Working across a variety of media to explore historical narratives and representations, and bring to light untold figures and stories, Ruth Ewan has long been one of my favourite contemporary artists. I was very excited, therefore, when I heard she had been working with the National Arts Education Archive to develop new work for a show at Yorkshire Sculpture Park.
Asking Out is an installation in the Longside Gallery which explores the work of Muriel Pyrah, an untrained teacher in Airedale Middle School in Castleford. Whilst Pyrah was not necessarily immersed in the latest ideas about teaching, appearing to base her work on her own experiences of teaching and ideas about students’ needs in the classroom, her work fitted with the progressive agenda of the West Riding Education Authority, who celebrated and promoted her ideas as an example of then-fashionable modes of non-hierarchical, child-centred learning which encompassed learning through doing and direct experience.
The exhibition takes as its starting point the concept of ‘asking out’: Pyrah’s students were required to contribute verbally to her classroom, to articulate their work and ideas, to ask questions and to critique each other’s work. From a relatively deprived town in the Yorkshire coalfield, Pyrah’s students were taken out to explore the world beyond the classroom – into local streetscapes, landscapes and industries, further afield to sites of historical interest and even to London.The aim was to develop confidence in Pyrah’s students, both in themselves and their surroundings. We can see this for ourselves in a set of films made in the early 1970s, towards the end of Pyrah’s career, when the cameras were invited into the classroom in order to share Pyrah’s work, and observe discussions among the children about what they’d seen, learned and experienced. The students appear lively and engaged, if sometimes a little awkwardly formal.An accompanying publication to Asking Out, containing essays and interviews with some of Pyrah’s former students, complicates the narrative, suggesting that her unorthodox methods did not work for or include everyone. Whilst some students thrived from being expected to talk in front of the class others, perhaps unsurprisingly, found the experience difficult and stressful. Pyrah also appeared to have very particular ideas about the ‘correct’ way of talking; use of local dialect was discouraged, adding to a sense of distance from other students in the school.Ewan has reactivated and brought to life Pyrah’s ideas, asking us to experience them for ourselves and inviting visitors to participate in and contribute to a reconstruction of her 1970s classroom. The overall impression is stimulating and colourful: the eye is constantly drawn towards text and images. As well as familiar wooden schooldesks, the room is full of artefacts to explore: a piano and songbooks; a nature table, full of tactile objects; maps and photographs showing features of the landscape; books and posters about how everyday goods are made; and a blackboard for writing, sharing and learning the meaning of interesting, unusual, difficult and favourite words.Above all, what comes across is the sense that the children were encouraged to look. Much of the children’s work, hung up around the classroom, is based on close and careful observation – of nature, of places, of the effect of the seasons.These historical artefacts are given added poignancy and power through their proximity to another installation encouraging, prioritising and revealing children’s ways of seeing. Frequencies by Colombian artist Oscar Murillo – who is currently nominated for the Turner Prize – brings together canvases on which children from schools across the world have been invited to doodle, as if drawing on their desks like generations of children before them. Displayed flat on table-tops, they reveal the preoccupations of children in very different countries, cities and contexts.Another complementary exhibition Transformations: Cloth & Clay at the National Arts Education Archive explores tensions between crafts and design, changing ideas about what these mean, and how they interacted with developments in the ways in which art was taught in schools, universities and experimental establishments such as Dartington Hall across the twentieth century.
What became clear to me across both Ewan’s installation and the NAEA exhibition was how many individuals were pioneering creative approaches to learning in post-war schools, and how much more I have to read, learn and think about.
Asking Out is at the Longside Gallery, Yorkshire Sculpture Park until Saturday 3 November: https://ysp.org.uk/exhibitions/ruth-ewan-and-oscar-murillo
Transformations: Cloth & Clay is at the National Arts Education Archive, Yorkshire Sculpture Park until Saturday 3 November: https://ysp.org.uk/exhibitions/transformations-cloth-and-clay
An artist whose work was very popular at Pictures for Schools in the 1960s is the Polish-born printmaker and weaver Tadek Beutlich (1922-2011). Between 1963 and 1969 Beutlich, along with his wife Ellen, sold work to county council and school loan collections including Buckinghamshire, Manchester, West Sussex, Hertfordshire, the London County Council, Nottingham, Cambridge and the Inner London Education Authority Circulating Pictures Scheme, as well as Sion Manning School in Ladbroke Grove, London, Dunningford County Junior School in Hornchurch, Essex and Uppingham School.
Beutlich’s colourful, striking work is among my favourite to be shown at Pictures for Schools, so I loved the chance to see it in real life at two exhibitions in the picturesque and crafty village of Ditchling, East Sussex, which sits under the spectacular green hills of the South Downs, where he lived and worked for several years in the 1960s and 1970s. Tadek Beutlich ‘Beyond Craft’ is currently on at the Ditchling Museum of Art and Craft, and shows a small selection of his prints as well as textile sculptures, drawn from the Beutlich family collection as well as the nearby Royal Pavilion in Brighton.
I was surprised by how big and vibrant the prints are when seen in person (I’d previously only seen them on a screen). Whilst some focus in on elements such as birds’ beaks, and depict insects, creating pattern from detail, many are more generalised responses to natural phenomena and processes such as radiation, germination, pollination, sun, heatwaves and sunsets, using layered relief prints from objects such as foam and wood and experimenting with the process of mark-making as the basis for imagery and composition in a limited yet effective colour palette of reds/oranges, greens and purples.
