TEACHER

I have always regarded myself as teaching, whether in a classroom or in a gallery. For my role is to be an educator; as a teacher, lecturer, museum director, exhibition judge, writer and painter. My hope is to share with others the joy and enrichment that comes from art. The following deals specifically with my days of teaching in the UK

teaching

RS teaching at summer school in UK c1965>

TEACHING

The day I left the Army was a happy journey home to Wales. I caught the morning train from London’s Paddington Station. I went to the bar, celebrating with passengers and fellow soldiers; freedom at last. I was met at Cardiff station by my mother and we took the bus home. I went to bed and, later that day, woke up feeling slightly hung over and confused by being back home in my own bed; so much for civilian life!

During that month of August, 1956, I bought my first suit ever; on demobilization, a gift of the Army. In my new suit, I was interviewed for a job in Heolgam School in Bridgend. Heolgam was a ‘secondary modern school’ for children aged 11 thru 16. “Secondary” meant just that for these children had failed to matriculate for grammar school. Nevertheless, through the admirable efforts of the art teacher, the school had been featured in a government report as having an outstanding art program. I was most fortunate in that I had done my teacher training year there and knew the headmaster. After an interview, I was selected from the other candidates. I was delighted to accept my first teaching job: Head of the Arts and Crafts Department at Heolgam School; rather a grand title for a job with one other part time teacher and one large classroom. In September, my teaching career commenced. Each day, I traveled from home in Cardiff, still living with my parents, by bus to Bridgend. The small valley town was an hour’s bus ride through undulating country of farms and villages.

During the first days of teaching, I realized discipline was critical dealing with these rowdy ragamuffins. I used my Army experience and paraded around the classroom down the aisles, with a long wooden ruler under my arm. The ruler was used to rap a desk, with a resounding thud; most effective in gaining the silence that I demanded. I became known as “Sarge”; fine with me, for kids respect authority.

At first, I practiced the normal teaching of the time: figurative pictures of boring subjects. The semester started with the picture of ‘what I did on my holidays’; then came the ‘autumn pictures’ with colors of changing leaves and bare trees; next were ‘Christmas scenes’ and cards. The older pupils, in their early teens, were encouraged to do fabric prints, again of leaves, and basic clay work. I was as bored as were my pupils. One day I decided to allow the seniors to do pictures of what interested them which, of course, was rock 'n roll. With lively gusto, the kids painted pictures of Little Richard and Elvis Presley; lively and colorful. The work gained attention and an article appeared in the local press. Most important, the students were happy to work with me; I was hip!

During the spring of 1957, I had to attend a weekend refresher course for art teachers. I did so reluctantly but, despite myself, became interested in a new method of art teaching. Unbeknown to me at the time, that weekend was to change my life and career. This course was my first introduction to teaching methods other than those academic, figurative and boring ways that art had been taught in the past. During that weekend, discussion took place and exercises were done on what was termed Basic Design: the study and theory of color, line, shape, form, texture and the visual elements of art. No longer was teaching to with making pictures but learning the visual vocabulary of art and design. The revelation came to me that this approach was like learning a visual music. In music, natural sounds may be an inspiration but are not replicated; there are no actual sounds of trains, planes or people in a symphony; the only coughing is from the audience not in the musical score. My own painting was becoming less representational and more and more abstract; why not my teaching?

That summer, I decided to attend the Barry Summer School; so called because it was held in the seaside town of Barry, close by to Cardiff. The art courses were conducted by the faculty of Leeds College of Art; happy to be away from the grimy dirt of that northern, industrial city. I was introduced to the concepts of basic design which is the approach to art teaching written up in the book by Maurice De Sausmarez: “Basic Design: The Dynamics of Visual Form”. I became an avid disciple of this method of teaching which related to my own interests as an abstract artist and my growing involvement with contemporary art. During those weeks, I studied, as never before: color theory, line and form. I realized that color was complex and compelling in itself; not to be used merely for “coloring” but for the harmonies and discords that color could give. Again, the analogy is to music, an orchestration of pure sound; color could be as pure. I looked again at the work of the Impressionists and Van Gogh; later, I would enjoy the color of Hoffman, Rothko and Still and the gesture of Pollock and De Kooning. The artist had long been liberated from the role of copyist; now so was I. From now on, I could involve myself in the visual language of art; and, equally important, in its teaching.

