Saturday, 30 January 2016

Keith Haring

A student recently began work on a self-directed project into New York graffiti artist Keith Haring, following a chance viewing of some of his work whilst flicking through a book in my classroom. The student was drawn in by his bold use of colour, line and striking, iconic images. They then set about creating some Keith Haring inspired pieces in various media – finding that fineliner, tempera paint, collage and string prints produced particularly effective results.
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Wednesday, 27 January 2016

Mixed Media Landscapes

In the past I’ve written about my interest in folk art and my integration of such naíve and raw aesthetic stylings into my own teaching program. This is something that has evolved steadily over time and I thought I’d use this opportunity to expound further on how the concepts and practices of folk art have become central to the work done in my classroom.
The Museum of International Folk Art in Santa Fe provides the following definition of the term;
‘FOLK ART is the art of the everyday. FOLK ART is rooted in traditions that come from community and culture. FOLK ART expresses cultural identity by conveying shared community values and aesthetics. FOLK ART encompasses a range of utilitarian and decorative media, including cloth, wood, paper, clay, metal and more.’
A community is in many respects defined by the way it presents itself visually, and Red Balloon is no exception to this. Every cohort of students at Red Balloon will gradually build its own shared aesthetics, resulting in a form of ‘folk art’ that is common to the young people. I often encourage my students to make large scale mixed-media group projects, working together to produce a single piece
For one such group project, my students and I took our cue from Laura Lohman’s outstanding blog Painter Paper in the Art Room. A group of my students set about creating a series of ‘folk art’ landscapes, one a rural scene and one a built up urban environment. The young people worked in paint, printmaking, collage, and three dimensional cardboard construction techniques to produce the large scale pieces shown below. First students established a sense of space by creating the landscape backdrops. They then worked in collage, oil pastel and felt tip to create characters. In doing so the students considered how they might represent and locate themselves within the environments they’d created.  This was particularly interesting in the case of the urban landscape, where students variously chose to represent themselves as cars, planes, helicopters and clouds

Following on from these pieces, additional work was produced on the same theme. Some students interpreted the idea of ‘living space’ much more broadly and went on to produce a three dimensional ‘Earth in space’ model. To create this, students worked in cardboard, tempera paint, felt tip pen and crepe paper.

Another group collaborated on an A1 sized landscape of a mountainous region. Materials used for this piece were; oil pastel, cotton wool, tempera paint and tissue paper.

The work created was terrific and is now all on display around our learner centre. Perhaps most importantly, all the young people that worked on these pieces had a fantastic social experience as they worked together throughout a number of lessons and breaktimes.


Tuesday, 26 January 2016

Found Objects as Inspiration

All artists must be willing to engage with the free exploration of materials. By doing such, fresh properties can be discovered, processes can be experimented with, and the true value of ‘mistakes’ can be learned. This allows for unique works, as each artist learns to manipulate the medium in their own way.  I’m always keen to ‘let the materials do the teaching’ in my art room, and I find students respond very well to being allowed to experiment with a new medium. I think found objects provide some of the most exciting opportunities for this kind of exploration and I thought I’d give a few examples of the kind of found object work that’s been created in my art room.
I start this project by introducing students to the work of two artists who have made great use of found materials. Initially, students looked at Man Ray’s Indestructible Object and consider his juxtaposition of photography and readymade objects. Young people explore the possible links between the photographed eye and the shape and purpose of the readymade metronome, as they attempt to make sense of Man Ray’s intentions and their own interpretations.
Man Ray, 'Indestructible Object' 1923, remade 1933, editioned replica 1965
(Photo from Tate Modern)
The second example I give to students is a photograph of one of Cathy Wilkes installation works. Young people examine the way Wilkes’ creates haunting environments through the combination of apparently unrelated objects. Students are then invited to explore the dramatic tensions in the scene, considering the possible motivations of the figures within it.
Cathy Wilkes Untitled 2013 Installation view
(photo from Tate Modern)
After consideration of the works of Man Ray and Cathy Wilkes, students will have some ideas about the artistic potential of pre-existing objects.
Use of found materials provides a great many opportunities for learning. For one, it encourages students’ creative thinking as it asks them to see the objects as something other than what they were intended.  In order to do this a young person must be able see their chosen objects in terms of form and shape. For example, they might ‘look beyond’ the utilitarian form of a soft drinks bottle and imagine it as a space rocket, a medieval tower, or the horn of a rhinoceros. This engenders the sort of creative thinking that reaches out of the art room, across the curriculum, and even out into the young person’s future career. Students should be given every opportunity to learn the skills of reinvention, interpretation and imagination.
A great way to get students started with this sort of thinking is to provide students with an assortment of mundane objects and ask students to draw around them, considering how their shapes might be turned into something else. Examples of objects I’ve used are compasses, rolls of masking tape and clothes pegs - really just about anything. Students usually jump at this, it’s a light-hearted activity and one that it isn’t possible to fail at. I’ve been amazed at some of the things students have been able to create when presented with mundane objects and a pack of marker pens.



