Monday, 3 December 2012

Interview with Artist and Educator Gemma Cossey

ACRYLIC AND INK ON CANVAS, 36’’ X 48’’, 2011-12

I wanted to start interviewing artists who work in education, as this is a route that many artists go down, whether it be lectureing at a university, or teaching in a inner city state school. My first interview is with artist and educator Gemma Cossey.
  Cossey's recent work explores process, gesture, scale, time and the relationship of parts to the whole. Her practice culminates in repetitive mark making drawings and paintings. She currently teaches art and design at a west London sixth form college. Previous teaching experience includes spending a year working at a comprohensive in Gloucestershire teaching art and graphics, and teaching English as a Foreign Language in the Galapagos Islands. 

 You are a practicing artist and have a wide range of teaching experience. Do you see yourself primarily as an educator or practicing artist or both?

When I was teaching, I saw myself as both artist and educator, more or less in equal measures. The one complements the other.
Now I am currently practising full time, having left my job in July this year, I see myself as primarily an artist, and that the educator side of me is dormant, for now, but is something I am certain I will return to in some way in the future.
 Do you have a personal education philosophy? If so, do you feel the current curriculum supports this philosophy? 

I can answer this with regards to Art & Design in education, but don’t feel I have the knowledge or experience to answer for education in general.
Through the learning of Art & Design skills, knowledge and experience, students learn about themselves and the world around them, their place in the world with regards to others and their environment. Students learn observation skills, problem solving skills, ways of expression, communication and learn how to use their imagination and creativity.
The teaching (compulsory and regularly at the core of all students’ timetable) of Art & Design in schools is, I believe, crucial to a well-rounded education. The current curriculum in that it includes compulsory Art & Design up to key stage 3 for all children seems a good one to me. I think the current GCSE and A Level Art & Design courses are very good and suitably challenging courses that provide students with the opportunity to achieve in Art & Design and provide teachers with a solid framework with which to deliver the subject.
The changes proposed to the curriculum by the current government worry me greatly as I think that the diminishing of importance and regularity of Art & Design learning and experience in every child’s timetable will have a devastating effect on our young people and on UK education generally and, in turn, on our culture and society. I just hope that those in power listen and learn from those working in education, NSEAD, and the positive wave of resistance from those in creative industries.
 What drew you into teaching art to young people? 

Teaching was really the only way to earn a living that I could imagine doing, and seemed the best route to support and give time to my art practice. Having had short experiences teaching in summer schools in Somerset, and some private English tuition to young people and adults in France, I realised that this was something that I could possibly do well.
It was also a plausible way that I could help and give to others.
Having spoken to friends and sister, who had done a PGCE previously, I knew that initially I would not have much time with which to practice art, but held on to a future situation when I would teach part time, and always had idea of going into 6th form. Teaching I realised would also provide me with a way to be able to work abroad again in the future.
 Is there an age group you find particularly inspiring, and if so why?

Having taught so far ages 2-19, I have particularly enjoyed the last 6 years of teaching Art & Design to 16-19 year olds. It has been very rewarding to witness students’ development from leaving their school with GCSE’s and arriving at the 6th form college, and within two years becoming ready to progress further at university (or gap years/employment). This age group seem just to be developing a sort of creative voice, and an individuality and there is always a big leap from the student that arrives in the first lesson of an AS or BTEC course, and the one who leaves two or three years later.
These students were of a huge range of varying abilities, and from a wide range of different school experiences all over London; from real ‘high flyers’ with a stack of A grade GCSE’s to students who arrived at the college with just a one or two passes at GCSE level. It was particularly rewarding to see the development of students who for various reasons had not achieved as much as they had hoped at school, but to see them, with guidance and support, a strong pastoral system and a new teaching environment with good resources, really achieve well through a BTEC course route. I taught a few students who progressed from Level 1 BTEC (with a couple of GCSE’s) right through to Level 3 over four years and then straight to university for an Art & Design degree course, and their sense of achievement and that of their families was justly huge.
The final exhibition at the end of the Summer term to show the students’ work of both A2 Art, Photography and Textiles, and final year of BTEC Art & Design, was one of my favourite parts of the year, when the rest of the college students and staff, students’ families and friends were invited to see the students’ best work and final pieces. Witnessing the students pride and sense of accomplishment in hanging their first exhibition was very special.
I haven’t yet taught 20 years and upwards and I would like to maybe in the future.
 You have travelled widely and have taught abroad - Do you think, even though you weren't always teaching art there, that you gained skills and experience that were useful? 

Yes, definitely. Having had no training before teaching English abroad (with some Art, and French at times), the experience was a fast learning curve, and fortunately with some smaller groups of students to begin with. It made the first teaching practices on the PGCE not quite as daunting.
I initially began a job with 2nd school in the Galapagos as art teacher, but unfortunately as it was for only 1 day a week, and the school was desperate for full time English teachers, I was obliged to take the full time job, as the voluntary stipend pay was already low.
The moment when I decided I would return to the UK to train properly to become an Art teacher was whilst taking some of my EFL students out on a couple art trips (no health or safety forms needed!) and watching them draw cactus trees on the island and finding it a beautiful, fascinating and rewarding experience. I still have one of their drawings.
 Are your students aware that you are a practising artist and does this inspire them? 

