Learning to Fail

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Last month I was thrilled to find out that I had been selected to be one of the 2012/13 Artists in Residence at the University of Lincoln. I’ll be blogging thoughout over here but thoughts I’d share my project’s first tentative steps on The Thinking Bridge too.

Since being a very small child, I have always held the belief that I am harbouring a hidden talent that I have yet to discover; a talent so amazing that it requires little effort to actualise but has the power to insight awe and wonder in all who behold it. This belief has led to some monumental disappointments with many potential talents being scratched off the list, playing professional darts,  disco dancing on roller skates and speaking Esperanto to name but a few. Heading for 40 with my hidden talent still eluding me I recently bumbled into another epic fail situation through rejecting rigour in favour of alchemy and the quest for super powers.

My AA2A project is going to explore what will happen to a series of creative relationships developed in digital environments when they are migrated offline and will be documented by analogue processes. Darkroom photography was my first love and although I cast it aside for the speed and convenience of digital photography well over 10 years ago a spark of interest rekindled my passion for film this summer which became the inspiration for my project proposal.

The spark bizarrely took the form of a £3.50 Polaroid camera that I found in a charity shop; I took a chance and loaded it with the considerably more expensive film and headed off on an analogue adventure. The thrill of flipping the chunky camera casing to reveal its lens and flash, the heavy clunk and whoosh of the ejected Polaroid and the nervous anticipation experienced as the image developed combined to elicit ridiculous levels of excitement! With each press of the shutter I was left with a tangible, yet slightly imperfect, outcome of a carefully considered composition.

The whole Polaroid experience led me to consider both the value of photographs as physical artefacts and a renewed interest in exploring the fundamental principles of making an image. Once inducted as an AA2A artist I decided that experimenting with pin-hole cameras would both be an excellent starting point to take my analogue adventure further and a useful device to find my feet within the Lens Based Media department at the University of Lincoln.

I set to work and after a fruitful spell of internet research, I meticulously crafted 20 lightproof cameras which I loaded with light sensitive paper. This however is where my enthusiasm and belief in super powers took over and confused my logic. Instead of choosing one subject and using a series of cameras to photograph it, making an incremental change to the length of exposure each time, I chose a range of subjects, took a single photograph of each and used an exposure time plucked from the air. After 10 minutes in the darkroom, the small black rectangles of photographic paper that I had carefully retrieved and developed told me that I had another hidden talent to strike from the list of possibilities.

Despite wanting to go home to cry into my tin of failure I took Samuel Beckett’s advice to ‘“Try again, fail again, fail better.” I enlisted the help of Dave O the department’s senior photography technician who very patiently helped me to take a more robust research based approach to calculating exposure times. He also introduced me to the baffling inverse square law which reminded me that photography is all about physics.

Had I not have failed I wouldn’t have thought about physics and photography and I wouldn’t have prompted myself to rewatch this film by Daniel Meadows about his very humanistic take on the subject.  After experiencing the sheer joy of creating an image as a by-product of determination I am now happy to continue the rest of my residency learning to fail.


The Curious Case of the Golden Closet

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On a crisp autumnal morning at an hour almost early enough for the birds still to be asleep in their nests, the Moveable Museum of Found Objects (the offline product of my online project We Found Art) set off on another adventure. Its destination was Oakham in the tiny county of Rutland; a piece of middle England sandwiched in between Lincolnshire, Leicestershire, Peterborough and Northamptonshire. Its mission was to both demonstrate the creative potential of social media and to ‘show and tell’ We Found Art’s learning journey.

As the museum’s adventures are often accompanied by the need for extreme towing skills and advanced manoeuvring techniques I enlisted the help of two of the project’s biggest fans to take responsibility for navigation and driver support. Val and Colin Smith (aka Mum and Dad) stepped up to the mark and also provided travel sweets which was an unexpected bonus! On arriving at Oakham C of E Primary School we were allocated a superior spot to pitch up on in the car park which didn’t involve the previous challenges of the North Sea, black ice or steep gradients which was a huge relief!

With the caravan support team despatched to explore the town I prepared to welcome 80+ pupils to explore the Museum’s collection of found objects and to find out more about its origins as an online project. My visit was part of a day of creative activities to launch the school’s ‘Telling our Learning Stories’ project, developed in partnership with The Mighty Creatives. The project’s aim is to explore the different ways in which the school community can capture and tell their learning stories through creating a group of young learning documenters. These young people will be supported to develop new approaches using ICT and social media which will eventually be rolled out across the school.