From here, I encouraged students to begin thinking in three dimensions. I always keep on hand a supply of mundane and disposable materials like plastic packaging, cardboard boxes and old envelopes. Students considered the shapes of the materials available to them and begin to imagine what else they could be.  
I’ve so far concentrated on the learning possibilities in found object work but there are therapeutic benefits to this too. Learning to see the beauty in the throwaway and the ‘meaningless’ can be enormously healing. Repurposing a piece of supposed rubbish and turning it into something beautiful is a powerful life lesson, and one that I hope stays with my students long after they leave the art room.
Below are some examples of work created using drinking glass packaging, left over paper scraps and pipe cleaners. Students immediately saw that the apertures in the packaging resembled doors and windows and began creating miniature worlds using the pipe cleaners and left over bits of paper. The pieces below are examples from the culmination of the lesson described above and allowed students the opportunity to express all they’d learnt about found objects, Man Ray and Cathy Wilkes.
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Monday, 25 January 2016

Learning to Fall

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Though I’m not an art therapist, I’ve long had an interest in the healing potential of visual arts. on countless occasions,  I’ve seen how the creation of artwork can have a positive effect on a young person’s emotional state. Allowing space for this sort of healing in an arts learning environment is central to my approach.  Cathy A. Malchiodi explains her early experiences of art therapy as having ‘proposed that all art is acceptable, that there are no rules about how to paint or draw, and that there is no right or wrong way to make art’ (2007:50). In previous posts, I’ve written about how young people often come to Red Balloon with a deeply ingrained belief that the work they produce will be ‘unacceptable.’ This notion of acceptability is something I often question as it can set up huge barriers to the creation of artwork.
I try to make my lessons experimental and exploratory rather than goal-focussed. This gives students a chance to reacquaint themselves with the joys of spontaneous creation, rather than concerning themselves with achieving a specific end result. It can be a worthwhile experience for students to begin a piece with no idea of where it will lead to. If a young person begins a piece of work with no preconceptions then there is little possibility of ‘failure.’
Though it has to be handled with great care and sensitivity, it is possible to provide instruction in the formal qualities of art alongside this freeform ‘therapeutic’ approach. By way of example, the pieces below were created in a lesson that introduced mark making, expressive line work and page layout.
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Students chose two different felt tip pens to make criss-crossing lines across the page. They were instructed to make their lines as varied as possible. Each student had soon created an irregular grid in two different colours. The young people were then asked to change media to pencil crayon, a material which would give their work a different level of colour density. They then began to colour their grids in. Some young people chose to leave a lot of white space on the page, others chose to colour in every available section of the grid.
To finish off the activity, students compared their pieces together. I often utilise peer critiques such as this, and find it especially powerful if the session has been exploratory in nature. Looking over each other’s work, the young people could see how varied each piece was in terms of line, space and colour.
The follow up activity involved a switch to wet media and non-traditional drawing materials. Students were given pots of wet indian ink and clay tools with which to make marks and draw lines. Again, students had lots of fun with this – they quickly learnt to trust in the process and the materials. From time to time, I reminded students not to overthink what they were doing and instead lose themselves in the activity. Below are a few examples of some of the work that was made.
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After the practical work, students were then asked to offer feedback on each other’s pieces. They were able to recognise that some people had produced highly ordered work, whilst others had been more flowing and expressive. In doing so, they noted the differences in each other’s aesthetic sensibility. This was my main learning objective for the lesson, I wanted students to be able to notice and discuss differences in artwork, rather than judging it as ‘good’ or ‘bad.’

