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.
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.
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.
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.