It takes two: collaboration in the RA Schools

Published 20 July 2020

No artist is an island, as Charlotte Jansen found when she met students and their mentors at the RA’s art school.

  • Charlotte Jansen is a writer and Editor-at-Large at Elephant magazine.

    From the Summer 2020 issue of RA Magazine, issued quarterly to Friends of the RA. The RA Schools Show, planned to open at the RA in June, has regrettably been postponed due to the coronavirus crisis. The RA Schools are supported by Tileyard London. Supported by The Batia and Idan Ofer Family Foundation.

    • Eliza Bonham Carter

      Introduced by Curator and Head of the RA Schools Eliza Bonham-Carter

      There are several reasons why artists apply to the RA Schools. One important factor is the small number of students in each year-group, which allows a deep exchange of knowledge and a close-knit community in which to build critical and supportive relationships, both within the art school and across the RA. Another is the length of the programme which, at three years, is the longest postgraduate course of its kind in the U K.

      With access to the sculpture, digital and print workshops and expertise across the RA Schools, some students’ work changes form radically over the three years; in others, a quieter transformation will take place. But in either case, the work will evidence a condensing clarity of intention, formed in the fulcrum of this intense, intimate environment. The loss of this proximity and exchange necessitated by the RA’s current closure is therefore felt particularly keenly by the student body.

      In the case of the third-year students, some of whom you read about here, it affects their final show. It may be surprising to know that even before they apply candidates envisage their part in the RA Schools Show. Most will not be able to imagine how their work will manifest, but the idea of the show is strongly present. So it is with tears in my eyes that I read the interviews in this article, full of the community of the RA and redolent of the anticipation and raring-to-go for a final-year show so long in the making, yet no longer to take place in June as planned. What is sure, though, is that there will be an RA Schools Show 2020. The work of these students – Clara, Liv, Olu and Tania – will be exhibited. And the support of mentors like Leigh, Phil, Gonzalo, James and many others will prove all the more imperative.

  • Olu Ogunnaike and print tutor Leigh Clarke

    “We’ve been to some dark places together and seen the light a few times,” said Olu Ogunnaike, a student in his final year at the Royal Academy Schools. We were sitting in his studio at the RA alongside print tutor Leigh Clarke, surrounded by Ogunnaike’s monumental print works of abstracted black-and-white images.

    Ogunnaike had set out on the course three years ago as “a full-blown sculptor”, in his words, but with the desire to find a way to use printmaking techniques in “a sculptural way”. In Clarke he found a willing conspirator. The two have worked closely, developing a warm relationship that exists beyond the confines of long evenings and early mornings in the print workshop. The moments of darkness Ogunnaike refers to include a period in which Clarke helped him stage his second-year show only days after the student had come out of intensive care, after a period of bad health.

    As the story suggests, art can be an emotional thing, especially for students such as Ogunnaike preparing for their final-year show at the RA. The exhibition is a culmination of three years of intensive practice, carried out under the weight of over 250 years of history and tradition. Vulnerability and failure are essential parts of the artistic process, but in a highly ambitious environment that relies on encouragement from the right people. Relationships like Ogunnaike and Clarke’s become fundamental to the students’ development, and thanks to the fact the school is at the heart of the Academy, with its many arteries, there are mentors on hand with numerous kinds of expertise.

  • Olu Ogunnaike (right) with print tutor Leigh Clarke in the RA Schools print studio

    Olu Ogunnaike (right) with print tutor Leigh Clarke in the RA Schools print studio

    Photo: Lily Bertrand-Webb

  • My conversations with Ogunnaike and Clarke, and three other inspiring student-mentor pairs, took place in early March. As the portrait photographs in this article show, social distancing had yet to become the norm. The Royal Academy’s buildings, including the Schools and its studios, had yet to be closed. The final-year show, of such importance to these artists, had yet to be postponed, its opening date unknown as we go to Press. But the bonds of each of the duos I met go beyond the institution’s infrastructure, which is now in flux due to the coronavirus. Curiosity, flexibility and the ability to bounce back from failure underpin all their rapports – essential skills for any student of life as well as art. Key is the fact they are willing to approach each other with an open mind.

