Attracted to the glamour of a career in art and design, new students would arrive in college for their Foundation course, in effect the first year of a four-year degree programme. There are (or were) over 46 disciplines offered under the banner of art and design ranging from sculpture to shoe design, from audio-visual work to ceramics. The course was supposedly diagnostic enabling students to choose knowledgeably the discipline and location that they wished to study.
The Foundation was, as its name suggested, intended to build the foundations of the artist/designer/craftsperson* that was to emerge from the hormonal 18 year olds who walked through the door that first day. It had to give them enough of an introduction to the differing subjects so that they could make an informed choice of study. Even in the innocent days of the late 1960’s it was corrupted by the degree college Foundation courses that were later to become University departments, frequently not being diagnostic and frequently just allowing them to cherry pick from the students the best for their own range of degrees.
The Foundation courses, a majority, were best taught in FE colleges if they had the workshop provision which mostly, they did. They were places where achieving a standard and preparing for the specialist programme going forward were the only considerations. If a student proved unsuitable to progress, they were still in their own locality, and alternatives of local employment, switch to different disciplines, vocational programmes or even run home to mother remained easy alternatives to hard work. In my experience the dropout rate was very small because as the course ran in local FE, students knew others who had gone that route, and were able to make frequent (and welcome) visits to get advice. Liaison with local schools was usually strong too.
For many the first week or so was the real test, an eye opening awakening to a new world with quite different ethos to school. One of the first shocks was finding themselves in a group with students from other schools and backgrounds. Having perhaps been the best in art in their school they suddenly found they were part of a group of maybe 20 ‘top at art in their school’ competitors, no longer a lone star but now part of a galaxy in formation.
I ran two such courses at Blackburn and then at Southwark as well as creating a Foundation for adults later at Morley College. I had a simple test on the first day for all students that established a baseline. I would introduce them to the visual world they were missing by asking a question about the environment immediately outside the college. Most could not answer. Our school system does not equip students with visual skills and the first requirement of any artist*is to have a visual and intellectual curiosity.
Schools teach University study methodology which involves rational logic paths, but art requires tapping into intuition, emotion and lateral thinking, not to the exclusion of rational logic paths but in addition to them. That is why so many great artists have also been great thinkers and the result has been not just art objects but many businesses from pop groups to large manufacturing companies. This difference is why the Victorians built their concept of local art colleges as centres of revolutionary thinking. It is why so many think British art education, once boasted of as the best in the world has gone into decline. Its decline has mirrored the fiddling with the Foundations.
As an external assessor of many courses, I noted many seemingly subtle changes that reflected a fundamental shift in the way staff thought and how in turn that changed the teaching and the way many students learned. It created friction between me as the external visitor and the staff. Most important of these changes was the approach to drawing. These changes were also mirrored in cost driven changes in course structures again related to drawing.
One change for example was enlarging art classes to contribute across several courses as well as Foundation. I walked in on a life class with over 100 students in it. Those at the back looked at the model through a forest of easels. It cut hours in the life room by two thirds, and the error was compounded by even reducing the life class from being weekly to lasting just a few days in a block. Many younger tutors learned in situation similar and had not the skills themselves to teach life drawing effectively.
Drawing is the key skill for all art and design disciplines. I have watched in professional presentations where a client, unable to visualise the project from the technical works presented had a revelatory ‘I see’ moment when the designer did a quick explanatory drawing in the meeting showing the bit in question. Scrapbooks/cameras have always been a part of the visual research, but its main focus should be the sketchbook. Students should be using their drawing skills to record, both developing those skills but also allowing the building of a mental ‘library’ of techniques and imagery. Sadly I have seen staff slip into the easy route of calling scrapbooks sketchbooks and encouraging the collection of second hand images from magazines etc. rather than the first hand generation through drawing in a sketch book.
The Foundations structures I put in place were a reflection of those I experienced at Stafford which worked so well for me. The course programme there was designed by intelligent, thinking, staff and which reflected the influence of the workshop approach of the Bauhaus. It ran alongside the vocational programmes but differed in its target, which was not just to give baseline industrial art skills but also to develop the thinking of students, and studios stayed open from early morning until late in the evening giving long working days.
I filled sketch book after sketch book both in college, travelling my commute, in the pub (occasionally causing annoyance when people realised they were the subjects) and on the farm where I worked in my vacations. In the 1980’s, when my career seemed fated to be in interior design, I foolishly and wantonly consigned them to the rubbish tip. My drawings of pig and piglets I especially regret throwing away.