During the day pupils visited the Moveable Museum in groups of five; they peeped into cupboards with awe and wonder, admired the 70s inspired decor and asked many, many questions about caravan logistics. The hands-down winner of ‘favourite object of the day’ was a match attack card found in a muddy puddle closely followed by a skeletal bird’s leg brought home in a lunch box. It was however the photographic gallery in the Golden Closet that created unprecedented interest; it seemed to have magical powers, igniting the curiosity of the young visitors and drawing them in. There were several pupils who accidentally shut themselves inside the gilded gallery as they admired photographs of Mablethorpe and I soon realised that I needed to count each group out.

Many of the staff and young people that I met throughout the course of the day shared their stories of their own collections and I was also introduced to Geocaching (www.geocaching.com) which I got quite excited about! I was also thrilled to be offered found objects and although We Found Art is no longer accepting postal submissions I am hoping that there may be an influx of uploads to the project’s Flickr group (www.flickr.com/groups/wefoundart).

Punk Britannia


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When my 11 year old son recently came home from school with the invitation to ‘dress as royalty’ to celebrate the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee his initial apathy soon led to a subversive adventure in punk inspired DIY fashion.

Jude has spent the majority of his primary education pushing the boundaries through his creative approach to learning which, much like marmite, his teachers have either loved or hated! The marmite lovers have nurtured, encouraged and celebrated Jude’s creativity whilst those with a sensitive palate have attempted to quash it. Fortunately Jude’s positive experiences have out-weighed the bad and it is with thanks to his time spent with inspirational teachers Sarah Maltby-Smith and Fern Parsons that he has retained the confidence to explore the world with awe, wonder, curiosity and intrigue and defied any attempts by the marmite intolerant to limit his imagination.

As Jude has reached year 6 with his creativity intact, his suggestion to create a Jubilee outfit fit for a Prince of Punk seemed like the most fitting opportunity to celebrate the square peg of a spirit that has refused to be hammered into a round hole. We therefore set ourselves a design brief to create a DIY outfit in red, white and blue with undertones of anarchy and a nod to the punk spirit of ’77.

Keen to make an artistic statement, we gathered together jeans and a couple of plain T-shirts, pillaged my sewing and art supplies for suitable accoutrements and trawled local charity shops for a small  jacket that we could customise with our stash of Poundland Union Jacks.

What followed was a week of frenzied pre and post school making. I took on the task of deconstructing the jacket to add in the Union Jacks and Jude double splattered his jeans, first with bleach and then with red batik dye. We worked on the T-Shirt together using a stencil of the Queen (from Angel Adoree’s Vintage Tea Party book), car spray paint and a ridiculous amount of safety pins.

Once completed, the Prince of Punk tried his outfit on to admiring looks from his fashion conscious sister who was mightily impressed with his DIY/charity shop chic. This initial trying on session did however highlight the need for a suitable hair style to compliment the look for which we looked to John Cooper Clarke for inspiration and invested in a can of super hold hairspray. Topped with dark glasses Jude was good to go, a walking playful statement of creative freedom and self expression!

There are more images from our photo-shoot over on Flickr

The Adventures of Dog Charity Shop Boy


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The adventures of ‘Dog Charity Shop Boy’ have been reported over on my Flickr page but I thought they deserved some Thinking Bridge space too!

Back in the autumn, my son Jude and I were thrilled to discover that The Caravan Gallery were putting together a book of other people’s pictures. In the blink of an eye we grabbed Jude’s camera and set off to scour the streets of Boston in Lincolnshire to look for the perfect shot!

Jude found a sign for a Dog Charity Shop and quickly snapped it, eager to visit the establishment itself in the hope that I would let him choose and take home a second hand dog! He was very disappointed to find that the shop in his words ‘was just a load of old lady clothes!’ (Through the eyes of a 39 year old, it’s a treasure trove not of dogs but up-cycled items waiting to be re-homed!)

Undeterred Jude emailed his photo and hoped for the best. On Christmas day, he opened a small flat parcel and was thrilled to discover that it was a copy of ‘The Caravan Gallery Presents Other People’s Pictures’ with his photo printed on page 56!

Armed with his book, Jude decided that an impromptu personal appearance was in order and revisited his sign and the Dog Charity Shop. Bemused customers looked on as he posed for photos with Kevin the shop manager!

