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Jurate Stauskaite, director of Vilnius Art School for Children and Youth and Arvydas Baltrunas, teacher
WITHIN THE SCOPE OF MUSEUM EDUCATION - MODERN AND CONTEMPORARY ART
Form in the Space. Ways of Perception. The Experience of Vilnius Art School for Children and Youth
About the school
While we are looking for an answer how and where the world is going to develop in this new millennium, it is being more and more often noticed that it is vitally important for a contemporary man not to store knowledge, but to apply and be able to use it. That is why the belief that it is necessary to develop a creative personality has found a special emphasis in the formation of information society. Not the amount of the information, but the ability to use it with purpose and creatively leads to success and the escape of failure. That is the state constant change. The implementation of ambitious and risky projects is a new phenomenon in Lithuania which has opened to the world and is in a process of modernisation. . In this process the traditional relationship between the teacher and the pupil, based on knowledge delivery and reception, is being removed by a new and flexible co-operation, which stimulates the feedback between the one who gives and the one who gets. The process of teaching is changing. It is important not only to provide the pupils with knowledge but also to invite them to the discussion with the teacher, that is, to encourage them to have their own opinion and to be able to express and defend it. We witness the renewal of the pedagogical system which becomes open to the changes, i.e. becomes more modern.
Vilnius Art School for Children and Youth is the first educational institution in Lithuania, which was established right after the declaration of the Independence. This school was founded in 1991 by the painter Jurate Stauskaite. She is still the soul and the driving force of the school. Our school dears to break regular attitudes of the official education. The main feature of the school is the belief that the impulse of creativity within a young person can be stimulated by a distinctive and interesting artist. This is were the following principle of the school comes from. We seek to attract active artists that represent different generations and world-views to the work with the students and constantly renew personnel, i.e. to avoid the routine of teaching process. The result of this is that the school curriculum is based not upon the presentation of distinct fragments of contemporary art process but upon the presentation of the programme that involves the colourful art of various trends.
The other belief is that the process of education has to be open. Thus, the important means of teaching becomes an acquaintance with the expositions in Vilnius museums, the newest contemporary art exhibitions, the old and modern architecture, sculpture monuments. The universality of the work method is also proven by the school’s curriculum links with the Scandinavian system of art education.
When pupils get acquainted with the peculiarities of a new object, land art, actions, installations expression, it becomes evident for them how the borders among the types of art are blurred. They become surprised to notice how artistic our daily environment is, and how many objects can become meaningful and alive.
Now I would like to tell you briefly about the activities of our school which aim to introduce to three-dimensional object and its composition in the space:
1. The perception of form
2. Conceptual sculpture
3. From a tree to a contemporary sculpture
4. The installation
5. Land art
6. Action : The sculptures of Vilnius
1. Perception of the Form
The first activity. “Blind drawing”
The meaning and the essence is not somewhere behind the thing. It’s in them. It’s everywhere.
We will try to perceive the form of an object by touching and feeling it. . The pupils sit down with their eyes tied up. The objects of various forms or their details, which would be hard to recognise by touching with hands, are prepared in advance (those might be parts of the head made of plaster, theatrical attributes such as an ancient lamp, household utensil that is no longer used, abstract sculptural objects, etc.)
Each pupil is handed a separate object. With the tied eyes (no longer than 5-6 min) the pupils are touching the objects and try to perceive their essence (if the object is soft or hard, sweet or annoying, with what materials or objects it can be associated). The most important feature of the object should be recognised by feeling it. This arouses some kind of visual, though not necessarily a concrete image (the blind orient in the environment in the similar way).
When the things are hidden the eyes are untied. Then the pupils take a sheet of paper, a pencil or a piece of coal and draw their images that have been inspired by touching the objects. When the drawings are finished, all the “models” are brought into the studio and put in a well-seen place. One of the most playful moments of a lesson is the attempt to recognise the objects. It often happens to see unexpected, funny forms that have nothing in common with the reality on the one hand. On the other hand, some kind of peculiar resemblance can be detected. When the objects are recognised, they are drawn again.