When I returned to school for my second year of teaching, my approach was radically different and revitalized. I was dealing with school children, age 11 thru 16, who came from working class families, often poor, as Bridgend was a small town in a farming and mining community. The young children were happy to express themselves through art as making marks and pictures comes naturally. The art of the young child is naïve and honest; expressive of their fantasies and fears. As children become older, they become self conscious and less trusting. Teenagers no longer express themselves freely in art; feel inadequate and inept. With my pupils that was the case; they were reluctant to make mistakes and look foolish making pictures. Using Basic Design as my new found approach, I taught the basics of color, line and form as a rigorous discipline. The teenagers responded, challenged by this new visual language; using their minds and hands to learn, rather than express themselves, through art. The adolescent temperament may not allow for easy self expression but does learn by problem solving. Through studying the basics of art and abstraction, my pupils became involved in drawing, painting, collage, montage, prints, fabrics, structures and sculpture. Many media were used including acrylic, charcoal, pen, ink; along with different techniques and crafts. The program and work of my students gained attention and acclaim.

I began to realize that art was problem solving. Of course, in art school, I had realized that when studying and drawing the nude model; most demanding, yet allowing for differing forms of expressive creativity. At times, for me, the expressive aspect of art became paramount, particularly as a young artist. Later, I became fascinated by the work of Paul Cezanne, ‘the father of Modern Art’. For him, art was a constant struggle and an ongoing attempt “to get it right”; his words, I believe. In this struggle, he gave structure to painting with brush strokes that both expressive and defining. Cezanne died of pneumonia, caught as he was outdoors, painting Mont St Victoire for the umpteenth time; trying to solve the problem of getting it right.

For the next few years, I continued to attend the Barry Summer School and got to know the faculty of Leeds College of Art. The Head of Fine Art was Harry Thubron; his assistant was Eric ‘Ricky’ Atkinson, who became a dear friend. One day, I was talking with Harry and he asked why didn’t I go into further (higher) education? My reply was as tactless as my response, years earlier, on a cricket field. I said, “You know the wooly nickered people who get into those jobs”. Then I hastily added, “Not you, of course!” Harry laughed and said, “If we, ourselves, don’t take jobs in colleges, take leadership roles; then nothing will ever change.” I listened to these words which would guide and shape my future; when, later, I would take on influential appointments and leadership roles in education and art.

(As with everything and everyone that I write on, more can be found on the internet. Google is indiscriminate but diligent search, some times, can bring more information. The book “Basic Design: The Dynamics of Visual Form” by Maurice De Sausmarez is still available online. In looking up his name, amongst the hits, I found reference to his portrait by Eric Atkinson in London’s National Gallery! Harry Thubron has many entries; as do I, for, unfortunately, my name is also the title of the cult video “Evil Roy Slade”!)

In summer 1960, I applied for and obtained a teaching position as Lecturer in Art, Clarendon College of Further Education in Nottingham. The college was more of a trade school with hairdressers and caterers learning their trade; also there was a department of theatre. I was teaching art to students, in their late teens and early twenties, who were pursuing their careers at this college. My art room was large and well equipped with the entrance hall and endless corridors available for displays of art; I had an assistant lecturer. I continued to take a radical approach in teaching basic design to these students. In hairdressing, the stylist attempts to create styles of shape, form, texture and color that are complimentary and pleasing to the client. Hairstyles do not copy something else but are true abstraction; like abstract sculptures. Clients ask for shapes and forms; the language of abstraction. I had my students make abstract sculptures in clay; did the color wheel and color analysis; taught them the basics of line. This visual vocabulary was invaluable in developing their abilities as hairstylists and beauticians. I worked closely with the hairdressing faculty; visiting my students and criticizing their work in the saloon.

My efforts were soon rewarded when I attended a meeting of college educators in London, held by the City & Guilds of London Institute. At the conference, I stood and complained bitterly about the syllabus and exam that existed for teaching art to hairdressers. In that archaic exam, hairdressing students were asked to draw a pair of scissors, curl of hair or a comb. In front of hundreds of fellow educators, I ridiculed the idea of asking a hairdresser to draw a pair of scissors that they use daily; what was that about? I really complained, saying that the syllabus must have been drawn up by Prince Albert and was nothing to with our times and needs. Brashly, I went on to discuss my teaching of shape, form and color. I ridiculed the syllabus and exam.. Looking back, I realize how precocious and outrageous I was as a young lecturer. Nevertheless, the chairman of City & Guilds, who seemed to share my concerns, turned to me and said. “Could you write a better curriculum and examination for hairdressing?” I replied, “Certainly!” He asked, “Could you have this proposed and radical revision ready within the month?” I agreed to try to meet that deadline. Within the month, I drafted the revised syllabus and proposed exam; based upon my teaching of basic design. The proposals were accepted and implemented that following year by the City & Guilds of London Institute, the largest educational examing body in the world.

