Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Art History

When I was in Standard 4 in Primary School (aged 10 or 11) I remember the teacher saying we were going have a History lesson. I’d recently heard a clever and amusing line on television and chose this time to repeat it. “Sir,” I said, “I don’t like History … there’s no future in it.”

Rather than laughing and saying what a clever boy I was, the teacher looked at me sternly and said “That’s where you’re wrong” and launched into a talk about the relevance of history to the current day and to the future.

Of course, he was right. Humourless, but right.

Ironically, when I went to Aberystwyth University I studied History (as well as doing an Art Foundation course). One of the more memorable courses was The History of Italian Art. I remember a funny little lecturer, based in one of the old University building towers, showing us endless slides of Italian art. It was like watching someone’s holiday snaps. For a year.

Art History is much more interesting and engaging nowadays. There are libraries full of great books with high quality reproductions; there are museums and galleries; there’s Google Images and Wikipedia; there’s TED and Charlie Rose (and many more) for talks and interviews with contemporary artists. Plus, of course, more websites and blogs than you can shake a stick at.

I remember someone saying to me that they wouldn’t study history because they “could never remember all those dates”.

Nor me.

I rarely know what day I did last week let alone when Henry VIII reigned.

But I don’t think that’s the point.

More to the point, in my opinion, is ‘what the hell was going on’ and why does it matter.

When I study Art History, as part of my professional development, I’m looking for subjects, periods or issues that have contemporary relevance. It’s exciting when I discover topics that strike a chord with me and make me curious to know more and to understand better. The challenge then is to find ways to apply that understanding in terms of my own work and ideas.

So it seems my Primary School teacher was right.

But I was funnier.

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

The Skeleton in my Closet

I suppose my use of time could, euphemistically, be called flexible. Random, even. My time is pretty much my own and I have very few obligations or responsibilities. That means I can make up each day and each week as I go along.

That’s not as good as it sounds.

If I’m not careful it can lead to aimlessness, indecision and idleness.

I have a number of routines and disciplines that I try to stick with to give some external structure to my days. The folders I posted about previously are a part of an on-going effort to get and stay organised. Things like this are like the scaffolding, or temporary structures, that support what I do. That’s why I’m not embarrassed to be changing them frequently.

But there is also an underlying structure to what I do that has been working well for me for a number of years. I think of it as my ‘skeleton’ because it supports and enables what I do by providing shape and structure.

The skeleton is set up to support my work as an artist (sort of) and to facilitate my ‘professional development’. I know that might sound a bit grand, but this art thing is what I do now – it’s my latest career choice and I want to get good at it.

(I prefer to think of it as a skeleton rather than a framework because framework sounds static, whereas a skeleton suggests an organic form. It also reminds me of Superted.)

The structure is one that I came across years ago from the Fine Art degree course of a UK University (unfortunately, the link is no longer available). I printed out the syllabus of their course and I refer to it frequently. It breaks down into four areas:

Fine Art: Practice and Theory

Studio Practice

Art History

Curatorship and Professional Practice

I’ll post in more detail about each of these over the next few weeks (though not necessarily in that order).

From time to time I’ve tried developing a working weekly schedule that would work across each of these areas in a consistent and well-balanced way. At one time, my daughter even designed the equivalent of a school timetable for me – complete with double periods, breaks and nightly homework sessions.

I’m sure you can guess how that worked out.

Yep. Not even a week.

(The idea of a timetable came from Barbara Sher’s book “I Could Do Anything If Only I Knew What It Was”. A recommended read – check out http://www.barbarasher.com/)

I realise that by telling you this I might be destroying the mystique of me being a complete shambles. But in the midst of all the madness, there is a method.

I’ll let you in on a secret … I know what I’m doing.

Thursday, November 04, 2010

Creative Organisation

“It is impossible to be creative without good organisation.”
Ferran Adria, head chef, el Bulli

“… creative notebooks are filled with ideas, concepts, photographs and sketches for new dishes … Each day Ferran will take an idea from the notebook as the starting point for that day’s session … the chefs can easily refer to the hundreds of notebooks that have been filed away over the years to look for new ideas or to compare results”
A Day at elBulli: An Insight into the Ideas, Methods and Creativity of Ferran Adria"

As I posted before, I’ve struggled with keeping track of all the bits and pieces I pick up along the way.

Every day I collect things that attract my attention. I take photos that I upload into Google and print; I make sketches and drawings that I scan; I cut out pictures from magazines; I photocopy articles; I write down quotes, phrases and extracts; I pick up leaflets, brochures, flyers and anything that’s free. All these things seem to be random – the unifying factor is that they register something somewhere within my creative imagination.

For a long time all this ‘stuff’ was scattered on the floor, piled up on windowsills, stuffed into carrier bags, thrown in the boot of my car. Or mysteriously lost.

But not any more.

Oh yeah, baby.

I’m getting organised.

Inspired by the book about elBulli I read recently, and particularly by the quotes above, I’ve changed the way I do things do things so that I can access all the information and ideas I collect.

Now, please bear in mind that for many years I was a Project Manager in a large financial institution, managing the development and implementation of computer projects and marketing strategies.

I also taught Time Management principles and practices.

I love Filofax and similar personal management systems (I still do).

So you’d think I’d come up with something pretty damn sophisticated.


I went to Staples and bought a pack of 50 dull-coloured wallets.

Each week, I gather together everything I’ve collected and shove it into one of these folders. Then I write a list on the front of what’s in there. The following week I start again. No continuity; no cross-referencing.

That’s it.

And it’s working. Hell, I could find these elBulli quotes from months back, couldn’t I? And a list of books about the Renaissance that I’d written on a scrap of paper? Found that too.

I’m going to call it a “Filing System”. Good, eh? (Granted, the word “system” might be stretching it a bit.)

Why is this working (so far) when previous attempts have failed? I think it’s because it’s low-tech and low-maintenance. It’s easy but it works. Also, it’s physical … I can see and handle the folders (unlike a digital approach). And I get to write lists on the front of each wallet in coloured felt-tip pens! (Some of you will get how much fun that is … and how satisfying.)

One thing I’ve noticed though, is that I don’t date things – mainly because I don’t care much about when I picked up the idea – only that I did.

But I think I might invent a device for simply dating each piece of paper. I’ll call it a “Date Stamp”.

So tell me … what works for you?

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