This time everybody is drawing his/her object from he nature and is trying to depict it in the most exact way. When the work is finished the drawings are compared and discussed. The comparable drawings usually show that the “character” of the object has been much better revealed during the “blind” drawing, especially if the real shape of the object was not recognised. Thus, we find the paradoxical truth that out eyes are not the main condition in learning to see.
The lesson is not successful if the object is recognised at once and the drawer only copies it from the memory. That is why it is important that the objects which are going to be drawn are not known or seen in advance in a studio or any other environment.
The second activity. A building from the objects.
During these lessons it is the most important to realise that special materials or a special environment is not a necessary condition in a creative process. The main condition is you.
The first way.
There are always various objects and furniture at school. We will have to make a “sculpture” from them. A building-sculpture can be begun by a teacher or any of the pupils. By the way, the building can also be begun before the lesson. This creates unexpected atmosphere. For example, a few chairs can be joined in an unusual way or a table set in a different angle. Each pupil has to find something in a studio that would fit the unusual construction. If the offered thing does not completely fit, other pupils can suggest their variants. So, during some time an extraordinary object is constructed. However, it should not be chaotic. A solid form is gradually constructed from all the objects. When all agree that the work is finished, everybody has to think of a name for it. If the group is active and imaginative, witty comments that pretend to be an art critic’s evaluation would brighten the atmosphere. A lesson could be finished by free impromptu drawings without “any rules” that would picture the created object. That would give a sense to the idea – “everything” can be done from “nothing”.
The second way.
I put various ordinary objects in separate studio places (that can be an iron, a scull, a lamp, a jug, a head of plaster, a toy, etc.). Just the simplest things that are always at hand. They are put in a way that would be easily seen from different angles. When the pupils come to a lesson, they (not knowing the task) freely pick the ones that interest them. Then I suggest constructing a few small - scale objects (from 4-5 objects) in the same way that the building-sculpture was done; the only difference is that this time separate groups of pupils create a few different objects. The finished objects are examined and discussed and then, as it has been mentioned above, having chosen the format and the means, they are drawn on a sheet of paper.
The activities of this kind activate the studying process of art in a way that the pupil is made the creator of a situation. Besides, such training is suitable for everybody despite their age and abilities. Here we could remember Jurgis Maciunas, the creator of Fluxus who said that “everybody can be an artist”.
2. Conceptual Sculpture
Means of work: toilet paper, wire, sticks, glue, gouache.
Various circumstances influence the theme of a following lesson. We often visit interesting exhibitions with older children. This time we visited an exhibition in Vilnius contemporary art centre. There was an exposition of many contemporary conceptual sculptures from various materials. All objects united by the new attitude towards the objects in our environment were collected in one place. Unexpected and paradoxical features of those objects were revealed by various artistic means. Hence, a familiar thing acquired a different, new meaning. Isn’t that interesting that a bag can be made of stone (Gediminas Urbonas, “Lagaminas”, 1991), a table from cloth (Darius Bastys, “Minksti baldai”, 1994), a cradle is twined from barbed wire (Arturas Raila, “Lopsys, garantuojantis pragmatiska infantiluma”, 1994). That encouraged a cycle of activities with 9-12 year old children to devote to contemporary sculpture.
We began from sketches. We did not rush to work with steady material. If there are many means, children rush to do something at once without an idea what they want to do. That is why everybody had to think of a conception first and only after some discussions and confirmation they could began to work with the material. Children suggested a lot of sketches. Each drew 10-15 projects of a future sculpture. Then we chose the best works explaining and discussing among ourselves about what conception is. We came to an agreement that it reflected a forehand idea and its maturity, that is, a purposive choice how to give a new, unexpected meaning to a familiar thing. Some objects not only changed the primary function of an object but denied previous one. For instance, a sculptural shoe became an object with prickles which cannot be put on. During conversations and discussions we chose the best each child’s idea. Then we talked about sculpture’s form and size. We tried to focus our attention to the form, to limit colours, not to give opportunity to colour objects. Having discussed the choice of the material for our future sculptures, we decided that we could modernise papier-maché technique by using toilet paper. We used wire framework for the sculpture’s base. While using the toilet paper as a structural material proved to be perfect. It was easy to model subtle details from the soft mass. The process of work was long; it took 3-4 lessons. Everything had to be gradually done. We had to let the form dry. When the sculptural objects dried they acquired an unattractive colour of grey mud, so children coloured some parts of the sculpture in white colour, which helped to highlight spatial form’s contrast of light changes. Sculptures were not coloured gradually but in parts, so the white colour gave clarity to three dimensional form and facture. Besides, it was possible to cover uneven details of the modelled form.