Equally important for me, I was appointed Chief Examiner in Art, City & Guilds of London Institute; a position I held from 1963 thru 1969. The other examiner was the Head of Fine Art at Coventry College of Art. Every summer, we went through hundreds and hundreds of art papers by hairdressers; never knew until then that there were so many stylists in the world. More pleasurable were the train rides to London to attend meetings; also an opportunity to visit the art museums and galleries. I was asked to visit other college art departments who were seeking advice and guidance.

Another group of students at Clarendon College were the caterers. The cooks were interested in theories of color and arrangement, as these effected the appearance of their food. The waiters, with their setting up of tables, wanted to develop their visual sensibilities. The creation of and serving of food is an art form in itself; like in the saloon, I learnt a lot in the kitchen and restaurant. Again the teaching of art and design that I did with the catering department was regarded as quite revolutionary. Within four years, I'd made great progress and had the full support of my principal who was most interested in art. The art department presented displays of art throughout the college; exhibitions of outdoor sculpture; and worked on stage design for theatrical productions. Not only did I realize the importance of art in everyday life, I was sharing this belief and commitment with an ever growing audience. During these four years in Nottingham, I was actively involved with the art scene, exhibiting my paintings at the Midland Art Group. I was involved with my own painting but, like my move to Leeds in the summer of 1964, that is another story.

LEEDS

Leeds is industrial city in Yorkshire. As the saying goes, with a Yorkshire accent, “Where there's muck, there's brass”. In other words, where there's industrial dirt there is money; Leeds City Hall, once a majestic and white building, was black, covered in grime and grit. The city, with factories belching smoke and soot, was grimy and industrial but rich, particularly in its educational establishments: the University and the College of Art. 

After four years at Clarendon College in Nottingham, my life was to change again. At Leeds College of Art, in 1964, Harry Thubron resigned as Head of Fine Art and Ricky Atkinson was appointed as his successor. Ricky invited me to join him in Leeds but could only offer a part time position. I decided to take the risk of giving up my full time employment, to travel every week by train to Leeds. The opportunity of being part of the faculty, even part time, was a risk worth taking. Within six months, after an interview at the City Hall, I was pleased to be appointed lecturer in painting, a full time position. More interviews occurred as I became senior lecturer and, again, when I became director of postgraduate studies. I had taken on more responsibility, including being director of the gallery. 

In the past years, I had been a disciple of basic design; certainly, I advanced my career through this teaching. Initially, I was an implementer rather than an innovator of basic design. However, I did introduce the concepts of basic design to my teaching in further education. As a result, a syllabus and examination of the City & Guilds was completely changed. In my first year in America, 1967/8, I lectured extensively and wrote articles on art education at Leeds. I felt that the efforts and achievements at Leeds needed greater recognition. In 1969, at my invitation, Meryle Serest visited and wrote the article “An American in Leeds”, published in Studio International (May 1969 Volume 177 number 911). I had met Meryle when at the Corcoran in Washington DC, where she was a writer for the Arts Section of the Washington Post. We have remained good friends to this day; in fact, during the summer of 2007, we both gave talks at the Pollock Krasner Center in the Hamptons NY. 


The following extracts are from the ’69 article, “An American in Leeds” and give an outsiders view of Leeds at that time. Meryle Secrest writes: “Any American observer visiting the fine arts department of Leeds College of who asks in all innocence, “What does a student need to know in order to graduate?”, is met by polite amusement. The concept that students should be judged by the techniques they have learned has been abandoned by the Leeds staff since the mid-1950s when Harry Thubron on first formulated his theories of arts education there.

“Over the years, a painstaking reassessment has produced an educational experiment at once humanistic, anarchistic, and far-reaching in its ramifications, in which the process is more important than the end result…..What is being attempted here is a way of putting the student back in touch with those wellsprings of his creative being…….. The college itself does not hint at the social and psychological goals - it is a random collection of ramshackle buildings, connected by a labyrinthine corridors and loosely congregated somewhere in the middle of a bleak black city. Nevertheless the building has its own style, even if that is no style. The college is destined to move soon into new square shaped glass and concrete quarters. I suspect that both staff and students are going to miss the serendipitous possibilities offered by their present floor plan and look back nostalgically on the bad old days.