In the early sixties there were limitations on what provincial colleges could do. For example they had to draw from plaster casts (lucrative for suppliers) rather than the nude, as ‘provincials’ were considered still (as maybe the London elite regards them today) as bumpkins, not able to handle the site of naked flesh. Even in my first classes in 1967 the male models outside London had to wear a ‘posing pouch’. When these Victorian rules were finally overturned it was celebrated by the plaster cast statues being thrown off the roof to smash in the car park below.
My first life drawing tutor was old school Royal Academician and ruthlessly made us analyse the internal skeletal structures of the figure, and it was weeks before we were considered competent enough to be allowed to indulge ourselves by drawing flesh. This was allied to a drawing programme that looked at negative space and simple image making with pinhole cameras. It sounds dry and academic but far from it, it excited and taking the learning into the sketch book in my own time changed not just my skill set but also my mindset. To a youngster brought up for a third of his life in the Middle East at that stage I began to discover the colour and beauty of England.
I learned the basics of image making in lithography, photography, silk screen; played with colour in dyes, inks and paints, learned to weld (setting fire to my scarf in the outside welding shed) and realised I was an image maker rather than an object maker – the first major diagnostic step. So skills were gained, first painting sold.
Skills were however not the most important gain. Under the wise guidance of painter Frank Ryder I learned to think. Someone recently flatteringly described me as a writer who paints. I had always thought writing became forced on me through writing tender documents and specifications for multi-thousand pound contracts as an hotel designer. It was deepened creatively after 1999 when I started and wrote (and did the photography for) the magazine ‘Hotel Designs’ critiquing the design of hotels**. Much as the Jesuits said ‘give me the boy, I’ll give you the man’ the Foundation course changed the way I thought, enriching mind and spirit. Art can put you in touch with what Carl Jung called the ’collective unconscious’, a kind of unspoken river of creative thought that runs through mans activities and generates a shared collective common experience, notwithstanding the grandstanding of minority interests today who seem to think they are the only people with emotional identities that matter.
Hopefully a good foundation course opens the minds of would be creatives today. It has never been a programme that fits neatly into academic structures the traditional Universities impose. Its drive and intensity do not suit all, but perversely that very drive and intensity enable those with a lack of self-confidence, or disabilities such as dyslexia, to find themselves and flourish. I was once asked to talk to the design directors of eight leading major international Japanese manufacturing companies, who wanted to know how Britain had become a nation so inventive technologically and culturally. I tried to show them that it was our ability to think outside the box, to rebel against the rules, that was our strength. The fostering of a creative mind on a Foundation course is the basis of so much that bolsters that rebellion.
Alas the determination of political establishment to control us is subtle and the destruction of the art college is one of their strategies. The Foundation course has gone from many communities. The local colleges have been swallowed by larger institutions or just closed (the ‘larger is better’ school of stupidity). FE is much reduced and yet Britain imports foreign workmen with the skills those FE colleges used to teach. Our parliamentarians have a mad psychosis that makes them prefer the approbation of foreigners to the wellbeing of the bumpkins in whose souls is kept Britain’s greatness.
My grid paintings were about how the rules of society distort the colour of our lives. Bribed by wealth to consume and conform, Britain’s exceptionally fertile creative minds are being swallowed in a sea of conformity, by a desire to just enjoy not strive, deterred by obstacles created by politician who are now to be heard saying we should only listen to them, theirs is the only truth. Not for the artist. The truth is within your soul, your spirit is to challenge and rebel, not conform. If the Foundation course gives students to tools to do this with their lives it should be part of everyone’s education, not destroyed by the academic ambition of professors or the cost cutting of Universities who close workshops to save money.
The brightness of an independent Britain continues to grow dimmer.
*From here on I use this word to refer to painters, sculptors, textiles and fashion, 3D design areas and even potters…
**HotelDesigns I ran as a magazine of design criticism from 1999 to 2016 when cancer forced the sale. It achieved over 102,000 reader visits a day and was a part of student resources used by staff in 3 US and at least 1 Australian and UK Universities teaching architecture and interiors.
Read more in the series of six on the Bauhaus and it’s impact on art education:
The Bauhaus and Me #3 – PatrickGoff.com (Colour and Albers)
Bauhaus and Me #4 – PatrickGoff.com (Death of a Dream)
Bauhaus & Me #5 Workshops – PatrickGoff.com (my Workshop experience)
My previous two post on Art education immediately preceded this one, so just go back to Blog – PatrickGoff.com to find them. To see whether this was all worthwhile, take a look at my paintings in the Gallery – PatrickGoff.com