Malchiodi, Cathy A. The Art Therapy Sourcebook, McGraw-Hill, 2007.

Wednesday, 20 January 2016

Group Projects and Exhibition

The public exhibition of one's work is daunting for any artist; putting your own pieces out on display can leave you feeling exposed and vulnerable. As art-making is so personal, works can feel like an extension of your own psyche. It's normal to become overrun by self-doubt when showing your work to an audience. Other people's reactions are beyond your control and their comments might not be given with much sensitivity. Learning to manage this is a part of an artist's development, and developing active listening can be of immeasurable benefit to the creative process.  

As the majority of students that come to Red Balloon have particularly low self-esteem, the displaying of their artwork has to be handled very carefully. I’ve made a lot of blunders with this over the years. There have been times when I’ve displayed work on the centre’s walls only to find it torn down and ripped to pieces. In some cases, putting a student’s work up before they were ready has damaged my relationship with that young person. Some students have regarded my exhibiting of their work as a betrayal of their trust. I can only offer my apologies to those past students and assure them that I’ve learnt from my mistakes.

Creating work can be challenging enough for many of Red Balloon’s young people, let alone exhibiting it for others to see.  I've put a great deal of thought into how to my students can reach a point where they are able to recognise the value of exhibition.  In his book An Ethic of Excellence, Ron Berger makes the case that public exhibition of works (art or otherwise) gives the student ‘a reason to do the work well, and it’s not just because the teacher wants it that way’ (2003:98). Though I agree with much of Berger’s thesis, his project-based approach does require some modification when used with students with social and emotional difficulties.

Many of the young people that come to Red Balloon have suffered severe trauma, and the low confidence that this engenders can have a detrimental effect on their engagement in school. It’s not unusual for Red Balloon’s young people to have lost sight of the value of education. If a student is unenthusiastic across the curriculum, the chances are they’ll be an unwilling artist too. They’ve long lost touch with the simple joys of mark making and are often unable to see any point in engaging in the artistic process. When a student is this hesitant to create, the knowledge that they might have to publicly exhibit their work is likely to provide yet another barrier.

I take a very gradual approach with students of this nature. One method I’ve devised is to set the students a group task of creating a wall display on one of the formal elements of art. The display below was created by a group of Year 9s who I asked to assist me with creating a learning aid for my classroom. When the pressure of making ‘art’ was removed, students were quick to settle in to work and more than happy to have the work displayed on the wall.

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The photographs in the above display were created by screwing different coloured pieces of crepe paper into balls and throwing them into a top hat and tea cups arranged on the table. The kinetic nature of this activity worked really well for the students involved as it felt like a game – they even decided to attribute different points values to the cups and the hat and then added up their scores at the end! Students were able to see the way different colours interact in a three dimensional work. After their arrangements had been photographed, they were also able to see how light affects tone in photography.

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As a plenary activity, the lesson’s key words “combine,” “colour,” “create” and “movement” were then drawn in bubble writing and coloured in using some of the understanding that students had just acquired. The group then considered how to display the work on the wall, and decided to use a near symmetrical arrangement. This led to a conversation about composition and visual balance – an additional learning objective that I hadn’t intentionally built into the lesson! By the end of the fifty minute lesson, a large scale piece of group artwork had been created and displayed without the students even realising.

As I touched on in my introduction, peer criticism is an issue that’s closely related to exhibition. Whilst the students can be sure that Red Balloon’s teachers will be kind and complimentary about any exhibited artwork, other young people do not always show the same sensitivity. Adolescence is a time when we’re first learning how to interact with others and young people can often say the wrong thing, or take a comment the wrong way. When one student’s insensitivity collides with another’s over-sensitivity, the results can be disastrous.

