding, in the hope of briefly glimpsing a better one. This is true of every student in every life class, in every drawing, at every stage of development. Osi Rhys Osmond equated it to asking the student to become a better person. It is a microcosm of teaching and learning, based on a question that can never be answered. As such it is a process that must be considered continuous, and any desire to reduce the practice to the requirements of a module, has missed the point of it entirely. Pirsig discusses the first and second university – the first made of students and teachers, the second as a business/political model. There is obvious interdependence between both, but as a rapidly aging practitioner from the first, it’s my responsibility, sometimes, to communicate with the second…’

‘Economically, demographically, we’re in different circumstances to those we enjoyed in the mid 1990’s. The neoliberal project has put education under the yoke of private debt creation, driving higher level providers to drop all pretence of quality in pursuit of a rising bottom line. It’s a balloon that will burst in the next five years, as the ideological ravages of compulsory and further education, devastate choice in the pursuit of statistical accounting. When the second university remakes the first in its own image, the unanswerable question of the white sheet of paper in the life room, looks increasingly anomalous.’

‘As educators, we want to be better people. We want to face the unanswerable question, which is, ‘what do you know’ and also ‘prove it then’. There’s a danger… that there’s less space to ask the question…We need, in all things we do, quality rather than expediency. In a shrinking market… our only selling point is excellence. We have it. To preserve it, looking ahead, it might mean doing less, but doing it properly.’

‘I’m off now, to resume my own life drawing studies. Still hoping to be a better person.’

https://ateldip.tumblr.com/

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Here is the first post on a new blog that I have started today. the bog is entitled The Loneliness of a Long Distance Anatomy Student and you can find it here: The Loneliness of the Long Distance Anatomy Student

As always, all comments/feedback for any of my posts are very welcome!

Today I am beginning a PG Anatomical Sciences Online Distance Learning program with the University of Edinburgh. I have decided to launch myself into this because, although as a classically trained artist I have a grounding in superficial musculo-skeletal anatomy, this is not enough for me! I want to go further, deeper, and bury my subjective, qualitative and humanist mind into the fertile soil of the objective, quantitative and scientific field to find out what will grow from such a symbiosis. The seed has already been sown by my explorations into anatomical details in dissection labs both here and in the USA, and through my teaching anatomical form and function to other artists who  hunger to understand what lies beneath the surface. But now,  ‘subcutaneous’ knowledge must give way to a more thorough comprehension and for that I need what can often be an anathema to an artist…I need structure and discipline!

skeleton - oil on canvas

This blog then will become a repository for my thoughts and for my feelings, for my frustrations (which I am sure will become close companions) and my joys (of which I  hope there will be some!) throughout the process. I hope that the posts I will offer here will be of interest to artists and to scientists alike because ultimately I am convinced that both need each other just as flesh needs bone.

I am quietly excited.

This is the continuing work in progress of a life-size figure that I am modelling in wax. The title of the piece, ‘without consent’, alludes to many issues around women, and women’s health, that have given me pause in the work that do.

More news is that I have just signed up to do a Postgraduate course in human anatomy with Edinburgh University! I have finally decided to take the plunge and study the subject more deeply so that I keep on developing my work and also enhance  my teaching abilities in the anatomy for artists course that I run at The Broadway Drawing School here in Cardiff.

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Its been a good first week, a very busy week and one that has afforded me  a rich opportunity to reflect on my practice in a very intensive way.  It has also brought a  complete change in the way I am working. Here, I am sitting mostly alone in the dissection room poring over small scale intricate drawings, whereas over the last few months back in my studio in Cardiff I have been working on large scale drawings and oil paintings to prepare for the Breast Cancer: a creative intervention exhibition. The difference in practical terms is stark,  but the sense of immersion in the work is the same, if not intensified, here in Dundee as when I am alone I find I can enter depths of myself that general life often dictates I should bridge. Moreover, the feeling of being so welcomed within an environment where the science behind what I do as an artist is so ‘palpable’ is  exciting and inspirational. It’s also very interesting in relation to the differences between the science lab and the hospital wards and theatres that I work in.

I am teaching here too. Running the life drawing classes and joining in on the ‘crits’ with students on the MSc Forensic and Medical Art courses is a pleasure and a great experience. It is a valuable challenge to adapt my way of teaching to address what the students need most. It helps of course that they are keen and willing to learn. In the image below thats me at the back – drawing on the wall!

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I am staying in Broughty Ferry, a small coastal  town just outside the city and it has become for me  very special place. Being by the water is always very evocative for me but that’s another, longer story! For now I simply  offer the image here (taken from the window of my rented flat) of the sunset that I came home to yesterday evening.

