Monday 10 March 2014

Art Lab

This summer I put on my very first Art Lab, which is a holiday programme specially designed for teenagers between the ages of 9 to 13. It’s full day where they can meet other artists their own age and get amongst the art-making scene. I love working with this age group because many of them will be making school curriculum choices in the years to come and thinking about whether Art might play a part in that…

At the time of planning, I was drawn to the materials and ideas behind Xin Cheng and Richard Maloy’s work as part of our summer exhibition Freedom Farmers: New Zealand Artists Growing Ideas. Using makeshift materials, they encourage us to dream and (literally and conceptually) grow our ideas from seed or scrap. I began positioning my programming for Art Lab around the interesting use of found materials in art, sustainability in New Zealand and what it is to have utopian ideals or dreams.

Xin Cheng Propositions 2013, installation view, Auckland Art Gallery

On the day, I had students hunting for materials that may have held a past life. They recognised old bike chains in Cheng’s work that held up planter shelves and how she had cut up old tires into strips holding together her bamboo structures.

Richard Maloy Tree Hut #5 2013, installation view, Auckland Art Gallery
But I also wanted them to compare and contrast this work with another, so we climbed up into Maloy’s installation, Tree Hut #5 (2013) and talked about the artist’s use of material waste that he found onsite from previous exhibitions at the Gallery and whether or not he might be considered a sustainable artist in New Zealand? Something that was on my mind, that I wanted to ask the students was, 'So if utopia is like this vision of a perfect world, then do these artworks look perfect or even finished?' What they told me was that the work actually looked quite rough: 'Having exposed nails and miss matched wood.' I agreed and likened the works to being almost like a sketch…and how growing good ideas can begin as a sketch and grow from there.

In the studio, I wanted the students to be experimenting quite literally along the lines of growing something. A growing structure, of your own fancy that you could fill with potting mix, seeds and be able to take home and test out the growing and feeding process. We were using biodegradable and found materials to construct these and the group successfully put forward an interesting range of growers, one even featuring a self-watering showerhead and we talked about the many possibilities for this brief as we went along.

But something curious happened with the group in the second week of the holidays. There was a notable leap in creative thinking and my assistant Vivian and I found the students putting forward some very sophisticated justification for their quite ‘out there’ designs. I really had to think back through my teaching about why this might have been the case and here is what I think may have happened.

During sketch stage, I started talking though my own idea for a growing structure (I was deliberately trying to focus on modeling my creative thinking and problem solving out loud) and I got my co-worker Vivian to do the same. We hammed it up for extra emphasis, 'I was just randomly thinking about making a mini Ferris Wheel for the structure and planting seeds in each carrier so that I could rotate it daily for equal sun distribution…..but another part of my brain started reasoning with me that with the bio-degradable materials we will be using, it might only last a week or so before turning soggy and the seeds would fall to the ground!' I pointed out that this was the creative problem and talked through my ‘Plan B’ for a something more supported by soil which would biodegrade exactly where I wanted, meaning I was much more in control. But Vivian stopped me in my tracks and she talked about her design going for this ephemeral (short lasting) option as she pulled out her sketchbook for a hanging seed bank. 'Just as they germinate it may break down and fall with the seeds scattering and sprouting in a new patch below...and then the cat might eat them and who know where they might end up next Ha!' Anyway, we had lots of students playing with and bending the brief which was just so excellent.

One student spent hours 'Using my new technology skills' to sew together a range of biodegradable, mini calico planting sacks. She asked for more material to be able to do this and I went on a hunt to find what she needed. I told her I could imagine them being a hit at a local market or school fair.
Now by bending the brief, I mean another student did away with soil completely. Explaining that, 'It was a working wind up fan with tiny pockets on each blade and when filled with seeds, it would scatter them randomly.'

The Seed Scatterer 2000! And it really did work. He told us that 'It’s probably best not to use fruit and veg seeds because otherwise you would have fruit and veg growing everywhere and that perhaps grass seeds would be better.' Great sense of humour this boy!
So once again, I have been shown a thing or two by the youth of today and I am super excited for the next Art Lab. It will be up and running next April holidays and you can check out our website for more details. Finally, I would like to say a big thanks to Andrea and Viv for giving me a well-experienced hand with all of this. Thank you!

– Charlotte Maguire, Gallery Educator

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