I was very excited to have photographs included in the book too, but on this occasion was very happy to be overshadowed by the creative genius of Jude!


Christmas Craftivism


Homemade Christmas Lovliness

OK, so I’m a bit late with this one but it may go some way to explaining my absence from the blogosphere for the last few months!

Back in September I made a brash decision to make the majority of my Christmas gifts for friends and family with the help of my children. I often describe myself as a ‘time poor crafter’ and although there has always been an element of the homemade in my Christmas efforts, last year I decided to push the limits of seasonal crafting.

There were a few reasons for setting myself this ambitious challenge and once I started to unpick them I realised that I was engaging in a spot of craftivism! I do love Christmas but always feel uncomfortable about the materialism that surrounds it. This feeling has been magnified since having children and as they approach their teenage years I don’t want them to develop an excessive desire to possess more ‘stuff’ than they could possibly need or use.

The other contributing factors were waste and cost. I don’t like waste and it makes me really sad to see beautiful (and expensive) wrapping paper and packaging binned and as I have had to cut back on work to complete my MA funds are tight!

Mum and Dad

Mum and Belinda

When I was seven my parents embraced the Good Life. They had grown up in Birmingham and Wolverhampton and after overdosing on Tom and Barbara decided that we should swop hustle and bustle for a simple life. We moved to a small Lincolnshire village and the adventure began; soon we had rabbits, goats and a sprawling garden filled with home grown produce. One of my earliest memories of this new life was being part of a homemade Christmas card production line. I remember it involved lino printing with oil paint and it being very blue and very messy.

With this memory in my mind I called a meeting of the ‘Project Christmas’ steering committee (me, Abigail and Jude). We decided that we would create hampers by making use of our garden produce. I didn’t inherit the self sufficiency gene from my parents but we had a bountiful crop of apples, a very bushy bay leaf bush and Jude’s greenhouse chillies.

An internet search provided recipes for Christmas chutney, chilli jam, bay leaf infused olive oil and Delia’s Christmas cake; a winning combination. I have four male cousins in their twenties, (one a Drum and Bass DJ), so we decided to substitute edibles for graffiti art in their case.

Christmas Chutney

Chilli Jam

The making mission was epic and quite early on I was haunted by a throw away remark I had made years earlier about a mum at my children’s primary school. She had made mini Christmas cakes in spaghetti tins for the complete staff team and I had concluded that she had far too much time on her hands! The making mission ate up every moment of my spare time; it was relentless and required stamina and dedication. As my car had been towed away for scrap it also involved death defying trips back from Tescos on a bike loaded with bottles of cider vinegar! We also broke the electric whisk and I got what felt like second degree burns on my hands from the chillies.

Jude the Graffiti Artist

Abigail and Jude were willing helpers and by the time the cakes had tipped over into double figures they could follow the recipe without adult intervention. Jude spent a lot of time in the garden painting, splattering and spraying canvas, Abigail became our product brand poster girl posing as a Beaton-esque shooting star and I learnt how to ice a cake!

Inspired by Beaton - Abigail the Shooting Star

The 25 Christmas cakes, 18 jars of chutney, 15 jars of chilli jam, 12 bottles of bay leaf infused oil, 6 graffiti canvases and broach for my mum were all packaged using recycled fabric and trimmings and placed in jute shopping bags and distributed. I definitely underestimated the time involved in Project Christmas but it was a hugely satisfying experience. We have had some lovely thank you letters and there have been no reported cases of botulism which is a bonus.

Jude and Abi's Scrummy Christmas Cake

Button and Bead Broach

I am very grateful to Nigel Blackamore for taking the beautiful photographs of our Christmas Craftivsm over on Flickr.

The Moveable Museum of Found Objects


I am interested in how web 2.0 encourages innovative, creative interactions online and challenges the traditional concept of collaboration, participation and engagement and how this compares to the live experience. As a kinaesthetic learner I thought that the best way to find out more about the how it would be a fantastic opportunity to set up my own online project (for readers with small children this concept works like ‘Little Howard’s Big Question’). The project is We Found Art which has now reached the point of an online to off-line shift which I thought I would blog about.

When I set up We Found Art online, it was my vision to exhibit its collection off-line in an unconventional space. I also liked the idea of engaging with an audience that might not choose to use their leisure time as cultural tourists. With this in mind I drew up a list of places that my family and friends enjoyed spending their free time. Shopping centres, car-boot sales, markets, campsites and the seaside all featured highly. It became apparent that to realise my vision these were the places I should be and to visit them I would need to be mobile!

