Foundations: 1977-78

Recently, I’ve been finalising a photographic archive of my visual artwork from 1977 to 2015 (after which time, I became preoccupied with sound). A portfolio of what remains of my year on the foundation course at the Emlyn Street Annexe* of Gwent College of Higher Education, Newport, Gwent has been mouldering — like John Brown’s body — in the basement for over two decades. It has now been ‘slated for destruction’. Before that happens, I resolved to photograph no more than ten pieces that were indicative of that year’s education.

In those days, you had to successfully undertake a foundation course in order to qualify for degree-scheme application; and, moreover, you could only enrol on the course offered by your local education authority. Which could be something of a lottery, in terms of the quality and breath of the provision. Mine was limited and under resourced, but in a good way. It didn’t provide an initiation into either photography, illustration, ceramics, sculpture, or printmaking. We were taught only drawing and painting, for the most part, the entire year. Which was exactly what I wanted and needed: a concentrated and focussed immersion in the rudiments of seeing intently and judiciously, thinking clearly, and rendering deftly, while developing an increasing authority over my means. It was the most crucial year of my entire art education.

Site of the Foundation Department, Emlyn Street annexe, Faculty of Art & Design, Gwent College of Higher Education, Newport, Gwent.

So often interviewees for the undergraduate schemes in Fine Art at the School of Art, Aberystwyth University arrive with foundation portfolios (and carrier bags) over-filled with mud-rock sculptures, fabric prints, crumbling clay figurines, clumsy lino prints, oversized paintings that stuck together, and — if you search long and hard enough — some signs of a nascent ability to draw, secreted in a bulging ‘sketchbook’. Too much stuff, and too much variety at too low a level of comprehension and resolution. It isn’t the applicants’ fault. They are only following their foundation tutors’ orders.

Objective painting studies: circuit board, desktop, and still life (1978) acrylic on paper.

At the group criticism following the first week of teaching, the Head of the Foundation Department barked: ‘None of you know anything!’. Galling as it was to be chastened publicly, many in attendance (and God help you if you weren’t) knew that he’d spoken of a truth. Most of us were fresh out of school, rarely read newspapers other than our parents’ Daily Mirror, and paid scant attention to BBC news broadcasts. His searing opprobrium also jump-started the realisation that our art education in secondary school had taught us next to nothing about how to how to see, draw, and paint. (Art History? Don’t even go there.) A state of affairs that was as remarkable as it was appalling. From that moment on, I resolved to face-down my ignorance. dedicate myself to becoming a sponge, cultivate my inner-flagellant, and develop a critical voice that was as severe as those of my teachers.

Objective drawing study: my dog’s basket (1977) pencil on paper.

The tutors were severely critical in the most productive sense of that word. Expressions such as: ‘sh*t’, ‘inadequate’, ‘cack-handed’, ‘lazy’, and ‘tired’ were not infrequently addressed to our work. And it was to the work rather than at us, the students. As the Mafioso used to say before they ‘whacked’ a competitor: ‘It’s just business, nothing personal’. Rarely were either the work or we praised, and never effusively. If nothing untoward was said about your efforts, then, you assumed they were tolerably good. The most encouraging comment I ever received was: ‘You’re doing alright, John!’. This meant that no one either worked for or expected or depended upon applause.

All students were required to attend five days a week, clock-in at 9.00 am, and remain at their station wearing-down their brushes to the ferrule until 5.30 pm. Weekend projects were set and expected to be submitted first thing on Monday morning. These things were non-negotiable. Back then, our tuition fees were paid by the local education authority, which also provided a bursary for materials and a travel pass. But this didn’t diminish our sense of privilege or weaken our resolve to make the most of the opportunities afforded us. The students submitted to this regime because they considered themselves to be professionals in embryo and didn’t want to be thrown-off the course. Around 20% of each year’s intake never made it to end.

Objective drawing studies: 3 variations on my mother’s knitting (1977) pen on acrylic on paper.

The course was structured around studio painting, perspective lessons, life-drawing, graphic design, liberal studies, and art history. Liberal studies took place on Wednesday afternoons. The lessons aimed to broaden our cultural horizons beyond the bounds of art. Each week we had to read a set book (which I devoured on my commute to and from Abertillery and Newport), and be prepared to discuss it in class. Erich von Däniken’s Chariots of the Gods (1969) generated a particularly impassioned debate, I recall. To me, these excursions made perfect sense. Others were resistant, touting the anticipated objection: ‘I came here to become an artist, not go back to school’. Of course, what they failed to realise is that art is always about something other than itself. It can’t be created or understood in an intellectual and a cultural vacuum. This conviction has been the mainspring of my own teaching in both Fine Art and Art History.

Faculty of Art & Design, Gwent College of Higher Education, Clarence Place, Newport, Gwent & perspective study: the main staircase (1977), pencil on paper.

Art History was held on Wednesday mornings at the Clarence Place site, where the undergraduate degrees were undertaken. You’d have thought from what we were taught, that there’d been no history of art prior to Pop Art. (‘What about f*cking Rembrandt, then?’ my earthy, dyed-in-the-wool, Euston Road-styled, fellow student would complain … very loudly. He had a point.) We received lectures on film theory, photography, minimalist art and music, pornography (you’d never get away with that today), biology and art, politics and art, and much else besides. It was an education in life through art and visual culture for which I’ll always be grateful.

My foundation portfolio’s mandatory ‘scrapbook’ of visual references reveals a number of incipient interests that would preoccupy me for rest of my career, including: electrical equipment, electronic schematics, visualisations of sound, stringed instruments, and serial and systemic progressions. Small wonder that my first-year tutor Keith Richardson-Jones had, in the first few weeks of my undergraduate degree at Clarence Place, whisked me and several others off in his Naples-yellow Citroen to Brighton, where we attended the Rational Practice constructivist exhibition and lectures, and I was introduced to Kenneth Martin over coffee.

‘Scrap book’ pages (1977).

Once my place on the Fine Art degree scheme had been secured, some three weeks before the Foundation Course was due to end, I determined to use the remaining time productively and explore abstract paintings based upon circuit diagrams, while moving from stretched-paper supports to canvas. This was my first opportunity to work outside of the bounds of set exercises.

Off (1978) acrylic on canvas, 60 × 60 cm.

The foundation course instilled in me a work ethic that has remained fundamental to my operations ever since. It also made me aware that the possession of a native aptitude for the subject is, in and of itself, insufficient. To it must be added ‘hard graft’ (as they say in the north of England) humility, commitment, determination, intelligence, cognisance, and an understanding of fields of knowledge that lie outside art. Along with skills in two-dimensional representation, the tutors imparted the principle that an artwork’s success or failure was our responsibility alone. Artistic maturity was, in part, the recognition and acceptance of that truth. They also helped us to develop a skin as tough as a rhino’s, in order to survive the onslaught of professional judgement. (The study of art is not for the fainthearted.) Today, I continue to build upon those foundations.

*The Emlyn Street annexe was formerly the site of The Holy Cross and Holy Family School, and was said to be haunted by one of the nuns who’d taught there. The only spirit we ever encountered was the stench of stale beer ascending the rear staircase from the Students’ Union Bar on the ground floor.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Fill out this field
Fill out this field
Please enter a valid email address.
You need to agree with the terms to proceed