    Ogunnaike and Clarke’s friendship began with a technical challenge. Ogunnaike wanted to screenprint using charcoal and approached the tutor for help. “I told him it would be hard, as you can’t get charcoal through the screenprinting mesh,” remembered Clarke. “I told him there was another method we could look at.” They screenprinted a photographic image with a translucent medium onto a sheet of paper, so that the image was almost invisible. “Then Olu picked up this bucket of charcoal and just threw it on top.” The dark dust adhered to the wet printed image, allowing for excess charcoal to be blown or brushed away to reveal the image.

    “It was like Olu’s head blew off, like a volcano erupting,” Clarke recalled of that ‘Eureka’ moment. “It was the most beautiful thing to watch, as something in his mind became apparent.”

    “One of the best things I’ve learnt from Leigh is “Let the art speak”,” Ogunnaike added. “I’ve let this technique take me on a journey, as Leigh often says.” The method has become a core part of Ogunnaike’s practice. “He has really expanded that technique above and beyond anything I would have imagined,” Clarke explained. “It has brought a physicality to the work that you wouldn’t get with conventional printmaking. That’s the thing about originality. Just when you think everything’s been dealt with, someone like Olu comes along with a madcap idea – and it’s incredible to become part of that.”

  • The bonds of each of the duos I met go beyond the institution’s infrastructure.

  • Clara Hastrup with digital media tutor James Irwin, in Hastrup’s studio

    Clara Hastrup with digital media tutor James Irwin, in Hastrup’s studio

    Photo: Lily Bertrand-Webb

  • Clara Hastrup and digital media tutor James Irwin

    As I met other students and staff, it transpired that notions of ‘teacher’ and ‘student’ are only loosely applied at the RA Schools. The exchanges that happen are dyadic and emerge from shared interests between artists. This is clearly the case with James Irwin, digital media tutor, and graduating student Clara Hastrup, who I caught up with in Hastrup’s studio – a maze of cables, hollowed out loaves of bread, chocolate-glazed doughnuts, Wotsits (corn puffs) dangling from plants, foot spas and a fish floating in a tank of water.

    “My work crosses different mediums, but it has become more materially based, dealing more directly with objects during my time here,” Hastrup explained, of the eclectic items strewn around her studio. Having worked previously with animation and video, she takes a playful approach to her art. What first struck Irwin about Hastrup was, he said, “how free her work seems to be – its form just kind of appears. There’s a lightness to how she chooses things.”

    The fish is a lead protagonist in Hastrup’s planned final presentation, cast as ‘the data centre, a silent, unspectacular thing", as Hastrup put it. As the fish swims, it would trigger a sensor that in turn would prompt a toy Lamborghini to roll around a bespoke track, triggering further sensors along the way, and stimulating a storyline which Hastrup planned to show as a video work. “In a way, it’s exploiting the fish to experience this spectacle of the car. But you also might not see anything happening, because the fish might just be sitting in the corner.”

    Irwin was integral to the development of the project, on which the two had been collaborating since October. He helped build the sensors to sit around the track. “Sometimes I’m just here to facilitate, but we talk about things as equals,” Irwin observed. “We have a lot to share. It’s not just learning something, it’s sharing and understanding,” Hastrup added. Weekly meetings at her studio were often spent figuring things out together. When Irwin introduced Hastrup to Arduino boards – opensource electronics that read inputs such as light and motion sensors before turning them into outputs – it opened up a whole new door for her practice, allowing her to experiment with building new and much larger-scale systems.

  • Tania Blanco with RA Architecture Programme curator Gonzalo Herrero Delicado, in Blanco’s studio

    Tania Blanco with RA Architecture Programme curator Gonzalo Herrero Delicado, in Blanco’s studio

    Photo: Lily Bertrand-Webb

  • Tania Blanco and curator Gonzalo Herrero Delicado

    Beyond the Schools’ tutors and technicians, there are others in the RA offering fruitful guidance. “I’m just a curator – I don’t have any authority,” Gonzalo Herrero Delicado quipped, sitting beside third-year student Tania Blanco, whom he met at a roundtable discussion he had organised.