I navigate through this difficulty by stressing the community value of visual arts. Students are encouraged to think, create and display their work collaboratively. When this approach is successful, a sum is produced that’s greater than its parts.

This collection of string prints was produced by a number of students, all of whom had only been attending at Red Balloon for a matter of weeks.

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Because the students created, arranged and exhibited their work together, they didn’t feel as conspicuous as they otherwise may have done. The synergistic nature of a project like this also promoted group bonding between students as their individual pieces combined together into one publicly displayed whole. By integrating the students printing materials (the cardboard mounted string print pads) into the exhibition the piece was given an additional element of interactivity, as the artists invited the viewer to consider how the work was made.  Any feedback that the piece received was directed to the group as a whole, so no one student felt targeted.


Berger, Ron. An Ethic of Excellence, Heineman, 2003.

Tuesday, 19 January 2016

Assessment for Learning and Negotiating the Curriculum

In recent years the trend in education has been towards ‘Assessment for Learning,’ which advocates that students are able to learn most effectively when they understand what level they are operating at and what they need to do to improve. Even in a mainstream institution, this poses a problem for art teachers; it suggests that the creative process should be taught in accordance with a rigid framework. In alternative provision, where children suffer from social, behavioural, developmental and emotional problems taking such an approach is even harder to justify.  Young people with the aforementioned difficulties present their own barriers to learning, and an uncompromising assessment rubric can exacerbate the problem – particularly in the field of creative education.

The Red Balloon educational ethos is to give students a degree of ownership over their own learning. This is achieved through dialogue with the student, building up a relationship of trust and shared accountability for the young person’s academic attainment. This practice of ‘negotiating the curriculum’ is defined by Garth Boomer as ‘deliberately planning to invite students to contribute to, and to modify, the educational program so that they will have a real investment in both the learning journey and the outcomes’ (1992:14). This method, which subtly alters the implicit power balance between student and teacher, can be a key factor not only in educational attainment but also in the raising of self-esteem. It is particularly effective with students who have a history of disengaging from education.

To return briefly to the subject of assessment for learning, Susan Hodge explains that students learn best when they understand what they are trying to learn and what is expected of them’ (2010:21). There is, however, a tension between this and the practice of negotiating the curriculum in which a student is given ownership of their own learning. How exactly do teacher expectations fit in to a negotiated curriculum? Working at Red Balloon has taught me that this can only be achieved through continued dialogue with the student on the purpose and meaning of artistic practice. In order for both the student and the teacher to agree on a set of expectations for their artwork, both participants must share an understanding on the value and purpose of creative activity. Only then does a way forward begin to emerge.

Before I begin to expound on a set of techniques I employ in my classroom, I feel I should offer a disclaimer. The methods described below have been designed with extremely low confidence students in mind – young people whose educational experience so far has been largely negative. They have no correspondence with National Curriculum specifications or any other external means of judging and accrediting creative work. I’ve developed the following activities in order to make a creative education accessible to young people whose social, behavioural, emotional and developmental problems are quite severe. In the majority of cases, the methods described below will be used as a means of assessment with students who have just started to attend at Red Balloon.

I find that mind maps are a very useful tool. I provide the students with a piece of paper of at least A3 size and a variety of chunky felt pen markers. For many of Red Balloon’s young people, this is their first introduction to thinking visually and it usually yields interesting results.  If a student starts with the question ‘what is art?’ in the centre of their page, they can begin to generate their own responses to it. If a young person is struggling with the scope of this question, it might be altered to something like ‘why do people make art?’ or ‘what makes art fun?’ The following mind maps show how a number of different students have approached this task.

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From here a student can begin to set out their own criteria of how artistic success can be judged. The pictures below show how the same three students were able to use the ideas from their mind maps to create self-assessment grids for their own work.  Each stem of their mind map was modified into a question, which then became an assessment criteria. Students were then invited to mark their own completed pieces, giving each a grade between 1 and 5. By using a different colour pen to mark different pieces, students were able to make comparisons between their completed works.

