Category Archives: Thoughts about Teaching

Of Imagery, Made Things and Connections

“From things that have happened and from things as they exist and from all things that you know and all those you cannot know, you make something through your invention that is not a representation but a whole new thing truer than anything true and alive, and you make it alive, and if you make it well enough, you give it immortality.”

  • Ernest Hemingway

“Any fact becomes important when it’s connected to another.”

  • Umberto Eco, Foucault’s Pendulum

The Broken Stool, 2016. Digital Drawing, 3094x4036px; printed on matte wallpaper.

The Broken Stool, 2016. Digital Drawing, 3094x4036px; printed on matte wallpaper.

I cannot claim that I have made anything with the qualities of truth or immortality as expressed by Hemingway above, despite my most (earnest) attempts. But I have made new things (insofar as “original” is a possibility, a whole other argument) that derive from the sources he describes so comprehensively, indeed, quite profoundly. I hope that at least in some my work, there is enough “life” to be of interest to the spectator.

Recent works have been accumulated bringing together different threads investigated over the last year, considering identity and the meeting and influences of culture and other agents within our context. I have been pleased to tie in some of the three dimensional work of the last period and hope that in doing so, new thoughts about the works may emerge. From a slightly simplistic perspective, there is a meeting between the abstract forms (to some eyes) of the sculptural works and the figurative drawing and prints. I have intended a meeting of ideas, and that the artefacts incorporated contribute to extended meanings, not simply the pilfering of cultural heritage as has been the case in many instances.

Fourteen works make up my contribution to the exhibition “Link” currently showing at Gallery Delta, along side Arthur Azvedo, Helen Lieros, Wallen Mapondera and Thakor Patel. Five artists with completely different styles, backgrounds and artistic heritages, each with some commonality and three of whom have impacted my own career of the years. I have written often about Helen’s role in my career as a painter, and the impact she had on me as a 16 year old and beyond. As always, it is a privilege to be able to exhibit with her for what must be at least the 40th time.

Wallen Mapondera is the youngest of us, one of a handful of Zimbabwean artists for whom I have the utmost respect. In May 2014, I wrote a foreword for the exhibition catalogue of “Social Zoometry” a one person exhibition. It included the following: “Mapondera engages the viewer with sensitive, exacting marks that express penetrating observations of the various subjects, which are… rendered without exception, with a deep sense of pathos.…[He]” challenges the spectator to confront their humanity… [and allows the viewer] to identify with the subjects of these works as his/her kind. From this perspective, we answer questions [which reveal] power structures, hierarchies, abuse of power, but also kinship and companionship.” The works of “Link” build on these attributes, as well introducing challenging new thoughts and ideas of intrigue.

The first piece of art that I ever purchased was a tiny Arthur Azvedo etching of a baboon from the Annual Zimbabwe Heritage exhibition at the National Gallery sometime in the early ‘90s. It hangs in my dining room to this day. To my knowledge, Arthur was one of the founders of welded art in Zimbabwe, and over recent decades, few have reached his level of artistry in the medium. His knowledge of his subjects is penetrating, always based on the deepest observations of movement and form and translated into both his welded work, and the drawings and prints for which he is renowned.

Arthur Azvedo, 1991. "Baboon", Etching and Ink on Paper. 5 x 7cm

Arthur Azvedo, 1991. “Baboon”, Etching and Ink on Paper. 5 x 7cm

I had the privilege (I feel this to have been a one-sided thing) of being a student of Thakor Patel at the Polytechnic between ’89 and 91’, and later to work with him at that institution. For some reason, perhaps because he taught a few of my first-year modules, many memories of our association at that time feature the ridiculously immature 16 year old I was, trying to make sense of the out-of-reach level of competition of many of my peers, materials which I had no clue how to control, models I couldn’t draw and history beyond my level of thinking and comprehension. And the moratorium on whistling which Thakor imposed.

