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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.’

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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!

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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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So, the Cancer Ward 12 Exhibition at the Dynevor Centre Gallery is now closed but you can see it on the new exhibition page on my other project site https://cancerward12.wordpress.com

Once there just click the appropriate heading on the page menu and do scroll down as there is  lot to see!

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The exhibition might be over but the work continues. I am currently putting together a publication based on the project which will be available in e-book and print format. More on that very soon.

I hope that you enjoy the page and that it provides some feel of the physical exhibition. Please do send comments/feedback either by posting here or contact me directly: jacsaorsa@hotmail.com   All such feedback really helps in progressing and developing my work.

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

Its been a while since my last post and things have been quite frantic. Since returning from Tanzania I have been working on drawings for the Drawing Out Obstetric Fistula show at the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists in London in May (more on that later) but now I am in Glasgow working in the Medical Humanities Research Centre, with many thanks to the Wellcome Trust who have funded this three month visit.

Through this post are some of the drawings I have been doing in the Glasgow University Anatomy Museum.

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I am writing a paper in which I hope will put the Drawing Women’s Cancer project into historical and philosophical context. All of the work up to now on the project has been directly concerned with the here and now – with the experiences of women in the present, and this was the primary aim from the beginning . I feel however that to enhance the validity and indeed the credibility of the work, it is very necessary to ‘ground’ the project in relation to what has gone before. Here is a pertinent section of the proposal that WT approved:

The paper will look at how perceptions of the woman patient between the 18th century rise of obstetrics and the ‘man-midwife’ persona of William Hunter and his Scottish contemporaries, through the 19th century advancement of gynaecology to the present day treatment of gynaecological disease, have influenced present day attitudes – both medical and general – towards gynaecological illness and its overall impact on women’s lives, and moreover, how these attitudes were and can be affected by and through visual art. I will focus on a methodological and philosophical comparison of Hunter’s Anatomy of the Human Gravid Uterus (drawings by Jan Van Rymsdyk) and the development of my own drawings for Drawing Women’s Cancer as a basis from which to explore how visual art as a form of expression and communication can, as a form of ‘metalanguage’, effectively serve to ‘speak the unspeakable’ in this area women’s health.

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I have been here for two weeks now and it is the historical context that has been engaging my time and thoughts  as I have discovered the University Anatomy Museum. The experience of drawing from the very same bodies that Rymsdyk drew from is a gift and in many ways very humbling. Further, Glasgow University Library holds the full set of Rymsdyk’s drawings for the Gravid Uterus in their Special Collections and I spent a whole afternoon studying them, trying to understand how he executed them – one artist to another –  and I have to admit I had a few surprises after only ever seeing the reproductions. I discovered that he definitely does use graphite in the drawings,  which are often considered to be just red chalk alone, and he also uses what looks like dilute ink in blue yellow and green. The drawings are less defined and precise in the flesh -and better for that!. In some there is definitely a ‘wetting’ if the chalk – and this is further evidenced by the buckling of the paper- but it is a technique he seems to use sparingly. Most of the tonal quality comes from exceptionally sensitive blending of the chalk and overall, to my mind, he does indeed have a very ‘painterly style.

In the drawings here I have used red chalk (or at least the modern equivalent) and graphite. I am not in any way trying to emulate Rymsdyk, I am simply trying to ‘get inside his head’ in search – through practice – of the subjective nuances of what he was doing. I am also – undeniably – enjoying myself enormously, and especially savouring the necessity to get back to a level of ‘discipline’ in the work!

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