Digital devices and online environments are now fused into many areas of our society including education. In 2020, these unions were bolstered and tested further with the shift to full online learning during the COVID-19 lockdown periods. But are all subjects equal in merging digital and traditional learning methods? Or are the Visual Arts a bastion of traditional techniques and thinking? The King’s Courier ventured into the College’s Art Department to discover if paint smocks and iPads co-exist and whether technology and art can synchronise into a new future.
Art at King’s has, for a long time, provided a refuge for students to create, explore identities, and communicate through alternative mediums of expression. Technology represents both threat and opportunity, altering not only the way art is created but also shared, displayed and interacted with. This poses a continuing challenge for school art programmes to stay relevant in a digital age.Check out the full Summer 2020 issue of the King's Courier
Head of Department Art, Jessie Chester understands the value of new technology but points out that art at the College is not digital by default. “We have a positive attitude towards technology, but we also have a positive attitude towards the physical making of art in an analogue sense and we don’t separate them. You don’t have to choose one or the other, they can be used in harmony but it’s a delicate balance. All our courses start physically. We give students a pencil before they do any computer-generated design; they do hand-drawn work. Access to technology is always with them so they want to learn traditional methods and then transfer these skills into a digital medium.”
Some art educators may resist new technologies in the classroom from fear these could replace established art-making techniques. The King’s Art Department understands that if art is to capture the imagination of students in 2020, it needs technology to do so. “Technology is expected and its use by our students is an intuitive part of their lives. Their social connections and communications are all around technology so it’s natural for them to continue that at school. Including it into their art practice is really important,” Mrs Chester says.
The meeting of art and technology was given an examination this year by two school closures due to COVID-19. Many senior art students were urgently provisioned with materials before the College shut its gates; others discovered that necessity remains the mother of invention. “Our photographers were in the middle of a documentary assessment during the first lockdown and we changed topic to their own COVID-19 experience. They photographed local neighbourhoods and day-to-day things; it ended up being a wonderful body of work. The lockdowns also forced some students to be resourceful around materials. Some ran out of paint and used coffee or food colouring. They thought about ways to use close resources, and that’s not a bad thing,” says Mrs Chester. The submitted assessments also showed that the opportunity to self-express in an artistic medium can help transcend feelings of isolation.
While painting with food colouring at home has risks, there is a more modern issue concerning many parents – mobile phone use. In the case of art education, is the mobile phone a distracting portal for media consumption or an omnipresent opportunity for creativity? For Mrs Chester, the answer again requires balance. “As a tool, the mobile phone is incredibly powerful; it can hinder as well. Every day, I have to tell students to put their phones away because they are consuming content. It’s somewhat of an obsession, but it’s so natural for them. We’ve become documentary photographers; anyone with an Instagram account is documenting their life, their food, their fitness journey or their art practice. It’s about teaching students to use any platform positively and to create as well as consume. And that there are ways of creating content other than through a device. To use them together.”
Can a bowl of fruit be sketched on an iPad? Yes, and it’s gone far beyond that. Through digital devices, creations of art and graphics unimaginable 20 years ago are now possible for students. Artistic opportunities outside school have also increased with our young people capable of making complex digital art, animations, music videos and short films. They can collaborate with online partners anywhere in the world and post work for critique on forums or social media. The challenge is how to support these contemporary art pursuits and involvement in virtual cultures while developing a skillset aligned to the Art curriculum. At King’s, a depth of resources and cross-medium thinking gives students opportunities beyond devices. “When you get used to seeing things on a MacBook or iPad screen it can be very limiting. There are ways to present work in three dimensions. Printing things out and creating large-scale work is important. We can print out a beautiful image and then collage over it. We also have great access to our Technology Department; they have 3D printers, laser and vinyl cutters, lathes and are very supportive of our creative students,” says Mrs Chester.
It’s interesting that one method of moving art students beyond screens is to turn to other modern technologies and this reflects the historic and continuing connection between art and practical science. To encourage our innovative thinkers of tomorrow, there are calls for art to be added to the popular acronym STEM, becoming STEAM. King’s College Headmaster Simon Lamb sees the potential. “One of the advantages of secondary schooling is that we’re able to amalgamate and enable curricular areas that are sometimes treated separately. What we’ve done at King’s is put those various disciplines into one building and enable them to work collaboratively. Increasingly, you can’t study fine arts separately to technology and the creation of physical construct. When you bring in digital platforms, it opens up a whole raft of opportunities for students to be creative and innovative.”
Through the marriage of art and technology at the College, creativity remains a valued part of a King’s education. This value is increased further by current social instabilities and the potential for more volatile job markets in the future. “It’s a prerogative for King’s and we’re knowing of the role of creativity, innovation and entrepreneurship in the future of education and the future skills that students require. In a world that’s quite uncertain, this year, more than any in our history, demonstrates the need for not only knowledge and skills but a sense of creativity as well. It’s one thing for students to know information and data, it’s another to be able to apply that to unknown circumstances,” says Mr Lamb.
Creativity and technology are physically joined at King’s but are they aligned in the minds of students and parents? Or does a residue remain from old-school thinking that a student is either creative or academic? Mr Lamb points out that creative students exist in all academic areas: “I think there was a time where dated advice was given into more traditional subjects, whereas now, even with Mathematics, there is a sense of creativity when looking at problems in a unique or alternative way. There is an opportunity for secondary education to be able to inculcate some creative skills, abilities and innovations into subjects like Maths and the sciences. Without creativity, you wouldn’t have discovery.”
For the students most passionate about the Visual Arts, pursuing an artistic career after leaving school is as viable a career choice as ever. Instead of simply telling students it is, the College shows them with its Artist in Residence Programme. Established in 2004 by the previous Head of Visual Art and Design, Chas Foxall, King’s hosts professional artists who set up workshops for students to learn new skills. It’s an initiative Mr Lamb strongly supports: “It’s magnificent for students to see a practitioner whose industry is based on the fine arts come into the College and in a personal and direct way not only teach students skills and abilities but also demonstrate that there is a career to be made, and an interest to be pursued after secondary school.”
Whether it’s art mixed with technology or art in an analogue form, the importance of creativity for students remains unchanged from a time before processing power was present in every pocket. For Mrs Chester, it’s all about students developing a passion for creativity. “It’s a joy to see students pursue a creative career in whatever field. Like any teacher in education, that’s why we do it – not to see the immediate impact on students but for the future joy they have in their personal and professional lives – and those seeds are planted at school. It might be an experience, a field trip, a single conversation or a long friendship. There is nothing better as a teacher than to see students flourish and pursue their dreams.”
King’s students who dream of art careers are in the right place, as are those who simply enjoy creating. It’s a place where new technologies augment traditional techniques and, equally important, it’s recognised where they shouldn’t. Technology will keep advancing, career pathways will alter and so will the expectations of students. But the need for creativity as a release and a vital form of self-expression in a challenging phase of life, will continue into the future.