List of Things I Aspired to, aged 16

  1. Climbing rocks well.

Thakor’s 3 metre wide modernist paintings of the late ‘80s, on which he worked in a studio at the Poly’ made a huge impression on me at that time. They were one of the first portals into a world of art that up to that point I had known nothing about. Indeed, I did not know anything about any world of art. Knowledge of the discipline at home was confined to a few “how to draw” books, which despite my present slight disregard, actually had something to do wth me heading in the direction of the visual arts. My family home was decorated in the popular mode of the time; there were various things  of visual interest, such as the highly textured abstract work my father had made, generally referred to as “thing”; though it fit well into the ‘70s, it would also have found commonality amid my works of the early 2000s, whatever may be construed from that. A beautiful, turned wooden pot stays in my mind, a wonderful percolator (a similar type of which I found on a jumble sale years later) and a wooden stool my father made which I use today in the studio.

School art had consisted of pencil-drawn calabashes and seed pods, etc. and batiks. My only visit to any art gallery up to that point was a visit to the Annual Schools Exhibition at the National Gallery, where largely, more of the same was visible, and for which my friend an I had made a pair of fencing figures. These we found broken and flattened somewhere on the mezzanine floor – the only thing  that I remember (other than the ramp with the rubber which makes the special underfoot noise) about that expedition.

The scale, vibrancy and abstraction of Thakor’s work was extraordinary to me, as were the blended, controlled oil colours. Over the next two years, the only time any of us neared that effect was with the aid of the revered air-brush, a tool that thankfully seems as manacled to the ‘80s as Wham. (Sadly, the gradient effect seems to have been embraced by the makers of Power Point and Keynote, and still frequently pains my eyes). Thakor spoke of artworks having “air”. It seems a vague, unformed piece of advice and something difficult to pin down. He would page through books, tapping his fingers upon a particular work here and there illuminating his thoughts.

Until now, though this particular quality seems difficult to define, the advice remains with me and I am always aware of works which possess the particular trait, and those which don’t. It speaks of an aspect that is not related to empty pictorial space, nor illusionistic depth. It is a quality that seems contained in the making of marks and application of media, the ability for a work to ‘breathe’. David Hockney says that artists should protect the ‘mystery’ of painting (ibid.) and I tend to agree, but that is not my intention in this regard. Perhaps I shall just say that this advice is ‘vague’ but makes sense to me, and leave it at that.

This exhibition then, is about connections. Connections within my own work, the lines of thought that have preoccupied me for months, even years. Connections between artists who share a common context, and have met at this point, this juncture. And for me, connections of a personal nature, of students, artists, teachers and friends. I find it aptly called “Link”.

Pipe Dreams I and II, 2016. Charcoal, Soil, Metal and Found Objects. Height 115 and 110 cm

Pipe Dreams I and II, 2016. Charcoal, Soil, Metal and Found Objects. Height 115 and 110 cm

Studio One

We are in the middle of our examinations, and heading towards the late afternoon of the IGCSE, AS and A2 coursework. Though pressure should be building amongst the students, it seems as though it is not. I fear the moments when the realisation of that begins to penetrate their teenage brains and I suffer the ramifications of their current actions!

Here is a wonderful work by Mana which is at least an excellent start…

Michelle with red cloth, 2016. Acrylic on Paper.

Michelle with red cloth, 2016. Acrylic on Paper.

Greg Shaw, 30 June 2016

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About things said, and unsaid

“Do I contradict myself? Very well, then, I contradict myself; I am large – I contain multitudes.”

-Walt Whitman


Greg shaw, 2013. "Day 75". Digital drawing, 1408 x 1920px.

Greg shaw, 2013. “Day 75”. Digital drawing, 1408 x 1920px.

Having written a few posts, I signed up to the WordPress Blogging 101 course some time back, which was oversubscribed. However, the first assignment arrived in my inbox this week (not the most opportune time…) which was to make a post defining what this page is about. It seemed a good idea, so here it is:

I am above all, a husband and parent to two daughters. These are the most sacred things to me, followed by my three dogs. Like each of the following aspects, they are part of my self-identity. More than the others, I hold them carefully and closely to me, mostly away from the scrutiny of the world, quietly: they require no public endorsement to accord them their inestimable value.