    The two had started at the RA around the same time, and share Spanish as their mother tongue, which helped them navigate the institution together early on, often over Tupperware lunches in Blanco’s studio. “We have a shared perspective on many things,” Blanco reflected. “Many of our critical ideas about the world we are living in are the same. We’ve been very aligned since the beginning.”

    Blanco’s work spans different techniques and media, from painting to installation, always with a strong social and political conviction – this same conviction motivates Herrero Delicado’s approach to his work as the RA’s Architecture Programme curator. “I think we both have a sense of curiosity,” he said, “a desire to question what’s happening around us.”

    Blanco’s final project was conceived as an interactive work, taking the polling station as its premise. “Discussing work in my studio with Gonzalo has been absolutely refreshing and helpful. His opinions have actually influenced a lot of the decisions I’ve made about my work.” Herrero Delicado explained that “as a curator, I’m like an editor”, helping artists hone their priorities. Conversely, Blanco was one of the first people he consulted about ideas for Eco-Visionaries, the exhibition he co-curated at the RA which closed in February.

  • Liv Preston with the RA’s Head of Surveying Philip Pearce, in Preston’s studio

    Liv Preston with the RA’s Head of Surveying Philip Pearce, in Preston’s studio

    Photo: Lily Bertrand-Webb

  • Liv Preston and Head of Surveying Philip Pearce

    Elsewhere in the Schools, expertise in the RA is harnessed to more practical ends. Wanting to remove the flooring from her studio in preparation for her final presentation, third-year student Liv Preston sought the help of Philip Pearce, Head of Surveying at the RA. A registered architect, Pearce is responsible for the institution’s historic buildings, as well as facilitating artists when their plans interact with its structure.

    Being in a listed building, the floorboards in Preston’s studio had to be removed with care, with the risk of asbestos ruled out before a timber floor specialist was brought in to take the boards out without damaging them, chalking them up so they could be returned in the correct order after the show. “Working with Schools students can be challenging, especially if they’re doing their job properly,” Pearce conceded. “But it’s a healthy reminder of why we are all here. The RA was an art school long before it became an international destination venue.”

    So did Preston expect to be able to do this when she first approached Pearce with her proposal? Balancing on the joists of the now absent floor – rubble, an old shoe and dusty debris visible beneath – she admitted she did not. This part of the building has scarcely been touched since the studios were built in 1867-70. Pearce joked that he had created a maxim for Preston “which I have to keep repeating to her: “Just because you can do something doesn’t mean you can do it”,” an amusing insight into their dynamic, and how Pearce has grounded Preston, giving her work another context that relates to the real world.

    For Preston, exposing the floor is a work in itself, but also a structure for sculptures she plans to make for her final exhibition. “Where I grew up in Yorkshire, there are lots of subterranean spaces,” she explained, adding that she’s into caving, pulling out some vintage publications on the subject. “I’m interested in the different ways you can exhibit sculpture, and how you can problematise that process, undermining it or making it difficult – and what that might then mean in relation to the objects you’ve used.”

    Her plans also hint at the tensions between the building and its uses. “For Liv, her space is an active, live studio,” Pearce said. “For me, and Historic England, it’s an important historic listed fabric by eminent RA architect Sydney Smirke.”

    The pair’s shared inquisitiveness about the RA’s architecture – and each other’s work – has been mutually eye-opening and productive, and they’ve found some unexpected similarities in their practices. Preston has spent three years thinking about the studio spaces, their past and their functionality, and she believes Pearce’s thinking isn’t so far removed from her own. For Pearce, working on Preston’s proposal has given him a new perspective on his role at the Academy. “I spend most of my time working out how to do things,” he reflected. “It’s rare, and enjoyable, when I get to see and understand why I’m doing it.”

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