This week we studied ‘Mail Art’ or Correspondence with Memory – and connected with Fluxus Art of the sixties. There are elements of the personal and the surreal in this movement – from Van Gogh’s illustrated letters to his brother to Eleanor Antin and her series of 100-boot postcards capturing images of 100 boots as they journeyed from the Pacific to New York – and Ray Johnson’s provocative abstracts and collages – connected by cartoon-like bunny faces that then became a signature.
Our task was to create a memory of our own and capture it upon an envelope – front, back, sides and inside. This was to be extended by the insert(s) that we made and placed within the envelope; designed to intrigue the audience.
I chose to illustrate memories of Leysdown – a seaside town where we had a caravan by the sea. We used to go there from when I was about eight – and it was freedom.
I used a variety of media to make this artefact:
- Medium quality deckle paper for the envelope
- A4 paper for the insert
- Watercolours – for envelope and the ‘swimming’ shoes part of the insert
- Pencil and small brushes
- Small colour prints of Leysdown - pictures downloaded from the internet – cut to look like miniature postcards and photographs
- Shells and stones gathered from Leysdown itself
- Tissue paper sea and shore
- Small boat – in blue and white.
I chose a square envelope shape so that it looked like an explosion of images and ideas when it burst open. I painted the front of the envelope to look like a postcard from the seaside. It is a Surreal representation (after Miro) of my niece sunbathing in black outside the caravan, by the sea. I chose Surreal to juxtapose the ordinary with the extraordinary – and thus illustrate the potentiality of the seaside. The external side flaps are drawn and painted with images of pill boxes – a common sight in and around Leysdown – from the war – but I’ve turned them into representations of the face of Ray Johnson’s rabbit – a nod to Mail art and its history and connecting it to Leysdown and its history. The top and bottom flaps show the flat sea and the sea forts (more memories of the War) in the distance – with seagulls. The images mirror each other: the top is more grey showing the more regular reality of the
– cold and desolate – but the bottom image has more yellow and a lighter blue,
it is slightly sunnier than the top. I’ve painted very sparsely, a few black
lines of paint on white, on the inside of the envelope to create a simple, calm
Buddha like face – representing my inner calm and peace when I go to Leysdown. The insert is a cut out of a
‘blind drawing’ of a pair of the ‘swimming’ shoes that I use, there are sharp cockles (shell fish) in the silt-like mud
under your feet – I always try to swim there and it is so much easier when your
feet are not bleeding. I also included many small pictures of the flat and
desolate coast itself - and the shoes and the images are designed to fall out
of the exploded envelope amongst small rocks and shells from Leysdown itself. I
have placed this on layers of tissue paper – sheets of different blues and
green mirroring the complexity of the seascape – and a layer of yellow for the
shore. I added a small boat in blue and white to tie the whole together.
Here are a few pictures of all of the outside of the envelope – and the inserts – and the setting that I placed them in:
Possibilities for practice: of course one possibility is just to do this Mail Art with your students as an alternative form of reflection – and perhaps as a precursor to writing. Other lessons: don’t wait for inspiration - because assessment can wound… and peer review is excellent. Let me unpack that a bit:
#5: Assessment can wound!
So – received my peer assessment and my grade – which incidentally was MUCH WORSE than the grade that my YOUNGER SISTER received! (And yes I do know that I am shouting.)
Three people reviewed my collage and none of them actually liked it. Nearly all of them gave me friendly and encouraging comments – but my grade was just a little over the average. Now I am not young and I’ve been knocking about Education for some very long while so I did not take to my bed and weep, but … Feedback can be dispiriting no matter *how* helpful. I wanted to discuss those comments with my assessors – and put my case – and change their minds… and yes I felt a lot less enthusiastic about this week’s task than I did before. What can we do about this? We do mark and grade and we do give feedback and feed forward and we hope that it helps. Perhaps we need to actively develop resilience (not Gove’s form of resilience!) in our students so that they do not bend and break under our feedback? Perhaps we need to make more time to give feedback in person and in conversation – and wouldn’t it be great if that time was valued by our institutions.
#6: Let’s build in more work – and lots of peer review
MOOCs set a lot of work each week (and still we usually do *more*) – and peer review is considered to be part of the learning and part of the assessment process. I do know of postgraduate courses that set peer review, but everyone tells me that undergraduate students won’t do it. However, I hope that if we start in the first year and from the first week to set rigorous weekly tasks that are peer-reviewed as the norm, no one will even think to object.
** If you have any suggestions and strategies for developing peer review in undergraduate courses – please do let me know. ***
#7: Don’t wait to be inspired – just do it!
As said, my feedback dispirited me somewhat, and I started to feel under-whelmed by this week’s task. However, I have studied often before – and I wanted to get the assignment done… so I just did it anyway. I always advise students not to wait for inspiration: have a set time and place to work – and just do it. Just start; just brainstorm; free write; put BLAH BLAH BLAH and move on … but get something down and you are on your way. I did exactly that for this task – and it is done.
Of course when working with ‘non-traditional’ students, we may need to help them build this work habit rather than just expect it to emerge. Hence the suggestion above that in at least one first year module we do set weekly, rigorous and hard tasks for them to do – and to peer assess as part of their learning process. If we help to build positive habits they too will be sustained when tired or uninspired or lovelorn or any of the things that get in the way of work.
NEXT WEEK – portrait with collage – ooo errrr.