A much larger selection of Beutlich’s work and output, drawn from his studio, is on display – and for sale – for a short time only at the Jointure Studios down the road. This shows the range of Beutlich’s work and his experimentation with materials, from different types of grasses and fibres to PVA glue, to create responses to organic forms such as shoots and fungus, as well as vertical wall hangings incorporating objects such as X-Ray tape. Also on display are teaching aids used by Beutlich, who taught at Camberwell School of Art as well as later running workshops and exhibiting at the Metropole Galleries in Folkestone; his wife Ellen, a former tapestry student of his at Camberwell, still lives in the town. At Camberwell, Beutlich worked with another printmaker who sold work at Pictures for Schools, Michael Rothenstein, and devised his own inventive methods for printing that didn’t involve the use of a printing press.
Among the prints on display is Radiation II, which was sold to Buckinghamshire education committee as well as the Catholic Sion Manning School in Ladbroke Grove, London. Out of all the artists whose work was selected to hang and be sold at Pictures for Schools, Beutlich’s is the easiest to imagine capturing children’s attention and making a visual impression in post-war schools, particularly among the relatively blank slate environments of system-built schools. In its colour and bold shapes, it’s unmistakeable both as Beutlich’s work and as a product of the 1960s, when both art and science sought both new understandings of and new ways of representing the world and its natural forms.
Tadek Beutlich – Prints and Textiles is at the Jointure Studios until 12 March.
Tadek Beutlich – Beyond Craft is at Ditchling Museum of Art and Craft until 16 April.
Putting a modern face on an ancient technique: Noel Dyrenforth’s batik submissions to Pictures for SchoolsPosted: November 3, 2013
This week I spoke to a really interesting batik artist, Noel Dyrenforth, who submitted artwork to the Pictures for Schools exhibitions in the scheme’s final years in the 1960s, as well as to the Pictures for Welsh Schools exhibitions which were ongoing in the 1970s and 1980s [Dyrenforth has records relating to 1974-83]. He remembers it as a ‘valuable cultural scheme’ which was contributed to by top-quality artists, and that ‘original art was freely circulated and hung in corridors for the benefit of everyone to access’.
Batik is a wax-resist dye technique for fabric. Dyrenforth’s work was included in the ‘Embroideries, fabric collages and batiks’ section of the exhibitions (this is a category of works that particularly interests me, as it seems that several of the artists who exhibited were at the forefront of pioneering new techniques in areas such as machine sewing; interestingly, though, on the subject of craft, a 1965 planning meeting of Pictures for Schools considered an enquiry about whether decorative woven wall hangings could be included in the exhibition, but it was decided that they were too close to craft and it was suggested to craftspeople that they consider starting their own ‘Crafts for Schools’ exhibitions instead).
Dyrenforth recalled that he was travelling around a lot at the time and was very prolific. He used to send in five or six pieces to each Pictures for Schools exhibition, and typically sold four or five each time, particularly to Leicestershire Education Authority which has around 40 of his pieces. Dyrneforth remembers that their buyer was a ‘wily character’ who was particularly keen, and often approached artists who were in their final year or were just coming out of the Royal College and had a future in the art world, meaning that they built up a very large collection of now very valuable artworks. Dyrenforth’s work was also purchased by the Victoria and Albert Museum Circulation Department.
Dyrenforth had a traditional, classical art school education, which included life drawing and ‘training the eye’, but found oil painting ‘awful’ so quickly turned to abstraction after leaving art college as it ‘leaves more to the imagination’. He saw himself as part of the 1960s counterculture, which went against all traditional aspects of technique and materials, remembering that it was a very open, easy time and a good time for art as ‘everyone was much more open to new things’. The 1960s was well-known as a time when artists were experimenting with different materials such as glass, rubber and plastic, but Dyrenforth though ‘what can I do that is different to everyone else?’ and decided to go the other way by looking back to the ancient technique of batik, which is 2,000 years old, trying to put a modern face on it and find a new approach. Although batik was more associated with fashion and had no legacy in art (although there was a craze for it in the early-1900s) he always looked on it as art, and thought the division between art and craft was superficial; there was a big tie-up between art and other forms in the 1960s, and a breaking down of traditional divisions. Dyrenforth explained that his work didn’t really look like conventional batik, and he preferred to see them as paintings. Typically, works were around 1.5 metres high, meaning they looked good on walls. At that time, there weren’t many other people working in batik, but in the early-1960s it had started to become popular and was taught in schools. In 1975, Dyrenforth wrote the popular book Batik with Noel Dyrenforth, and has since taught all over the world.
Dyrenforth, who has always been interested in politics and social change, points out that there were great changes in the sixties, and everything became political. It was a time when art seemed to have great promise, particularly American art. He remembers: “There was rebellion in the mind and in the street. We thought there was going to be a revolution in 1968 but it didn’t quite happen.” One of the artworks Dyrenforth submitted to Pictures for Schools in 1969 was called ‘Contact’, and he explains: “We thought contact with new ideas was a vital thing, to communicate ideas to change the system.”
To find out more and see examples of Dyrenforth’s work visit www.noel-dyrenforth.com.