I’ve been part of our school’s GCSE Art department* for a couple of years now and this year I’ve got all the Year 10 and 11 groups. Me and Kev (art tutor) have developed a good routine of lessons and marking, the kids get to experiment with a vast amount of techniques and processes – a hell of a lot more than when I was at school in the olden days, and they are producing some amazing work. I know they are producing amazing work because last summer we got our best ever GCSE results. Not only did we get the best results ever in Art (A, B, C, D), we got the school’s best ever results and the school’s first grade A GCSE in anything ever. We were unbelievably proud.
*it’s pretty much just the two of us
My own exposure to art has increased immensely – I’ve always had an interest and we trek round galleries with the best of them, but Kev’s knowledge and passion is infectious and I’m feeling it for the better. Every now and then I’ll dabble in some arty project or other and these are happily dotted round the house. At the moment I’m filling the house with rusty teabags.
There is a definite influence of old, rusty, textured stuff in the art at school. Anselm Kiefer, Gerhard Richter, Joseph Beuys, Richard Serra, and so many more, all work their way into the boys’ projects, and during a research trawl I came across the work of Jennifer Coyne Qudeen. I fell a bit in love with her rusty tea bags and decided to have an experiment. I don’t drink tea but this hasn’t stopped me – we didn’t have any rusty washers either but we do now. Anyway. Having told a few people about my teabags, I thought the easiest way to communicate my endeavours was a quick description.
I started by finding some rusty stuff. We’d got the odd nail and bits of old fence in the garden but for pressing it’s better to have something flat so I bought some washers. After a bit of a mooch online I decided to get zinc plated rather than galvanised ones. The plating is thinner and it’s easier to get the washers to rust. I scuffed the surfaces up a bit and put them in with some other wet, rusty stuff Howard had rescued from burning. It didn’t take too long to get some colour going and the more I’ve used them, the better this has got.
For tea bags, I started by using the few we have for visitors and the odd one I took from hotel rooms etc. I discovered that the best ones are Twinings as they don’t have a seam at the bottom and are easy to fold out into a full sheet. I’ve experimented with different flavours including some herbal teas and there are occasional differences in the reaction of tea and rust. If I could only go with one, it’s probably Assam at the moment, but there’s not a huge difference.
The paper I’ve used is Khadi Handmade Paper. I bought it because that’s what Jennifer Coyne Qudeen shows on her blog. I got a book and A5 sheets. I do like it – it soaks the colour well but the moisture doesn’t destroy the structure. It’s nice to rip, but only on one direction, so I may try different papers once I’ve run out.
My method is fairly simple. Once I’ve got a used tea bag, I open it out and layer it on paper with the washers and any other rusty material. With another sheet of paper on top, I weigh it down with whatever I can find. Mostly recipe books, but I’ve used all sorts as long as they’re heavy.
After at least 24 hours I separate the layers and leave it all to dry. The tea bags take a while to dry out, but when they’re ready I open them up and get rid of the tea (I’m sure at some point I’ll try using that too) and lo, I have lovely flat bits of fabric stained with tea and rust.
It’s taken me a while to decide what I’m going to do with all these tea bags and bits of paper. I’ve bought some thread that I think compliments the different shades of tea and the blue-black marks of the rust so I think I’ll try sewing some of them together. I’ve put together some bits into a couple of arrangements but I’m going to keep having a play with them – as long as Howard doesn’t mind the growing pile of tea bags, I can keep coming back to them and trying out new things. I’ll write a part two when I do!
Art isn’t up there with the biggies like English and Maths when it comes to targets, but it has an important place in what I do and in our school culture. Pupils who have never thought of themselves as ‘artists’ are achieving success and it’s really interesting to see how some of them use art as an outlet. In a school where all the pupils are boys with emotional and behavioural difficulties, a strong, macho element is ever-present. Art allows our pupils to be creative and explore cultural perspectives previously closed to them, alongside the football and the motor engineering. Our ‘A’ grade promised us before left school that he’d visit Venice one day and send us a postcard. We’re holding out hope.