I think it’s OK to look back from retirement as well as looking forward. That’s what I’m doing here. Just been listening to a programme entitled Art School, Smart School, on the radio, well on BBC iPlayer actually. A programme about what they called art school what we then called art college. Art college was my first educational experience after school and any resemblance between the two was purely coincidental. Film Director, Steve McQueen (12 Years a Slave) said, of his time at art college, that ‘for the first time I could breath’. Yes, that was something like how I felt. I couldn’t believe my luck in getting into art college. I failed all my A levels and that was the end of my (or rather my mother’s) plan to be an architect. Probably would have got some A levels as well if I had not thought myself to be a genius after a good O level year. You needed 5 O levels to get into art college in those days, and as luck and a little intelligence would determine, I had lots of them. You also needed a strong project presentation. The project was a sort of trompe d’oeil (trick of the eye). I did two, a tap with nails pouring into a bowl of nails and a tray of silver food and drink, the latter long gone. I had planned to show the tap which I could have sworn was in the garage, where, I thought, it had been for 30 or more years, but Mrs Summerhouse couldn’t find it when I sent her in. So you’ll have to take my word for it – that it was fabulous.
I was at my two art colleges from 1966 to 1970 after Brian Eno and before Grayson Perry, although not at the same college. In those days you did a year at your local art college (Derby in my case) called pre-diploma (the photo above is of my end of year exhibition) and then 3 years at the art college of your choice to get your diploma. This diploma became automatically, for a small fee, shortly afterwards, a degree. In my case the three year bit was Leeds College of Art, same as Henry Moore and, many years later, Damien Hirst. In the last year of my stint the college was, geographically at least, a part of Leeds Polytechnic* and so the great decline in the wildness and /or the creativity of art colleges, that much of the programme was about, began to decline.
Maybe that wasn’t entirely surprising because there was some strange stuff going on in the name of art – at its broadest. A chap called Mike, making John Cage type tape loops, a woman making tea sets (which made her famous later), films which featured naked fellow students, happenings were a big deal way back then, one student sewed pig ears onto his body as a statement of something or other. This is true.
And then there was the music, art college was probably more famous for the musicians – John Lennon, Pete Townsend, Ray Davies, David Bowie and the Brians Ferry and Eno and many, many more. My flirtation, at this time, with music was brief, unfortunately, it entailed playing the piano for another student’s diploma show which consisted, as I remember, (this was the sixties) of an impersonation of Elvis Presley. I don’t think you could do that in todays’ art schools.
Brian Eno remarked that they were given projects that had nothing to do with art. You were lucky mate, at Leeds we didn’t have projects at all. In those days it was, your responsibility, as Damien Hirst said, to get an education. He was told, if you want, you can go through 3 years and nobody will notice you’re there. An approach that didn’t suit everybody even in the sixties, drop outs were common and even attempted suicides. I made it by the skin of my teeth, nowhere else to go. And we got a grant for ‘all’ this. Happy days, except for me they weren’t, I really did struggle with the lack of structure at Leeds and, with one significant exception, a largely, it seemed to me, disinterested staff. After school and even Derby art college which was a skills-based college – you learned about drawing (even from life models), colour theory, etc,- it was a struggle.
The irony of all this, for me, was I couldn’t draw for toffee but, in the sixties, that didn’t matter, in fact it was an advantage, anybody, as one friend at the time did, painted figuratively was rather scorned. The fact that he painted Soviet style realist pictures helped a bit. My paintings were entirely abstract, rather good ones I thought. When these were rubbished by my tutors (you judge, see right), I went onto to making models (or sculptures if you like). These I created by going round the model shops in Leeds and, for example, buying people and furniture to make a pub in a Perspex box (see left) to be filled with beer. Amazingly (considering they spent most of their time and ours in the pub) my tutors could not be persuaded that I needed 22 pints for the model (I still have it and it still waits for the beer). I loved collages – John Heartfield was a hero – and print-making, I designed toys, rather a good one as an alternative to spirograph, which led to making pencil holders (see photo below) which I nearly sold to Habitat. Nearly.
I also wrote a children’s book. Oh and a brilliant idea for the book which, even now I can’t tell you about or I would have to kill you. Even then I had a butterfly mind, so suited to blogging.The programme mentioned Liberal studies. These were popular with students and history of art which wasn’t. How true, how true, we refused to attend art history lectures which I now see as a terrible shame. Psychology, Philosophy and Sociology on the other hand we lapped up. My philosophy tutor, an interesting guy who spent time in prison, fortunately for me, after he had supervised my thesis, which was on the political power of the cartoon**. This got me my 2.1 diploma, later to become a degree, which opened the door later for a teaching career, which paid the bills. I loved the psychology and admired the person that taught the course. Hence, many years later, my retraining as a psychologist.
Again on the programme, the current Head of Leeds college of art said they now have to meet employability criteria – ha, the only possible job after art college was teaching in a secondary school which I tried for about two months and quickly decided this was not for me even though, I had by now, somehow fluked a teaching qualification which is how I came to teaching in special education and eventually to life as a psychologist. The programme suggested that art schools create an agility of mind which universities don’t. They offer the right, even the encouragement, to fail. The problem is this can’t be measured, targets can’t be set, so this approach is not an option today. Shame, I believe that creativity and an agility of mind have stood me in good stead as a psychologist and I hope that they continue to do so in my retirement.
* One of my ex-tutors who I met recently, told me an ex-student is writing a book about Leeds College of Art in the period 1963 – 1973 to be published in February, I will keep you informed.
**Remind me to tell you about cartoon drawing era sometime.