“The students can't be mistaken for anyone else. You can spot them coming a mile away, since everyone else in this working-class town looks solid and respectable. They (the students) enjoy life whether they are cavorting seminude in some color film they have made, or presenting an evening of student events. There is a lighthearted, antic quality about their behavior, a kind of innocent spontaneity which seems to suggest that the college is achieving its goal of loosening them up…. ……a number of creative people are gravitating towards the environment that Leeds College of Art has achieved. (The writer goes on to mention: Cornelius Cardew; George Brecht; Walter De Maria; Richard Hamilton; Yoko Ono; Allen Davie; Terry Frost; Victor Pasmore; Pat Heron and many others.) …….The development of the Leeds approach is variously described as a happy accident and the careful work of a few men. …..to have begun with Thubron who settled there in the mid-50s and attracted some like minded talents. Among those who came to work with him was Eric Atkinson, an intense, introspective man who is now head of the Department of Fine Art.

“Atkinson's great gift has been to gather around him a group of equally talented men and leave them alone. They are all strong individualists and it is therefore surprising to discover how very much alike they are in their thinking about education. Robin Page calls his goals “discovering how to live sane in an insane society”. Miles McAlinden talks about the importance of empathic understanding, or “the willingness to see with your ears”. Roy Slade stresses the need for “creative anarchy”, Willy Tirr wants to produce people who will “think around corners” and Eric Taylor, the Principal of Leeds College of Art, says that they are trying to find out what the individual can achieve on the theory that the assimilation of knowledge comes through self-discovery.”

“Robin Page says …that Leeds has…. created “an environment which allows for anything, real or imaginary, to be considered as the role material of art, and in the temporary suspension of the influence of social necessity or historical art as governing factors in the search for creative directions….. We do not postulate that the art exists as a model for the art that can be made. The student is directed to selfish inquiry, materially and intellectually, and encouraged to respond to those primary clues within himself which…. will enable him to make an original contribution in a form most consistent with his true interests.”

“The two men most responsible for the first-year course are Robin Page and Miles (Mac) McAlinden. They are immensely stimulating, challenging conversationalists who bombard you with the force of their convictions. These are that the approach must be open ended and enquiring, an attitude rather than a method….They encourage students to make mistakes on the assumption that this is an essential part of the learning process. Mac says, “We believe that the only method is to ask the questions, so that they produce the answers which are their reality.” They start by presenting students with a group project to start them thinking as a team and then beyond teamwork to their individual statements. In a one-term project, they split the students into eight groups of five. Each group was to invent a tent which had to incorporate a unique expression of their personalities. Then the students were left alone. For first six weeks, the staff report subsequently stated laconically, “no tents were made and moral went down. Yet they were really finding and examining the social problems presented by working in groups”, and the results justified all of their expectations.

“Atkinson says, “In the previous way of training, a person never had his own identity. What they (the teachers) were trying to do was train the eyes and the hand, when it’s the brain that allows you to see. Now we are not trying to produce artists so much as to provide a visual education”


At Leeds, the emphasis was on questioning, discovery, inquiry, learning and knowledge. Students were given projects to start them thinking as a group then as individuals. The most dramatic aspect of the courses at that time was that there were no courses as such and neither classes in the traditional sense. A group of students would be in the studio, studying day after day, sometimes for weeks, one aspect of art. In color, the students learnt all aspects of the color circle, including discords and harmonies. The analysis of color was rigorous, both theoretical and in practice. Students began painting a still life but doing so through pure color analysis. Nature became a means to further and deeper understanding of color. After working with color, the students would study aspects of the properties and potential of line. The drawing of the figure became totally different than any other approach; the model was encouraged to move so that students had to work quickly capturing the movement of the figure. The models were posed in different ways and settings; one of the most dramatic was setting the model against a huge billboard. The eye on the poster was bigger than the model herself. In this way, students began to learn about scale and form. At other times there were attempts to at distort the figure through light, mirrors and surroundings. The intensity of these classes was obvious: both with the commitment of the faculty and with the students as the approach was one of exploration and discovery for student and faculty. Students would get involved with performance and happenings: colorful fanciful costumes; music sound and video; the possibilities were endless as the investigation of ideas and creativity continued through intense and individual innovation.

On a personal note, for the first year, I did a commute then moved to a small village outside Leeds. Yorkshire is a large county, dramatic and bleak; as was the old art school building. As Meryle Secrest had foreseen, when the College of Art moved into a contemporary, glossy building, much changed and was lost. Eric Atkinson moved to Canada; other faculty left; and I was already in America.