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Remnants

There’s that smell again

Familiar to me now

not the smell of Death so much as of lives once been

Remnants steeped in Thiel fluid

the smell of life deconstructed

Number [—-]

A head torn from the vertebrae

Mouth agape as if gulping a final breath

Skin flayed from the mandible

Eyeless sockets that still see me

plead to be once more hidden under the plastic shroud

Cold

I am cold

It is cold in here

The remnant of his eyebrow expresses such pathos

Defying recourse to objectivity

to cold death

My drawing begins to change

I pull back the plastic shroud even further

ignoring entreaty

In my work on the various projects in medical settings the making of the art, for me, is a creative act that goes beyond documentation. It is an act of empathic witness and the art itself becomes both agent and advocate of patient autonomy through its unique capacity to engage the subjective sensibilities of the viewer. This goes far beyond Alan Radley’s concept of the asymmetric relation – it is a complete immersion of one subjectivity into the world of many others and the results that are derived from such a conflagration serve only to further blur the boundaries between objective rationalism and the passionate human need to co-exist and share experience.

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So, for the last two weeks I have been immersed in the culture, and the sheer dynamism of the Oncology Department at Singleton Hospital in Swansea on the first stage of the Medicine Unmasked project. You can find out more about the project and follow its progress here: medicineunmasked.wordpress.com

I have been shadowing four students who are now two weeks into their five-week  ‘oncology apprenticeship’ on the Graduate Entry Medical program at Swansea University College of Medicine. Through shadowing, observing, taking notes, engaging in and recording one-to-one conversations with students and medical professionals, and generally getting the feel, from my artist’s perspective, of the students own experiences in terms of learning and teaching of their placement on the department, I have amassed copious notes, sketches and ideas that will all be used as ‘data’ for when I  return to the hospital for a further two weeks in January. During this second stage of the project I will work on a body of artwork, drawings inspired by  the process as a whole, but until then, and in the meantime, I will offer a series of posts on this blog that relate to the project both directly, as the experiential nature of the project demands, and more theoretically, as the same experiential nature of the project has encouraged! Needless to say I would appreciate any comments/feedback for the posts on this site as all such content potentially impacts on the process of the research as a whole and is therefore very valuable.

“As an experienced doctor you may have seen twenty patients who, say, have had a heart attack. But this patient has only seen one. It’s their first experience so I think that’s what we have to bear in mind.” (2nd year Student)

I want to begin by expressing my deep appreciation and gratitude to everybody I have been working with; the students themselves, the consultant oncologists that are working alongside, specialist nurses, all nurses on the wards, radiologists, staff in the hospital library, in the cafe, and indeed all hospital staff who I have met and who have been so wonderfully accommodating of someone who –  let’s face it –  must seem a slightly strange presence in the day-to-day dealings of the hospital as I sit quietly and watchfully with sketch-book or dictaphone in hand! I also owe huge thanks of course to the patients who have been so willing to let me be a witness, alongside the professionals and the medical students, to their experiences during consultation, examination and, in one case, of having a ‘shell’ made of his head in preparation for radiotherapy.

As a small group of two boys and two girls, three in their second year and one in her fourth and final year the students have enthusiastically welcomed me into their world as they tackle the demands both professional and personal of working in the department, and in the process my own learning curve has been close to vertical! As much as I have been learning about the student experience both in the specific terms of the apprenticeship model, and in the more general terms of the GEM course as a whole, I have also had the fantastic opportunity to engage with the theory, and most directly the practice of oncology in a way that has had a profound impact on my perception of myself and my practice as an artist working in medicine. It has confirmed, in a very visceral way, that this is the right place for me to be in terms of how I understand my art and what it can do.

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Another January. It is now four years since I began documenting my solitary travels as an artist and I am always grateful to those who choose to travel with me, even if only for a moment. This last year has given me so much room for optimism after the disappointments that ushered it in. The Broadway Drawing School (https://www.facebook.com/BroadwayDrawing) has grown from an idea and aspiration into a small but proudly  independent art school, rapidly gaining recognition as offering an education unique in Wales. The classical and traditional merge seamlessy with the ‘now’ in our courses and workshops, and it is all about the practice, and the process, and the creativity, and yes, the ‘craft’, and the laughter, and the joy of being free of the fatuous bureaucracy that seems to pervade elsewhere, in larger, grander institutions. In the meanwhile, in-between the hours and the days that call me a teacher, I continue to reside in the transitory and fleeting moment between the objective and the subjective, which translates into the relation between medical science and art. My work is towards the frailty of humanity as engendered in the individual, the subjectivity of the experience of illness and pain. I am reading Andrzej Szczeklik, Kore: On Sickness, the Sick and the Search for the Soul of medicine. I am reading Solzhenitsyn, The Cancer Ward.  My ongoing collaborative project Drawing Women’s Cancer (drawingcancer.wordpress.com) begins its second phase this year.