The cycle of lessons devoted to contemporary conceptual sculpture is important not only as meaningful activity to form spatial composition skills. While working, attention is paid to sketches of different ideas, their selection and an unusual possibility to use familiar material in a different way.
3. From a Tree to a Contemporary Sculpture
Nature and multiplicity of uncountable forms and colours that is present in it always has been not only the source of inspiration of a creatively thinking person, but also a certain idea bank that gave birth to his/her works. A tree, as one (from the perspective of the form) of the most interesting nature’s motives, is a perfect object in the process of art perception and structuring. Henri Matisse explained his own relationship with a tree in this way: “A tree is a totality of impressions it gives to me. That is an object that arouses not only the picture of a tree within my consciousness but also a feeling associated with it. I would not feel it by exactly copying the tree; drawing the leaves one by one… and having identified myself with it I can create an object similar to the tree. The sign of Tree.”
The first activity: a tree-sculpture.
Means of work: sheets of thicker paper (russet tissue-paper fits well for the activity), sanguine, coal, pastels.
Pupils are advised to choose from all their drawings the ones which, in their opinions, remind monumental sculpture. During the activity pupils have to generalise, to transform the chosen tree into a sculptural object. It has to lose the resemblance of the tree on the one hand. But on the other hand, it still has to maintain the form of a concrete tree. It is advised to paint with soft means (coal, sanguine, pastels, pencil) with which it would be easier to highlight the extent. In this way the sketch of a sculpture is created. It is very remote from the primary tree drawing.
The tree was much worshipped in the Baltic tradition. It was believed that a tree lives and feels like a human being: they have souls, can talk or feel the pain. Moreover, it was believed that a tree can be a refuge place for the person who has passed away. Thus, if you cut the tree, blood will leak from it. A tree was also home for some deity or the souls who would settle there to do their penance.
There are a lot of variants of a tree theme development, it is not necessary to take into consideration just the ones mentioned here. A tree can turn into a person, an animal, abstract object, i.e. entirely change its form and become a new object.
This cycle continues the previous activities and becomes an introduction to a new art, a specific type of installation – living sculpture and photocollage. We believe that a tree like “a one-legged, cent handed and headless creature”, is one the most suitable images that would make pupils return back from the two-dimensional drawing to familiar to us three-dimensional space.
Then, while using created objects (or drawings) pupils “repeat” them with their bodies, i.e. “they portray the tree”. Sometimes this develops into “the living sculptures”. For such activities it is necessary to overcome low self - esteem, to take a different attitude towards your body and to perceive it as a means to reveal an idea. So in a lesson we try not to create “a good work” but to break taboos and appreciate the variety of the opportunities of artistic expression. The photos of trees-bodies are used in the following road of imagination: it is played with colours, spots and lines, which transform “trees” into fantastic creatures or unexpected images, on those copies.
A tree can be changed by any other form of nature: a flower blossom, a bush, exotic plants. Any nature study textbook or encyclopaedia can be useful here. The forms of nature are open to exploration and every teacher can find here inspiration for never ending improvisations.
We should mention installation, object, multiplis, action, performance or three dimentional plastic when speaking about contemporary sculpture. They are closely connected with each other and sometimes it is difficult to differentiate between them.
I would like to present our attempts to create installations, because it is the most “architectural” kind associated with the spatial problems, with the manipulation of a special lodging and in this particular case, the control of outdoor space.