My wife Shaunagh, and my two daughters Hannah and Eden with me at Ewanrigg Botanical Gardens near Harare.

My wife Shaunagh, and my two daughters Hannah and Eden with me at Ewanrigg Botanical Gardens near Harare.

My tagline of my various media states: Artist. Teacher. Zimbabwean.

If only things were as simple as a single word. I make art and have some reputation in my country, though in recent years, my output has been a little limited. It is in constant negotiation between the other agents within my life, and has settled into a status quo that I have come to accept as part of this time of my life. A life I would dare not tamper with, for it is an excellent one! I believe wholeheartedly in the place of visual arts in society, and their ability to elucidate aspects of our context and time.

Two Lists of Observations of Teachers

One

  1. They have the power, the presence, the authority to absolutely decimate one’s aspirations, to belittle, to render a sense of worthlessness.
  2. They can humiliate beyond one’s possible imagination.
  3. They have a propensity to fail to “teach”.
  4. In years past (and I fear present), they can effect random beatings, with a variety of objects, as was normal in my junior and secondary education. The picking up of an eight year old by his ears and the thrashing a 12 year old with with a ruler until he begged for mercy in front of the class seem to stick in my mind. Cracking students heads together (one in each hand) was an un-extraordinary event at one institution at which I once taught, nor was a sharp blow to the face with an open hand, of each member of a class of students who lined up for the occasion.

Two

  1. One English teacher, made secondary school a more tolerable place than it would have been without him.
  2. As previously written, my mentor Helen Lieros was instrumental in the transformation of my life.
  3. My tertiary education was full of the most insightful, hard-working and dedicated members of the profession, many of whom I have the utmost respect and for, and whose opinions about my work remain invaluable.
  4. I am surrounded by inspirational teachers and professionals for whom I have the greatest respect, at the institution at which I now work, and at which Studio One (of which I often write) is located.
  5. My wife Shaunagh is a Grade 2 teacher, also extraordinary, dedicated to perhaps the toughest part of any educational phase!

 

Walking Home, 2009. iPad drawing, 1042 x 1902 px.

Walking Home, 2009. iPad drawing, 1042 x 1902 px.

I am patriotic, and love the country into which I was born. It is extraordinarily beautiful, and inhabited by warm, peace loving people. Even the name is seriously cool:

 Z      I      M      B      A      B      W      E

Houses of Stone

In a conversation with the author John Irving, Phillip Dodd says “…I have a view of all of us, that we are all marked by our generation, that you can leave the ‘60s and the ‘40s when you were born, but they cannot leave you…”. I am a white Zimbabwean, born in the early 70s, and marked by that. That is, I was a child during the brutal liberation war. I am not of the generation that fought that awful, but seemingly inevitable war, nor am I a “born free”, though I certainly identify with that era. I seem to spend a lot of time thinking about my in-between status, and the manner in which it contextualises my existence.

Self-I.D. 2016. Digital drawing, 2480 x 3508px

Self-I.D. 2016. Digital drawing, 2480 x 3508px

It seems then, that this blog is a narrative of the larger strands that make up my self identity. It runs parallel to my own visual arts, that of my students, and my teaching. It is framed within an extraordinary but sometimes immensely challenging country.

Greg Shaw, 8 February 2016.

Re-imagining places

“A person who longs to leave the place where he lives is an unhappy person”

Milan Kundira – The Unbearable Lightness of Being


IMG_6940     IMG_7017

For the second time in four months (at the indulgence of my family), I had the extraordinary pleasure to hike the Turaco Trail in the Eastern Highlands of Zimbabwe. Alone. For the benefit of any readers (since my family know this), I shall state right here, that I love my family more than my own life and would rather be with them than anything else, ever. However, as confirmed, ardent introvert, time alone is relished, and rejuvenates. That slither of space alone on the edge of our land is as good a place to find this space as any other.