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Low confidence is most student’s first (and often largest) barrier when they begin to attend Red Balloon.  When a young person completes their first piece of artwork, the feedback they receive from the teacher is key to their continued development in the subject. At this stage the rapport that has just started to develop between student and teacher faces its first test. When I’m critiquing student work at this stage, I put a lot of effort into giving gentle feedback that still gives the student a clear indication of where they are in their learning. At the same time, I’ve learnt that students easily see through false praise. If reference is made to the mind map activity described above (which should be kept in the student’s folder), the young person is given a greater degree of ownership of this assessment process. They have set out the terms of artistic success for themselves, and can measure their progress against this.

In order to develop student’s creative thinking further I usually try to enter into a dialogue about any completed pieces. I’ll ask students to identify what they think works about it and where they think it could be improved. Again, referring back to the young person’s own assessment grid is key. To take an example from above, one student set a self-assessment criteria of ‘Is the work colourful?’ To this I might ask them more open questions about their colour choices and how they feel the colours work when placed next to each other. From here, the learner could be introduced to colour wheels and colour theory.

The low self-esteem of a typical Red Balloon student can make the above approach difficult, but I have found it to be more successful with new students than using externally developed assessments.  A young person with little confidence is likely to respond with ‘nothing’ when asked what they like about their work and ‘everything’ when questioned about what they might improve. It’s usually futile to try to push a child when they give these kinds of responses – that will usually turn into a battle of wills in which the student further digs their heels in and any positive relationship with the teacher is lost. Through continual reflection back to the student’s own definition of artistic success, this barrier can be overcome but it is often a very slow process.


Boomer, Garth in Negotiating the Curriculum Garth Boomer, Nancy Lester, Cynthia Onore, Jon Cook (eds.), Falmer Press, 1992.

Hodge, Susan. The Art and Design Teachers Handbook, Continuum Books, 2010.

Saturday, 16 January 2016

To Teach or to Allow for Expression?

When I first began teaching art at Red Balloon my approach was very much inspired by the charity's educational ethos. Red Balloon advocates that students should be given the opportunity to take charge of their own learning. Implicit in this is the belief that the student knows what they're interested in and what they want to explore. In the early days, I didn't see myself as a teacher so much as a guide; I could gently direct students’ investigations whilst still allowing them full ownership of their art room experience.  Over time my approach has changed somewhat; not least because pf external factors like the need to perform well in inspections, and to give students the opportunity to succeed at sixth forms and colleges.

Four years into my time at Red Balloon, I find myself negotiating this dilemma; is it better to meticulously plan each art lesson or should I give my students the chance to express themselves without teacher-imposed parameters? Should I assume that a University education entitles me to impose my own interests on Red Balloon’s young people, or should I set my faith in the students’ innate desire for discovery, letting the process and the materials do the teaching? Through practice I’ve come to see that these approaches are not mutually exclusive, and that a compromise between the two extremes yields the best results.

An art education lets young people open their minds up to the wide vista of visual culture. A well-structured art curriculum can take in everything from prehistoric cave paintings to twenty first century conceptualism. However, the teenagers I work with often come to Red Balloon with a fairly narrow view of the world around them.  If such students are placed entirely in charge of their own learning, would they be able to branch out and expand their range? In the case of many of Red Balloon's young people, their range of interests is particularly narrow - something not helped by time out of school, away from peer interaction. Often a student's social anxiety has reached such a level that they are unable to access other educational institutions like libraries, museums and art galleries.

One example of how a more planned out project can broaden cultural horizons is the work my students do on the Mexican 'Dia de los Muertos' (Day of the Dead) holiday. Young people begin by reflecting on our own Hallowe'en tradition and considering the sort of imagery and artefacts associated with it. They're familiar with Hallowe'en and know all about pumpkins, cobwebs and witches’ hats.  Once we've talked through the sort of things we usually see around at Hallowe'en, I show the students a series of video clips from the Day of the Dead holiday, giving them chance to see the wild colour schemes and vibrant designs that give this festival its character. Red Balloon's young people are usually struck by the massive difference in visual style between the Day of the Dead and Hallowe'en.

