The Craft of Learning

(The life so short, the craft so long to learn).       Hippocrates, 5th Century B.C.

I used to say that if I had my time over again my choice of further education would have been to go to medical school or study drama or go to art college so getting to spend over a year at Hereford College of Arts allowed me to tick a number of boxes, including the one that says “if only I had done this or that, then everything would have been different.”

Photograph by Dan Salter
(CRC Illustration)

Going to Art College – albeit fairly late in life – means that I’ve one less regret to deal with.  I remember reading that as he lay on his death bed, the actor Stanley Holloway was asked if he had any regrets.  He thought a moment and then admitted that he was sorry he had turned down the opportunity to do the voice-overs for Mr Kipling Cake adverts.  My regrets are less earth shattering in their significance but do cause me some angst.  In particular I am sorry that I ever sold this piece of work.  It is called ‘Happy as the Land’ and was part of the Etifeddiaeth exhibition.  No sooner had I hung it than it sold and now lives in France.  I console myself with the fact that at the time I needed the money but I still wish that it was in the box with the rest of the Etifeddiaeth work.

Happy as the Land

For someone who spends most of their creative life in isolation – I’m not a member of a group, collective or society so I don’t do the networking, engaging or interacting with other makers – being in the company of ‘proper’ artists as well as having access to wonderful facilities whilst in college was going to be a bit of a novelty.  Now that I’ve left Hereford, certificate in hand (well, nearly.  It will arrive in the post at some point), I’ve been thinking about what I learnt whilst I was doing my MA.  I had expected to polish my technical abilities but I reached the end of the course as skilled as when I started.  Whilst I did try a few different crafts – lino cutting, papermaking and letter press printing – I’m of the opinion that I didn’t need to be in college to learn them.

Penyfoel Memory Map

This realisation has got me thinking about a method of learning called ‘Heuristics’ which is gaining momentum in the world of Adult Education.  Working along side Self-Determination theory, heuristic learning relies on people teaching themselves by deciding on what they want to learn and how they want to learn it.  Quite often this means that students work together to establish the best ways to gain knowledge and looking back at my MA course I can see that some of the best lessons I had came not from the lecturers but from others in my group, particularly the girls I shared studio space with.

Cheryl Kirby and the pavements of Ledbury

Photograph by Ruth Maddock

Cheryl’s practice is in Quilting and from her I learnt the value of how important it is to believe in what you do so that you can explain your ideas in a way which doesn’t sound apologetic or as if you want (or need) approval.  Instead you assume the audience is interested and intelligent; that they not only want to hear what you are going to say to or show them, but that they are highly likely to enjoy the experience.   As neither Cheryl nor I make work to sell it was good to sort out how you still get taken seriously as a professional artist when you don’t use a price tag to validate your craft.  Most of all though I will remember the day when, a week before a project deadline and after months of researching theories and creating an outcome which centred around the use of indigo, Cheryl announced that she was fed up of dull blues and was going to switch at the last moment to using yellow.  In reply to the calls of “You can’t!” which came in varying degrees of consternation, Cheryl calmly sat back and said “I can, you know.”  Eventually when everyone else was in the throes of despair she reconsidered and announced “but perhaps I won’t,” before adding ominously, “this time.”    So the second lesson I learnt from Cheryl is to remember that you don’t have to follow anyone’s rule book but your own.

Eliza Glapinska and Women’s Rights 

Photograph by Ruth Maddock

From costume making to live performances, Eliza Glapinska uses any and every medium to bring her socially engaged practice into the public eye.   Sharing a space with her made me remember the excitement that I feel when I use craft to tell a story.  In my case the stories are usually inspired by the legend and landscape of Wales whereas Eliza is a Craftivist  whose work is a commentary, a protest and a call to action.

Those who know me are familiar with the criteria which I apply to art to decide whether it is ‘good’ or not:

  • does it evoke emotion?
  • does it provoke thought?
  • does it show good skill or technique?

I suspect that my opinion does not fit with some of the more esoteric and elitist theories which circulate in the art world but having spent a year in Eliza’s company I’m going to add another criterion.  I think that good art comes about when the artist honestly believes that what they are doing will make a positive difference to someone, somewhere.

Ruth Maddock Makes

Photograph by Oli Cameron-Swan

Those colourful, patterned children’s clothes in the photograph began life in Ruth’s imagination as pretty dresses for little girls; they would have printed flower designs embellished with hand embroidery and they would be beautiful.  More importantly they would form the basis of Ruth’s next business venture, Ruth Maddock Makes .  Somewhere during the course of our MA, Ruth put the pretty dresses on the back burner and developed a range of clothing which is suitable for children with sensory disorders.  Every aspect of her design work and the subsequent patterns has been underpinned by academic theory and objective evidence.   You might think that in terms of practice, Ruth and I couldn’t be much further apart but actually we were very often on the same page – quite literally when it came to books about map-making and dealing with incalcitrant websites.  I can tell you now what I didn’t learn from Ruth: I didn’t learn to love Illustrator software, I am still immune to making money from my craft and I have not developed anything other than competence with even the most basic IT programmes.  What has become a mantra to my creative practice was one of Ruth’s throw away remarks, vis “don’t keep digging it up to see if it’s growing.”

Thanks to Ruth I have learnt that the way forward for me lies somewhere between working in isolation and being immersed in a hothouse.

The Road Ahead

There are actually two roads ahead at the moment.  Luckily for me they are both going in the same direction and until I come to a fork in the road, I’m not going to choose between them.  If you’ve looked at other parts of the website you will see that I’m quite interested in what it means to have multiple strands to creative practice.  I’m not sure yet if anyone else in the world is interested but if I don’t get my thoughts in order, I’ll never find out.

Indoors research for the next book

Things have started off well however.  I have discovered a form of strict meter poetry local to Glamorgan.  This may not sound exciting to you but I think I am on the edge of a spectrum within which a nirvana like state is induced by counting syllables and half accent rhymes.  (I even sighed happily as I was writing that.)

Meanwhile I have come across a subject called Historical Geography which I think maybe equally transcendent.  Its study will require me to spend equal amounts of time tramping across the mountains as up to my nose in dusty archives researching ancient documents.

Outdoors research for my next book

The biggest lesson to learn of course is yet to come.  In a world without deadlines, project titles and the company of fellow travellers I need to do something called ‘double-loop’ learning.  I need to take the competences I developed during the MA course and transfer them into other spheres so that they become capabilities.  In short I need to determine for myself what I’m going to learn and how.

And yes, there is a deadline.  It’s called the rest of my life, Hippocrates.