Six awesome things (not necessarily in hierarchical order) vis a vis the recent endeavour:

  1. Solitude
  2. Spectacular beauty
  3. Technological isolation
  4. Physical activity
  5. Hennessy Hammock
  6. Drawing

I should spend a moment defining this sojourn within the framework of Kundera above, or rather, using the space as a means of defining “the place where [I] live”. There is no discontent being part of a familial unit; indeed the contrary, as stated. The idea of a wholesale move of family, homestead and work to the Eastern Highlands seems attractive. It is possible that it may improve my “place” of abode. Yet it would destroy that place, and in doing so, render this lesser; though not polemical, it is arguable that one may exist only as the other does, and since it is unspoilt and damn-near perfect, let’s not fiddle with that! (Besides which I can see this unfolding into a discussion way beyond this brief text…).

So let think for a moment on a third characteristic: technological isolation (lol, so-called). (There is a real place like that – “The Quiet Zone”, 34 000 square km near the Allegheny Mountains in West Virginia, where the Green Bank Telescope listens to radio waves emitted milliseconds after the birth of the universe ( http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-32758042 ). But it wasn’t really like that of course, I carried a two-way radio in case of emergency, and my iPhone (my camera, video-cam map and compass (!)). Whilst most apps, including social media, were deleted to give longer battery life, communication ones were not. In certain spots (such as the peak of Mt. Nyangani), one receives and transmits welcome SMSs and What’s Apps from family; Are you ok? Are you having fun? At the other end of the mountains will you be as happy to see me as I will you?

Between those welcome communiques there was the inevitable barrage of banners and alerts of other communications, some of which in that context (to be specific, a 360 degree view from the highest point in the country), were less warmly received. Dialogues of various group chats, images and questions from students, messages from colleagues, etc.. Everything from There, was Here. What was so clearly revealed was firstly, that solitude requires considerable more design now, than previously, and that secondly, the greyed out, blurred (lost/obliterated/removed)lines of personal and professional spaces which we (I?) have become so accustomed to (designed/constructed/created) had ever so slightly, a tinge of a place I wanted to leave. Or if not leave, then more carefully and thoughtfully recreate.

Who designed the framework of that place, and what is it? Are we all part of it? I certainly own my part: “You have my number, use it – if I am free I will reply, if not, I will when I get a chance”(“my number” – maybe that says enough?). Digital images of drawings, paintings and sculptures, assessed and returned. Visual arts in binary for the progressive (or procrastinating) teacher and learner. A gradually, never-quite-considered construction employing new technologies. Opening communications, speeding up the pace of information-swapping, exchange of ideas and organising seemingly immediate tomorrows. Student to teacher, teacher to student; Supervisor to prefect, head to group; colleague to colleague, HOD to cleaner: Phone. voicemail. Video. Email. Skype. Google Classroom. What’s App. IM. Twitter. Tumblr.

I am a teacher. The best “place” in this regard is one in which the best possible learning can take place. Is this really it? This is not an unusual, profound or new question, indeed, rather run-of-the-mill. But it is mine, this week. I do not think, as I write, and as I did a month ago, that any student’s work will really be better by having me assist them once school has closed for the day. In fact, it seems more likely, that I am in fact facilitating the removal of the quintessential and defining aspect of my subject: A personal space to search, explore, err and discover. I suppose, both these things within reason. I think, as I write today, that as I remove those spaces from my students, I clutter my own. There is the possibility that this place has become slightly stained.

I would hate that it became a place to “long to leave”.

IMG_7007    11986921_1025523290823484_93037278254218992_n

OBSERVATIONS

  1. I follow some astronauts and cosmonauts on Twitter, who tweet from the ISS. Awesome.
  2. iPhone does not need mobile data to use satellite navigation. It can monitor one’s position on the Avenza Pdf map to within one metre. Also amazing.
  3. As well as being highly rewarding, the position of “teacher” is a very difficult one. One in which (in a curious reversal of the old report adage “room for improvement”) there is an endless capacity and space to do, or have done “more”.

Greg Shaw, 11 September 2015.