My students then work through two practical exercises related to Dia de los Muertos. The first is a painting activity in which students use a blunt pencil to etch Mexican inspired designs onto tinfoil before going over with poster paint. The tinfoil's reflective surface catches the light through the poster paint resulting in striking and suitably vibrant work. Students then move into three dimensions, creating a Mexican sugar skull from papier mache and decorating it using paint, fabric and beads. The tinfoil paintings and paper skulls are then exhibited together, in an eye-catching display.

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A structured project like this will sometimes inspire a student to go beyond the prescribed work. A young person might become interested in Mexican art and culture and want to go further with these investigations. This is something I'm more than happy to encourage. When a project piques a student's interest and becomes something they want to find out more about, I generally allow this even if it means throwing away a week of lesson plans.

As a student's work starts to develop, they begin to create their own visual language. Recurrent themes, motifs and symbols start to appear in a young person's pieces indicating that their inner world is starting to find expression. At this point I begin to allow my students greater autonomy, as their engagement with the artistic process deepens. They start to acquire research skills and make connections between their areas of study. As their confidence grows, they become less reliant on teacher-given prompts.  The piece below shows how a student was able to take their own interest in science fiction and apply the 'poster paint on tinfoil' technique they'd learnt previously. This resulted in a powerful work that holds great significance for them.

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When students have reached this stage, I know that their artistic journey is really beginning.  From time to time I still drop in structured projects when I feel like a young person might need some fresh inspiration. This is usually easy to identify – a student’s work will become stale and repetitive, and their interest and enthusiasm in art will start to recede. Reaching into a very different area of art history can be useful here; for example, I might ask students to consider the expressive brush strokes of Van Gogh. Young people look over examples of his work and note the dynamism and movement visible in the pictures. They can then experiment with re-creating such strokes on the page.  After some practice, they can begin to create expressionistic landscapes inspired by Van Gogh’s The Starry Night.

The piece below was originally painted in poster paint, with the student adding fresh layers of colour before the previous layer had been allowed to dry. This 'wet on wet' painting technique opens up the world of colour theory to students; through practice they learn how primary colours can be mixed into secondary and then tertiary colours. Working spontaneously and intuitively on a surface enables the young person to learn quickly, creating and recreating as they go. When the student was happy, the painting was left to dry and then a final layer of conté crayon was applied over the top to give the piece greater visual depth.

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The Van Gogh-inspired landscape above was produced by the same student who created the tinfoil painting shown earlier. You can see that the colour scheme of purple, blue and orange was carried over to the second piece, with the student making the further discovery that yellow is an additional complement. The young person also makes consistent use of heavy black line work in both pieces, adding weight, space and definition to their images. This learning process began with the introduction of the ‘Dia de los Muertos’ project and ran from there, with the student simultaneously giving expression to their feelings and also learning key art skills like use of line, shape, colour and composition.

Every day working at Red Balloon is a terrific learning experience as all of our young people are so unique.  My teaching practice continues to develop and I'm constantly refining and re-working my approach. I've yet to arrive at a point where I feel like I've 'cracked it' and found the optimum way of working.  The methods I've described above have evolved over the past few years and will probably be always be subject to revision. Red Balloon's teenagers have taught me never to be complacent and they continually present me with fresh challenges.

Art Education in Alternative Provision

The Red Balloon Learner Centre is an alternative educational provision for young people who have suffered severe bullying or school-related trauma. I have taught Art at its Norwich branch since 2011 and wanted to share some of my (and my student's!) practice with other professionals. My visual arts teaching is underpinned by three things; individuality, community, and exhibition. I think art is at its most powerful when it is unique to its creator, developed in a respectful community of practicing artists, and then installed for others to enjoy.

