It’s no secret that arts education is under immense pressure. Funding is being slashed, its value is being interrogated, and freeform creativity is being squeezed by relentless targets and box-ticking assessments. There’s much to be done to redress the balance, but a key priority must surely be to help young people rediscover the joy of creative exploration.
Part of the University of the Arts London, UAL Awarding Body designs and awards creative qualifications with this ambition in mind, empowering educators to give students a running start into the industry. With almost 300 centres across the UK, and around 65,000 students aged 16-19, it’s well-placed to make changes from the grassroots up.
“The aim of an arts qualification is that when students enrol, they’re given themes and scaffolding, but by the end they are self-directing and self-sustaining,” explains Matt Moseley, one of UAL Awarding Body’s chief examiners.
He uses a ten-pin bowling analogy: “It’s tempting to put barriers up so even if they’re terrible at bowling, they’ll knock some pins down. But the point is that at the end, they play without the bumpers. Creativity is all about confidence and empowerment.”
PROVOKE FRESH THINKING
Part of their role as educators, continues Moseley, is to provide a spark, a catalyst, to get the creative juices flowing and ultimately build a foundation for professional success. For UAL Awarding Body, that takes the form of so-called ‘Provocations’: short, open-ended questions designed to inspire new ideas and unlock creative potential.
“We want to provoke new ways of thinking and give them a hunch to follow – even if doesn’t lead anywhere,” explains Moseley’s fellow chief examiner Marc Mollica. “If we can shake them out of their safe spaces, they can use those provocation skills to deconstruct client briefs in the future, stripping away constraints to find the essence.”
In many cases, Moseley points out, clients are not entirely sure what they want at the start of the process. “Asking the right questions can help refine, distil and communicate their values,” he adds. “These skills should become second nature.”
Mollica takes it a step further, questioning whether structured pre-written briefs are fast becoming outdated in any case. “Should we just kill the brief in favour of direct communication with clients?” he asks. “Dialogue creates energy. Perhaps we should reconsider our starting points.”
If we can shake them out of their safe spaces, they can use those provocation skills to deconstruct client briefs in the future
Collaborative thinking and open-minded discussion with peers can take ideas to new places, as can gathering diverse human perspectives to put work in context. “I’m stimulated by conversations with others,” says Sarah Davey, a South Devon college student who chose to explore economic inequality in Torquay for her final project.
“Whilst photographing an industrial location during my research stage, I talked with local people about the social history and their memories of it,” she explains. “This helped provide context for the sense of abandonment that I wanted to portray.”
ASK THE RIGHT QUESTIONS
After a two-year hiatus for the face-to-face dynamic during the pandemic, like many institutions UAL Awarding Body found day-to-day operations had begun to dominate the student experience. “We wanted to do something just for creativity’s sake, freed from the baggage of very tight parameters,” explains Moseley.
Inspired by the emergence from lockdown and the still-shifting social norms left in its wake, the first Provocation – ‘What now?’ – came quite organically. “We just wanted to release that statement into the universe,” recalls Mollica. “We were also keen for the form to help set the tone, so printed it on postcards, for a ‘destination’ feel.”
We wanted to do something just for creativity’s sake, freed from the baggage of very tight parameters
A few months later, the second Provocation – ‘What’s your story?’ – took the form of a bookmark. “We want to challenge people to think, act or behave differently,” adds Moseley. “Students are so reliant on digital technology for their inspiration, and less and less using text as a starting point. The idea of a bookmark gently pushes them back towards that.”
Another Provocation – ‘Quo Vadis?’, or ‘Where are we going?’ – particularly appealed to another South Devon College student, Mantvydas Visciulis – an aspiring architect. “It helped me question the direction of my work,” he explains. “Do I want to make an impact on the environment, or help others in society?” Choosing the latter, his final project is about a Post-Traumatic Stress disorder rehabilitation centre for those suffering with war trauma.
ESCAPE CREATIVE BLOCK
Confidence building is a critical part of shaping the next generation of problem-solving creative, but the paralysing terror of the blank page can strike anyone. In his own creative practice, Moseley uses techniques such as continuous-line or blind-line drawing and creates collages from diverse found materials to help kick-start his brain.
“Do something repetitiously and something will happen,” he says. “We teach students to trust the process, so they have a toolbox of skills to call upon at any point. Your four walls can feel quite small sometimes, and it’s easy to lose confidence. Blow the walls out, see something you wouldn’t see normally, put yourself in a different environment.”
For a third South Devon College student, Kirk Katana, the temptation to procrastinate can be the biggest hurdle to overcome – and he urges his fellow creatives to stop putting things off and just get something down on paper. “Nothing is set in stone,” he points out. “There is always a delete button or a new page you can use.”
Katana’s final project focuses on the Russian invasion of Ukraine through a series of artworks, ranging from playful, witty, satirical pieces such as Tragic Mushroom and Bullets for Breakfast, through to grim and bleak creations such as Eerie Oyster and Faces. He believes his passion for research into topics such as philosophy, psychology, symbolism, and religion, helps keeps creative block at bay.
But a well-timed breather also works wonders. “Stop, go outside, clear your head, then come back and play,” adds Mollica. “Remind yourself what the original concept was. Does it still have value, or should you adapt it? Sometimes, it’s being brave enough to say: ‘I don’t know what I’m doing anymore, can you help?’ Then it becomes a shared problem.”