Teaching programmme is divided into two parts: works based on individual experience and works based on the cultural heritage. The introductory part is based on the subjective factors: children’s intuition, experience, logic and thinking. We start with the memories from the childhood, fixation of the visited places and various “puzzles”.
We are trying to make combinations of ordinary objects, which would change their intended purpose with the help of simple puzzles. For example, “good” as well as “bad” memories, untold thoughts and secret dreams become very important – everything is set in a certain order. We suggest searching for distinctive expressive means. I often advise to use various materials such as felt, plastic, sticky tape, various heating substances, polythene, old household objects or organic glass and to tell a story about themselves or the most memorable event while using them. Since installation is connected with place, everyone has to find the most suitable space for the display. Firstly, all the students are creating one work which they have to hang, set, lay or put it into the suitable place and work up a special lighting for it. Later on we are looking for the theme and means of expression, which could precisely unfold the idea. For example, in the exhibition “Translucent” our students used polythene used and painted signs that represented a transparent object, the ephemeral body and feelings. The photos from students’ personal life were applied when creating the works on the theme “Rain of the Childhood”. Some of the photos illustrate lucky and happy events, others remind of the sad ones. The photos are glued on the bags. Their content defines the position of the bag. Some of the bags are hung on the ceilings and resemble clouds. Others are hung close to the ground and seem to resemble a plummet under the neck.
At the second stage, installations called “Combinations” are created on the basis of more objective factors such as cultural heritage and social environment. Do you hear organ of wind (installation by V. Tarasovas in the church of St. Kazimieras), do you see how the grass grows (the exhibition “Multilingual Sceneries” in the Contemporary Art Centre, in the years of 1996–1997) and what do the unknown signs tell us. Here it is vitally important to be able to use the knowledge of art history, be well aware of traditions, customs (not only Lithuanian) and technologies. There appears one more parameter of installations that is time-span.
Necessary materials: paper, paint, different natural and structural materials and technologies. The size: from 10 to 1000 cm.
We make small scale works from snow, sand, leaves, wood or stone in the nature. Their interplay, combinations, decisions on texture and facture, their display in the space, conservation and duration (if the work is made from snow or sand) is very important here. If compared with the land art, installations are exhibited for a shorter time. We usually use artificial substances, substitutes and imitations. Painted wood, plaster and papier–mache is substituted for bronze; plaster, cement and mixtures of marble powder for marble; glass is substituted for precious stones and so on. Imitations are wide spread in the professional art as well. Sometimes they provide extra information and originality to the work. It is very convenient to use them at school, if there are no conditions to work outside. The biggest attention in this task is paid to the knowledge of history and the ability to make parallels. For example, photos of the cultural history were used together with the self–potraits of students in the installation called “There is no passage”, in order to express the view of an author of one or another cultural period. The theme “Archaic” allowed students to use widely the cultural heritage of different ages, to combine several kinds of art and even objects that are highly unassociated. Therefore, it is suggested to combine some tasks with music or other sound: the noise of a city, the voices of nature or the language of a human being.
If there is an opportunity, we recommend creating video–installations or slide projections. Dark environment for the presentation of the work should be prepared and most often a sound background is used (e.g. the exhibition “Twilight”, CAC, 1998).
At this stage multiplis is presented as the opportunity to affect the space using the elements of industry, decorating them and eventually transforming them. For example, the work “The Nature in the Box” is made from the boxes created in the industry of paper.
These boxes were decorated by children and later exhibited in a small space as an installation. “Utopian” projects finish the topic of installation. These are usually small - scale models or photomontages. The greatest attention is devoted to the imagination of students. We try not to limit their potentiality and ask them to create “utopian projects”. Utopian thinking enables them to see the most peculiar visions of the future city. For example, the restaurant on the river Neris or the façade of Salomeja Neris school.