Red Balloon differs from other education providers, and is very much tailored to meet the needs of the young people who attend. When a new student comes to Red Balloon they are often timid, fearful, sometimes terrified to even walk through the door and leave their parents behind. Their body language is usually closed down, shoulders hunched, arms folded in a defensive posture. If the young person speaks, rarely do they offer more than a word or two. Their first trip to the art room is generally a frightening experience for them. Art can be intimidating, many of our young people don't feel comfortable expressing themselves. They are terrified of the judgement that they're certain will come the very second they begin to make marks on paper. 

Art lessons in mainstream schools can sometimes be competitive, with naturally talented students producing work that intimidates others and stifles their creativity. When any new student comes into my art room, my first challenge is to gain that child's trust. I usually start with a friendly welcome followed by a question, something along the lines of "Welcome to the art room! So... do you like art?" The most common response to this (if the child has sufficient confidence to speak) is 'Yes, but I'm not very good at it.' This points to a great truth of creative education, and is a fitting place to begin my argument.

 As young children, we all play. We possess none of the aforementioned fear of being judged. We will happily make expressive marks and gestures with paint, play dough, crayons, even mud! At some point - and it seems to be around the time we enter the school system - we become aware that this mark making is part of a larger thing called 'art', and that this thing seems to have its own set of rules, boundaries and values. This is often where the disconnection begins.  What was previously a spontaneous form of play becomes something that teachers now comment on; with some children's efforts getting more positive feedback than others'. Some children will naturally have a greater visual sense than others, some will be capable of more deft hand movements, and these youngsters are the ones that become the 'arty' ones or the 'creative' ones.  My job is to put young people back in touch with their innate creativity, and give them the confidence to recognise that what they create is art
I personally have a great interest in outsider art and folk art. I've attempted to integrate such naïve and ‘raw’ practices into my teaching. I fear that an overly didactic approach to arts education is counter-productive. For me, the great value of art making is the ability to express your own unique vision – and doing so inevitably opens you up, allowing you to explore who you are and what it means to be you. I think my best lessons are the ones where I hardly speak at all, where students are comfortable in the art room and with the piece they are creating.
This piece is an example from a mixed media portraiture project which I ran with Year 9 students earlier this year. Students were given the choice of working in any combination of collage, acrylic paint, stencil, and oil pastel. The results from the project were beautiful and unique, and it was a pleasure to witness their creation.
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I have a strong community approach, which informs all that happens in my classroom. All my students create work that is exhibited around our Learner Centre’s walls. Students regularly inspire each other, instruct each other, and (kindly) critique each other’s work.

These pieces, for example, are part of a larger display called ‘Faces in the Hall.’ It was inspired by an American artist called Tyree Guyton who reinvigorated a dilapidated borough of Detroit with his found art assemblages and brightly coloured expressionist portraits. The McDougall-Hunt area of Detroit, where Guyton’s work is proudly displayed, is now one of Detroit’s most popular tourist attractions. Inspired by Guyton’s work, Red Balloon students created two dimensional pieces in oil pastel on black paper, and then moved on to three dimensional work in papier mache, fabric and acrylic paint. All of these pieces now form part of a larger wall display, which can be viewed by all who come to the upper floor of our Learner centre. Though students were inspired by Guyton’s work, they were encouraged to draw on their own imaginations and experiences to create pieces meaningful to them.
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When students are ready they are encouraged out of the class room on visits to local art galleries, museums and Norwich University of the Arts. Students absorb the work they see and reflect on it, bringing their ideas back to Red Balloon with them. These types of visits often provide great ‘jumping off points’ for art projects.

The above wire sculptures were created in response to Alberto Giacometti. Students had the opportunity to view his work first hand during a visit to the Sainsbury’s Centre for Visual Arts, which is on the UEA campus. Young people learned how to safely use wire cutters, pliers, and hot glue. They learnt how to manipulate three dimensional materials, and ensure that their creations could balance and stay up right. Each student considered the sort of poses they could create, considering the visual dynamism of different options before making their final choice.  The finished sculptures now stand proudly on our upstairs window ledge.
I’m passionate about Art education and about the transformation visual arts can bring to people’s lives. I hope that I’ve provided something of a snapshot of life as an Art teacher in an alternative education setting. For more information about Red Balloon, visit