It is my consciousness of the fragility and tension of what lies ‘in-between’ that gives rise, I believe, to the restlessness that is always a part of me and I am now beginning to accept is a guiding force in more ways than the obvious. I have no need or desire any more to follow my feet, but rather I mean this year to follow my thoughts, my cares…change perhaps the way I see things from the inside, by standing still, rather than by moving on. I think this way I may travel further! So – I am writing, drawing, painting and reading , reading reading. I have two book chapters coming out in 2014, two exhibitions to work towards and a monologue to write. I am teaching. And I am constantly learning. HAPPY NEW YEAR!!

The daffodils are in bloom and the doors of The Broadway Drawing School are now painted daffodil yellow in empathic enthusiasm. The sun is still cold on my back (the short but chill month of my birth still shadows me, even as March marches in) but my suffering soul that at the end of last year almost froze in the icy grip of disappointment, now feels warmer and more recognisable as my own than for a while.  Drawings that I had some affiliation to – a guiding hand in – and which covered studio walls in an institution where I once believed I had a future have now come to represent, in my memory, the beginnings of an alternative future; a future that even though poorer, is yet richer way beyond the confines of a bank balance. And I continue to guide…. My hand and my eye follow the creative gesture and the gaze of others who share and believe in the same things that I do….and I feel a debt of gratitude.

I was thinking about yellow; about essences; about portraiture; about this drawing of my son; and I found these words:

“It is a mark of contemporary life that personal identities have become fractured, complex, and splintered, and that they are in a state of constant re-definition. Similarly, contemporary art has also become more heterogeneous and discrete as ‘major themes’ in art are less evident. As a result, two of the most basic questions, ‘Who are we?’ and ‘What is art?’ share the same concern: they both struggle with the challenges of subjectivity”

Steven Holmes, Curator, Subject: Contemporary Portraiture May 14–Aug.14, 2006, Llyman Allyn Art Museum

They resonate…..

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Another break in my train of thought  – another hiatus over the Christmas period that actually owes more to a death than to a birth.

2012 was a great year – it was the year I truly realised how much I  am drawn to working across the disciplines in a creative web of theory and practice and how much that relates to why, and how much in itself, I love teaching. It was also the year in which, through my entry with eyes wide open into the world of  human suffering and illness, I finally discovered the profundity of my lifetime obsession with identity, and the ‘other’, and the way the two collide. The philosophical and the scientific and the art in 2012 were so very alive, just as were my students who constantly surprised me and gave so much of themselves in their work just because I asked them to. I will miss the ‘life’ classes on the 5th floor because  2012 left me with its head down… my (d)alliance with the Cardiff School of Art came to an end and I was left wondering….

But life, having backflipped yet again, has made its usual recovery and has put me down in Broadway. Broadway in Cardiff that is, at The Broadway Drawing School. I am teaching, drawing, painting, writing and dreaming still, and this time in my own space, in my own time and most especially, on my own terms. Any level of security is now minimal, but strangely, shock brought me to a point where it felt fine to actually shed that blanket and the cold I now feel as a consequence is somehow not as debilitating as the weight of its presence, which became in the end, that of a shroud. I am lighter now.

I am writing – a paper – and I have been thinking….. Jacques Lacan’s psychoanalytic notion of the ‘mirror stage’ defines the infantile structuring of subjectivity through a fascination for the self-image reflected in a mirror, as an ‘imaginary order’, a deception, a field of images. The age at which this formation of the ego actually occurs disputed is the subject of some dispute but it is immaterial here since it is the ‘alienation’ that Lacan insists is caused by a conflict between our perceived visual experience and our emotional experience of self that is, for me, of interest. The mirror stage defines the understanding of the ‘self’ as essentially a process of objectification that marginalises a more subjective experience of a truer reality of the self in the world, and this resonates with the way that, in terms of human suffering, the very real yet subjective experience of illness is objectified by clinical necessity into a more exclusive focus on the particular disease. The ‘suffering-self’ is therefore again alienated or marginalised in favour of the specific agent of suffering, and in the construction and ‘interrogation’ of the ‘patient-self’, the mirror is one-way.

‘A life lived is what actually happens. A life experienced consists of the images, feelings, sentiments, desires, thoughts and meanings known to the person whose life it is’ Bruner E., M.,  Anthropology of Experience)

To draw is to create the illusion of three dimensions on a two-dimensional surface…to draw is to create.

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