As a caravan obsessive, the answer seemed obvious; create a Moveable Museum of Found Objects in my 1988 Avondale Perle Olympus touring caravan and take We Found Art on the road! (Of course, the idea’s not new and Jan and Chris at the Caravan Gallery have been doing it for years). A hectic summer of caravan curation ensued.

Last weekend, the Moveable Museum pitched up for its first public engagement at the Bathing Beauties Festival in Mablethorpe. Although it was a baptism of fire in terms of extreme caravan manoeuvring and required nerves of steel to get it on and off the seaside promenade, I’m pleased to report it was a huge success.

Myself and Nigel Blackamore, Curator of the Brecknock Museum, welcomed over 200 visitors into the 5 berth space over the course of the weekend who explored the crowd-sourced collection with awe and wonder, curiosity and intrigue. We were overwhelmed by the generosity of these visitors who shared their stories of finding and collecting and even brought us treasured objects. I have tried to capture the essence of the festival and have created the ‘Virtual Book of Mablethorpe’, a visual diary of our Bathing Beauties experience, which can be found over on Flickr.

My main observations from the museum’s first outing are that we have been able to maintain the community focus of We Found Art and that it has encouraged the same imaginative creative exchanges between people offline as it does on. The use of the unexpected (but familiar) space of the caravan encouraged visitors to enter the museum and feel comfortable to engage with us and with the collection. By directing visitors to the project online (through print or QR codes) we have been able to enhance their understanding of it also providing opportunities for participation. The latter is something that I hope to develop more.

The Moveable Museum of Found Objects is set to tour from Spring 2012 and We Found Art welcomes bookings. For more information, please contact me (Katie Smith, Project Curator), by email: wefoundart@gmail.com

We found Art is part of the Culture on Wheels Network

A Life Beyond Plastic: The Sequel

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Yesterday I had a joyous day with Fulbridge School celebrating their second year as a Creative partnerships School of Creativity. This year their programme has focused on developing more opportunities for active learning and child centred creativity in the Foundation Stage.

Karen Burton, Lucy Cawthorne and Clare Scott, the 3 reception teachers, have worked in partnership with creative practitioners Gizella Kate Warburton and Ian Etheridge since last September. They have been supported by monthly training sessions from the Mary Barlow and Barbara Thomas at the Totem Pole where they have explored a toolkit to embed the High/Scope approach into their practice.

Charlotte Krzanicki, the most energetic, motivated and inspirational Creative Co-ordinator I have ever worked with runs a tight ship. When I arrived at the school after an unscheduled tour of Peterborough, I stepped into a space filled with awe and wonder. Charlotte, Ian and Gizella had created a large scale reception class in the hall. The home corner was filled with the smell of fresh fruit and vegetables, there was a metallic story cave to explore with kaleidoscope torches and a construction area well stocked with wooden off-cuts and real tools.

I was happily banished to the outdoor area where I spent the day den building. Charlotte had allocated each class in the school a time slot to enjoy an interactive ‘show and tell’ with help from rotating groups of Reception children. Fulbridge hosts 700 pupils and 130 members of staff so this was a logistical triumph in itself! Throughout the day pupils visited the hall and outdoor area to find out about the project, meet the practitioners and most importantly play!

I worked with small groups of children to construct a den which linked into the introduction of story caves in the Reception classrooms. I was very conscious that the children would only have a taste of the activity so this is where I introduced some new technology. I was thrilled to be able to use my I-Pad to show the children my previous blog post which includes den building instructions. We looked at the photographs of each stage and discussed what had come before and what would need to be done to complete the process. Seeing the instructions, the children were all very keen to have a go with their teachers.

I loved the experience of seeing the children’s reactions as the construction grew. They made repeat visits enroute to P.E, at break times and at the end of the day to see how things were progressing. They solved problems, worked collaboratively, were sociable and made unexpected discoveries. Staff chatted excitably about how they could recreate the den as an Anderson shelter and parents used it as a chill-out zone with their toddlers.

A high point of the day for me was to meet Shakespeare Class who are prolific bloggers and regularly Tweet. They share my passion for social media and told me how blogging has had a positive effect on the quantity and quality of their written work. We crammed ourselves into the den and I introduced them to the We Found Art blog. It was a surreal moment. If anything in the world is possible, it’s possible at Fulbridge and I feel very fortunate to be part of their amazing creative learning journey.

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