While talking about projects of sculpture, we should consider also the decoration of the special places in the city. For example, rubbish containers or children playgrounds become the objects, sculptural units. Primarily, it is interesting for children to reconstruct their space. The first attempts to create small plastic works from plasticine or paper and to paint them are made at home. The topic is called: The Private Space. We ask the following questions: what do the houses of our parents and grandparents mean to us? Where and what is our “safe” corner? Why are we willing to decorate and cherish it? What has to be individual in it? I am trying to pay students attention to the least details that create a cozy and safe unit – the intimate private space. At the very beginning I introduce them to several theories of colours (e.g. J.V. Gethe), small plastic, esthetics of design and the possibilities of lighting. I advise them to make a sculpture from the most ordinary objects or materials to decorate their desks, to paint the square meter of the floor of their room or to paint a still–life on an ordinary chump. The most important thing is that children would learn to observe attentively, decorate and reconstruct their surroundings and make their world original and their very own.
Afterwards, all the ideas are transferred to social environment. For example, the children playground of Vilnius Teachers’ House was totally changed and became more attractive to children. Rubbish containers were decorated during the action in a city district Lazdynai and enlivened and decorated the place.
And finally we would like to speak about three - dimensional works from waste having the greatest connection with architecture, or the works designed for certain festivals and occasions. Tetra-pack festivals are the artistic projects that take place in summer and they belong to the first group, that is, to the works made from waste objects. Giraffe is a memorable one…
The project “The House of Antanas” belongs to the second group, the spatial works, which are designed for special festivals and occasions. We created the nesting-boxes for people made from large boards of carton. The nesting-boxes were hanged in the trees and were practically used (people could stay inside them). Poles–heads made from bamboo and paper were prepared for the day of the Earth and became the symbol of the public as well as the playground for children. However, it is very important that the work of art would match the mood and spirits of the particular festival. Thus, it does not necessarily have to be a big project. An interestingly painted pole or rearranged clumps of flowers are completely enough for that.
5. Land Art
The purpose of land art classes is to provide students with an opportunity to experience that a work of art can be created not only with the help of traditional means, such as brushes, paint, paper, etc. but with unusual materials such as grass, soil, water, sand, flowers, tree, stones, etc. as well. Such creations are sometimes considered as a piece of art and sometimes not. The similar situation is with other works of the late 20th century. Thus, one of our goals is to introduce students to the new art.
We seek to work in an unusual environment. So it is best to go to a village on the weekend or to work during the summer practice. We think up universal, spacious themes, which could be open to interpretations.
Firstly, we discuss the topic at length. The more thorough your study is the more individual works you can do. Subsequently, everyone chooses what to make and then it is very important to find a place for the implementation of that work. It can take much time sometimes. Everyone works individually and occasionally consults a teacher mostly concerning technical things. When one finishes his/her job, it is necessary to discuss it. Everyone participates here and expresses his or her opinion about the work. Students are apt to establish a special close relation to their work and they often go to see how their work is “living” its own life and how it is transforming. They are really sad to leave it.
Maze. At the very beginning we speak about the mazes in the Greek mythology, then about ornamental mazes of cathedral floor in the Middle Ages, and finally about the mazes in the English parks. We discuss the essence of the maze per se. For example, what it is, where it leads to, if it has an end and if it is possible to leave it. We try to find examples in literature (Borches, Cortasar & Ecco). We remember psychological mazes, when a human being sinks into his problems and cannot find the way out. Then the situations when we get lost in the forest or in a big shop and do not come up with a passage. We talk about this matter a lot, provide various examples and memories from the childhood. We recall the films, which we had seen, where the hero gets lost in his imagined or really existing maze (A. Tarkovsky “Stalker”). We search for the examples in fairy-tales when a hero is strewing little white stones in order that he could find the way back.
Works according to the poetry of Zen Buddhism (Basio). We based the works on the buddhist poetry by Chinese and Japanese. The lecturer from the Lithuanian Center of Buddhism presented us the philosophy and practice of Buddhism. We have even invited the musicians playing the old Indian music. We have got acquainted with different musical instruments, the meaning of pauses and rhythm, the links between philosophy, music and art. We were working in the forest of Labanoras in winter time. Thus, the main materials were snow, ice and wood.
Water and motion. We were working in the village in spring. There we emphasized the awakening and renewal of nature. We tried to make the use of grass, dry leaves and the current of a river in flood.