 I would sometimes tell students usually as I got to know them, so maybe in the 2nd year of the course, and depending on the group.
Last year I organised, with another fellow artist/Art & Photography school teacher/friend an education event at our group show Jam Tomorrow at A.P.T. Gallery in Deptford. We both selected some students from our college and school and took them to the exhibition for the day, doing some critical studies activities and then practical collage work responding to the work of the artists, feeding this work into their AS and A level exam preparation. This was one of the best days of my whole teaching experience do far; it was wonderful sharing the show with some of our students, very strange at moments when we watched them look closely at our own work on the walls. Both my friend and I noticed how much they and their work and ideas benefited from the day.
In hindsight I should have showed my work to perhaps more groups in previous years as some students respond really well. However it wasn’t always appropriate, some students with not perhaps as much love for their art couldn’t understand a teacher teaching art all day, let alone making it and visiting exhibitions! ‘Get a life, Miss.’ was a comment once when I once explained what I did on my days off!

 Do you think that art teachers teaching older pupils should be practising artists as well? 

Ideally yes.
I was very fortunate that the Exmouth branch of Plymouth University PGCE was an excellent and very practice led course run superbly by a husband and wife team who were passionate about the idea of teachers being practising artists too. Seeing their views on the website was the main reason I applied to this particular PGCE course.
At interviews for both my NQT year post and then the 6th form post it was clear that I was fortunate in that the fellow teachers and heads of department were genuinely interested to know and see evidence of my own practice and art background. Both departments were enthusiastically supportive of any member of the department’s art practice and sharing skills and good practice amongst all teachers were intrinsic in the ethos of the Art Departments.
It is though difficult I believe to practise a great deal when full time teaching in secondary and 6th form. Some real art practice work can be achieved through the holidays, especially in the Summer break, but I found during term time (when full time) it was difficult to find the energy to get a decent amount of work done, not impossible, but tough.
I was very fortunate that having answered an advert for 0.6 contract, the opportunity of full time came up during my first term, financially it was essential that I took it, being in only my 2nd year on the pay scale and having just moved to London. But two years later, following a request in a letter, really wanting more time for practice and on finding a new studio space, my head of department and college principal supported me in going part time and stepping down from a 2ic position, (the department timetable changes luckily fitting in with the request). Firstly I went to a 0.8 contract and then for the last two years 0.6, during which I really starting making work properly again.
 What are the pros and cons in working in art education and being an artist? 

When answering this question, it seemed very difficult to isolate from a general pros and cons of my teaching experience too. 
·         huge sense of reward during the high moments in the classroom, for example when all students are really enjoying and lost in what they are doing, a great group discussion/crit, all are achieving well, or when they are really inspired by an artist link you have given them, or when taking in and assessing great quality work
·         helping and witnessing young people progress and achieve and providing pastoral support
·         being inspired by the students, the laughs and the surprising things that students sometimes say
·         learning about people (and in the case of inner London – learning about other cultures, languages, backgrounds)
·         using lots of resources and learning new knowledge and techniques
·         idea exchange - having ideas for the students’ work whilst in the studio, and having ideas for my work whilst in the class room
·         The students final exhibition and private view (as described above)
·         Working with a great Art department team

·         I found marking time tough in 2nd half of the summer term, especially at a 6th form college, all courses are exam groups. Art teachers mark each student’s entire year’s work, so assessment at the end of the year is part of the job, and essential, but certainly takes away studio time, even if part time. I used to avoid being involved with my own art things, exhibitions, private views and so on during this period.
·         Admin involved, particularly in my experience with the BTEC courses, and the emphasis on the teacher, not the exam board, to produce what can be an overwhelming amount of paperwork. The admin gets particularly annoying if you feel it takes away from the quality teaching time with students.
·         The huge amount of energy that you give and need to do a good job (especially if you’re an unfortunate perfectionist as is the case with many artists!) can be unhealthy
·         On a general education note; Some of the politics of government (such as the proposed curriculum changes as above, changes to pensions, increase of tuition fees impacting on students etc) and occasional negativity that the education/teaching profession gets in the media.

 Finally, is there any advice you would give to artists interested in going into education? 

I don’t have experience of HE and degree course teaching, and I imagine the demands are different in different ways.
For those that are interested in going into secondary/6th form; To be aware that if doing the secondary PGCE route, from my experience the course is an intense year and followed by a demanding NQT year, but that once those 2 years are achieved things definitely start getting easier as you grow in confidence and begin to do the admin type things quicker.

That organisation counts for an awful lot. The analogy of plate spinning is a good one given to me by one of my mentors during the PGCE, as you’re trying to keep several different teaching groups and planning going at the same time. Flexibility and a sense of humour are also priceless.

To always keep making work outside of teaching, even if it is a small amount here and there. And at work, (even when you don’t have time outside of teaching) to be as practical and hands on as possible, make things during lessons and demonstration work to show students.

Gemma Cossey is exhibiting in Motorcade/FlashParade's National Open Competition which opens on Friday 7th December 2012

To find out more about Gemma Cossey's work take a look at her website:

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