Magic and spell. This was a subject of summer practice. We were analyzing the purpose of magic, their function they have and their protective power. We were interested in the ritual masks and dances of Africans. The ways of worshiping the spirits and protection against them, shamanism and pagan beliefs. We were working near the river and lake, in the forest and fields. Miscellaneous grasses, flowers, colourful leaves, sorb-apples, sedges and even small beetles were perfectly suitable.
In order to create land art we use everything what we can find in the nature, where the action takes place. One might need a knife, scissors, spade, rope or a ladder for a certain project. We try to use only organic materials in order not to pollute the environment. We use berries, chalk, clay and coal for colouring the works. Students can choose the duration of their works to be done. They might narrow or broaden their themes, make one work a day or many works under the same topic. These practices are perfectly suitable for young people, as well as children and adults.
One girl’s experience: “The legs unpleasantly sank into the squashy ground. The rain was drizzling. I could by no means imagine those lucid reflections of Basio triplets in such a nasty weather. And there were no flashes till I reached the swamp. Oh, that swamp! Don’t you think it is tricky? Water is embraced by two layers of land that hide its rambling innocence. Besides, the grass over there failed to emigrate together with birds in late autumn. Thus, freeze didn’t bother much about that, waved its magic stick and uttered “Oh stop a moment maybe delightful”. And all the mistresses of different moods and fate suddenly stopped and didn’t move at all. When I was searching for new ideas for my works in my mind, ice unexpectedly sprang and a glacial block raised its wing. So this is how my work, as if having lost his load, came from the bottom. Afterwards, I collected various strange floes and interspersed them between the same ice. They glinted in the sun that was flagged, so still that they seemed to me to be those sad fish eyes from the triplet by Basio.
6. Action: The Sculptures of Vilnius
The purpose of this project was to introduce children to the history, distinct architecture and sculptures of Vilnius. We prepared for it in the theatrical studio as well as during the classes of art.
The first activity. We had a tour devoted to learn about the architectural ensembles and sculptures in Vilnius. Then, we discussed the style, details, the author, the years of the creation and the atmosphere of the time. Children themselves painted or made photos of the sculptures.
The second activity. During this activity we analysed pictures and photos. Here we paid a special attention to the most common plastic features of sculptures. Students were trying to imitate sculptures by using their own body movements, facial expressions and gestures. “Pedestal” is very important here as well. So we constructed one from the chairs, boxes and easels in the studio. All the students together with a teacher discused their friends’ efforts, analyzed, advised and corrected them in comparison with photos. It often appears at this stage of the creation process that “sculptures” miss certain details. For example, when imitating a sculpture “The Swallows” by Juozas Mikenas “swallows” were lacking, rye sheaf was missing when imitating the sculptural composition “Collective Farmers” on Green Bridge in Vilnius and so on. Thus, children themselves “produce” the missing details from paper, wire and cutting.
The major goal of this activity was to learn to listen and to gain confidence in your imagination, to search for authentic materials and to make use of everything that can be found at school, studio, home and yard. The most successful sculptures were selected at the final stage and their expressiveness was rehearsed.
The culmination of the artistic event was the presentation of the sculptures of Vilnius to the audience. The students of art school painted on streets in the courtyard of Teachers’ House. Students imitating “Sculptures” found their places at the crossroads and the squares of the city. Later on a game of identification took place. The audience had to identify live “sculptures”. This was one of the most playful moments, when the spectators were involved into the action (parents, guests and friends). Anyone of them could become any sculpture of Vilnius city.
The essence of this activity was a permanent and purposeful preparation. This is not a game for the sake of a game. In this case, the studies of sculpture were combined with a game and that is why children were mastering the studies willingly and creatively. These authentic as well as offhand sculptures were captured in the photos and videos and they remain in the personal albums of children and school. They might later serve as a good source for untraditional art history studies. The involvement of spectators to the action is an effective means to catch the eye of Vilnius citizens to historic and visual values of their city. Children of every city or village can do similar things in that playful way they would rediscover their distinctive and unique homes.
More about Vilnius Art School for Children and Youth: www.dailesmokykla.lt